Sunday, January 06, 2013

The thing about e-books

The thing about e-books

by Shannan Sword

The first time I read an entire book on an e-reader was in 2001. It was a Rocket eBook by NuvoMedia and it weighed about as much as a good sized hardcover and was about as thick. The weight, held only in one hand instead of two like a paper book, got heavy for me so I ended up laying it on a pillow on my lap to finish reading. Though this was not a major issue, it was something I noticed at the time.

It was exciting though to try this new(ish) technology. I felt so modern and high-tech! As with most geeks like me, it felt like science fiction made real. I may even have said; “Set pages to turn, Ensign Reader!” or something equally silly… maybe.

Those first readers and e-books promised a revolution in how books would be published and how authors would distribute their work. There had even been a buy-in by a famous, best-selling author when Stephen King published a direct (and only) to electronic format book called “Riding the bullet” in 2000.

King’s e-book wasn’t one of the titles I read on that now ancient machine, and at the time, I knew nothing about rights management, hacking, or how many computers crashed trying to download “Riding the bullet”. That spring of 2001 I only knew that it was a nifty bit of technology. It wasn’t perfect, and I was far from ready to abandon my paper books, or rush out to purchase an e-reader for myself. It seemed really cool, but not quite there yet to me. I wasn’t sure yet if this new technology would iron out the bugs and improve enough to change how books would be made in the future, or if it would be my generation’s 8-track tape: superior technology in some respects, but inferior in others and just not quite what the market wants.

Keep in mind that I’d grown up without a computer. I successfully used a computer for the first time when I was 19 or 20 to type an essay at university. That computer didn’t have a mouse and to do anything, you had to remember the right combination of keystrokes to make it happen (was it Ctrl-F7 or Alt-Ctrl-F7?!). To have a device that fit (sort of) in my hand and digitally held a dozen books or so inside it, was absolutely amazing.

I would soon learn of some of the other major issues with this new publishing format and here I'd like to discuss three of those challenges. There was no universal standard, so compatibility between devices and the sources of content was problematic. The availability of titles in those early days was quite limited as various publishers slowly came on board. And perhaps worst of all, impacting every other issue, was the problem of security. Encryption wasn’t standard, or hack-proof. Stephen King’s “Riding the bullet” was offered for $2.50, with some vendors giving it away for free download, and still, hackers broke the encryption within a few days just to see if they could.

It’s twelve years on now though, so have all the problems been solved? Well, let’s have a look:

Can you purchase an e-book from any vendor and access it on any e-reader? Not quite. For example, though Amazon Kindles now work with some library lending programs in the United States, the brand remains largely proprietary; only working for e-books purchased from the Amazon site. Apple iBooks work on iOS machines, while Kobo, Nook, Sony and a few others have a bit more cross-compatibility.

There are a growing number of “apps” that make it possible for non-compatible machines to access e-books though. My iPad isn’t compatible directly with the e-book lending programs offered in my local library, but I can still borrow e-books through a specialised application I’ve downloaded. Unfortunately, apps aren’t a perfect solution either. At one time I had an app on my iPad that gave me access to titles available through Kobo. I’m glad I hadn’t gone too far with it though, as at some point, Kobo decided to discontinue this availability.

Publishers themselves also seem to be having difficulty making up their minds about who they want to work with and which titles they want to make available in electronic format. This is especially a problem for libraries who have enjoyed a very good relationship with publishers in the past when it came to access to paper books. When Penguin ended its relationship with OverDrive, a very popular e-book lending service used by many public libraries, to try a new service method, it was reported as a “stunning development” that shocked and angered librarians. Other publishers have chosen to still allow libraries access to their titles through programs like OverDrive, but at greatly inflated prices; a practice that has led to much consternation and frustration amongst librarians.

As a public library administrator, trying to manage a budget while providing patrons with a decent selection of materials in a relevant selection of formats, this kind of changing of minds and price inflation is difficult to trust. In Canada, I’ve also run into the roadblock of trying to order e-books only to find that certain titles were available only in the United States, and in Canada, they wouldn’t sell them to me.

Amongst modern democratic countries, paper books have not typically been withheld from distribution across boarders. Differing laws regarding freedom of speech, decency, and hate literature may have blocked books from crossing a boarder, but as a librarian, or a reader, I’ve never requested a book published in North America or Europe that a publisher wasn’t willing to sell me before.

So compatibility, whether it be all e-readers working with all e-books, or even all e-books being available to all customers, is still an issue.

I’ve already mentioned the selection problems regarding getting e-books across boarders, but what about other aspects of selection? Have the number of choices for e-books increased? Are all books also available as e-books?

This actually is an area that has enjoyed considerable improvement since 2001. It’s still not perfect, but then what is? A very large number of titles are now available to purchase for individuals at least. In fact, e-books have become so easy to create that the self-publishing market for e-books has virtually exploded. Amazon and Apple are two major vendors of e-books that allow anyone to create an account to publish and sell their self-published books.

Some might suggest that such easy self-publishing has “dirtied the waters” a bit by allowing anyone with a network connection to publish anything. Without editing, or vetting by anyone qualified to weed out the terrible prose, or factually incorrect information, consumers may be overwhelmed. As for me, I admit to a bit of a personal bias when it comes to self-publishing. In general, I find that if a book isn’t good enough to pass the scrutiny of an agent or a publisher, there’s probably a reason. I have read self-published books, and many of those experiences have informed my (admitted) personal bias.

Still, the proliferation of self-published e-books isn’t necessarily a bad thing. No one is forcing anyone to read them if they don’t want, and really, I’m all for encouraging the free expression of creativity for everyone. I’ve even thought of self-publishing an e-book myself, if only to try out the process and see how it works.

Meanwhile, at least one early adopter may be moving away from e-publishing at least a little. In 2012, Stephen King announced that his new book “Joyland” would be released in paperback only - at least initially. Though this seems to be more for reasons of nostalgia or possibly even gimmick, he hasn’t abandoned e-publishing entirely and other new books will still be coming out in paper and electronic formats. Still, an interesting development from the author famous for putting e-publishing on the map with his phenomenal release in 2000.

From a user perspective, I think that security on e-books, known generally as DRM: Digital Rights Management is still a major problem. From a publisher’s perspective, security is better, but hackers are always going to try to beat whatever security is devised, simply to prove that they can.

More and more users are starting to understand the fact that as things stand now, e-books you’ve paid for, are not owned by you. What you purchase with an e-book, sometimes for as much or more than you’d pay for the paper book, isn’t ownership of that book, but rather a license to access it - for now. In October, 2012, one woman in Norway found this out the hard way - when Amazon, without notice, deleted her entire library of purchased e-books. Only after her plight was published and got public attention was Amazon willing to restore her account.

When you purchase a paper book, or any other physical thing, you own that object and are free to use it, loan it, sell it, or pass it on to your children. With e-books, it’s written in the small print that what you “purchase”, you don’t even own. You can’t loan it to others, you can’t copy it, you can’t sell it, and you can’t even give it to anyone else. Worse, the people you purchased it from can take it back without compensation at any time.

I think my father epitomises the experience of a growing number of users in dealing with these frustrations. When he got an e-reader a few years ago, he loved it. Through the wireless internet connection in his home he could think of a book he’d like to read, look it up using his e-reader and purchase it on the spot for instant download. This, like my first experience over a decade ago, was like science fiction made real for him. More recently however, he’s grown frustrated by the fact that some of the titles he wants aren’t available for his e-reader due to compatibility issues, or publisher fickleness. He’s annoyed that so many e-books are now becoming so expensive, even rivalling the price of the paper version of the same title. Worse, on learning that the fine print of DRM means that he doesn’t actually own all the books he’s paid for, he feels cheated and even robbed.

In my darkest moments of frustration at how publishers and e-book vendors operate, I have wondered if there wasn’t some conspiracy to actually sabotage the future of the format. Realistically however, I’m confident that e-books are here to stay. As much as I still truly prefer a paper book when reading in bed, or on the couch or beach, even I can’t imagine travelling without an e-reader anymore. I recognise though, that I am a digital immigrant, meaning I came to digital devices as an adult. Digital natives, those who have been using digital devices, including e-readers their whole lives, may come to prefer the interface of reading from a screen the way that I prefer the interface of ink on paper.

My Verdict:
For longevity and archival purposes, since a paper book, “depending on the model, lasts anywhere from five to five thousand years” while e-book technology is changing so dramatically and quickly that the websites for that Rocket eBook I tried only twelve years ago no longer exist; e-books have a long way to go before they’ll kill off paper.

A well-bound book printed on low acid paper can outlast a civilisation, or it can be burned to dust in moments. Barring vendor or publisher interference, an e-book saved on high quality media and properly backed up, can last perhaps an indefinite amount of time in “the cloud”. Similarly though, a small glitch, a single character out of order, a system crash, or merely gremlins in the machine might erase it forever. Neither format is foolproof but printed books have stood the test of time already while e-books are in relative infancy.

In the end, I think that e-books and paper books will coexist for some time yet to come. I don’t think I’m alone in preferring an inexpensive paperback at the beach to an expensive electronic device. The two formats serve different purposes even as paperbacks, hardcovers, audiobooks, and large print already sell to different markets, to serve different needs. Perhaps we’ll just add e-books to that list and they’ll happily coexist with hardcover books as long as the other formats have. Maybe people won’t even mind the “rent-not-own” aspect of DRM and use e-books as the even more discardable than paperbacks, fluff-reading format.

Either way, e-books are here to stay; and so, I think are print books.

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