Friday, February 18, 2011

Books versus “books”

There has been a lot of discussion lately on the Mythopoeic Society’s Yahoo group about digital books and e-readers. I am hardly in a position to comment on the relative merits of the different e-reader devices, since I have avoided the whole technology like a knuckle-dragging luddite. I could comment on some of the theoretical benefits of electronic texts, of which there are many, but for what it’s worth, I thought I might take a few moments to share some of my reasons for resisting this whole movement toward electronic books, just to be a countervailing voice. Normally when I do this, there is a technophilic rush to contradict or explain away each point of my argument, and I don’t mind if some of you champions of e-readers do that here and now, but I’m not really making these points to start a debate; rather, just to explain where I am coming from. Having said that, I welcome your comments.

Who owns my books?

When I buy a physical book, it is mine. Not just “mine” in some transitory way, but literally mine (without irony-quotes), for all time, to do with as I like. I can read it a hundred times, lend it, give it away, burn it, use it as a paperweight, keep open a window, whatever. Electronic books are only “mine” as long as the hardware doesn’t malfunction, the terms of agreement do not change, I don’t violate a warranty or license agreement, etc.

Imagine if those of us who have copies of the Ace “pirate” edition of The Lord of the Rings woke up one morning to find that somebody had come into our homes while we slept, removed these books from our bookshelves, and perhaps left a few dollars in their place. This is essentially what happened in 2009 when Amazon removed “unauthorized” copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles around the world. If that is not ironic — Big Brother reaching down from the cloud and taking something you thought was yours — I don’t know what is. There was a good deal of blowback, and Amazon claims they would not do the same thing in the future — I know that all techologies go through growing pains — but I do not want a retailer ever having access to my books. Why should they? What possible justification is there?

Speaking of 1984, it is not too hard to imagine a cloud-based analog to the memory holes whereby information can be made to disappear. It’s not so hard to imagine a horrifying Orwellian scenario here. It’s bad enough that U.S. intelligence agencies want to be able to examine your library borrowing history; how long until they demand warrants to sneak around in your e-reader too? I won’t digress to paint any further paranoid pictures — though I could — but the bottom line is that I do not want third parties having a back-door into controlling what I can and can’t read on a reader. For all sorts of reasons. What if publishers want to “correct” their texts in real time, updating people’s electronic copies silently and without permission. To allude to another recent development, what if the powers that be eventually decided to reach into people’s e-readers and change nigger to slave in copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? With e-readers, there is no reliable fixity of the text. I have a big problem with the very idea!

Once books are mine, whether “unauthorized” or not, I consider them mine. Just because Amazon promises they won’t reach out to a Kindle and remove something doesn’t mean you should believe them. The fact that they can is a problem. Technology wants to be used, or abused; if it’s there, it will be. And with the proliferation of e-book readers, you’d have to secure promises — and trust them — from all the different vendors. Why should this be necessary? I might warm up to e-books if I could believe they were really mine and that once I had purchased them, no one could touch them without literally breaking into my house. And one closing note on the point of ownership. Right now, we buy our books, for once and always; but as more and more people move to e-readers, how long until the model changes, and we are no longer buying books once, but merely renting them or paying a licensing fee each time we want to read them again? Publishers must be salivating at the very idea. I hear that the music industry — the pioneers of digital formats and players — have designs along this very line.

Format wars and the problems of technology

A book is a book — or should be. To read it, you only need eyes (or fingers, if the book is printed in braille). Yes, electronic texts have some advantages over print ones, of which perhaps the biggest is the ability to do powerful searches. But until these vendors can agree on a standard format, instead of fighting over their own proprietary ones — none of which add anything to the “technology” of reading — I am prepared to sit this out and wait. I read PDFs on my computer, and they are very useful. But that’s about as far as I’m prepared to go.

I don’t want to have to worry that the electronic books I might buy will only “work” on this device or that device. If I have purchased a big library of books for a Kindle, then decide I’d rather have a Nook, do I have to buy all those books again? Is it possible to transfer a digital library from one reader to another? I hope it is, but I’d be surprised if the vendors were cooperating. Maybe there are techniques or workarounds to get a digital book from one device to another. Is it easy, quick, painless? Probably not. Certainly not easier than handing a copy of physical book to a friend. And these techniques work only so long as the vendors don’t change their formats and device specifications. People will always find ways around limitations or attempted sandboxing, but if you deal in real books, it’s a moot point. And as avidly as people are trying to hack formats and devices to bypass their digital rights management and other limitations, the various hardware and software vendors are working just as furiously to circumvent that circumvention. It’s a vicious cycle which does nothing but compound the problems of format and technology.

And what about technology? The “technology” of the physical book is millennia old. Even printing with movable type is more than five centuries old (in Europe; movable type was invented in China four centuries earlier still). The “bugs” in the book — scribal error, palimpsests, material durability, legible typefaces, and sometimes even real bugs eating holes in the paper — these have basically been worked out. Computers are only a couple of generations old, and handheld digital devices of the e-reader variety have been around less than a decade. Even setting aside the generally quite poor standards of software development — and believe me, I have had an inside view of this for fifteen years now — one can’t expect anything but bugs. It’s going to be decades before the e-readers are as reliable as, say, an analog television used to be. (I have to say “used to be” because the analog television is now a living fossil, quickly going the way of the rotary dial telephone.)

A few other issues

Since I don’t use e-readers, I can’t answer this, but how long until you start seeing unavoidable commercials when you want to read a book? I have a blu-ray player, and not only do I have to update the firmware constantly even to watch many newer movies (which drives me absolutely up a wall), but the many-tentacled film industry and its technology partners have colluded to force me to watch commercials or movie trailers before I can enjoy the movie. Have you guys noticed this? You usually can’t go straight to the blu-ray menu anymore, and you usually can’t skip a trailer either (sometimes you can fast-forward, sometimes not). We don’t have car and beer commercials at the beginning of ours discs yet, but it can only be a matter of time — and with the firmware model, they can add this into all our existing players any time they like. How long until something like this happens with e-books? Why wouldn’t they force you to see an ad for other books from the same publisher, or whatever, if they could? They have total remote control over your device, don’t they?

I used to think it was impossible to lend electronic books — one of their biggest disadvantages, I always said. Apparently, some of the e-readers (and now libraries) do support book lending, in a limited fashion. That’s an improvement, but traditional books retain a big advantage here. And you still can’t give away or sell a digital book, can you?

If you can read, it’s pretty easy to figure out what to do with a book. But looking at an e-reader, or a compact disc, or a DVD, or a flash drive, how do you know this “is” (or “contains”) a book? Which is more intuitive, this or this? Imagine a couple of people opening a time capsule two hundred years from now. One takes out a physical book, the other a flash drive containing an entire library of important works. Who will be reading first? It’s easy for us to think, oh, all these formats and technologies will still be readily available and comprehensible to our descendents in the centuries and millennia to come. For this, the eight-track tape is a cautionary example; an even more compelling one is the piano roll.

Some might say it’s silly to worry about whether people will be able to read our e-books and use our e-readers centuries from now; people can use them and read them today, and that’s all that should matter. That’s a dangerously myopic view. If e-books actually make physical books so costly that publishers stop producing them, and then e-readers eventually die off too, literacy itself could be threatened. I doubt this will happen in my lifetime, in spite of the rabid trendmongering you hear these days to that effect. But a few generations, or a century from now, could we see a return to the Dark Ages when only the clerics and aristocracy could even read at all?

Books are also generally more durable than digital media. Tapes, discs, magnetic and optical storage technologies all erode over time — rather like those thermal paper receipts that fade into oblivion in a surprisingly short time. Books erode too, but much, much more slowly. We have books that are many centuries old, even ones that haven’t been particularly well taken care of — even ones that have been snatched out of a fire! It’s hard to see how a string of a billion 1’s and 0’s could survive as long. Of course, under today’s patterns of data proliferation, dozens or hundreds or thousands of copies are made, remade, saved, resaved, backed up and restored, over and over — but all that upkeep and maintenance just to preserve those streams of data? A single book, well taken care of, has the potential to outlast all of it.

What about electricity? All you need to read a physical book is a little light — fortunately, we still have the Sun, and luckily, nobody has figured out a way to charge licensing fees for using it. To read an e-book, you need electricity. Your e-reader can store a little of this, but in a protracted power failure, your entire library might as well have vanished in a puff of smoke. If you were stuck on a desert island, which would you rather have, a single physical book or your entire library on an e-reader? And setting aside the possibility of power outages, I just don’t like the fact that e-readers mean consuming more. With e-readers, it is no longer enough to use just a very little of the energy we convert from eating and drinking; now we have to consume electricity too. How much doesn’t really matter, it’s more than physical books require, and there is only so much electricity to go around. I think we should be trying to consume less energy, not more, especially since we are stuck (for the present) burning through a finite supply of fossil fuels. Some people argue that printing books means killing trees. But using e-readers comes to much the same thing, because it takes fossil-fuel energy to manufacture and power them. At least you can recycle the paper in unwanted books; the energy spent on digital “books” is unrecoverably gone forever.

Summing up

There are many benefits to electronic texts, without a doubt. I use them myself all the time. But I prefer physical books, and I have physical copies of 99% of everything I have in electronic format. I never read an electronic book when I have the option of reading a print copy. And until most of the problems and limitations I have discussed above are addressed, I don’t imagine I ever will.


  1. Well, my compromise is to buy digital books but not use e-readers. I read them on my PC, or (with the help of a complaisant employer, which I realize not everyone has) I print them and read them, usually recycling the printout but sometimes saving it There's a vast number of digital books out there, free (see Project Gutenberg, PG Canada, PG Australia, and many other sites) and cheap (let me particularly recommend here) DRM-free digital books out there. The books wind up entirely mine, on a device that's quite free of other people's pawing, assuming I'm careful about antivirus/spyware defenses, or are able to run a platform other than Windows.

    Librarians today are acutely aware of the problem of format rot, and are taking steps to make sure that digitally stored material is preserved, which means among other things transferring it to new media and formats as they become available. Publicly documented hardware and open-source software is also extremely important in this effort: a lot of things (games, mostly, but other digital things too) can be and are kept going using emulation.

    What's more, digital books have their special pleasures too. There is nothing more satisfying than to read a book in RTF using, find a typo, correct the typo, hit Save, and know I'll never see that typo again. No "smell of books" can make up for that part of my reading experience. The same is true, with a little more trouble, of reading books in HTML or plain text in a browser. Try doing that seamlessly with your random paperback or (still worse) library book.

  2. Everything you say is entirely true. All of it.

    1) Owning: Our software is fenced about with similar restrictions. These have been meekly accepted. E-books are another avenue to diminish our rights to read freely.

    2) Format problems. I remember the format wars over the early PCs. In those days they were not yet universal or essential enough that you couldn't wait it out and see who won. We're in the same stage with e-readers.

    John Cowan mentions format rot, and that librarians (such as myself) are well aware of this, but we are also well aware that we lack both training, and - even more critically, in times of shrinking budgets - the personnel time to deal with this.

    There is also physical rot. Even the most acidic paper will last vastly longer than storage media for electronic files.

    There are two issues here: access, and preservation. Making unlimited electronic copies and shooting them over the internet is great for access, and I wouldn't be without it. But if you want that file to be around for use again in five, ten, twenty-five, fifty years, electronic storage, unless maintained by people with deep pockets, vast technical knowledge and time to maintain it, and the kind of institutional stability that no computer company has yet shown the likelihood of having, is the opposite of reliable.

  3. I agree! I'm all for "real" books over electronic ones.
    I would be sad and horrified if one day a grandchild of mine came and asked quite unwittingly "What is a bookshelf?", in the same way I might ask my grandparents "What is a Gramaphone?", or the way most kids nowadays would ask "What is a record?". Bookshelves tell such interesting stories about people, it would be a shame to lose them. If I am visiting someone or end up sitting alone in someone's living room, my eyes will always wander to the bookshelf. My mind unconciously reads through the various titles and volumes, looking for a familiar sight, a known friend that could be sitting there giving thoughts of comfort or subjects of conversation.

    It may sound whimsical, but it just isn't the same staring at someone's I-Pod, I-Pad, Kindle, etc. that may be sitting on the coffee table. I mean, you can't tell anything about someone from their electronic device (unless you have personal access to it), except which formats they prefer.

    And I know the smell-of-books may seem trivial to some, but it means a lot to me! You can tell a lot about a book from it's smell, whether it's old or new, whether it's been sitting in storage, or belongs to a library, things like that. I'm not against electronic books at all, especially for the purposes of traveling (I mean, one couldn't possibly take one's whole library with them on a four week trip, without paying a fortune in excess baggage fees anyway), it's just not practical. But with all your books on your I-Pad you can. You can read anything that takes your fancy without having to lug the books along with you.

    If there was a vote though.....Real books win every time!

  4. Janet Brennan Croft2/19/2011 1:14 PM

    I'm with you -- for me, personally, e-books are supplements to paper books, not replacements. That said, my daughter just bought me a Nook, so we'll see what happens as I start to play with it. I'm already thinking that I could replace many of the public domain texts on my shelves -- as long as I can back them up between my Nook and my computer and my external backup device.

    As a librarian, it's an ongoing dilemma. There's not much institutional support out there for building more shelving space; I've seen that in my own library. We had to make a very hard decision about discarding paper journals to make room. We did choose to discard the ones in JSTOR -- which we know has multiple very secure paper and electronic backups in several locations across the country, and a reliable program to prevent format rot. But what if? On the other hand, electrons don't take up a lot of space you have to rent and furnish and pay utilities on.

  5. Great blog! You made some excellent points here. I hope you don't mind that I quoted part of this on my facebook page

  6. The only books I would purposefully get on E-Readers are things which are in the public domain and also very expensive. Theres a goodly number of still relevant non fiction volumes I've collected from Gutenberg and Google that way. I enjoy reading them, but couldn't or wouldn't pay what they tend to go for due to being academic.

    I'd never purposefully buy a new book or a fiction book in an E-Format however. If it dosen't come out in print, or I can't afford it.. I suppose I just don't need it.

  7. Good points, everyone. I don't have an e-reader of any sort, but at one point when I was out of the country I did have a growing collection of e-books on my laptop. Then my HD had a catastrophic failure and I lost everything - except for the paperbacks sitting on my shelf. This, more than anything, has convinced me to stick with the tried and true. Sure, books can be bulky and heavy and take up space - but they don't suffer from memory or power failures - unless, of course, you misplace one in a blackout.

    Other minor issues also have disuaded me from this trend. If you meet an author, where would they autograph an e-book? Would they bust out the Sharpie and sign your Nook or Kindle or flash drive? I think not...

    How about taking notes? Again, pen, pencil, and highlighter all work well in a paper text but I would certainly hesitate to use them on a viewscreen...

    And revisiting the "stranded on a desert island" scenario - your handy paperback travel stash would be an excellent fuel source, as a last resort, of course. I cringe at the thought of burning a book - even in this scenario.

  8. Jason

    Really good points here. I do not envison ever switching completely to
    E books and take great joy, pride and excitement in buikding my library.
    That being said, I also have an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening commute each day and not having to lug some of the heavy tomes I tend to read - The German Genius -being that last one - does make it a bit easier on the bag and the back. i also find it much easier to read older books with the IPAD and am currently finding following along with a course like The Tolkien Professors Faerie and Fantasy course easier by accessing the readings online, I do share your concerns and would never go to an either/or situation (and you will be happy to hear Beyond Middle Earth is sitting in my hard book to read pile) The idea of words being replaced in book readers is very concerning. it would also make an interesting Dan Brownesque plot for some thriller!! Will keep the fait with the original parma. Although I have the new Tolkien related novel that is causing the latest stir Mirkwood ready for E-Book reading tomorrow morning on the train!!!! Andy

  9. The FishWife2/20/2011 12:23 PM

    I must use this space to say I dearly love my husband and his beautiful mind.

    P.S. Liz, if I know Jason, and I believe I do, he will never mind you quoting him anywhere. ;)P

  10. Meanwhile, I see that there is a newly-launched, peer-reviewed publishing enterprise for medieval scholars, that will publish books only in electronic form, "to change the way scholarly research is produced, distributed, and received".

  11. Oops, forgot the link to Scott Nokes's blog, where this was announced.

  12. As I've gotten older, I've become overwhelmed by books (and offprints of articles), so I'm increasingly less sentimental about the book as a physical object, and while I don't own an e-reader (beyond my smart phone), I'm not nearly as down on e-books as you are, Jason. That said, what you've written here is one of the better articulations I've seen of the trade-offs involved in the rise of e-book use.

    In fact, I think it's misleading to call e-books "books," when they're really just texts that rely on a whole lot of hardware, software, and legal apparati to make them readable. Now, I love the idea of being able to travel with 2,000 pages of scholarly articles by popping them onto a Kindle-sized device, but I don't think we're ever going to see the end of printed books. They're sturdy, they don't impose copyright law and technology between the reader and the text, they more easily allow random access, and they're better for archival purposes--especially in the face of electromagnetic pulses. :)

  13. So many ways to discuss this.... I'll take a stab at a few of them but I think this could be a lengthy and productive topic for continued discourse over a very long period of time.

    I think we can all come to agree that what you get from Amazon delivered to your Kindle is not a book. I would go so far as to argue that is is not even a digital copy of a book. It is merely the indefinite loan of the ideas/contents/words of the author(s). If you disagree with me, I encourage you to read the Kindle Terms of Service before we continue:

    We also need to separate Digital Rights Management from the content that resides underneath it. There are plenty of e-books (in the sense of something you can purchase and own and do what you like with) that have no DRM applied to them. I was quite pleasantly surprised to get a vast e-book library included with my copy of Cryoburn from Lois McMaster Bujold - a full DVD with electronic copies of most of her Vorkosigan titles in multiple formats, along with a ton of other extras. Mine to do with as I wish, including printing up a copy on acid free paper and putting on my shelves (or holding my window open with the DVD).

    So, in general, the business of disseminating an idea through the medium of writing, and the resulting consumer act of purchasing a copy of that work, still exists today whether digital or pulp-based. In parallel there is a new economy developing for the loaning of the ideas/words without giving permanent rights to do what you will with those words. (Think a moment, and you will realize that you cannot do *whatever you want* with your physcial book either - the copyright on the contents still exists, for example.) The digital form of the book is (among other goals) trying to find a way to preserve the copyright of the work in a more enforceable manner than the old "cross your fingers, and sue when someone oversteps" mechanism.

    I have only touched on the surface of the awful mess that the digital age is bringing to books - look what is happening to music and movies in the digital age, and will happen to many other industries as the tidal wave reaches them.

    My final thoughts - physical books will not be replaced by e-books. However, for the vast majority of the book-reading world, no physical copy is needed or desired. People love to read books once, then dispose of them in one way or another. I just have to look at the library donation bin, Goodwill's boxes out back, and the used book store to see that the vast majority of people have no use for the physical medium after they have consumed the ideas therein. I have only to look at the awful waste of remainders to see that publishers are dying for want of an accurate way to predict how many copies of a book to physically print. I look at ABEbooks and Amazon and see that 99% of all "popular" books are worthless after they have been read - there are so many used copies available that they have driven the supply curve to zero.

    So I give three cheers to the e-book and the economic model of loaning a virtual reading copy to those who just want the contents. For those of us (me included) who really do want the feel of a book, the sight of a volume on the shelves, the ability to re-read the book decades later, I also give three cheers and feel certain that books of worth will always be made available in print.

    I have no idea if this post was coherent, but I have run out of steam to go back and re-read it at the moment. :-)

  14. Gosh, there’s so much here to digest and comment on — for which, thank you all! — that it’s probably going to take me a day or two to fully reply to specific points. I hope the conversation will continue, though, before, during, and after. Do check back.

    For the moment, just a couple of points.

    To John, about correcting typos in electronic texts: I suppose this is fine if the e-copy is purely for your own reading, but what about the fixity of the text? Errata become part of a text, and we can have interesting conversations about them, but only if we all have access to the same text. I have some anxiety about the fluidity of e-texts; they have an unreliable “wiki” quality to them.

    To Janet: so your library is getting rid of paper journals when you have JSTOR? If you are getting rid of paper for electronic journals, and other libraries do likewise, how long before those journals are no longer produced in printed form at all?

    This is part of what concerns me: that even those of us who want paper but use electronic copies as a supplement (for their many benefits) are helping to kill off paper. It’s a dilemma, no mistake. I’m torn about it myself. As long as we continue to buy print books and journals in addition to digital versions, we’re probably helping to keep them in print, but I don’t know how long it can last. Journals and newspapers — periodicals of any kind — are surely going to be the first to leave the world of paper and ink for good, don’t you think?

  15. David Bratman: Not all our software is fenced about as you describe. The software I use voluntarily is Open Source, and doesn't have that problem. There are programs my employer compels me to use, such as Windows, but if I had my druthers, I'd be 100% Open Source. Similarly, most e-book formats are open standards, though (as in Amazon's case) there may be proprietary DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) on top of that.

    Jason, I really don't think that the fixity of the text applies to such things as I correct: thier for their, Johan Báner for Johan Banér, wehrleucken for Wehrlücken. Granted, these make my text a different state, but no more than that. If I reported them to the publisher and they were financially able to fix them, I'm sure they would; I just haven't bothered.

    The sooner scholarly journals become electronic, the sooner they can become Open Access, getting the toll bandits like Rude Elsevilely (disclaimer: my employer) off the scientific information superhighway. What service do they provide for journals nowadays? Content and editorial work are given them for free (and often enough authors must pay page charges) and the subscribers also pay, exorbitantly. The sooner they are driven out of the business, say I, the better.

  16. Concerning the fixity of the text: a huge argument over A.N. Wilson's biography of C.S. Lewis was finally settled when it was discovered that the two parties were using different texts. The publisher silently (i.e. without any copyright-page indication of revision) replaced some large chunks of text between the original hardcover and the softcover reprint. It became possible to discover this when the two editions were put side by side. But at least the original edition copies stayed constant. Imagine how much more difficult and insidious this would have been with changes made silently in electronic texts. It would be like what happens to Madame Bovary in Woody Allen's "The Kugelmass Episode".

    Jeremy and Janet: Occasional unrestricted software and e-texts do not change the default situation, and, more importantly, the possibility of and the expectation of imposing those restrictions. Not everybody in Sodom and Gomorrah was a wrongdoer, either, as Abraham pointed out at the time.

  17. David: I don't disagree with your basic tenet, that imposing restrictions is the default situation. My point is that we are talking about two different products, and two different consumer behaviors.

    Product 1: purchasing and owning a physical book.
    Product 2: access to the words of an author.

    Behavior 1: owning/preserving/collecting an object.
    Behavior 2: reading some words (for enjoyment or study).

    While there is cross pollination one way (using product 1 for behavior 2 obviously) there is little to none the other way (using product 2 for behavior 1). As Jason, you, Janet and the rest of you so rightly point out, it is an abysmal model fraught with technical and philosophical difficulties.

    It all comes down to trust. It is not possible for a library (personal or institutional) to contain every physical text ever published. Given limited resources, everyone (readers, collectors, archivists, historians, preservationists, the LOC) must trust that for those things not in hand, someone else will preserve a copy and give access to it at some point in the future. Having a digital copy is a flawed but worthwhile mechanism to hedge your bets on this system of trust.

    The fact that Kindle editions are outselling all other editions on Amazon right now just points out that behavior 2 is massively predominant, and those consumers little to no interest in behavior 1. If they do, they need to reconsider, as they have legally given Amazon the right to take away everything they have "purchased" at any time.

    Finally, the demand for product 1 (the physical book) has not gone away, and as long as it is not zero, the publishing industry will also not go away. In fact, the digital age is allowing it to get more efficient and thus more likely to survive on the smaller market size available.

    There are two different consumer needs here, and the market has evolved to have a separate product to address each need separately.

  18. Jeremy: You are rediscovering the point I made earlier, about the difference between access and preservation. If I'm just reading something casually, and don't care about the fixity of the text or keeping a copy permanently, sure, e-books are handy. As far as owning is concerned, I don't own the books I borrow from the public library either, and as public libraries recycle their collections, the book there today may not be there in one or five years.

    The problem arises as non-ownership becomes the default model. Companies, whether making software or electronic books, are actively trying to take our previously assumed rights away, and if we do not actively defend them, we won't realize they're gone until we need them and it's too late.

  19. Hi again David: I am trying to go a bit beyond your earlier point in my argument. What you and I are discussing is *not a book*. The default model for owning a home, or owning a patent, or owning a trademark is completely different. The default model for owning a book is not the default model for owning an e-book.

    I agree that it is incredibly easy to confuse the two entities as they are both closely related, and in fact companies such as Amazon advertise them as being equivalent (though they do not sell them as equivalent as we have discussed).

    If one wants the default model for e-books to be identical/equivalent to the model for physical books, one needs to create or find an economy of e-books that fits that model. Given that every purchaser of a Kindle book has agreed to the terms of service as a given, it will take a strong class action suit to force Amazon to change. Note that even with the 1984 debacle, they still insist on the right to remotely screw around with your entire Kindle library at any time.

    We don't leave our front doors unlocked. We don't give the local bookstore permission to come into our home at will. But we do agree to give Amazon access to our Kindle library 24x7 because it is so convenient. We do "agree" to give our home up to the government if we do not pay our property taxes in perpetuity, or "sell" it to them if they think of a better use for the land (eminent domain).

    With an e-book, you have "bought" some electrical current that flows in a particular pattern. How do you "own" that? What responsibility do you have, and does the creator have, to "preserve" that particular pattern?

  20. The default model for owning a book is not the default model for owning an e-book.

    That is exactly the problem.

    If the publishers were introducing the physical book today, they would try to figure out a way to prevent users from owning and having rights to resell those, too. Think what cost the used-book market imposes on the market for new books. Think what harm obsolete technical books do, out there where anybody can see them. They'd allow them only on long-term lease, and you'd have to turn them back in.

    Somebody did a great cartoon showing publishers shocked, shocked at the idea of a public library where people can read books for free. In the last panel: next up to be regulated, singing in the shower.

    There is no reason there can't be an ownership model for e-books, except that the publishers are using ... it's a fallacy, really ... that e-books and physical books are different things as an excuse to peddle a new model that gives them more control over your life.

  21. I think your concern is a valid one, but your argument is too strong. For example, Neil Gaiman was just recently talking about all of this (and BTW I agree with his and others' position about ebooks). His publisher and others are getting how the digital age can help sales and readership of physical books, when done right. A short quote for making my point, and a link to his full blog post:

    "The results of putting AMERICAN GODS up here for free that month came in in August. Sales of my titles -- all my titles -- in Independent Bookshops went up significantly while we had American Gods up here for free. We sold more copies of American Gods. And we sold more copies of everything else. And then, when we took AMERICAN GODS down, they dropped again, to pre-free book levels. "

    You can skip the first half of the post (the "death" part) if it is not to your liking, it is not on topic. :-)

  22. When done right. My point is that there is a massive movement against this, and a few Neil Gaimans and Cory Doctorows don't negate, counteract, or make up for this. To point to them as encouraging signs is whistling in the wind.

  23. And, even though it's not widely practiced, the actual economic success of giving texts away demonstrates that the corporate model of only allowing limited access to e-books, instead of permitting ownership, is not at all necessary or inherent in the nature of the medium or anything of the sort.

  24. A few more comments as I straggle along behind …

    Liz, of course I don’t mind. In fact, I’m quite honored you found anything I had to say worth quoting. :)

    Anon., your point about autographs is very well taken! There’s something I hadn’t even considered, but it’s a more specific aspect of the “collector” argument. As for notes, I think a lot of the e-readers have the ability to add notes and “bookmarks”, but I would agree it’s not quite the same as adding your own marginalia.

    To my FishWife: what a lovely thing to say! As to the quoting, yes, very true. You know me so well, hahae. :)

    N.E. Brigand, thanks for the pointer to Nokes’s post. His blog is in my regular rotation, but I had fallen a bit behind and hadn’t seen this yet. I’m digesting it now and may have more to say at some point.

  25. Meanwhile, in the center ring... (apologies to Jason)

    David: To me, the encouraging signs are that the publishers have not completely thrown in the towel and gone completely locked-down DRM-ed to the gills.

    The average modern person (defined as with reasonable access to e-books for my purposes here) I will call Jane Doe (JD). JD has shown herself to be abysmally short on morals and with an appalling lack of understanding of the value of digital materials. Her primary thought is "it is digital - no harm is done to anyone in making a copy of it, so it is not theft." This attitude has permanently altered the music and movie industries, and is in the process of changing digital publishing (for the worse) forever.

    The percentage of real-world people who become "JD" is directly correlated to how easy it is to make a copy. People have hand copied books for centuries without permission. Xerox and the VCR and tape recorder revolutionized copyright violations. The Internet has turned the majority of "us" (not anyone here, of course) into blithely ignorant thieves.

    Based on this proven economic model (put your copyrighted material in digital form without protection, and 50-90% of your revenue stream goes up in smoke) the question each copyright owner has to ask is: can I get by on a 90% pay cut? Or should I spend some of my earnings on technology that will protect a significant chunk of that lost revenue?

    What is being proven in other industries, and gives me hope for digital publishing, is that JD actually shows a tendency to do the right thing, if the right thing is easier than stealing. Amazon has revolutionized digital publishing by making it so easy for JD to get a new book, and in parallel so easy for the publisher to release copyrighted material into an ecosystem that sustains their economic model.

    I do not think Amazon has it right, yet. I am strongly against DRM, and actually agree with everyone else in this thread about ownership of e-books. But I have seen the dark side of online content distribution, and until someone builds a tool that allows me to really own something I buy, and still allows for an economy that produces and supports artistic endeavors, I will lean toward supporting the producers over the consumers lest we lose the producers of artwork completely. Have you browsed The publishing industry provably provides value and needs to be compensated for it. :-)

  26. I think I’m caught up. Thanks to David and Jeremy for continuing the discussion. David, I am with you here. You voiced exactly what I have been thinking when you wrote:

    “The problem arises as non-ownership becomes the default model. Companies, whether making software or electronic books, are actively trying to take our previously assumed rights away, and if we do not actively defend them, we won’t realize they’re gone until we need them and it’s too late.”

    This is my big worry. And while you make some good points too, Jeremy (as do you, Jeff), they don’t mollify me on this concern. It may be, Jeremy, that there will always be physical books, but if/as more and more people move to the digital alternative, what incentive would publishers have to produce more than a few, if any, physical copies? And then, for those us who want them, would this limited supply make books the prerogative of only the super-rich?

    And beyond mere market economics, if publishers can control how we read and can make more money as a result (by “renting” or “licensing” reading material), why wouldn’t they choose this course? If we let them.

    At the risk of drifting from the topic a bit, think about Facebook for a moment. It’s free, cool, and pretty much ubiquitous — a winning combination to addict the masses. Facebook now has a staggering half-billion active users *, millions upon millions of whom couldn’t bear to lose it. Now that Facebook has this heavily invested (even addicted) user base, what’s to stop them charging for the service? Charge too much, and users would give it up, however painful, but what if it were a dollar a month, debited painlessly? At that rate, Facebook could lose 90% of their users and still be making $600 million a year. Why on earth wouldn’t they do this, sooner or later? I feel like this is the kind of conversation “new media” publishers are having behind closed doors at this very moment.

    * An even more staggering metric: Facebook reports that users spend 700 billion minutes per month using the service. That’s the equivalent of more than 13,000 centuries — longer than the entire history of the human race — every month.

  27. Jason, I don't have answers to most of these questions, but I do think I can answer this one: "but if/as more and more people move to the digital alternative, what incentive would publishers have to produce more than a few, if any, physical copies? And then, for those us who want them, would this limited supply make books the prerogative of only the super-rich?"

    Publishers can move, sensibly, to print-on-demand models. Right now, a major New York publisher looks at a book and makes a wild guess about how many to print and store in its warehouses. If you ever browse the wonderful Daedalus Books catalog or regularly visit a used bookstore that buys publishers' overstock, you can see just how often publishing executives get this wrong, and how absurdly expensive it must be.

    Good publishers will always need to deal with the overhead of editing, designing, promoting, and distributing books, whether electronic or print, but the cost of printing will increasingly be, I'm guessing, a non-issue, especially since printing a black-and-white book with a color cover via costs only a couple bucks. Cheap printing now makes it possible to get anything out there--perhaps, in the future, with fewer gatekeepers than the Internet imposes.

    That's why, while I'm hardly in denial about the rise of e-books, and while I often find them useful, I'm also not counting out print books. I keep seeing fans of e-books voicing a weird and fervent desire to make print books disappear, but I think they're overlooking the fact that as a species, we're tactile and object-oriented. Our desire to own things, even physical objects like nifty e-reader gadgets, extends to the text inside that gadget, too, if we love that text enough to want to be separable from its delivery system.

    But I could be wrong. :)

  28. Jeff, good point about Print On Demand. That should certainly be part of this discussion. I have welcomed that development as long overdue, even though it must be admitted that the quality of the product is inferior to that of many traditional publishers (cue the old saw, you get what you pay for).

    I think the cost to print a Lulu book is a little more than a couple bucks, though not much more. It may go up if traditional publishers pull out of the print market (i.e., decreased competition > higher prices). But you’re right: for now, the option exists, and it’s much cheaper than most traditional publishers.

  29. In fact, POD books are more expensive per copy than traditionally printed books, but they have a lower setup cost. A traditionally printed hardcover with a typical press run costs the publisher about $6-$7 to make, at least as of 1988 when I last published one; costs for paperbacks are less, but not much less.

  30. Yes, I’ve heard that. But traditional publishers have to mark their books up quite a lot further than POD outfits, to defray the significantly greater costs of their whole operation. POD shops don’t have property costs for brick and mortar, salaries for editors, copyeditors, marketing and other staff, etc., etc. It’s interesting that the production costs per unit are greater for POD, but the purchase costs per unit are vice versa.

  31. John Repsher2/25/2011 8:38 AM

    I have to say that I have come to love my kindle. I was originally dubious when I received it as a gift (especially when I found the extremely high prices of some electronic books. The kindle version of a book on Troy I was looking at was $190 dollars). During an enforced stay at home however, while recuperating from minor surgery, I found that I could import PDF files directly into the kindle. I started finding, through google books and other sources, volumes of 19th century scholarship, such as the Handbuch der Klassischen Alterumswissenschaft, as well as the Pauly-Wissowa Realencyclopaedie, which I could download and import into the kindle. The fonts were preserved, and it was much more convenient than driving 2 hours to my local university library and lugging heavy volumes home, if they were even available.

    While I would dearly love to own the actual books, my budget would never permit it. This is the next best thing.

    At this point, I'm sold!

  32. Good points about being able to get things electronically for less money and when they are hard to find. But I just find reading a real book much more satisfying. I have never been a big fan off reading anything on electronic screens including computers. I always feel like it is probaly bad for you like cell phones and brain tumors. Also where I live in rural Vermont we cannot even get a good internet connection at my house unless I want to pay what I consider big bucks for a dish or some such nonsense, and I am holding out. So even though all these modern conveniences are very convenient I prefer to stick with my books. Besides there is a great book store near me where they sell used and out of print books and I love searching through their shelves even if I can see what they have on their web site. I have gotten much pleasure there finding what I consider to be some great finds of Tolkien and other books I would probably otherwise never own.

  33. Sorry to drop off for a while, work and health. In any event, I thought this would be a good wrap-up for my part of the thread:

    (Thanks to Janet Croft for the link)

  34. Good link! And here’s one for you: “Marketers Test Ads in E-Books” [link]. When I wrote about this in the main post, above, I didn’t even realize that people were already setting these gears in motion. I suspected it was only a matter of time, and it appears not only was I right, but they were way ahead of me already. :(

    I have some other points to add to the e-book debate, but I don’t want to bury them in a long comment thread (already the longest in the history of Lingwë). Look out for a new post raising several more issues, coming soon.

  35. More fodder for your upcoming post - another issue.

  36. That was a great piece, Jeremy; thanks for sharing. I had not heard about this “evaporating” book idea, but I am not at all surprised. I think it’s no secret that the new media pushers (led by the music industry) would rather the concept of ownership die out altogether and that each and every use (be it listening, reading, what have you) be paid for each time. God, I hope this doesn’t catch on!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.