Sunday, 7 March 2010

The great e-book debate reaches HB

E-books. I've been galvanised into writing about them because Frances Garrood has put up a post on the subject over on her blog but it's something I've been thinking about, on and off, since Testament was published and Panmac acquired the rights to sell it electronically as well as in physical form. I have no idea how many e-versions of Testament have been sold (if any at all) maybe I'll find out in my royalty statement at the end of the month.

I've never had any objection in principle to e-books. I quite like technology and e-readers have an aesthetic all of their own – granted, it's a very different aesthetic to that of a print book but there is an aesthetic, nonetheless. In fact, I've been waiting for Apple to produce an e-reader and am slightly disappointed that they seem to think that the iPad is it. Since it uses the same backlit screen technology as every other laptop and phone, it's qualitatively different (and, in this respect, inferior ) to the dedicated e-readers, whose screens look like paper and need to be lit by ambient light, just like an ordinary book.

I also have no objection to not having a physical book in my hand. Hardbacks are heavy and lots of paperbacks are tiresome to hold open unless you can break the spine, so just holding an almost weightless e-reader is a pleasant change.

Then there's the issue of space. We live in an averagely sized terraced house and there are books in every room, not excepting the bathroom where they seem to congregate however hard I send them away. I think we're at shelf-capacity now, and we have to prune our books regularly, to the benefit of the local Oxfam bookshop. If we lived in a smaller house, or a flat, a houseboat or a caravan, housing physical books would be a nightmare. For everybody who lives in a confined space (and more and more people do) e-books must be a godsend. You can own hundreds of titles that take up no space but the electronic variety.

So, on grounds aesthetic, manual and spatial, e-books are winning

The green issue seemed like a no-brainer – all that processing of paper, printing, binding and shipping that wasn't going on with e-readers - until I heard a radio documentary about the energy required to keep central servers (essential for all this downloading) running. Suddenly e-readers' green credentials didn't seem quite so verdant.

And then there's the piracy issue. If e-books are going to be ripped off in the same way that music has been, that's going to be very bad news for writers.

I used to assume that, whatever people of my generation thought, physical books would begin to lose ground to e-books with time as the next generation – used to doing everything onscreen – would automatically gravitate in their direction. But my eighteen-year-old son tells me that this isn't necessarily so. Precisely because they spend all the rest of their time with electronic screens, he says, his generation escapes into real books when they want a break. Even as I type, he is sitting and doing exactly that.

So maybe e-books and print books will continue to exist side-by-side, with those for whom space is an issue pragmatically choosing e-books and those of us who think a house isn't furnished unless it's got books on every wall continuing to favour physical books, unless we do a lot of travelling or want a lighter option for holidays and train-commuting.

Or is there some determining factor I've not thought of?


Frances Garrood said...

Ok, Alis. You're winning me over a little. Just a little. And of course there's the knotty problem of reading while eating; something I've never managed satisfactorily, as the book always seems to close itself when I let go. Presumbaly the e-book would solve that, and it's a big plus.


Tim Stretton said...

Alis - it never occurred to me that e-books had a great carbon industry hidden in the background!

Alis said...

Hi Frances - I hadn't even thought of the reading while eating scenario - finally, no more ingenious uses of heavy objects to hold books open on the table while I have at the beans on toast!!

Hi Tim - yes, it was a shock to me, too. I tend to forget about the electronic infrastructure which goes into keeping the internet (on which the whole digital industry obviously depends) up and running.

David Isaak said...

One of my friends--a writer with 40books to his credit--has recently become a Kindle convert. He claims the top advantage is that he can also access the book he is currently reading from his iPhone when he finds himself unexpectedly stuck somewhere with 15 minutes on his hands.

Another friend, who is an editor, has started exchanging manuscripts and editorial changes/comments via Kindle. It hadn't occurred to me that the device might be more than a way of consuming text, but I gather it's a handy way of tossing an ms back and forth.

But I still love my books--millstone around my neck though they have become...

Juxtabook said...

I quite like the thought of en e-reader despite being a secondhand book dealer whose stock depends on the physical object. I can see the arguments for space, weight, commuting, travelling and simple preference. We have such a lot of here today gone tomorrow tomes - the sort that even charity shops can't sell in bargin bucket less than a year after they were publsihed, that I think the fact that some of this as an electronic text is no bad thing. There is never an easy way out of eco-costs though as you say.

Alis said...

Hi David- I don't think I'd want to be doing much in the way of work on the Kindle, the keyboard is minuscule and I think it would get frustrating very quickly, but being able to download stuff other than books - eg newspapers - or browse the internet while you're reading is a bonus, i think and would certainly make innovations in books - eg hearing the music that is being described or seeing photographs of a place - far easier.

Hi Catherine - yes, ephemeral books would be great on e-readers. My other half and I were discussing getting one for exactly that reason the other day as she, particularly, reads a lot of books that she then doesn't particularly want to keep.

Akasha Savage. said...

It's funny you should mention about one of your boys liking a break from a screen, because Katy too likes to curl up in her bed with a real book when she's had enough of technology. She owns an ipod, a laptop and a cell phone with internet access, but she still loves a good book. So perhaps there's still hope within our younger generation yet.

Alis said...

Hi Akasha - Yes, I think digital overload is a real phenomenon that we all need to escape from occasionally. Interactivity gets a bit wearing after a while - it's too demanding!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Oh, these people aren't doing their work on the Kindle. They're doing their work in Word or some similar word processor, and then using utilities to convert it to Kindle format, and flinging it to each other via the Kindle upload/download features.

The only virtues are that the transfer is rapid, and it comes out at the other end decently formatted and in an easily readable and transportable form...the latter of which can't be said for things that arrive as word processing documents.

The editor can read your ms on the Kindle on the train home without formatting it and printing it out on paper, or sitting in front of a computer. The editor's notes to you can come back via the same route. But the Kindle for these folks is just a transfer and reading device--not something for composition.

We still don't have a revolutionary means for composition--and I'm not expecting that one will emerge.