Friday, September 10, 2010

The Circuit Board Jungle :: E-Booked

Emma Silvers for
...One recent story in the New York Times went so far as to claim that iPads and Kindles and Nooks are making the very act of reading better by -- of course -- making it social. As one user explained, "We are in a high-tech era and the sleekness and portability of the iPad erases any negative notions or stigmas associated with reading alone." Hear that? There's a stigma about reading alone. (How does everyone else read before bed -- in pre-organized groups?) Regardless, it turns out that, for the last two decades, I've been Doing It Wrong. And funny enough, up until e-books came along, reading was one of the few things I felt confident I was doing exactly right.
Read more at Slate...
This article from slate was bandied about quite a bit on Facebook the other day.  Mostly, I think it draws attention because it's a voice rising from a generation that led us in lockstep into the digital world: cell phones, iPods, digital filesharing.  These so-called "Millenials" are the engine in that change, a generation that we are told has never worn a wristwatch or known a time when TV's weren't video game monitors or desks didn't have computers (or laps for that matter).  And this 'kid' (at 26, no one's a kid really) doesn't want e-Books.

Gasp.  The horror!
The statistical outlier gets the press, as always.

While it's at times funny and poignant and a lot of the points are well-argued, there's an underlying problem with it that most of the retweeting and facebooking and commentary have missed: the issue of ownership.  Therein lies the single greatest logical leap from Generation X (me) to Generation Y (Emma Silvers).

The single greatest problem we should all have (or so I arrogate) isn't that we can't read the spines to see that the burly biker next to us is reading Harry Potter, but that whether he's reading Grapes of Wrath or Artemis Fowl, it's not his.  He's just leasing it from Amazon or Apple.  We don't own our e-books or i-books, we lease them from the distributor and for the most part are only able to read them on that distributor's software preference.

Less like your local library and more like literary pay-per-view.

I think she was fishing around for it and couldn't find it.  Her generation feels that these things they paid for should be theirs -- they should be able to pass that great song or cool movie along to their friends.  "You've got to see/hear/read this!"  But to do so with digital downloads requires the breaking of laws.  And they do break that law.  In droves.

The central problem of most articles on e-books is that they avoid this topic like the plague.  When we ceded our right to own the music we listen to in solid-state, we gave up thinking about ownership.  It gets argued ad nauseum on the internet, but most people don't seriously think about it outside of the comments section of Wired magazine's latest article on the subject.  And just about all of those commenters have iPods.

The zeitgeist states that this format change could "save publishing".  If a format change is all it takes, then there's no conclusion to be reached other than there was something wrong with the prior format.  And as far as publishing was concerned, there is something wrong with print books: You could hand them to someone else or to a used bookstore and they could go on shelf-hopping forevermore without a dime making its way back to New York.

But this puts publishing in a terrible position where the fan advocacy that once pushed the great and the good to the top of the bestseller lists is shackled by the inability to press a well-thumbed paperback into the hands of a friend with the earnest insistence that YOU HAVE GOT TO READ THIS!.

I'm a writer and I want, oh yes, I want to make a living from my work.  So I am in no way, shape or form advocating that writers should give away their books for free.   Library bookloans, used bookstores, earnest friends, garage sales... those are lost sales.  Authors and publishers don't get a dime (at least in the United States) from that secondary and tertiary trade in books... but really, who cares?  There isn't a bestselling, successful author working today that wasn't helped by that trade - helped far more than they were hurt.

And to say there's something wrong with that is to say that I somehow gypped Nissan or Subaru when I sold my last couple of cars to some college kid I found on Craig's List.  A secondary market is part of doing business that only musicians, writers, and publishers in music and print seem to think they should be immune to.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).