E-Books Round 1: Why I’m Not Worried …

I thought I’d take the next two days to reflect on e-books and The Future of Publishing. Many writers, agents, and publishers I’ve talked to view e-books as an existential threat. Today I’d like to play devil’s advocate and discuss a few reasons why I think (or hope) that e-books aren’t really a big deal. (Tomorrow I’ll be talking about the things to do scare me … a lot.) Let’s look at a few common complaints:

1) Reading an e-book isn’t reading!

This objection is pretty much limited to young readers. The fear seems to have been sparked by two recent newspaper articles about the rise of “enhanced” picture books1. Many people have wondered whether these e-books are really be more like video games or cartoons than books. Illustrator and artist¬† Meghan McCarthy wrote a great piece on her blog talking about how the “enhanced” edition of P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dog. Go! makes a point of not showing words at key points of the story — creating an experience that is not much different from watching television.

I agree with her comparison, but not so much her conclusion. I do not think that these e-books present a new challenge to literacy. Converting picture books into television has been going on for decades … just ask LeVar Burton. Millions of children (myself included) watched Reading Rainbow and still learned to read. As with television, this is much more a question of parenting than publishing: the same kids who are allowed to watch too much TV are the same ones at risk of “reading” too many enhanced books2.

2) There’s just something better about ink on paper!

I wholeheartedly agree with the above statement — no glowing screen will ever compare to the look, feel, and smell of words on a physical page. That said, I think e-books have some very real advantages over traditional books. Not only are they more portable and ecologically responsible, but features like searchable text, instant definitions, hyperlinks, and clickable footnotes give them an undeniable edge3. For society as a whole, e-books are without question the better path forward.

So where does that leave us physical book lovers? I think that in the future, people who buy and read physical books will be very similar to people who listen to music on vinyl today. There is still a market for vinyl records, but it is a smaller one that is limited to collectors and fetishists. Frankly, I’m okay with that.

3) E-books will destroy the publishing industry!

Just a second ago, I compared people who collect books to people who collect music. Similarly, a lot of people have looked at what happened to the music industry as a sign for Things To Come in publishing. This usually leads to the following (terrifying) comparison:

physical books = compact discs

A friend recently pointed out a logical fallacy in this equation: books, unlike recorded music, don’t require an apparatus to enjoy. Recorded music is beholden to whatever technology a person owns (be it tape deck or iPod), and like all technology, those devices are bound to become more advanced and replace their predecessors. This point is not minor, as it reveals what the true books/music comparison should be:

e-books = all forms of recorded music

In the above scenario, the future of physical books looks suddenly brighter. In fact, it’s Amazon and Apple who need to fear what’s to come. The Kindle and iPad will inevitably be replaced by something newer. Physical books, however, will remain unchanged … as they have for over 600 years.

So that’s three e-book fears allayed. This post was largely me talking myself off a ledge. Feel free to let me know why I’m wrong, or any other points I may have missed. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking the other side of the debate and discussing the one looming change that I do think could destroy publishing. Until then . . .

UPDATE: you can read my followup post here.

  1. 1. The first was a New York Times piece discussing troubling trends in the sales of picture books; A few weeks later the Wall Street Journal wrote a piece about how publishers are poised to start creating “enhanced” picture books for e-readers.
  2. 2. which begs another question: who the heck lets their five year-old have an iPad?
  3. 3. Just ask any undergraduate English student forced to slog through Chaucer one word at a time … not that I’m still bitter or anything

4 Comments Leave a Comment

  • […] Your Lives! Posted 02.4.2011 by Jonathan Auxier in Publishing Yesterday, I talked a bit about some e-book fears that no longer worry me. Today, I’d like to talk about one outstanding issue that does frighten me. A lot. We already […]

  • […] wanted to write a short followup on last week’s pro and con posts on the coming e-book apocalypse. Three […]

  • I think your friends comparison might be a little unfair, in that books do require an apparatus to be enjoyed. One could argue that a physical book is a delivery system, in that it’s binding and covers designed to help you read the words inside the book. I would argue that physical books most certainly do equal CDs. While I sent my agent my first book as a physical manuscript, my next book will be sent to her as a pdf, which she can download onto her Kindle. Having worked in radio, I can tell you that’s exactly what happened with CDs and downloads. We used to send and receive everything on CDs, but now it’s pretty much all done through downloads. Books like music are dependent on some kind of delivery system. And I think that books are definitely going to become vintage. For example, I either listen to or download all of my books. If I really like a book or an author, then I buy one for my shelf. But this is total win for the author, b/c she gets both an electronic and a physical sale from me. So are physical books CDs? Yes, they totally are — except it’s a huge pain in the butt to scan a book, so if you want a book off your shelf, you’ll either give it away or you’ll just shell out additional money for the electronic version.

    However, the music industry hasn’t been destroyed, it’s just very, very different. If anything, I would say it’s better. I now have a ton of International pop music in my collection — do you know how much that would have cost back in the import CD era? No Coldplay and U2 don’t make as much money as they used to, but it’s very lucky for both artists and listeners, b/c it allows us all more choice. I’m hoping that the ebook revolution works out the same way.

  • kbryna says:

    Because I am years away from ever having the money to buy an e-reader (not to mention my almost total lack of desire to own one), the intricacies of the e-book debates are mostly beyond me, though the basic point – that authors should and must be remunerated for their work – seems to me obvious and immutable.

    Your use of *Reading Rainbow* as a way to refute concerns over e-books’ impact on child literacy doesn’t hold for me. I can’t say if e-reading an e-book on an iPad will decrease literacy rates. Maybe, maybe not – but I will say that *Reading Rainbow* isn’t a totally fair comparison because the point of *RR* was never learning how to read. *RR* was never a skills-based show; it was a program about interest, enthusiasm and love of reading. It was to show viewers the many ways that books intersect with the real world – with history, with culture, with the mundane but essential parts of life (eating, sleeping, dancing, playing). *RR* focused on emotions, on creating and sustaining a love of books and what those books could do for us.
    This is supplemental to the simple object of the book itself; no book, all by itself, can do the enrichment of *RR*. Likewise, no e-book can do that enrichment.
    IF e-books for children are actually stripping away text and replacing it with visual, then obviously this isn’t doing much good for basic literacy – but *Reading Rainbow* isn’t the right example for a successful book-to-visual translation. A better one might be those animated versions of children’s books – the short cartoons of Dr Seuss, for instance, or the short cartoons of Sendak’s books – Rosie, Chicken Soup with Rice, etc.

    I don’t think e-books are the end of western civilization, but I am, technophobically and bibliophilically, sticking with my paper-and-ink clunky old books.

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