to e-book or not to e-book

There’s been a slew of stories over the last few months about electronic books, primarily of the Kindle variety, but some of them touch on general issues pertaining to the availability, use, and desirability of e-books. I’ve been trying to compose a post in response to them, but I keep getting overwhelmed. What to say in response toa prep school that replaces its library with a cappuccino machine and 18 e-readers? *head-desk* (The School Library Journal has a more articulate response.) What about the summer’s too-perfect-to-be-true news that Amazon deleted copies of Orwell’s works from the Kindles without informing owners? Make that another big #amazonfail moment after their first, horrendous mistake last spring when changes in their ranking system made thousands of gay and lesbian titles disappear from searches. Ooops. In further e-stories, there’s the non-release as e-books of two of the Fall’s big titles: Teddy Kennedy’s posthumous True Compass and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue. What will those Cushing Academy students do when researching papers about the Obama election? I guess rely on Wikipedia. (For insight into why the memoirs aren’t Kindled, see Daniel Gross’s Moneybox column for Slate, in which he explains why the economics of publishing doesn’t make sense for them as e-reads.) Oh, and speaking of students and e-readers, what do Princeton students have to say about using Kindles as part of a pilot program to replace textbooks with Kindles? According to one student quoted in the Daily Princetonian, “this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool.” Finally, last week there was the New York Times piece worrying that books might be the next to be “Napsterized.” (Remember Napster? Some of you young ‘uns might not recall the world before digital music files, but let me tell you, it put the fear of Someone into the music industry when people started sharing their music online.) Joshua Kim’s response on Inside Higher Ed brings those Napster concerns into a conversation with universities and libraries.

About a year ago, I posted about my perplexed response to a newspaper column that touted the joy of Kindle as being “almost like a book”–why read something that’s almost as good as a book when you could read a book? I still stand by that point, but not because I’m a luddite. In that particular piece, I was reacting against a perception that e-reading had to be good because it was new. But I also don’t think it has to be bad because it’s new. My husband got a Kindle last spring and it’s been great. For him, the joy of the machine is that it holds so much. Given his preference for texts that come in big, heavy books–military history, science fiction, jurisprudence–the fact that he can take his Kindle on trips means that he needn’t break his back or run out of reading material. I still don’t use it, and not only because he’s the alpha gadgeteer in our household. My way of reading for work and research is to cover the page in notes, so paper copies work best for me. And most of my pleasure reading I do in a way that isolates me as much as possible from the world: glasses off, dark room, book light. We all have our own ways of reading and different technologies that meet those needs.

But much of what I’m seeing written in the popular press about e-book readers isn’t, I don’t think, taking into account the full picture. Some of the stories I mentioned above hint at the problem of Amazon’s essential monopoly over the current e-field. I know Sony has an e-reader, but given Amazon’s vertical integration, they hold an incredible portion of the e-market in their tight e-fist. (E-sorry. It’s hard to stop the e-jokes.) If there was some competition in that market, the problems of pricing and availability and Big Brother would be different.

More to this blog’s point, what does the current state of e-readers and discussion have to do with book history and book historians? So much of what we’re considering today with Kindles focuses on books that were written to be distributed in print and then are transferred into an e-format. (Daniel Gross’s book Dumb Money actually did this transference the other direction: he wrote it as an e-book for Free Press and it sold well enough that it’s now available in print–see the Washington Post profile of him for more on that.) But what happens when we get to the day that works are created for and intended to be experienced as e-books? How will that change the experience of using books? And how will we ensure the survival of those books? As anyone who has been working with computers over the last few decades knows, technology becomes obsolete and earlier formats don’t always carry over into new ones.

Similarly, how might the availability of new digital formats affect the process of creating works? According to Scott Karambis, for some creative artists, the availability of the digital world has changed how and what they write: author Justin Cronin relied on the ease of researching online to push his knowledge into new arenas when composing his newest novel, insisting that it made him become a different sort of writer. Karambis’s blog post focuses more on the effect of technology on the process of creation and less on the impact of digital creations themselves (the blog is geared towards other folks in marketing, rather than, say, writers or book historians). Rachel Toor, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is more focused on the economic impact of e-books. Even though she loves reading e-books on her Kindle, she has decidedly more mixed feelings about being an e-writer. Might e-publishing save university publishers by bringing down costs and therefore recovering the economic viability of those scholarly monographs with small audiences? And the speed of electronic publishing is wonderful for timely subjects and for the responsiveness it generates for readers. But will people stumble across e-books the way they do physical books on bookshelves? Will writers be able to live off the advances from their e-books the way that some are able to today?

Toor and Cronin don’t ask this in their reflections on writing and new technology, but I will: will we still have e-books to read if they aren’t backed up on paper? Will we still be able to lend books to each other if they’re tied to our e-readers? Will we still be able to talk back to our books, modify them, resist them?

I often, when teaching early modern book history, say to my students, “It’s all about money!” And it often is. But it’s also about creativity and interactivity and longevity. And we’re still taking baby steps towards what it all might mean.

7 thoughts on “to e-book or not to e-book

  1. >I'm also torn on the whole e-book thing. I can see the utility for material that goes out of date very quickly, such as technology books or professional guides. We could save a lot of trees by having people download 'upgrades' as new information becomes available. For my own academic research, I can also see the attraction of being able to access an online journal article or another electronic source directly from a footnote reference. But personally, I love the tactile feel and smell of printed books, and I have been known to buy novels based solely on the cover art, which I can't seen happening with e-books. I also love reading in the bath, which is potentially a big problem with an electronic device!

  2. >I actually have a Sony Reader and I adore it. Tactile feel – well, utterly different from a book but it has it, you know. The cool brushed metal, the buttons… It will read a range of file formats *and* I can put on it all sorts of public domain books from Google books, for free. (I wouldn't touch a Kindle with a bargepole. I refuse to be tied to Amazon like that.)As for reading paper books in the bath, I've always found they get soggy and the pages stick together! And I find a bath far too uncomfortable to lounge about in for very long anyway…Here's the thing: as objects, I have no particular attachment to books. In fact, I often struggle with them. I find hardbacks too heavy and awkward for comfort. Paperbacks always seem to be bound too tightly to stay open properly; I hate the way they snap themselves shut at the slightest opportunity and I keep having to find my place again. For me personally, the book has always slightly got in the way of the words. Whereas, I can read the Sony one-handed, neatly balanced on my knee (enlarge the text if I need to), using one finger to press the next page button (which is placed just right to do exactly that). A lot of thought has clearly gone into the design of this little object. E-readers have a long, long way to go but I experience mine as actually quite liberating and I'm very excited about their potential.

  3. >This is a wonderful post and a subject that we should not stop ruminating and discussing. As a medievalist who frequently travels overseas in the summer and for long-ish trips sometimes, I am attracted to the idea of a portable reader on which I could store all sorts of books for reading and research while traveling, but guess what? Most of the books I would want on an e-reader aren't available in that format yet [i.e. most academic press books have not yet been Kindle-ized, and why would they be, as that is not where the profits are, at least, not in the eyes of an outfit like, so I see this as a big problem]. From the perspective of what D.F. Mackenize calls the "sociology of texts," e-books are a problem because, if they represent digital versions of what starts out as a print book, a lot of valuable social information can be lost in the transmission [on this point, see the excellent essay in "The New Yorker" by Nicholson Baker on the Kindle and reading [Aug. 3, 2009 issue] and also Baker's terrific book [which seems very apropos even more now than when it was first published]: "Double-Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper" [Random House, 2001]. I do think, somewhat sadly, that books are slipping into the status of museum-type objects, or at the very best, retro-chic? As an academic, I hold out hope for the promise that electronic publishing may allow for an increase in the numbers of titles that can be published [good for struggling scholars everywhere who are worried about tenure, having a viable career, etc.] and perhaps at a more affordable pricing schedule than what we have from many academic publishers [who typically charge around $70-100 per title, assuming libraries will eat the exorbitant over-charges, which, increasingly, they cannot and will not, so it's an untenable arrangement for the long term]. Books will likely continue to exist as what I would call a boutique business for specialty buyers. It's too early to tell what is *really* going to happen, but I plan to prepare for an all digital publishing future, with some regrets over the loss of this thing we call the tactile book.

  4. >Thanks for your useful comments, everyone. Bavardess's and Sharon's exchange drives home my point that different readers need different technologies to use books in the ways that they want. Is a book a physical object or a vehicle for delivering text? I've not seen a Sony e-reader, but I'd love to–the ability to access other texts, like those Google books I keep downloading, would be really handy. The question of what sort of physical object we're holding certainly matters. But so, too, does the question of what it means to book history, both in terms of what we might be losing in studying the sociology of texts, as Eileen points out, and what opportunities might arise, as Whitney suggests in her excellent post (link to that is above–go read it, if you haven't already!).This is sparking much more for me in terms of moving the debate past "do I or don't I?" and towards something that begins to think about how all of this impacts us regardless of our personal choices. I'd love to hear more thoughts from you, dear readers, and keep your eyes open for another post from me on this!

  5. >Hi Sarah,I'm a bit late to this discussion, but I also want to commend you on an excellent post. I've been wondering whether to treat myself to an e-reader this Christmas or to wait another year for an affordable model with good annotation capabilities. I do know that, sooner or later, I will become a loyal e-reader.Like Eileen, I'm attracted to the idea of having a portable library, and I'm even sometimes anxious about investing in more books now if I know I will consolidate my library in an e-reader later.I did come across an interesting talk by Seth Godin, who argued that printed books will last because people like to have souvenirs. It's worth the watch:, I'm afraid that people will grow used to living without printed books, like many of us have grown used to living without newspapers. When all books are written with the expectation of becoming e-books, I worry that the noise level will become overwhelming, as we've seen with blog publishing platforms. Will publishing houses merely serve as marketing machines, affixing their stamp of approval to help certain books rise above the fray? How will the status-slash-prestige of authorship alter?As for your question about being able to share books, Barnes & Nobles's new reader allows you to 'lend' your books to friends on their e-readers for 14 days, during which time you cannot access the book. A brilliant feature.

  6. >I just wanted to add that I have a Sony Reader with the touch-screen option, and some of its functions are extremely useful for academic researchers. For instance, with judicious use of bookmarking and annotation you can create a kind of customized index or set of cross-references to whatever you're reading, and of course search for key words or passages. As a Victorianist, too, I am always conscious of the literal weight of the books I work with, and while I too love books as objects, most academics also work with books in a very practical way that can, I think, be made easier (and more portable) with this technology. The reading experience with the Sony is pretty familiar, since the leather cover gives it a book-like feel, and my aging eyes appreciate the option of enlarging the text size!

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