Information and the Future

This is the blog of the Information and the Future task force of the Rolfing Library at Trinity International University. The IF task force exists to explore the role of libraries in the future of Christian higher education.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Thoughts on ebooks, part 1

I've been promising to post my thoughts about ebooks (as a longtime ebook user) for a while now, and have come to the conclusion that I have a lot to say about it (thus the division into two posts.)

I suspect I've come across as defensive about ebooks to my friends, perhaps as much so as those in the media I've accused of being somewhat anti-ebook. My frustration hasn't been that others don't seem to appreciate ebooks the way I do. It's that I feel like a lot of people are saying things, or at least suggesting things, that aren't true: namely, that ebooks have failed to this point, that there's no market for them because people love print books, and that, if they do sometime succeed, it will be a day far, far in the future with some magical device not yet created. There also seems to be a tendency to equate ebook success with the type of thing that happened with the ipod phenomenon, i.e., when absolutely everyone has one, then we'll know it's a success.

My problem with all of those sorts of remarks is that thousands upon thousands of commercially available books (i.e., books you'd buy in a bookstore, including bestsellers in both fiction and non-fiction categories) have been available for a number of years now. I bought my first books in ebook format in 2002 or so.

And here's the point I feel like a lot people commenting in the media miss: I'm not the only one buying them. Publishers are constantly adding to what they offer in electronic format, and they wouldn't do that if the books weren't selling. Re-read that last sentence, please -- I feel like it's the point most people miss.

I think part of the problem is that a lot of people don't like reading from screens. Maybe they will, someday, when the right screen comes along (such as Amazon's Kindle, possibly) or maybe they simply never will, and they feel threatened enough by the idea of ebooks possibly replacing print books altogether that they do their best to deny that ebooks are already a viable format.

Whatever is behind it, it troubles me. A good friend of mine has vision problems, and discovering she could easily read ebooks on her PDA allowed her to regain the pleasure of reading -- something she'd missed for several years. (Not just fiction, either -- she has a Bible, commentaries and some devotionals she reads that way.) And yes, there are large print books available. But they cost more (where ebooks usually cost less than print books) and libraries usually have a more limited selection of large print books than what is available in ebook format.

But are others like my friend likely to discover that they can buy and enjoy all their favorite authors, when so many people in the media are busy insisting that ebooks have 'never taken off'? Not likely, and that troubles me. Why can't people who need to comment negatively on ebooks say, 'they're not for me, but others seem to like them?'

And why do people make comments comparing the lack of success with books in electronic format to that of mp3s as a way of proving ebooks have failed? It's a sad reality in our society that not as many people read as listen to music. Comparing the two is somewhat like apples and oranges. (Or given the studies noting the percentage of the population that read '1 or fewer' books in the last year, maybe apples and liver would be a better analogy.)

There are drawbacks to ebooks. Although you pay less upfront, you can't give them away. (Something most publishers see as a plus. ) DRM is handled in a variety of ways. Most of my first ebooks were purchased in Microsoft Reader format, which has a very complicated system. I've since switched to ereader and Mobipocket, which have more straightforward methods, tied to my credit card/debit card. In theory, I could give away the files, but I'd have to give away my credit card number, too. Not likely.

It's interesting that in the five+ years that bestsellers have been available in electronic format, there haven't been any reports (at least not that I've seen) of the files being pirated and made available for free. Perhaps that's why publishers are increasingly onboard with the idea. In fact, the only report I can remember of a pirated book was the last Harry Potter, where someone scanned the thing and posted it. That's a threat, whether ebooks are available or not, but I can't help but wonder if the Potter books were available in ebook format (they're not), if the pirates would have less of a target market.

I'm addicted to books, and always have been. (As a kid, I was the cliche -- hiding a novel beneath my math book and later, walking home while reading the latest library book while hoping I'd not be runover by a truck.) I've got books I call keepers I'll read over and over; I've got authors I buy automatically, and both types are on my PDA. I eat a lot of meals alone, and love having a choice of things to read. I also like curling up in bed at night with the only light being the PDA. For that matter, I love the convenience of traveling with all of my favorite books in my purse. (See? Told you -- book addict.)

That doesn't mean I don't buy and read books in print. There are books I prefer in print. For me, it's not an either/or proposition, and I don't know why so many people think it has to be.

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1 Comments:

  • At 7:53 AM, Blogger arcee said…

    "It's a sad reality in our society that not as many people read as listen to music."

    Allow me to support that statement with a report I very recently read that was published by the National Endowment for the Arts entitled "To Read or Not to Read." The issues at stake particularly target the decline of reading for pleasure among 17-34 year-olds. Test scores among those who don't read regularly are lower, there is satisfaction and success in college and careers for those who don't read regularly, and less social/community involvement.

     

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