Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The real problem with ebooks

Last Christmas I got a Kindle, and it’s been great. I can carry around a lot more things to read, I don’t have to choose between printing out papers and reading them on a computer screen, and I can access lots of out of copyright material for free through Project Gutenberg or Amazon. When I got it I wondered where it had been all my life, and six months on I feel the same way. But I haven’t bought any books for it.

Some people like not being encumbered by a library full of books when they move house, and not having to find houseroom for them when they settle down. Moving lots of books is obviously a pain, although I’ve certainly got a long way to go before I own more books than I’d like to live among. It’s a matter of taste, money and how many books you have, but in any case if compactness is what you’re after then ebooks are definitely winning that one. Ebooks also tend to be cheaper, although for things still in copyright they’re usually not much cheaper than paperbacks, and are often more expensive than secondhand paperbacks.

Some people, presumably including some people who sympathize with the virtues of a library that fits in a handbag, prefer printed books anyway. The pictures are better, and some people are bound to find them easier to read, although personally I find the Kindle perfectly comfortable. Near the bottom of the barrel we have the smell, the covers, and according to Julian Barnes the fact that "books look as if they contain knowledge whereas e-readers look as if they contain information". (This in a piece that decries aphorisms as frequently "slick untruths". I've liked his fiction and cookery columns, but this comment is simply bizarre.)

It does however seem widely assumed that practicality and cost will overwhelm romance, and the printed word is to become increasingly marginalized. I think this would be a shame, and intend to buy books as long as they continue to be sold at prices as reasonable as at present. This is because books are transferrable.

You can’t lend an ebook. (I guess there’ll be some illegal way, but let’s bracket that.) You buy it, it appears on your e-reader, and if someone else wants it to appear on theirs then they have to buy it too, for the same price you paid. With a printed book you buy it, and if you like it you can lend it to someone else, and it doesn’t cost you or them anything except for one more reading’s wear on the book. Then you can talk to each other about it. Likewise, if someone reads a book and recommends it to you, they can lend it to you if but only if it’s a printed book. Lending and borrowing books is great value, and with ebooks you can’t do it. That sucks. At least, I think it sucks. When I’ve talked to other people about this they mostly accept the point don’t seem to lend their books much. I don’t know why not. Like I say, great value. It’s a gift you can keep on giving.

Anyway, for people who aren’t impressed by the lendability argument there’s another reason printed books are better for being transferrable. Lots of people who like reading were brought up in a house full of books and liked it a lot. Now, I’ve read Freakonomics and I know they say having books at home doesn’t seem to make kids do better at school, but the fact remains that if you like reading then growing up surrounded by books is awesome. It’s awesome not just because books are pretty (although they are) but because you can explore the shelves and find all sorts of things to read that you might well not otherwise come across, and when you do come across them you can often talk to your parents about them because they’ve read them too. (Unless what you’ve found is your parents’ stash of erotica.) What’s the ebook equivalent of that? When people started amassing their music libraries digitally, I remember a couple of people fretting about not having crates of vinyl for their kids to search for gems, but at least you can still browse your parents’ ipods or Brennans or whatever people have nowadays and listen to it. It's no use browsing their Kindles because even if you did find something you could only read it if they were prepared to lend you their whole libraries, and they’re not. Apart from anything else, your parents are probably using their Kindles to read something else.

It’s possible that this can be sorted out, and ebooks can be published in a format that makes lending them practical. I haven’t thought of a way of doing this which keeps it free but stops people getting organized and bringing down the publishing industry. If they don’t sort it out, I’m going to keep buying printed books and some people are going to get a big shock in a decade or two when their kids don’t have anything to read.


  1. Apparently you can lend Kindle books: http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=hp_rel_topic?ie=UTF8&nodeId=200549320

    1. I didn't know you could lend them at all. But it says you can't do it with all of them, you can only lend them once, and even then only for 14 days. I've lost count of the number of people I've lent The Art of Coarse Golf to.

  2. I agree with most of this, though I would imagine if you did lend someone your Kindle and they scrawled ridiculous notes all over it and highlighted the words that show up in the book's title on every page and sometimes underlined entire pages' worth of text, then you could delete all that at the touch of a stylus, which you obviously can't with a lot of similarly defaced library books.