What are the deeper implications of the shift to ebooks – for us

Let’s forget Publishers … and Authors … and all the companies that want to take over Publishing and Books.

That leaves us readers and our books.

We are migrating from books to ebooks and from a curated gatekeeper model to a mix of curation and long tail and ‘anyone can publish’.

What impact does it have on us?

Two Links to Set/Get some Context

Courtesy TeleRead we get two very interesting articles –

  1. Nicholas Carr warns schools about the potential switch to eBooks. Interestingly, this time he uses solid arguments to back up his gift for stringing words together poetically.
  2. At Quill and Quire, scientists in Toronto find that reading books changes people – that people create a simulation in their minds as they read and it has a measurable impact on personality (at least they claim it’s measurable). It might seem strange to do a study on something that seems pretty obvious to anyone who has ever read a good book. However, it never hurts to get proof that reading a book can have quite an impact on the reader.

Combine the two and we get an interesting thought – If Books really do change people, and if Nicholas Carr is right and ebooks aren’t as impactful as physical books, then are eBooks going to herald the dawn of a world where books no longer have as much impact?

eBooks come with advantages and disadvantages

If we think about the role books play and the impact they have on us, then it’s worth noting that eBooks are neither much worse nor much better than physical books.

eBooks just aren’t as good as Physical Books (in some respects)

Here are a few negatives (most of which Nicholas Carr has discussed at length, and in much prettier language, in his article) –

  1. With an eReader or a Reading Tablet there is always the temptation to check the news or play a game or surf the web or send an email.
  2. There is some difference between turning the pages of a book and getting the tactile sensation and the smell and the familiarity – versus using an eReader and the specific and very different experience it presents. Purely on the basis of the fact that we probably are in the habit of concentrating more (and going into a different state of mind) when reading a physical book, it’s quite possible that eReaders won’t present as pure a reading focus until we get used to them (which will be different for different readers).
  3. Absolutely anyone can publish an ebook. That means you get a lot of noise and a lot of people with some truly strange books and ideas influencing you.
  4. The quality control (both in terms of content and in terms of formatting and editing) is not as high.
  5. You can’t interact with the book in the form of taking notes like you could with a physical book. A little ‘1’ mark for a note hardly replaces the impact of something scribbled in the margins.
  6. It’s different – just the act of switching to a new way of getting and reading books takes some getting used to. Some people will never try or will quite before they become comfortable with this new way.
  7. The inability to easily skim and write in margins means ebooks are not suited for textbooks. Add on the lack of color in the current generation of eReaders and we really don’t have any ‘textbook readers’ at all. Amazon didn’t help matters by pushing the College Student Pilot Program using a Kindle that had no touch, no color, and just wasn’t adequate as a text-book reader.
  8. The user interface still needs work – it makes some things (such as highlighting) annoyingly slow.
  9. eBooks are accused of not providing as many visual cues i.e. structure, chapters, where in the book you are. It doesn’t help that everyone has their own interpretation of page numbers and whether or not to show them.

That’s a long list and it isn’t even complete. Nicholas Carr seems like a genius and his advice seems golden – We really shouldn’t rush to replace old tools with new ones before thinking things through.

However, what about the things that ebooks do better?

eBooks do a better job than Physical Books (on some fronts)

Here’s the part that Nicholas Carr’s editor cut out from his article.

  1. eBooks are making reading a lot more affordable – which means more people can read, and people can read more. Black Echo for $1 and Stephen King Novellas for $3 just wouldn’t be possible with physical books. Nor would indie author books at $1 and book deals at $1 and $2 (at least not to the same extent). It will, almost certainly, lead to more people reading, and people reading more. Perhaps most importantly, it makes books competitive with lots of other ways of passing the time.
  2. eBooks are making reading a lot more accessible. People who couldn’t read can read now –  Larger text and Text to Speech is opening up reading to a lot more people. Additionally, People can read now in places and at times when they couldn’t read earlier. You can read on your phone, on your PC, or on your eReader. As Jerry Lee Lewis would put it – Whole lotta reading going on.
  3. With the Democratization of Publishing we get a lot more ideas and diversity. While there is a lot of noise, there is also a lot more variety. We have replaced the filter of ‘high quality and what Publishers think people should read and what Publishers think will make money’ with ‘zero quality control and what any person in the world wants to send out and varying consideration of profits’. The lack of quality control is bad but the other two things are good – everyone gets a shot and lots of people who don’t care about money get a shot.
  4. Convenience – Books in 60 seconds and stores that are open 24/7. This also increases the amount of reading as the friction is reduced significantly. Books needed ebooks to be able to compete with instant on TV and Internet and Video Games.
  5. There is more available in your genre of choice. Let’s say that you have an unhealthy obsession with Post-Apocalyptic novels – Well, you can now choose from Publishers and Small Publishers and Indie Authors and your neighbourhood Baker. There’s less quality control but a lot more choice – plus you are free of the threat of everyone switching over to publishing Twilight clones for 16-year-old girls.
  6. eBooks are giving books a longer life. Whether we like to admit it or not, the truth is that $10 books sold in physical stores and published according to their profit potential were losing out to things like TV and YouTube. Now books are competitive again.

While rushing out to replace our old, trusted tools would be stupid, it would be equally stupid to keep using them if everything around us is changing and they just aren’t as effective.

The world is changing and books have to change too – If books don’t evolve they face the very real danger of dying out or becoming far less important.

Of course, there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

Things Left Unanswered

Well, here are a few –

  1. How do eBooks affect us? Do they affect us as much as physical books or more?
  2. What happens when Network effects start kicking in? What happens when unknown authors become bestsellers in the space of a few days?
  3. Will people read more now that ebooks are so accessible and cheap or will they read the same amount and just spend less on books?
  4. Will the quality control of books be gone forever? It’s hard to imagine Publishers being able to afford to run stringent quality control given the likely drop in ebook prices.
  5. Will the lack of sharing and resale have some permanent effect?
  6. Will we ever get an eReader that can handle textbooks? Perhaps it’s the students that are the problem – Do we really think we could ever make a device that would satisfy college students?
  7. If books become very accessible due to the rise of ebooks will people become too smart? Do we really want people who are capable of making the cognitive leap that they shouldn’t be funding Wall Street bonuses with their retirement savings?
  8. Will people get too influenced by each other? Will the gatekeeping of Publishers get reduced by the Court of Peer Pressure and Public Opinion?
  9. What happens in we end up with 2 major players in Books and things get even more controlled than when there were Publishers?

These are exciting times for anyone in Publishing. They are critical times for anyone who reads – a lot is going right and a lot could go wrong. It’s easy for Publishers to focus on the negatives and for us to focus on the positives. There are things happening that can’t be undone – not all are good, not all are bad, but most are irrevocable.

In a way, no one knows what will happen. Everyone is waiting for an opportunity to seize an advantage and take over the profits in books and everyone is uncertain of the direction in which things will move. This might be the best of times for books. This might be the worst of times for books. It might even be both – In fact, it probably is both.

12 thoughts on “What are the deeper implications of the shift to ebooks – for us”

  1. One advantage to eBooks not mentioned is the fact that no trees were used in the printing of ebooks. This could be an incentive for environmentalists, although the transition to eBooks may eventually replace the “paper” book industry – printers, binders, etc., and eventually brick-and-mortar bookstores.

    However, being old enough to live through other transitions, such as writing computer code using keypunch machines, to being able to write complex code on a laptop; and from using a Brownie box camera to a much more powerful and versatile digital camera, I’m eager for the changes to come.

  2. I have to start my comment by mentioning that I do not have a Reader yet and I live in South Africa. My family is buying me a Kindle for my birthday at the end of October.
    My reasons for wanting a Kindle are probable more practical than intellectual:
    1. We live in a house that have no space for bookcases. The books I have are currently packed away in boxes and behind my winter jerseys in some unused closet space. This is not where books are supposed to be.
    2. Price!! Buy books from Amazon for Kindle is much less expensive. I will use Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Dominion as an example. Currently this book costs R195 at my favourite online bookstore and postage will be about R23. That is a total of R218. At the current exchange rate it will cost my R87.45 ($11.99) and I do not have to wait for the postal service. A saving of R130.55 with which I can buy two more books.
    3. The added convenience of having my entire library with me at all time is also not lost on me.
    The negatives about ebooks don’t really bother me. In SA we don’t have all the functions available yet; I have so many “old” books I still want to read that I probably will not be buying indie writer’s books and I don’t write in books, but prefer to write in a journal.
    My husband and I have two small children and the one problem I do have with the black and white interface is that you cannot read children’s books on it. This is much the same with college textbooks as mentioned. In future that will probably change (we hope).

  3. While you can flick through a book in a way that eBooks can’t yet match (and maybe never will), you can search an eBook in a way that will never be possible in a book. As you describe, each approach has its pros and cons.

  4. My husband’s learning disability mean he cannot read and understand. With the Text to Speech feature, he can now read unlimited and is enjoying books for the first time in his life. Yeah, Text to Speech feature!!! We bought the Kindle to tap into that feature.

  5. I still don’t see this as an either/or issue. Text books are a good example — for non-fiction print is still the best option. I’ve had a Kindle since the beginning and I still buy print.
    BTW eReaders may cut down on paper, but print’s paper already comes from non-virgin renewable timber. EReaders require petroleum products and may be less renewable.

  6. Another major implication to consider; charity shops often rely on the reselling of donated books, so there will be a slow, but steady erosion on that front.

    1. It’s a win-win really. We’ve been publishing bound books 30+ years, and now many of the earlier books, OP on paper, we now have out for much less in e-book form. A few weren’t written on a computer, and we can even scan, proof, update, and make them electronically accessible. Kind of a miracle. The books may never die, though a few of the authors have.

  7. Fascinating post. Print books will never go away. When Gutenburg invented the press, scrolls didn’t disappear. They just took on a different function and meaning — namely, for highly formalized occasions. What might the future of the physical book be? Perhaps works of art. There are already small publishers who only publish books as art — books made of wood, of various types of unusual paper, of various types of print, illustrated in fancy ways.

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