Well, okay. I had said this post was coming a day or two after my previous one. But I guess I hadn’t factored in driving to Canberra and back again, preparing to move house, getting sick, and a confounded devil named procrastination. But! This post’s subject matter remains relevant, I already had a draft written, and I just had to get it finished before getting down to my Emerging Writer’s Festival blogging. Anyway, excuses are lame, so enough of all that and on to eBooks!
The third and final panel I attended at Willy Lit Fest was named From the Quill to the Kindle, and up on stage was Torpedo editor Chris Flynn, Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham, and Penguin Books senior editor Dmitri Kakmi. Again, before I begin, Ms Thuy Lin has a great roundup of this panel already, so I won’t go repeating everything. But I guess, along with some stuff from the panel, I had a few other things to discuss regarding eBooks.
One of the main questions the panel raised was whether books as we know them now will eventually ‘die’. I don’t see it happening any time soon and I think the two will coexist quite peacefully for a while yet. But will it, inevitably, eventually, happen? I know the comparison isn’t perfect, but if you look at the similar situation faced by the music industry, there remains a decent amount of people who still buy CDs and even vinyl, in addition to, or rather than, downloading. Maybe books will become something of a similarly fetishised or desirable physical object, kept alive by true believers. The arguments for physical books share similarities with those for CDs and vinyl: the ability to have an actual artefact that you can hold in your hands, show off to others, touch and smell. For many, these physical objects are more tactile and aesthetically pleasing, the cover/packaging/design looks better, or the experience may just be more ‘authentic’, more than ‘just data’ or, simply, it might be all about embracing a different but equally worthy medium. Like comparing a vinyl record to a folder of mp3s, a book is a different experience to an eBook, and both have their pros and cons. A page I bookmarked a while back, Books in the Age of the iPad by Craig Mod, explores something along these lines: the difference between Formless Content and Definite Content.
Another barrier I perceive to eBook adoption is the devices. If your paperback is lost, stolen, damaged, dropped in the bath or what have you, it’s not nearly as big a deal as the same thing happening to your new Kindle or iPad, along with any associated data you can’t retrieve. And if you’re not particularly well-off, mightn’t you just go to the library for all the free books you want, rather than purchasing a device worth hundreds of dollars?
For sure, when Sophie held up what must have been an imported iPad (a first for an Australian literary festival, she wondered?), I was a bit excited. I’ve only tinkered briefly with friend’s iPhones and I’m keen to play around some more with these new devices. However, none of them look like something I’d buy. There is definitely an appeal to their many features, but I feel like the eReader medium is still in its early transitional stages, and I won’t be as interested until there’s something like colour e-ink and a move away from both DRM restrictions and monopolisation, where only Apple and Amazon seem to call the shots. Still, the fact of the matter is that in Australia we’re still lagging behind the USA and other countries when it comes to this sort of technology, so we do get an element of foresight to the developments.
One argument that Chris Flynn made for the transition to eReaders is an environmental one. To me, this is where the eBook option starts to look way more appealing. The proportion of books made with non-recycled paper really is disturbing (again, Thuy Lin’s got the stats). Indie publishers do better in this regard, I’ve noticed, but there are so many mass-market paperbacks, disposable magazines and bulky textbooks that would be much more environmental and sensible on an eReader platform.
I do wonder, however, what the environmental and social costs are if millions of people are always purchasing the latest eReaders, iPhones, iPods, iPads, smartphones, laptops, etc. Here are just two articles that at least begin to interrogate some of the other factors behind eReaders and the like: the costs, conditions and materials involved in manufacturing; whether ‘conflict minerals’ are used; and the huge amount of greenhouse gases involved in maintaining ever-expanding computer/server networks. I think, especially if these things are noted and start to be addressed, and we get eBooks and eReaders right, then they will be indeed be a far greener and greater option.
Someone on the panel made another interesting assertion: that publishing is always behind the eight-ball, and that tech companies are taking publishing from the publishers. This, so far, has not just meant a bypassing of the usual production and distribution channels, but lots of secrecy and Digital Rights Management.
A somewhat recent post on Mobylives outlines a few of the problems with DRM. At the other end of the argument, of course, are people worrying about piracy wrecking the book business. I’m still not sure where a balance lies so that artists and publishers see rewards for their efforts, without placing unnecessary burdens or restrictions on their audience. I like Cory Doctorow’s thoughts on the matter (here’s a good three-part interview with him), but I’m not sure his approach can apply to everyone. But still, any DRM that is applied can and will be broken: Kindle’s DRM was broken last year. In the end, I’d like to think that if you offer high quality, assured, open, flexible and beneficial content for a reasonable price, a good amount of people, especially your loyal fans, will be happy to pay for it. And at least those who don’t are still reading and sharing your stuff.
Interlude: relevant webcomic!
Another related interesting point that arose in the panel: I’d never considered the legal deposit issues that come with eBooks. When a work like a book is created in Australia, the publisher is required to send copies the State and National Library for archiving and such. But if you’re only giving away DRM-locked licenses to books (as with the Kindle) rather than actual copies, it makes legal deposit rather difficult. Libraries can’t actually store a lendable copy, because Kindle eBooks can’t be shared and loaned, thanks to their DRM. It’s very odd to think that when you buy a book, it still doesn’t belong to you, and that the provider can actually alter or remove it from your device remotely.
Beyond all of that DRM stuff, I was interested in what Sophie talked about concerning changing mediums, and how they change the reading and writing process. From speech to handwriting, to redrafting over and over on a typewriter, to the cut and paste of computers, and on to the podcast/audiobook/eBook/multimedia situation we find ourselves in now, with all the associated multitasking distractions and possibilities. (Meanland has been exploring this stuff in more detail). Compare all this to the more fixed text of a book. But we have to remember: the novel is only 200 years old. Novels may well become rarefied, kept alive only by true believers, and maintain an old-fashioned status, akin to opera today. But people will always want stories, and many will want long-form narratives. So really, there’s no need for concern.
Finally, I believe Dmitri Kakmi mentioned this video to illustrate the merging of reading with play; it’s a fusion between iPhone and Book: the PhoneBook!(?):
I guess after all this rumination (I really need to write some shorter posts), I’ll finish with a link to a recent post by Emmett Stinson, who hopes, as I do, that with the arrival of the iPad, the launch of Kobo and other imminent developments, we can stop talking about the future of digital publishing in Australia and start talking about what’s actually happening in the present.
And with that, I think I’ll end my rambling about eBooks and Willy Lit Fest. But as one festival passes, another emerges. Thus, the Emerging Writers Festival began on Friday night, with The First Word. I went along, and I’m planning to get as involved as I can in the rest of the festival. In the spirit of that, I plan to get my blog on harder than ever. Starting today!