Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Michael Bourret: The long and enduring saga of the paperless-book.

The title is pretty lofty, considering that I actually have no interest in rehashing the much hashed history of the e-book. I will say that I remember electronic publishing being the talk of the town when I first started working in publishing about 8 years ago. At the time, I think the Rocket was the machine that was going to change our lives. The Rocket can now be used as an oddly shaped, plastic paperweight.

I am here, instead, to extol the virtues of the e-book and the e-book reader. Or possibly not. I haven’t decided yet. I have a Sony e-reader that I got back in October and have used nearly every day since then--not to read the latest bestsellers, but rather to review manuscripts. Though I’d wanted one for a while, I’d been reluctant to take the plunge. They’re rather expensive pieces of equipment that one can’t even play with before purchasing. But as I packed for a trip to visit my parents in Florida I realized that 1) I couldn’t fit all the manuscripts I wanted to take into one bag, and 2) even if I could fit them all, said bag would never fit in the overhead luggage racks or under the seat in front of me. It was time.

To say that my life has changed isn’t really an exaggeration. It made my job much easier and made my bag much lighter! I can now go to a conference without a suitcase full of manuscripts. It also makes for much easier subway reading, and while that’s cut into my Us Weekly time, I think I’ll survive. An added bonus is that using one is less wasteful of both resources and money. I can’t imagine how many trees I alone am saving by not having manuscripts printed.

But what about reading books on it? Honestly, I haven’t done it yet. I once tried to download a book for our bookclub (David Ellis’s Eye of the Beholder, which I recommend), but was given, instead, Eye of the Beholder by Shari Shattuck. I tried for weeks, through the atrocious online process, to get the right book to no avail. Finally, my credit card company took care of it. That experience put me off downloads for a few months, but I ordered my new bookclub pick recently. It seems that the Kindle is better suited for downloading books, what with the “Whispernet,” and all, though I can’t confirm because they’re such rare animals. Thus far, I haven’t enjoyed the browsing and buying experience for e-books, and it’s something I don’t even really like doing online. I’ll stick to the bookstore for now, thanks.

Which brings me to my other problem: I like books. Like everyone who writes about this topic, I have to lament the possible demise of the physical book. If Marshall McLuhan was right, and the medium is the message, what does that say about e-books? Are they really books? Part of my love of books as a child had to do with the physicality of the object, not just the words on the page. I can’t imagine my apartment without the wall of books (not to mention table and chairs covered with books, or all the books lurking beneath the furniture). Accumulating digital files just isn’t as impressive. When people come over, and I want to show off my authors and their work, will I soon have to pull out my reader so friends can ooh and ahh about the number of files I have? Somehow, that’s not so fulfilling...

But, I don’t worry. Physical books aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The cost of the e-reader is too high for the average consumer, and I think they’ll only appeal the most avid book buyers – like those of us in publishing. I do think that e-books will become a larger part of the publishing business as time goes on, especially for text books, business books, romance, mysteries, and other mass market fiction. And maybe with remote delivery, as on the Kindle, e-readers could bring back the serialized novel in a bigger way. Something like that could even increase physical book sales.

But what do you think? I’d love to hear some other opinions about e-books and e-readers and Kindles and such. Oh, and check out this news, just released this past weekend: “Penguin to launch ebooks alongside regular releases."


  1. I'm hearing a number of agents and editors say how wonderful kindle is, but it makes sense to be able to use such a small device to carry so many partials and full manuscripts - plus I'm hearing it's better on the eyes than the computer screen.

    As far as the demise of regular books, I don't know how good that would be for the book buying public in the long run. I've found some of my favorite reads by browsing through stacks and happening upon a gem I'd never heard of... or maybe had heard of but hadn't paid much attention to yet... You don't get the same ability to browse online as you do in a flesh and blood store. I might never stumble upon the same books online, in fact I'm much more responsible with online purchases because I just get what I came for without getting stopped by attractive displays... I like the physicality of the book store, the smell of new books, the occasional conversation with other readers or knowledgable clerks while browsing... And I like my stacks of books, burrowing under furniture, weighing down book cases, and taking up every available space in my home.

    But I think, all of us who grew up with real books and grew up avid readers are resisting a change like this - one thing I'm sure of, though, if the market significantly changes to an online venue, authors are going to have to think outside the box to garner attention, especially to first novels.

  2. I adore my Kindle! I do read books on it, all the time. I must say, though, that I still read books on paper, too. And I probably will continue to do so until the Kindle is issued in a waterproof form.

    I loathe the lack of hyphenation and justification in the text, but I can't think of another thing that it doesn't do for me better than the paper books I own.

    Yes, I like the insulation I gain on my book-lined walls, and I like books, but there are drawbacks to them, too.

    --They're harder on the environment
    --They're big, so if you own more than a couple of thousand, you have a real storage problem
    --Hardbacks are heavy (Reading Gotham in hb just killed my wrists for weeks thereafter!)
    --If you're allergic to wood dust or dust mites, books make you sneeze

    And as a small-press publishing person:
    --P-books get returned
    --P-books need warehouses and freight and printers and . . .
    --P-Books need wholesalers and distributors, limiting the small press' ability to reach readers, or adding greatly to the expense of doing so.

    I love both forms, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see that e-books eventually take a big bite out of the paperback market, where content, convenience and cost are more important to a large number of the readers than the format is.

    Of course, that won't happen with this generation of reading devices, or maybe even the next, but the Kindle 3.0 or something like it might turn the corner.

  3. Personally I prefer e-books and e-readers. But the thing I'm curious to see is how they will affect e-publishers in the future. There is some good material being published by e-publishers in a non-traditional way. And they've created a new world for writers.

  4. I'm really glad you brought this up. I am against (in every way), having a published book read via any sort of electronic device. I might sound quite the kettle calling the pot black in saying this (as I download MP3 music and movies), but it's the way I feel. Personally, I think books are better suited to hold in your hand and to admire the cover art. I love going into a book store and browsing to decide which books to buy. As an unpublished author, I dream of seeing my works on the book shelf, where people will hopefully buy them. I want this, and I can't even begin to explain how against e-books I am.

  5. I think E-readers have specific niche uses, as you pointed out. Definitely beats lugging mss. or heavy textbooks. But I don't think they will replace books in the foreseeable future. One day perhaps.

    If there were some consistent format or standards in place, they'd probably sell more units. However, it's almost like the DVD vs. BluRay tech war with earlier readers becoming, in your words, oddly-shaped paperweights. So who wants to buy an expensive toy that may be obsolete when the next hot thing comes along?

    Most of the enthusiastic supporters of the devices that I hear from have a stake in the download book world which isn't surprising.

    I just don't see me soaking in a hot bath while reading a book on screen. If the medium is indeed the message, then I guess the message is twittering electrical impulses. Does that mean the message is transitory? Only if you drop in a tub of water.

  6. My husband and I just had a long discussion about this the other day. Our discussion was more about the cost of producing books.

    It was the new Collins imprint that got us started talking because I read that publishers print 30-40% more books than will ever sell and end up pulping or remaindering them and they do this based on a sort of archaic marketing plan (not my words!) that says that lots of books on lots of shelves in stores make readers buy more books because they think a book is popular. Collins intends to reduce the print runs to more reasonable numbers, which we were thinking was great for environmental reasons.

    Books are generally printed overseas (I think...at least books with colour, picture books, photography, cookbooks, etc.). With the rising cost of oil, and the sheer weight of books, there may come a time when the mere shipping and distribution of books becomes so cost prohibitive that it doesn't make sense to print them. Even if they are printed more regionally there's still the act of getting them to bookstores and the reader.

    Our conclusion, based entirely on our own opinions, and not knowing much about the production of books, was that print runs may end up being small and expensive while electronic versions become the norm.

    We are both book lovers and while neither of us collect a lot of books (libraries, yay!), holding onto the book, flipping the pages, the smell and feel are all part of the experience of reading one.For people like us, there are already more books in print than we can read in several lifetimes, so maybe yesterday's books become the books of today for people who just can't convert to e-readers.

    I think people's lack of interest in e-books, at least the younger generations, has more to do with the slowness of the publishing industry to change, than with readers' reluctance. People (okay, younger than me people) have shown an enormous interest in technology and change and I don't see that e-books would bother the generations raised on computers. In fact, they may be much more enticing.

    If publishing really wants to encourage e-readers, then the Kindle needs to be free with $100 purchase of e-books. I have not seen any of these readers, but I know the agent Kristen Nelson LOVES her Kindle and reads novels as well as manuscripts on it.

    Okay...I'll stop here as my comment is now longer than your post! Thanks for the topic of interest though!

  7. As Joelle said, we already have more books than we can read in this lifetime so maybe she's right about books already in print being the ticket for folks like us. We love our library! That said, if I were in the publishing industry, I would definitely own an e-reader just to save my back muscles from the weight of all those manuscripts not to mention saving the trees.

    Here's what would make the whole e-book/e-reader thing take off with the general population: standardization. The CD player I bought in 1993 will play the disk I bought at a concert last weekend. As of now, the readers are company-specific and are likely to be landfill in 2-3 years as newer versions come on the market (like cell phones and other electronic devices). If the publishing industry is serious about making e-books happen on a large scale, they need to get in bed with the companies that make the readers and come up with a way to keep the devices from going out of date every six months.

  8. Hi Mike! This is Emily, your intern from last spring. I hope you haven't forgotten me yet!

    As an avid reader myself, I have also blogged about the Kindle and what it means to us book lovers. To sum it up, I don't care what type of new "e-ink" is used or how convenient it may be, it is almost impossible for me to think about giving up books. I also totally agree with you that a library of digital files is not as nearly as impressive as a physical book library.

    For people in publishing like yourself and students who are developing back problems from the weight of their textbooks, e-readers may come as a solace. But for the other instances where people enjoy just physically holding a book, I don't think they will ever be able to replace them with any type of e-reader. Maybe I am behind the times, but I don't really care. I will hold on to actual books for as long as possible.

    Hope you're doing well!

  9. Hey Michael, don't mean to be a space hog but I wanted to say something else. I followed the link to the Penguin news at the end of your post. So they are launching ebooks but charging the same as a hard copy? Smells funny to me! No printing costs + no shipping costs = significantly higher profits, eh? Now, if they were putting all that extra income into the pockets of their authors I'd be all for it but somehow, I doubt that's the case. Anybody know how their business model is structured?

  10. I like books. If I love an author I might buy paperbacks and then go back later and track down a series in hardbacks to add to the collection.

    I like old books and journals. I like old letters. What will our children have to treasure of us fifty years from now? E-mails?

    I can see where the electronic readers are good for professionals, but I detest reading on a screen. Even when I am critiquing other writers, I print it out to read. Then I go back and make comments electronically, but I can't "see" the writing as well on a screen.

  11. I will be one of those people who refuses to buy a kindle right up to the bitter end. I just can't see taking one to bed with me. I cannot picture myself curled up in a chair with my cat in my lap and my kindle open in front of me as I sip my tea. I've seen them, and they leave me cold. They don't smell nice, and being a Luddite, I can just picture all the irritating technical problems I'd have. Hardly condusive to a nice, relaxing reading experience.

    But I wish I'd had one when I had to schlep around heavy dictionaries and references books. I'm betting it would have saved me a lot of shoulder and back misery.

  12. I really don't like the idea.
    How am I going to read that in the restroom?

  13. Which is why the Espresso Book Printing Kiosk is the perfect storm for the eReaders and the tactile book holders.

    The point is, ladies and gentleman, that The Espresso -- for lack of a better word -- is good.

    The Espresso is right.

    The Espresso works.

    The Espresso Book Kiosk prints, binds, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

    The book, in all of its forms -- books about life, about money, about love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind.

    And the Espresso Book Kiosk -- you mark my words -- will not only save Chapter 11 Borders Booksellers, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the American Publishing Industry.

    Thank you very much.

  14. Are e-readers kind of like the fast food of reading? Great for a trip where you can pack a small library of books with no extra weight instead of packing a good supply of books with plans to shed all those extra pounds at various hotel guest libraries along the way. Of course, if you travel light, the extra weight of paper means less weight in clothing, more time spent at hotel sinks... A kindle sure looks good to a traveller.

    But for day to day, a book is a rich experience that I don't think electronics can replicate - at least not yet.

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  16. I relate e-books to digital music or even digital photos. Seven or eight years ago, I couldn't imagine how digital music would change my life. Now my iPod goes everywhere. I might have been the last person on earth to switch from film to a digital camera. Again, I couldn't wrap my brain around the concept.

    Presently, I see more wrong with e-books than right. I'm sure I will change, yet again.

    However, the downside. E-books can be stolen, and just like the music and video industry, piracy will take money out of royalties. You can find e-books and audio books already on the file sharing networks.

    Everybody talks about saving trees. Trees are a renewable resource. We are managing our resouces quite nicely. I'm not sure how the building of the electronics for a Kindle compare to the making of paper for an equivalent number of books, but saving trees is really not as big of a deal. They grow quite nicely in today's climate.

    In fact, the paper recycles nicely, not necessarily true with the electronics.

  17. I find that I read e-books or articles differently than I read printed material. I skim more and am drawn to stranger metaphors. I don't reread delicious lines as if they're a glob of fudge left on my spoon. Instead it's more like wolfing down a quick snack during recess. Also, the brightness of the screen strains my eyes so I don't read as long.
    You know, there is a comraderie in strolling through the stacks of a bookstore or library that can't be replicated with a screen. The smells of after-shave and perfume mixing with the slight musty scent of paper. The shuffling of feet. The polite nods or soft smiles.
    Yeah, I think e-print may be exciting but it definately has its limitations.


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