In Our Continuing Series of Electronic Publishing Rants, Episode IV

May 22nd, 2005 · 4 Comments
by Booksquare

If you were paying attention back in 1998 (and, given the general dreariness of that year, we do not blame you for snoozing), you would have learned that the future was now (leaving you to wonder what it would be in the future) and that ebooks would be the medium of choice for all readers. No question about it.

But, said the voices, what about those of us who love books? The feel, the smell, the heft, the way they disintegrate in hot water. We will not abandon our books for technology. We will not read books on our computer monitors. We won’t, we won’t, we won’t. Books will live forever.

The good news is this final statement is probably true. The more interesting news is that ebooks, while not revolutionizing publishing or reading, are attracting ever-growing audiences. We base this on admittedly anecdotal evidence — the ebook authors we know cite increasing sales.

You could imagine our suprise when we learned that ebook publishing is foundering (for good reason). We thought, hmmm, is that really true? We discovered that while it’s still not setting the world on fire, the foundering is in the eye of the beholder. We suspected we were going to take issue with the author’s thesis when we saw this:

Maybe it’s different for young people. Perhaps they are more accustomed to using screens because they started younger than their parents. I’d test this hypothesis, except I don’t know any young people who read. That’s definitely a more serious problem than the failures of electronic publishing, but not one I can do much about.

Well, someone needs to get out of the house more.

Yes, reading online can be tiring for the eyes; so can reading paper books in not-so-hot light. Our hapless author seems to think that ebooks are only for what he wants to read. And, based on what he’s saying, he’s right in that regard: books relating to technology are often outdated and oversized (the husband cannot buy a geek book with fewer than 900 pages to save his life). We here at Booksquare subscribe to O’Reilly’s Safari service — it’s a great way to access all the techy stuff we want without cluttering the abode with books that get in the way of our more important fiction.

Ebook fiction seems to be thriving. We know many readers who access the glories of Project Gutenberg (an excellent way to find that elusive quote from Moby Dick or read a long-out-of-print classic that you know you own, but it’s in the garage, etc. We also know many readers who download other fiction and read it. Erotica seems to be particularly suited toward this. Ebookstores are, in a way, the brown paper wrappers of the erotica world.

We also see another benefit to epublishing. There are books out there that have gone out of print. Like, they’re not available unless you stumble across them used. Publishers who continue to control copyrights can, with minimal additional expense*, offer these out-of-print titles in electronic or print-on-demand format. No need to warehouse obsolete titles, but no need to cut off a potential revenue stream.

And you, authors who have managed to regain your rights to your book (may we humbly [ha!] suggest that now is the time to seriously consider your electronics rights clauses? As in, seriously, seriously, seriously consider them.). What are you going to do with your book now? Spend a small fortune to reprint? Try to find another house? Maybe partner with an electronic publisher who can make your book available to your adoring audience? Unavailability at your local bookstore is no excuse for unavailability. Hello? It’s not going to make you rich, but the beauty of ancillary income is that it exists at all. Unless, of course, the book isn’t available anywhere at any price for anyone (except via a used bookstore, where, alas, our hapless author will not receive a dime).

Ebooks will not replace paper books. It’s okay, you don’t have to worry. But there’s a generation who turn to their web browsers first for news and other reading. They’re starting to access research materials and even textbooks electronically (which should save said generation from a lifetime of back trouble). They download books and read them (as do, if we may, many mothers from the Midwst). One author finds the technology dead. We’re thinking maybe it’s because he hasn’t really looked at his subject matter.

* – Providing the text is already in electronic format; otherwise, there will be additional expense. See Project Gutenberg model and stop fearing piracy so much. Thank you.

File Under: Tools and Craft

4 responses so far ↓

  • The Vintage Reader // May 23, 2005 at 2:53 am

    Personally, I like ebooks. I buy from (formerly Palm Digital Media) pretty frequently. I like it that I can take my PDA along anywhere and have a huge selection (just like with real books, I always have a TBR pile).

    And yes, my favorite part of it is being able to get old books that I can’t find anywhere. I found K.K. Beck’s entire Jane daSilva series for something like $4 each, and a whole stack of older stuff by Robert Silverberg, Mercedes Lackey, and Alan Dean Foster for next to nothing. My fiction magazines are available as ebooks–if I miss an issue of EQMM or F&SF, I can usually get them at ereader if I don’t let too many months go by.

    There are some books that don’t do well as ebooks, of course. Anything with a lot of graphs and charts and tables is out. For me, it has to be fairly light and entertaining, because it’s a lot easier for me to get distracted when I’m reading on my PDA than if I have a book in front of my face. But I love being able to go online at 11:45 and download something to take to the park for lunch.

  • Booksquare // May 23, 2005 at 7:58 am

    Several months ago, I bought an electronic version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Setting aside the ridiculously complex process for downloading and opening the file (thank you, paranoid digital rights management), the price was fine and certainly worth saving the hours of going through boxes in the garage. Even super-favorites must be cycled out to make way for new books. If only houses expanded.

    I didn’t so much need to reread this book as refresh myself on certain matters. Over time, certain elements from other books had seeped into my memory of the first book. I now have a PDF version of this book, though I suspect that transferring it from my PC to my Mac will require more effort than I’m willing to expend.

  • Naba Barkakati // May 26, 2005 at 6:12 am

    As a computer book author I have been guilty of some of those oversized 900+ page geek books you mentioned 🙂 However, lately I have been wondering if computer ebooks could help us cut down the size and beat the stigma of being “outdated” within months of publishing the book. O’Reilly Safari-style subscription seems to be one solution, but perhaps smaller, low-priced computer ebooks (with additional features such as simple animations to illustrate concepts) would also sell. The idea of putting my older books (where I have gotten back the rights) on my own web site seems like a viable step- – just to test the waters.

    As for fiction ebooks, I’m really glad to learn that ebook fiction seems to be thriving. Do you think the multiplicity formats and ebook readers would be a hindrance (like the VHS vs. Betamax days)?

    By the way, I read your blog regularly and find it very interesting. Thanks!

  • Booksquare // May 26, 2005 at 7:46 am

    First, congratulations on getting back your rights. It’s nice to know one of the people responsible for the massive books hiding in this house! I really do the think the O’Reilly model is a boon for computer books because technology changes so rapidly. We use our Safari subscription constantly (yes, even me, though that’s a secret). I do think smaller books would benefit from either the Safari model or even direct sales/access/free (depending on the book). I often point to Cory Doctorow as an example of someone who makes new distribution approaches co-exist nicely with traditional avenues.

    As far as format goes, the Beta vs VHS argument related to vastly different technologies. You couldn’t make one work with the other no matter how hard you tried (same for DVD). For books, the underlying technology is the same, even if the format is different. You still start with basic text — how it’s represented is flexible. The danger, as I see it (being all knowing and all that) is when/if a publisher locks into a single method of delivering books. Readers want their entertainment in the way they want it — they don’t want to be told how they must consume their books. The music industry is having a hard time grasping this, and I think it’s contributing more to piracy than they realize. People don’t mind paying for things; they just want it to be convenient.