The Future of Reading?
The Love of Books
I confess from the outset that I love books.
I mean by that that I love the actual physical look and feel of books made from paper and board and glue. What are sometimes now dismissively called ‘dead-tree’ books in the same way that we dismissively call physical post ‘snail-mail’.
My mother and father were reasonably keen readers, and so I grew up in a house which had a few shelves of books, though hardly what could be called a book collection. Our reading matter mainly came from the local lending library, and it was from there that I got my hands on many of my childhood favourites – a quantity of books we could never have afforded to buy.
But, as I say, we did have a few dozen books at home. My father was fond of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and I had read my way through his copies of the ‘Tarzan’ series, and science fiction like The Land That Time Forgot by the time I was 12.
When I grew up and started to have some money of my own, however, I quickly developed the habit of buying and keeping books.
Over the years I must have bought and read many thousands of books, but regular purges have kept the collection down to a modest 3,000 or so volumes.
By the standards of true bibliophiles this is not excessive; but when the time comes to move house, or to renovate, having to move that many books becomes a major task.
We recently had the interior of our house painted and then re-carpeted. That meant that all of the books had to come off the shelves mounted on the walls and be packed away in a shed in our backyard for the duration. The physical books sitting modestly on shelves somehow seemed to expand endlessly as they came down and were packed into cardboard boxes. I ended up with some 75 boxes, in total weighing perhaps a tonne and a half. Moving that mass was no trivial task!
So owning physical books can definitely be a burden. And yet, and yet… I love the look of books on the shelf, and some individual hard-covers are so well-designed as to be a source of visual pleasure in themselves. To sit comfortably on a couch, handle such books and read their contents, is surely one of the great harmless pleasures of life.
But that pleasure does come at a cost. The resources required to make the paper and board – those ‘dead trees’ – and the cost of storing and shipping them about, taking them to bookstores, shelving them and selling them, all add up as a cost to the economy and to the environment.
Bits, not atoms
Surely there is a better way: surely we should be ‘moving bits, not atoms’ as Nicholas Negroponte said in Being Digital.
And so we come to e-books. Well, e-books and audiobooks, since the latter these days are also in digital, electronic, form.
I’ll talk about audiobooks in more detail some other time. Enough for now to note that I’ve long been a huge fan of audiobooks. Audiobooks are a great way indulge my passion for reading when my eyeballs are not free for ‘normal’ reading, such as when I’m out walking or driving. So much so that I have spent a lot of time and effort in developing shareware software which helps me (and many others) get audiobooks into a suitable form for the iPod.
But let’s look specifically at e-books, as these are a closer substitute for reading physical books. You have to have your eyeballs free and you have to have the time to sit and read them, just as you do with a physical book. How does the experience compare?
To me, it seems that it comes down to on what device you are reading the book, and in what circumstances.
Reading anything while sitting at a desktop computer seems to me far more like work than pleasure. I’ve talked in the past about the ‘desk culture’ and the ‘couch culture’, which are two very different things. Reading for pleasure surely has to fit within the couch culture. You need to be comfortable, relaxed, at your ease; none of which I feel while at my desk.
I subscribe to ‘New Scientist’ magazine in electronic form. I always used to enjoy reading the paper-based magazine, but the electronic version is far cheaper. However, to read the electronic version I’m essentially tied to my desk. This is one reason that I’m months behind in catching up with it.
So, equally, reading an e-book on my desktop computer is just not something I enjoy, and I quickly stopped trying.
Dedicated e-book devices like the Amazon Kindle or the Sony Reader are the obvious platform for e-books. Neither of these devices are currently available in Australia, but even if they were I’m not convinced that I would buy one. While I am sure that sitting down on the couch with one would be comfortable and pleasant, I react a little against that concept ‘dedicated’.
The Apple iPod Touch
I recently acquired an iPod Touch. I have owned several iPods over the years – my justification being that I have to have the latest iPod so I can be sure that my shareware software works with it. The Touch, though, is a huge leap forward. It’s a device which I have quickly learned to love for its versatility, ease of use and convenience. That word ‘versatility’ is key.
I don’t want to get distracted by lauding the virtues of Apple and the iPod – I’m no Apple fanboy. But the iPhone/iPod Touch is essentially a pretty fully featured pocket computer, which means it can do a great many different things.
On my Touch, I can, among many other things:
- Store my contacts, calendar, notes, photos
- Check my email
- Use it as a calculator
- Use it an an alarm clock and stop watch
- Use it as a timesheet tool for freelance jobs
- Listen to music
- Listen to audiobooks
- Play games
- Watch videos
- Read e-books
If it was an iPhone, of course, I could also use it to make and receive phone calls.
The iPhone as an E-Book Reader
So, the iPhone/Touch is definitely not a ‘dedicated’ e-book reader. But how well does it work in that role? In my experience, pretty darn well.
Using the Stanza software I have read a number of novels on it now, including Randall Garett’s Lord Darcy, Stella Rimington’s At Risk and Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I have found it a surprisingly easy and pleasant experience.
The small form factor of the iPod screen is something that doesn’t bother me much at all. At the font size which I find comfortable, there are about 150 words per ‘page’, which is maybe half of what you would find on a standard paperback page. So I do find myself tapping to turn the page fairly often, but not excessively often – not much more often than I would turn the pages of a large-print book, for example. The backlit screen makes the text bright and clear (in fact, I’ve adjusted the ‘paper’ colour so it’s a bit more grey than white to reduce glare).
Holding the Touch in one hand, I can tap to turn pages with my thumb, while sitting in comfort.
The huge advantage I believe that the iPhone/Touch has as an e-book reader is simply that it is so small. I always carry it with me in my pocket (inside a Belkin leather wallet), and so I can pull it out any time when I have a moment to spare. Unlike an audiobook, I don’t need to fuss with earphones: I can just pull out the device, make a couple of taps, and start reading. I can’t imagine carrying a Kindle with me so simply and easily. The iPhone/Touch is more portable than even the smallest paperback book; and yet it can contain literally hundreds of novels.
But it is not too small. Trying to read anything (for example, an SMS) from my Nokia mobile phone screen, for example, is extremely frustrating. (I know modern Nokia phones have bigger screens, but mine is an old one).
And I do think about the fact that if I had every one of my 3,000 physical books in electronic form, then I could have picked them all up in one hand and carried them out of the way of the painter and the carpet layer in an instant. That surely beats moving one and a half tonnes of dead tree.
On the Other Hand
Yes, there are a few buts.
Firstly, there’s something unsatisfyingly impermanent about owning an e-book. Yes, I can back it up somewhere, but I still don’t quite feel that I possess it in the same way as I possess a physical book. I can’t easily lend it to a friend, or re-sell it.
Secondly, it just doesn’t have the look and the feel of a ‘real’ book. It’s not going to look good on my bookshelf; it’s not something I can admire for its design and its physical construction.
Thirdly – I don’t like the feeling of being ripped off. E-books are still ridiculously expensive. Sure, there are plenty of out-of-copyright free books, but I like reading modern mysteries, thrillers and science fiction. And these cost way too much for their actual value, in my view.
Think about it. Think about what it must cost to design and print a physical book. The cost of the paper and the ink and the machinery to print, fold, stitch and trim it. The cost of packaging. The cost of shipping. The costs of the retailer in employing staff, having the book on their shelves, doing stocktakes, and so on. These all add up to a very large percentage (I guess at least 80%) of the retail price of the book.
Now look at the e-book. Sure, you still have to pay the author his or her usual pittance, maybe still pay the publisher’s staff like editors. But you’d have all those costs anyway if you were publishing a print version. So if there’s a print edition already out, what are the incremental costs of publishing an e-book based on that? You probably got the manuscript in digital form; for sure it was turned into digital form before you went to print. Let’s be generous and say that maybe you have to spend say five hundred dollars employing a geek to convert the book into a number of different e-book formats. And that’s it.
So you could almost certainly make a handsome profit if you sold the e-book for say 25% of the cost of the printed book.
But that’s not what’s happening. This was brought home for me when I compared the cost of a few recent novels in e-book form with the cost of the print editions through Amazon.
In many cases the cost of the e-book is 90% or more of the cost of the printed paperback edition (eg Ruth Rendell’s End in Tears at $11.16 for the paperback, $9.99 for the Kindle version; Orson Scott Card’s Magic Street at $10.17 for the paperback, $9.99 for the Kindle version.
I’m not taking into account shipping costs, which for Amazon books sent to Australia can be significant; but look at it from the point of view of US readers who can often get free shipping from Amazon.
If you don’t have a Kindle, the cost of the e-book can easily be more than the print version, eg the latest Ruth Rendell novel, Not in the Flesh in ePub version (suitable for my iPod) through Fictionwise is $25.95, compared to $10.20 for the paperback. In other words, 250% of the cost of the print edition or more than double the cost of a version that would look good on my bookshelf, that I could lend out, that I could re-sell.
You are paying more for, really, considerably less. This is a rip-off.
Will it last? Well, it’s hard to see it changing. There’s no easy way, unlike music tracks, to get hold of an e-book version without buying it – much harder for an individual to ‘rip’ the content from an analog to a digital form and so much less need for the publishers to compete with illegal downloads.
So publishers of all stripes are going to see that e-books are far more profitable than print books and can essentially charge whatever they please, almost without regard to their actual production costs. I sincerely doubt (as a one-time author myself) that they are likely to pay more to the writers.
Unless there’s a consumer revolt, which I can’t see happening.
Or we all stick to printed books.