Roundtable: Transglobal Edition #2

Page Turners vs. Clickers. Paper vs. Plastic. Let’s debate the e-book.




On the panel today we have Dorla Moorehouse (DM), Greg Oguss (GO), Jude Dillon (JD), Lena Vanelslander (LV), Richard Wink (RW) and Stuart Sharp (SS).

(RW) BeWrite Books has published my debut Full Length Poetry Collection  in both physical form as a paperback and also as an e-book through various outlets. Now the physical copy of my book looks and feels superb, but the electronic copy underwhelms me. This may seem strange coming from somebody who began this primarily web based litzine but I just feel books are just better in paper form,  maybe it’s the traditionalist in me and I know my reasons are somewhat vague, but I have yet to warm to the new format.

 However I will admit that the e-book potentially can reach a wider audience and also makes promoting the book far far easier, so in that sense there are some notable advantages over the paperback. I am also aware of the potential for the format; the release of Nick Cave’s latest novel The Death of Bunny Munro also carries a soundtrack, so perhaps this is just one example of the potential that the e-book has, but then again not every novelist can rely on an existing fan base cultivated through a career in music.



(LV) I must remark in advance I’m one of the, let’s call it, more old fashioned ones. I still buy all my books in paper version. Only recently I downloaded my first e-book and to be honest … it was for a review. So I admit I took the electronic version to save the publisher (small press) some money. I also admit I still print my recent electronic purchases to read. I still value the book format, where your eyes don’t tend to slide away over the text, where my attention span is longer. Maybe it’s good to know where each of us stands in this digital revolution?
Maybe a detail, maybe not … but a book you lend to a friend, an e-book can be sent in attachment everywhere for free. If it’s not free you have to confide in the people who are buying your work. I respect that but do others?



(SS) Rather like Richard’s collection, my first novel came out in a combination of e-book and paperback. People seem to have liked the e-book more than the physical version, perhaps because of the relative expense of the paperback. Generally though, I suspect that the e-book will take time to gain ground against paper versions, at least for fiction. For non-fiction, there was a general survey among university users in the UK over attitudes to, and use of, e-books. It suggested that people were inclined to use e-books for more technical stuff, but less so when reading for enjoyment. It also suggested, interestingly, that e-books had an effect on reading habits, since their readers tended to dip into them rather than read them through.

 At the moment, certainly in the UK, I think the practicality and desirability of e-books are limited somewhat by the expense of e-book readers. Although paying for themselves over time, they currently represent quite a major purchase. I also suspect that total domination by the e-book is at least a few decades away. It would require cheap and available technology, a general desire for their use, but also a generation brought up on them.

 As a writer, I’m excited by the possibilities for distribution raised by the e-book. I’m also occasionally slightly worried by the things that have happened with MP3s and the music industry, however. There is an unfortunate tendency occasionally to see everything on the Net as free, or as something that should be free. Full length novels and collections take a lot of work, more so than many music albums. Also, writers cannot make their money on tours, which is the model some bands seem to be adopting. Between those two points, if piracy among e-books takes off the way it has with music, it could get to the stage where good writers simply don’t want to invest months of their effort.

 On the whole though, for the moment at least the e-book seems to be having a broadly positive effect.



(GO) My experience with e-Book readers is limited to having once read a few lines on a Kindle over somebody’s shoulder in a Pasadena deli. Like Lena, I fall into the ‘old-fashioned’ camp, heavily invested in literature’s tactile and sensual pleasures. The other camp seems to love literature primarily for its words and ideas, with no strong preference regarding the manner in which those pleasures are delivered.

 Like Stuart, I believe it’s more a question of when, rather than if, e-books will eventually come to dominate. Nicholson Baker, a committed bibliophile, summed things up well recently in The Atlantic, listing all of the e-book’s well-known advantages, both economic and environmental, that make the transformation seem inevitable. He acknowledged the user-interface problems and annoying randomness of what is and isn’t currently available in electronic format. He also mentioned the difficulty of reproducing complex visuals in an electronic format, which often makes E-textbooks prohibitively expensive and inferior to print. Those issues will eventually be ironed out (for Kindle enthusiasts, many already have been). In the end, Baker admitted that the e-reader got the basic job done, digitally simulating the centuries-old experience of losing oneself in the pleasures of a good story.

 I suppose my luddite views toward e-books boil down to the simple aesthetic pleasures which are really only available in printed material. 

 “I just loved the way words looked on the pages,” Bret Easton Ellis once said in an interview, discussing Joan Didion’s early novels and journalism. He was describing how the visual appeal of Didion’s sparse sentences surrounded by “big blocks of white” made her such a big influence on his writing. Anyone who loves books for similar reasons will probably be unable to make the transition to E-Books without at least a little luddite whining.



(JD) I find it difficult reading printed material in various stages of lighting and find that annoying. I like the brightness of the computer screen and how print is easy to transfer to the eye. On the other hand a book is portable and needs no plug in and is cheap to produce compared to a computer. I like reading poems online especially in a collection where I can bounce around and read at will. I think if this society at some stage disintegrates as empires tend to do, the printed word in handy cheap-to-produce book format may be back with our descendants once again.



(DM) Stuart, I see your point about people being more inclined to use e-books for more technical things. I’m actually not much of a technical writer, but I am working on a nonfiction project and I plan to self-publish both in electronic and print format. And I see the electronic version perhaps being a bit more sellable than the print version. I am not sure why this is – I don’t really have any specific reason for it, it’s just a hunch.

I’ve also noticed that when I’ve been looking around for freelance gigs, most of the calls for help with e-books relate to technical or other nonfiction subjects.

One of the things I find problematic about e-book readers beyond the expense is that really just two companies have cornered the market right now – Sony and Amazon. While I might like an e-book reader, I don’t want to give either of these companies my money. I still haven’t forgiven Sony for the rootkit debacle of 2005, and Amazon’s business practices (such as the so-called accidental labelling of al LGBTQ books as “adult”), their treatment of Kindle users (deleting copies of 1984) as well as their stance on the Google Books settlement bother me to no end. There are not a whole lot of other options beyond these two companies.



(RW) Are we jumping the gun a bit with e-book releases? You don’t exactly see many people with Kindle’s sitting on park benches or trains. There aren’t download portals in High Street book stores for e-readers. Could this just be another false dawn, like other advances in technology that have fallen by the wayside? I’m thinking perhaps of the portable television, how many people still have one of those? It is hard to see e-book’s as the future at this moment in time.

 Where e-readers could be useful is saving the flagging magazine trade. Imagine paying for an annual subscription and getting your favourite magazines on your reader. Of course this would be dependent on limited content being available on the internet, and on the quality of the journalism within these magazines. But it could see a revival of the flagging magazine trade. Perhaps Cult Magazines with devoted followings that have recently fallen foul of the recession such as Plan B could return.



(LV) Possibly … but there is a different book culture in the US and Europe … from what I see the e-book and kindle has become much more popular in the US than Europe. But the argument of the value of a paper book, most of the time rather emotionally in nature, keeps coming back and back.
Sounds logical but when failing, making another cost digitalising … it may be too late for some.



(GO) Being someone who thinks the shift to e-books is probably inevitable, I need to point out a flaw in Richard’s analogy. We do have ‘portable’ TV; hordes of consumers are now downloading TV shows onto their iPods and logging onto from their lap-tops. Portable TV hasn’t replaced the living room set, but it is here thanks to technological innovations.

 I’m sceptical that print books will disappear entirely. The Web TV vs. broadcast TV analogy isn’t perfect either. A better one may be music downloads vs. compact discs vs. vinyl. Vinyl is still sold to fetishists, but it was gradually supplanted by CDs, which are now being supplanted by downloads. Media theorists call this a ‘tipping point’: the moment newer formats become desired by consumers to such a degree that a strong disincentive develops for continuing to stick with older, less popular formats (e.g. Betamax, vinyl, a hotmail e-mail address). This will perhaps be the fate of print books. The fact that many magazine and newspaper publishers are betting on e-books to save their crumbling business model only makes this outcome more likely, I think, not less. 



(DM) It’s true, I think I only know one person with a Kindle (and I’m in the US). Of course, most of my friends can’t afford such a device – but those that can certainly aren’t rushing out to buy one. We all still seem to get our books from the bookstore or the library. I think it’s interesting that people are willing to plunk down $300 for an iPod but not a Kindle or similar device. And yet it’s not that people don’t read. My friends are all fairly literary, but they also have iPods – they’re just not interested in a similar device for their books. I admit, sometimes I wonder what the point is. Even though I might like to own one, I often wonder – what would I really do with it? I wouldn’t stop buying books. I wouldn’t stop checking things out from the library. So why bother spending the money?



(RW) Does this mean that for the Kindle and other e-readers to be useful then they need to be adapted into existing multimedia devices? Such as the Kindle application for the iPhone; or including capabilities for playing MP3’s or watching Video Content as opposed to an affordable e-reader without the extras?



(GO) I know that iPhone Kindle app is very popular in the US. User-friendly functionality will eventually be an easy trick to turn for developers to turn (though E-books on PCs don’t fit this description at the moment). At that point, I think you will see many sizes and flavors of e-book devices and apps for all different market segments.



(RW) Greg sent me this link via twitter and though I’ve yet to read any Dan Brown (but I’ve seen the film version of The Da Vinci Code starring Tom Hanks and that Albino Monk) this (highlighted in bold ) statistic was surprising

 “The Lost Symbol sold just 100,000 in e-books format according to Doubleday. Overall Doubleday sold 2 milllion copies. The 5% ratio of e-books to print is about in-line with the average for book sales

5%, 5%!!! What does this say about the status of the e-book?



(GO) There are obviously lots of expectations that have yet to be realized. I keep seeing predictions on American TV about how the Christmas shopping season is going to result in mass adoption of the Kindle since it is the gift that tech-savvy consumers most want to receive. But Dan Brown notwithstanding, lots of major releases are still not coming out in e-book format until months after print publication because publishers are worried e-books will cut into print sales. While it may be the hope for the future, the e-book isn’t capable of saving anyone’s bottom line in the present.


The comments section is open for further debate.

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