e-books, e-readers, e-issues…..

I am a YA writer and school librarian and I run training courses for school librarians. During my courses the one subject that everyone wants to discuss is the e-reader issue.  Here are my thoughts on the matter. I originally posted this last year (so you will notice some of the comments are from then) but have spruced it up with some new thoughts. To be honest not much has changed and I am still being asked the same questions so I felt it was worth posting this again. I’d love your thoughts on the matter, and if you disagree with me!

I am aware that there are many people who do not see the attraction of a Kindle or e-reader, be it for esoteric or logistical reasons – and I must confess that I used to be one of those. I am now, however, a complete convert.  They are undeniably convenient; being able to carry around thousands of books in one simple and lightweight device is an absolute luxury. 

But what does this mean for the industry, and for libraries?

First, we need to consider the use of the e-reader.  I have a large amount of case-history evidence that shows that they provide a great incentive to less keen or able readers.  In the schools where they are already in use it is clear that they can often provide the extra step that less keen and struggling readers require to clear the last hurdle to finishing a book.  The e-reader is defiantly not a book, and for all children who have struggled to read and learnt nothing more than how to hate a book they can be a revelation.  I have personally seen a child who has spent most of their school years fighting every attempt to engage them in reading, not only finish a book using e-readers, but love it too.

So they work.

But do the children who only read e-books ever tackle anything else? Do they learn to love books?  Do they become keen and avid readers in the long term?

Possibly not, time will tell, but they can read and isn’t that the whole point?

There is another argument that the e-book will kill the paper book, but once again only time will tell on that. History has, however, gifted us with many examples of other technological advances that threatened established leisure industries.  Video did not kill the radio star.  DVD did not kill cinema and CDs have not killed the music industry.  Oh yes these industries have all been changed by the rapid move of technology, but the ones who absorbed the change still exist.  Publishers will (and rapidly are) absorbing the changes and will make it their own. Some may not make it successfully; it depends on how quickly they can move with the times and find their own niche.

Kindle owners do still buy books, the Amazon forums show that, and Kindle owners are quite defensive about this fact.  There are many things that an e-reader is still not useful for, revision being a classic example.  Flicking back and forth and jotting down notes? Nope, too fiddly on a kindle and (whilst you can annotate text) it is nowhere near as simple as (book purists look away now) a pencil in the margin.  Course materials and set text books are not readily available in e-book format and, no matter how wonderful the illustrations, indices and layouts become, I have yet to see a method of spreading several connecting texts out in front of you the way you can lay books out.  How many of you have revised by stretching out on the carpet with five books open?  Not on an e-reader you don’t – not unless you have unlimited resources and own several of them!

For study purposes it is doubtful that the e-reader will crush the printed text book completely, but what about fiction?

That is where the e-reader really comes into its own – now you’re talking! Tens of thousands of books available free of charge and out of copyright.  People have free access to the great classics of literature, and they are actually reading them (shock, horror!)  I’ve worked in publishing and libraries for over 25 years and I’ve never seen a rise in interest in classics that matches what we are seeing now.

However the self-publishing e-book industry has flooded the market with dross. I’m sorry if that offends some people but it is true.  There is a lot of great material out there, but it’s drowning in a tsunami of garbage. The buffer is no longer there on dross and it is possible for anyone to throw a book out on the internet for a few quid, and sadly that really does seem to be the case. 
For most of us there is little more guiding us in our purchases than a cheap price and a few reviews from mates with an Amazon account. We, the book buyers, need help from the publishing industry and from high calibre reviewers so that we can keep our heads above the tide of low-grade material. If people are downloading more books than they ever bought in print, then this is a busy marketplace and how do we know if we are wasting our time and money without the label of a trusted publisher?  I know that statement will annoy a lot of people as many find it patronising to suggest that people do not know a good book from a bad one without seeing the name of a trusted publisher – but the majority need to be sure that they can trust what they are purchasing and any help is better than none.  Think about how you buy your clothes and other everyday items? Which do you trust more, a major supermarket and reliable local traders that you trust, or a stranger who pulls up outside with a van that he has loaded up with goods being flogged off on the cheap? You might buy from him, but it’s safe to say you wouldn’t trust the quality. Kindle is the literary equivalent of a fully loaded white van, and readers need help to be able to see if they are being ripped off – not just of money, but of time! I have less and less time to read and I’d like to be sure that I have something good I’m front of me. For younger readers this is even more important as poor quality material can even set them back on their reading progression. We need trustworthy, independent thinking reviewers who can help us find our way through the melee. This is why The Times’ sacking of a reviewer as trustworthy as Amanda Craig is all the more baffling. At a time when we need more reviewers we can trust, they sack one of the best.
So how can we trust the reviews in the newspapers if we suspect that they will only be reviewing the “next big thing”, the sponsored titles, the super-massive authors? How will we find something new and potentially dazzling if there is no one left with integrity to raise it up for us to see?

So it’s back to the publishers, and they are increasingly sending material out in e-galley form to independent reviewers like me, trusting in their books and hoping we will agree. Some of the publishers are moving faster than others with these e changes; Harper Collins is very rapidly absorbing them and it shows. A couple of Christmases ago there was a huge battle of the e-imprints the digital success was theirs. With innovative imprints like The Friday Project they cornered the market in quality e-books. For example, one of their books, (Confessions of a GP) sold less than 9,000 copies in paper that season (admittedly still an impressive number these days) but downloads of the same title were well over 100,000 copies.  Good marketing and creative pricing have shown that it is possible to even knock back The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which came second in the top download list at that time.)  Other publishers are quick to catch up, and many will be launching new digital imprints before the end of the year and so it is becoming ever more possible to source well edited, quality e-books. These are books that have been through exactly the same editorial process that a print book has – someone other than the author has vetted it! That’s a great start. Mine was out first in e-imprint and I can tell you that it went through exactly the same editorial process as a print book before it was released, and then went through it all again before going to print. So I’ve seen both routes first-hand.

But what about libraries?  An e-reader may be a useful tool to tackle low literacy levels, but how do you lend one?  One school librarian asked me “if I can’t get back a five quid book, how I am going to get back a hundred quid Kindle?”

She has a point.  So if anyone has an idea on how to handle this, let me know because I cannot find anyone who has a truly successful and secure method of handling this.  I know lots of schools who are using them for specific pupils, or for tackling certain issues with literacy, but not lending on or via e-book. Even if you issue the e-reader out via signature on computerised lending systems, you still have no guarantee of getting your expensive e-reader back.  The only system that I can see as being effective is to keep the devices for use in the library only, and that turns them into just another bit of tech in school to teach and improve literacy and not a lending item.

Public libraries have been issuing e-books for some time with varying success and a growing number of systems, and the whole PLR issue is another minefield and one that can’t possibly be done justice here.  Are authors still able to trust that they will get what is due to them when relying on virtual issues?  What about the book sharing problem?  How secure are these systems? I’ll get back to you on that one – anyone care to comment and I’ll add it to a future blog.

It is a fairly simple thing to lend an e-book and to code it so that it virtually “expires” after a set period and cannot be copied beyond the registered device. However the counties I have spoken to have admitted that the expiration does not work for the book that remains on the e-reader. It expires on your computer, but not on your Kindle.  One county I spoke to (and I won’t say which) admitted that they send an email reminder that the item has expired, and this flags up the library ticket and has to be cleared on the next visit – but they “have to trust” the borrower to delete it from their device once they have read it.

Would you delete it?  I wouldn’t!

I’m sure that this loophole will be addressed, and it is as I write, but we are still in very early days of this technology even though it has been around a long time – if that makes sense!  It is as if we were not paying proper attention and lo! it has crept upon us and now we must embrace or tame the beast before it devours us.

Technology, like language, grows, changes and shifts all the time and we can either absorb and manipulate those changes or ignore them and let it all overwhelm us.  The e-reader is here to stay and it is no longer a question of if printed books and traditional publishing can survive, but how they can.  I do firmly believe that there will always be a place for both e-books and printed ones.  One simple fact that no one can ever deny, will supersede any opinions about the importance of e-books over printed ones – you can’t archive them as effectively as you can a printed book.  What happened to all those items archived on micro-fiche?  Or on floppy discs?  Archives have to constantly absorb new technological changes in frantic attempts to save digital or copied material. All the while the printed books sit like quiet sentinels on their shelves and in their stacks for hundreds of years, and can be instantly accessed without any need to rely on rapidly outdating hardware.

One thing that will possibly protect the printed book is love. I may be a sentimental fool who is too attached to them, but the printed word inspires great devotion and affection in us; people love books, but they don’t love their e-readers.  They remain a bit of grey technology that we find hugely useful, but we don’t really have an emotional attachment to it.  We do not stroke its glorious cover, or flip through its fresh pages, and we do not gaze at it whilst we hurry to finish our work thinking “ooo, new book to read.”  We can’t gift books the same way we have done before. The joy of being able to give a book to someone is something we all know, but our e-readers deny us this. What joy is there in giving a voucher? They also deny us the pleasure of sharing outside the devices paired to our accounts.  I like sharing books, and I must admit that I do miss wandering up to a friend and saying “you’ll love this.”  I have dog-eared, much-loved books that have been passed around for years, I’ll still be doing that.

The simple fact that will ensure the survival of the printed book is that it is the best at doing what it does. Nothing else carries the printed word in such a durable and accessible way. But stories began as shared gifts that fell from the lips of storytellers, and not from shelves, and we should remember that. Ultimately it’s not the format, it’s the story that counts.

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3 thoughts on “e-books, e-readers, e-issues…..

  1. deeshulman says:

    A great exploration of the issues, and refreshingly open-minded and optimistic.
    I love them both: the ebook for its weight, compactness & capacity, its flexibility in print size, and the interactivity potential; the book for its tactile intimacy, its robustness (you can’t drop an ipad in the bath and stick it on the radiator to dry), and its brilliant, practical usability. I just wish we didn’t always have to wipe out one brilliant invention to accommodate another. But what a privilege to be one of the generation who gets to enjoy them both.

  2. Ted Barrow says:

    Well balanced and to the point- Thankyou. With the Kindle now costing less than a smart phone (which can also be an e-reader) I think this is a personal equipment issue, and driven by personal priorities. Perhaps school libraries should have Kindles to use in the library to catch reluctant/delayed readers, however with my shrinking budget for new materials (one seventh of three years ago) I am unlikely to go there. However as PDF readers they would save a fortune in printing past papers! My experience as a sound engineer and the format changes that audio has gone through from cylinder, disc, compact cassette, CD, MP3 sugests to me that within five years we will be looking at completely different technology from today, and that the cost will plummet after the Research & Design has been payed for.

    I too dread the increase of ‘vanity publishing’ while recognising that much interesting music now available through download technology would never have seen the light of day if it had been up to record companies, who, like publishers, are driven by economics of scale.

    I am hoping to see an emergence of craft book making, things of exquisit beauty as well as content.

    • deefinch says:

      I had not mentioned the use as a PDF reader, but I was chatting about that use just this morning and agree with you. I keep a large number of PDF documents on my Kindle and they are so easy to access (even easier if you rotate the screen so that you are reading them sideways, so to speak) and it has saved a small fortune in printing – not to mention the weight of carrying them around.
      I was at a conference recently and wanted to refer to some documents on literacy and was able to show them to people on my Kindle and not have to haul everything around with me.
      As a writer I have also found this function handy as I can convert my own manuscripts to PDF which means I have copies of older manuscripts handy when I am out or away working on new ones.
      I too look forward to seeing a lot more use of beautiful and creative binding – and I’ll never stop buying printed books.

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