In which I present a brief digression from the weighty, weighty matters of E*N*G*A*G*E*M*E*N*T W*I*T*H T*E*X*T…next up, The Dark Knight!…and talk a bit about something more straightforward.
Although you would never know that’s what it is, by reading techie blogs!
It’s that unsettling spectre of high-tech failure, that unwelcome intimation of ideological FAIL: the e-book.
And I wasn’t going to post on it, but I read somebody trying to “set the record straight” the other day, and it was just all so, so wrong. If I find the link again, I’ll stick it in; but really, can’t you just imagine what the guy was saying anyway? Do you really need to read the actual words?
Get the picture firmly in your mind, if you would.
Now here’s my rebuttal:
A good friend of mine who is both significantly younger and significantly brighter than I am, reads crap off her cell phone. She likes it! Pull out the phone, zip to the reading material, turn pages with a thumb. She points at it and says “this is cool”, and it is cool. So she’s absolutely right. And she makes a nice change from all the other conversations I’ve had with people who love e-books over the years, because all of them — ALL of them — worked in the software industry, so all the conversations were just ridiculous.
“I love e-books, I read ‘em all the time! I really think it’s going to replace paper.”
“Do you, by any chance, work in the software industry?”
“What’s that got to do with anything? And hey…how did you know that?”
How, indeed. It’s eerily reminiscent of conversations with real-estate people who imagine a Vancouver Megacity sprawling halfway up the coast within just a few years…all this because they never leave the city, and thus they have no sense of real scale around here. “Land on the coast is disappearing; soon it’ll be all gone.”
I always say “what, when the population of B.C. cracks thirty million? Is that when it’ll all be gone?
They pretend not to hear me. But seriously, folks, take a look at a map of Canada sometime — that huge chunk on the western edge of it? That’s B.C. Population three million, or thereabouts. And the whole country?
You guessed it: thirty million.
If you see it from the ground, with your own eyes, the immensity of the empty land-spaces out here is laughably unavoidable. In the city it’s just lines drawn on a map: malleable, convertible, eager to please. In terms of rocks and trees and mountainsides, though, it’s not quite so user-friendly to the land developer. Not quite so easy to browbeat into going along with the big World-Class dream of Unstoppable Progress.
Which is, of course, just a dream.
But boy, is that person going to be disappointed.
It’s the same with e-books: for all the talk of buggy-whips, those who desire an e-book revolution, a paperless world, and a climax to the mythic history of Ye Progresse are just not going to win this one, regardless of how inarguably cool Tyche’s cell phone e-reading feature is. Things will undoubtedly change; but they’re not going to change that much, and I’ll tell you why.
Let’s get the big one out of the way first: people like their books. They really do: it isn’t that they’re Luddites, or that they’re shortsighted, or that they don’t know how much they’d prefer e-books if they just gave them a chance. No, the fact is — and yes, it’s a fact — is that books provide a cheap and tangible benefit to people that new and more “efficient” technologies simply are unable to mimic or outdo…except possibly in science-fiction, and even there it’s often a matter for dispute. There are many dimensions to this benefit, probably too many even to attempt listing comprehensively. The matter hasn’t been plumbed, yet. It’s barely been scratched. It would likely fill a whole Borgesian library of its own.
It isn’t that reading a book is a pleasurable sensory experience of its own.
It is, though!
It isn’t that some books are absolutely free of cost to the user.
Though many of them are!
It isn’t that there are so very many books out there that it would take an effort to dwarf the building of the pyramids just to get rid of them all, let alone to digitize them all first…
Although, you know…you couldn’t do it!
But it’s that these observations could be multiplied a thousand times with the profoundest ease. It all comes down, as it so often does for me, to Einstein: matter is subtle, quoth he, and books are matter, so good luck quantifying their appeal in a couple of lines stolen from a community college’s marketing instructor. The benefits of changing one’s reading habits to exclude the printed word are few, if the truth, the real truth, and nothing but the truth were to be told. Not that no advantages exist to reading crap off your cell phone; but they are not replacement advantages. They are not improvements.
They’re just not.
We might consider that not everything gets improved and replaced: for every job there’s an appropriate method and an appropriate setting and an appropriate material and an appropriate tool and an appropriate skill-set. An architect will tell you that there’s no such thing as a house that’s built in the abstract. A fisherman will be delighted to inform you that there are all kinds of boats, all kinds of ropes, and all kinds of engines. There’s no such thing as a logger who’s been set free from the obsolete technology called “the axe”.
But let’s talk materials for a second. How about wood? We’ve been using it for a long, long, long time. Steel is stronger; concrete is cheaper; fiberglass is easier and aluminum is lighter. But we still use wood.
Basically, because wood is wood. It’s warm, it’s springy, it’s easily shaped, it has a pleasant odour, it grows outta the ground; it’s got a lot of strength for its weight, its biological origin gives it many extremely complex characteristics, it’s ornamental as hell just as it comes, and all the reasons anyone’s ever come up with for why we should naturally choose to one day give it up because it doesn’t fit our needs as well as more modern materials do have all, one and all, proved to be bullshit. We don’t use it for everything, like we used to do. But then no one ever thought we ever would, except those that proclaimed there would one day be a materials revolution in which it would be necessary to become absolutely modern, and give wood up!
And it just didn’t happen that way. And, those people were out to lunch. They wrote pulp science fiction where people had drivable houses carved out of solid blocks of lead, ate ham-and-eggs pills for breakfast, and cleaned their teeth with atomic toothbrushes.
But it didn’t happen, because in actual fact it was not Ye Progresse. Not at all. It was just fashion-based thinking. It was a trend in interior decorating, that never really took off because it was silly…runway stuff only, like a dress made out of bubble wrap. Theory.
And now here’s something very important about e-books, that I want to say. In words of one syllable:
By all means, have ‘em.
Have ‘em! Most of everything that’s ever been written is in the public domain — so what’re you waiting for, e-book proponents? Go out and get ‘em!
Oh, uh…what’s that?
You are? You have? You’re doing it right now?
So why are we talking about this, again?
Oh yes: I remember now.
It’s because you are not, after all, a champion of Ye Progresse.
It’s because, instead, you are a would-be carpetbagger.
Somewhere in here is the desire to pry all of that lovely, lovely rich fat content out of the grasping hands of the book publishing trade, and turn it to the purpose of making money for e-books. But, you see…it just isn’t that simple. “Content”, there’s a word for ya…computer people love to talk about “content”. But what is it? Well…what it is, is the product of time, effort, and risk, all of which are completely thankless until and unless that one magical day arrives when the roulette wheel pays off on double zero. Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens and Conan Doyle are all in the public domain, and you can chop and channel them as you please, you need no one’s permission to package them and sell them…because all the people who brought ‘em along have already been long since paid. But if you want to distribute Dan Brown instead, if you want to distribute J.K. Rowling…
Well, what are you offering, for the rights to that already-proven yet still-enormously-lucrative privately-owned material? You didn’t risk a thing on it; it was the author and the publisher who did that. So what kind of a piece are you looking for, from it?
And, does someone else have to give up some of their piece, for you to get it?
There’s a publishing outfit in my home town. They chose Harry Potter, when it wasn’t yet a phenomenon. Now Harry Potter phenomenon-money allows them to publish books that may well end up losing money for them, books that otherwise might never have found a publisher at all.
So…how do you feel about publishing those?
Or is it just Harry Potter that you want.
You see the problem I trust, e-books. You’re offering to cherry-pick existing bestsellers to distribute to cell phone and iPod users, in exchange for overturning the whole way the publishing industry works, and makes money for itself on the back of its risks and its time, and its effort. But it’s hard and it’s chancy, to make a Harry Potter: can you make one?
Can you make the next one, is really what that question means.
Where on earth do you think these golden eggs come from, for heaven’s sake?
John Kennedy once said: “You have offered to trade us an apple for an orchard. That is not how we do things in this country.” And you know what, it still isn’t. So if you want to get rich, you son of a bitch, I’ll tell you what to do: never sit down with a smile or a frown, and e-paddle your own canoe.
You could have a very big business putting books into people’s hands, that they could not have gotten any other way. A paperless society: you don’t live in one, and you’ll never live in one. But you could have a little corner of it that was paperless. And you could use it to split the costs of the literary lottery tickets with the paperish people who are going down to the store to buy them. And who knows, maybe you could help a new ship to come in, that otherwise would’ve sunk at sea!
Or you could sit here and wonder why no one will get with the program you haven’t written yet.
Christ, I can think of half a hundred ways for you to make millions of dollars a year with this e-book technology, right off the top of my head. But for some reason it appears you only want what you cannot get.
Screw it: I’m gonna go out and get it.
“Call me Steve Jobs.”
…Oh, never mind, I’ll call him myself. You probably didn’t get that reference, anyway.
And that’s why you’ll never catch that white elephant of yours.