This Book Is E To Read

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.

Somebody’s 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.

8 responses to “This Book Is E To Read

  1. Pillock, I’ve been a book editor for nearly twenty years, and yes, my company produces e-Books — or at least is TRYING to produce e-Books. Y’see, there’ a slight problem with e-Book technology — Well, several, actually.

    First of all, there are several different e-Book platforms, and some are easier to produce — and READ — than others. And it’s a real pain to manipulate text to be compatible with ALL e-Book platforms AND for print, all at the same time. So far, the result has been that it’s now more expensive than ever to produce ONE SINGLE book title, because it has to be adapted umpteen different ways. e-Book sales haven’t yet been high enough to offset the cost of adapting books to e-Book form.

    Another problem — It’s all fine and dandy for tech people to like e-Books because they’re USED to reading from and dealing with computer and LCD screens. The vast majority of the population, though, is NOT used to it. There hasn’t yet been a screen produced that’s as easy to read from as printed paper.

    Related to that — When publishing companies first started switching their operations to computers and digital printing approximately 15-to-18 years ago, I remember there was a LOT of talk about how, soon, we wouldn’t need to use NEARLY as much paper, and in fact we “might get to the point in a couple of years where we don’t need paper at all!” WRONG. Eighteen years later, we use fifty times more paper than we did BEFORE switching over to computers and digital printing. Why? Because many authors and editors still need to review text and mark changes on paper. The technology just isn’t as reader- and editor-friendly (or EFFICIENT) as handling a printed page.

    e-Books require (often expensive) devices and POWER in order for people to be able to read them. Printed books do not.

    So, don’t worry — printed books aren’t going away (let alone be mostly replaced by e-Books) anytime soon. The Internet and Web give a false sense of just how popular e-Books are. In the real world, e-Books are just a splat on a very large windshield.

  2. I think that e-books are going to supplant some kinds of books, eventually, bit by bit. Things like:

    phone books
    instruction manuals
    textbooks (maybe!)

    Basically, stuff that people have to have but don’t care about reading it any more than is absolutely necessary. But imagine all the paper saved by not having to print up phone books anymore! Not that we’re quite there yet.

  3. There’s some truth to that, Matthew. Those things ARE being replaced, thought not necessarily by e-Books. Simple databases work for a lot of those things, particularly phone books.

    Another type of book that’s in danger is the COOKBOOK. Yep, right now, recipe and cooking blogs are producing the death knell of the cookbook. My publishing imprint used to publish cookbooks all the time. I haven’t worked on a cookbook in over four years. No one is buying them — most people are getting their recipes from blogs now.

  4. I thought of that. But as long as my wife is around, there’ll be an audience for cookbooks. They’re pleasure reading for her. And I don’t think she’s the only one.

  5. Phone books in my city now annoy the hell out of me — a classic case of “first you break it, then you say it’s broken”. Putting aside the fact that I no longer know how to read these things, my phone book now only covers the City of Vancouver, where once it used to cover most of Vancouver’s adjoining municipalities too…and boy are they adjoining, to the point where not covering them renders the phone book next door to useless…and then suddenly I’m getting new phone books quarterly instead of once a year, it seems. My apartment’s filling up with them, and I don’t even use them.

    Don’t need ’em; don’t want ’em. I use the web instead. But I used to use them, and would use them still if they were of any use. The whole procedure’s kind of insulting, a bit like the way the government handles smoking: rather than outlaw tobacco, they just pass a bunch of laws saying you can’t smoke under an awning in the rain. To the point where smokers are saying they wish the stuff would be banned, and the government says “no”.

    Sorry, little rant there.

    Yes, the tech-savvy among us seem not to have noticed what real people do and what they’re interested in — the article I can’t find the link to went on and on about how people are perfectly happy to do their reading off monitor screens, cleverly missing what most people’s jobs actually consist of. Very frustrating, talking to these folks! They seem to have been told they make up a huge majority of the population.

    Sea, you’ve got me feeling pretty sympathetic to your situation, of having to muck around with e-books when it’s not really worth your time. Of course the techie folks would be astonished to hear you say it! But then they think books are product, and don’t understand that they’re also culture. I like to make a similar comparison with music — saying “music isn’t “business”; only the music business is “business”.” This distinction usually falls on deaf ears. But of course, when computer people are always talking about “content” as though it’s just another raw material. One of the complaints in this article was that once publishers gave e-book people access to their content, they wouldn’t even allow the e-books people to correct obvious typos in the text! Now, unlike you I’m not a professional, so I don’t know how you’d react to that being in the know…but to me it’s absolutely horrifying that they would like to take it upon themselves to do even the most trivial kind of editing. Right there’s where I start thinking “when this person talks about reading, when they talk about books, they are using their own private definitions for these terms.” One of the things I find interesting is the value placed on being able to look up a word’s definition with the press of a thumb…what I consider a rather degraded idea of a feature: surely the more valuable thing would be to have annotations? But then I believe the most efficient, convenient, and comprehensive dictionary is the one inside a person’s head…

    Sorry, really ranting now. What a shame about the cookbook! Always the most beautiful things on the shelf…

  6. Yes, I would mourn the loss of cookbooks. Recipes from the web are a last resort for me, both because they can seem less legitimate and also because it can be disastrous to get flour all over my laptop.

    (Of course I could just write it down on a piece of paper and get flour all over that… and I often do actually, but that’s not as potentially humorous. Also I still have the computer with me in the kitchen a lot of the time anyway, to play music, so the contamination by ingredients is still a serious issue.)

    But I think books in general, and cookbooks more than many other kinds, benefit from what Plok’s talking about here in the warmth and feel of the wood that makes up the paper. Cooking is all about appreciating the texture of life, about not just eating ham-and-egg pills but instead sauteing and dicing and stirring and going to at least some minimal effort (especially if it involves a recipe from a cookbook) to make food delicious and attractive and special. To add texture to what could be a very mechanistic part of life, supplying the body with nutrients, ho hum, but here we are grating cheese and adding freshly ground black pepper and licking the spoon and maybe relishing the adventure or at least the fun that food can be.

    I would miss cookbooks too. It’s not the same reading off a screen, it could be anything from anywhere then and somehow that’s not as satisfying.

  7. >>But then they think books are product, and don’t understand that they’re also culture.<<

    Sometimes publishing companies forget that, too. They get so wrapped up in the bottom line that they forget to put out things that are actually GOOD and have staying power. The GOOD publishing companies are the ones that have achieved a successful balancing act between released “product” and releasing “art.” Most books aren’t art, but it definitely pays to make an attempt to produce books that ARE art.

    >>One of the complaints in this article was that once publishers gave e-book people access to their content, they wouldn’t even allow the e-books people to correct obvious typos in the text!<<

    That’s a tricky aspect of publishing in general. Some publishers give authors final say on a book prior to its release, especially if the author owns the copyright. If the author okays a book for release, and that book contains errors or typos, the author ultimately, legally OWNS those errors and typos, and they can’t be changed without legal permission(!). Sad, and weird, but true.

    Publishers also struggle with editors who have a tendency to overedit. When you turn an editor loose on text, you’re taking a risk that the editor will ONLY fix what’s wrong instead of rewriting things to make it “better.” It’s hard enough for a publisher to rein in an in-house overzealous editor, let alone an outside vendor. So, of course the publisher isn’t going to allow someone from an outside source change the text, even to fix what is essentially a minor boo-boo. That’s one of the main reasons why my company does its own electronic conversions to e-Books rather than hire an outside source.

  8. Thank you, Sea — it’s nice to have confirmation of my feelings from somebody in the know! I think most publishers would probably say, to the idea that publishing can make a person a lot of money, what I say to people who think writing music (or indeed writing books!) is a good way to make a lot of money: that if you basically just want to make money, there are a lot easier ways to do that.

    I was toying with an idea about addiction a little while ago: that there are two kinds of recovery. One is feeding a cold, the other is starving a fever: addictions need two different kinds of fuel to burn brightly, one is the addict’s money and the other is his health. If there’s more health than money available, the fever gets starved; if there’s more money than health, the cold gets fed. So, I know which one I’d pick, if I had to pick: I’d pick starving the fever. Can’t conceive what people with truly vast resources do about recovering from their substance abuse problems. How do they get over them? I guess I could watch Dr. Drew to find out, but I suspect it’d be too gruesome for me…

    Anyway, yeah: I think there’s an analogy there…

    …Although at the moment I’m too hungry to think of what it is…

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