I live on a moderate-sized sailboat. It reduces my carbon footprint to inhabit about 300 square feet instead of the 1100 I enjoyed in my house on land. (Actually, I confess that I also “inhabit” a storage unit — but it isn’t heated — and I do sometimes take a bath — sweet luxury — at my partner’s house. But still, I’m living in and heating a far smaller space than I used to.) I used to have solid walls of bookshelf in my house on shore. So I may perhaps be forgiven for some enthusiasm for the e-book reader technology. In theory, I could still have all those shelves of books, but in the tiny space of a few SD cards and a reader about the size of a slim trade paperback.
I started exploring the strange new world of e-publishing about three years ago when planning my downsizing and relocation. I knew I was not, no way, no how, going to buy a reader from Micro$oft or Amazon (both come with large sticky strings attached, as in heavy DRM and the usual attempt to tie the user to the vendor’s document format). So I bought the Jinke Hanlin direct from China, at that time rather an undertaking that eventually involved the Bank of China and a lot of faxing.
The Hanlin is one of a new breed of “palmtop” devices with a high-res, high-contrast B&W screen that tries (and succeeds pretty well) to look like a printed page. It is paper-white with black print and graphics, quite easy on the eye (much more pleasant to read than a glowing TFT screen). Only the tiniest trickle of power is required to coerce the black pixels into staying “lit” (the unpowered state is blank off-white). On a standard cell phone battery, the device will support 3000 or so page-refreshes — a lot of reading; and it will sit quietly on standby for weeks. It all sounds rather green; very low power draw, small, open source (it displays PDF, EPUB, and several other open formats), and — hey — e-books don’t require killing trees, bleaching pulp, shipping tonnes of paper all over the globe, running giant presses, using toxic inks, shipping more tonnes of finished books all over the world, and so on. And even people with small houses can have shelves of books.
All this I suppose is more or less true — though I have no idea what the environmental cost of manufacturing one of these doodads really is, and no one is as yet required to tell us [when will carbon-cost and toxic-byproduct labelling on all industrial items become as mandatory as ingredient and "nutrition" labelling on foods?]. But my foray into the new world of ebooks, as I’ve pursued the subject further, has raised many questions — some of which strike pretty deep into the heart of property rights law and capitalism-as-we-know it, not to mention the cultural meaning of books as artifacts. [I invite anyone who's more familiar with this technology to respond with corrections, expansions, and alternative takes on the phenomenon.]
Ebooks come from two worlds, one on each side of a wall which, were it physical rather than notional and legal, would be many metres high and festooned with barbed wire, searchlights, and guard towers: the wall of Copyright. On the “public domain” or “out of copyright” side of the wall is the book space occupied by e.g. Project Gutenberg: tens of thousands of classic (and some rather obscure) titles, all copyright free and being transcribed, packaged into CDROMs, transformed from plain text to HTML to EPUB to PDF format by all-volunteer labour driven by the human impulse to share knowledge and information. On the “copyright” side of the wall is everything from low-cost self-published e-books to best-sellers owned and controlled by the various big publishing corporations.
The price for an indie ebook seems to range between 5 and 10 dollars, with “whatever you think it’s worth” (conscience pricing) in a minority of cases. DRM (digital rights management) in most cases amounts only to a heartfelt plea “not to share this book.”
The price for a mass-market popular title currently in copyright varies from 10 to as much as 30 dollars, but in most cases hovers around half of the hardback edition price. So for example, if you want the latest Terry Pratchett or similar best selling sci-fi paperback equivalent, it’ll be 10 or 12 dollars, and there will be a bewildering variety of formats.
Some of the formats will be heavily DRM’d. As with software licensing (because ebooks are essentially a mix of content and software), there are the more draconian versions (the ebook is keyed to one individual’s reader and cannot be read on any other hardware device — Microsoft Reader and Kindle, as far as I know, work like this), the somewhat less draconian versions like the new Barnes and Noble “Nook” (you can share your book with a limited number of others in a limited set of formats), and so on. Vertical integrators (aka monopolists) like Amazon want to tie their own proprietary reader to their own ebook format (though their reader is capable of reading some open-source formats as well). The formats themselves are evolving.
If you want some idea of the morass of formats and the bewildering array of devices already on the market, this comparison table makes interesting (or daunting) reading.
I’ve been chatting over the implications of ebooks with a friend who is in her spare time an indie publisher. As a publisher she is quite excited about the ebook option and is publishing her own first novel in electronic form (as well as Print on Demand, another technology having sweeping impacts on the publishing biz). As a publisher she welcomes the ebook format as a way to make books more accessible and cheaper; the minimal cost for a POD short-run copy is about $12, but after the original formatting and publicity, ebooks are “free” to “produce” (all they cost is download time and bandwidth), so she can charge a lesser price for them.
As a writer I’m rather excited by the technology as well, and for the same reason; I could charge very little for e.g. a volume of collected essays, and yet keep it “in print”. It’s also very easy to publish a book pro bono, costing only labour and download hosting space.
As a reader, however, I have some misgivings about the heavily-hyped trend toward ebooks.
I keep running across the language “please do not share this ebook,” not to mention elaborate DRMs designed to micromanage and control the reader’s use of the text. This seems to me to violate one of the primary attributes of the social artifact “book”, as we have known it: one of the essential features of books — perhaps the most essential, culturally — is that we lend and borrow them. For the last several generations, books have been a medium of social bonding, exchange, and networking. What does it mean for “book” to become “licensed software”?
And what does this mean for the equally important social construct called “used bookshop,” where traditionally, even low-income people could find affordable books (particularly in paperback editions)? In the world of ebooks there is no such thing as a “used book”. One copy, one owner, seems to be the desire of the publishing corporations.
Without used bookstores and book lending/sharing, will the market for books remain lively and robust? Is the ebook “revolution” a strategic strike by the industry against the used book stores?
What does “edition” mean, when ebook content can be updated at any moment, typos fixed, text cut or added? What guarantee does reader B have that the ebook she bought in December is the same “edition” as the one recommended to her by reader A in May? Does it matter? Should readers, like purchasers of software, be entitled to upgrades and patches as authors refine and improve their work?
What will the role of media “piracy” be in the ebook world? I note that e.g. Harry Potter fans have been manually transcribing the 600 and 700 page novels into PDF, on a volunteer basis, to share them with the world of people who can’t afford $15 or more for a physical copy; how can DRM circumvent this kind of dedication and zeal?
The entry cost (price of a reader) is not slight either. It ranges from $250 up. If books migrate to ebook-land, how many people will be de facto excluded from reading current publications by their inability to afford the reader hardware?
What happens when reader hardware becomes obsolete? Is the owner guaranteed the ability to port his/her library forward to the new generation of readers? Are ebook readers going to join iPods and cell phones as huge contributors to landfills and toxic “recycling” depots for electronic gizmos?
What becomes of public libraries?
What becomes of hundreds of thousands of titles that are not “commercially viable” enough to be worth a publishing corporation’s time and effort to scan, OCR, error-check, and format into several ebook standards — yet remain under copyright so that it’s illegal for anyone to distribute them for free in open formats? Today, the answer to the reader seeking such book is “abebooks” or (if you are lucky) your own excellent local UBS.
As a “reading experience”, I find my Hanlin reader slightly inferior to the average mass market paperback in page and font quality (and page turns are annoyingly slow); I would happily pay 3 or 4 dollars for a used paperback copy of a well-loved book, but I would definitely not pay 10 dollars for one. For me to “digitise”, say, my collection of used Terry Pratchett paperbacks (35 books or so) at $10+ each is an investment of $350+ — on my present budget, ridiculous, even for the attractive convenience of being able to carry the entire collection around in my pocket.
Living as I now do, on a fixed and fairly slender pension, I am realising that the death of used book stores and the complete takeover of the book market by ebooks (which will probably not happen in my lifetime, as the physical inventory of used books is so enormous) would mean that I could no longer afford to own any recent popular titles. My reading would be limited to indie publishing and OOC classics. Given the accelerating immiseration of what was once the middle class in N America, a growing number of people might fall into this “can’t afford ebooks” class. What would this mean for reading habits, literacy in general, as a class marker? And again, what does this mean for public libraries? Would they continue to lend out “old fashioned” paper editions specially printed for collectors and libraries only? (and if paper editions became sufficiently rare and collectible, how could libraries continue to buy them or dare to lend them out?)
There is an enormous structural difference between ebook readers and MP3 players: the ability of the end-user to rip CDs to MP3 made the MP3 player enormously attractive and swiftly ubiquitous. You could convert your own existing library to the portable digital format. There’s no equivalent ease of converting a paper volume to an ebook: good OCR is expensive, scanning is time consuming and requires fairly extensive computing resources, and some formats are difficult to produce correctly without a fair amount of technical expertise. Not to mention the legal dobermans ready to unleash on any person who (gasp) shares an ebook with a friend without paying the appropriate licensing fees!
The ebook’s challenge to the used book store (and to interpersonal book lending and borrowing) raises many questions about content control, enclosure, copyright, and so on. For how many years should copyright persist? Is the “free market” a sane or workable way to fund the arts? What would be a better way? How will indie/grassroots publishing react to the ebook wave? Could authors make a living on a “shareware” and donation basis?
And one last speculative question about the ebook phenomenon: given our situation wrt peak oil, possible economic implosion, seriously disruptive conditions possible in the near future, is it wise to commit literacy, record-keeping, publishing, and the rest to relatively fragile high technology? Paper books, after all, can be read even when the power is out and the Internet is down. Heck, they can even be burned for domestic heating when times get tough.
How much would you pay for an ebook? Would it be a good investment? Why? What are the implications of the technology (for Us, as in the low-budget resistance/subversive elements, or for Them, as in the big-budget owner/controller/Enclosers)?