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?