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Bell, Book and Kindle

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Amazon's Kindle e-reader has recently become (kinda) available here in the UK. A great deal has been written about this particular machine, and I'm not going to add to that whole debate now. I think it's pretty clear that these devices have significant flaws. I think it's equally clear that they aren't going to go away. It's hard to escape the conclusion that they will one day largely supplant paper books just as downloaded music has largely supplanted CDs and vinyl (although I, for one, do still hang on to my beloved LP collection.)

Where the technology will eventually get to is hard to say. Realistic electronic paper? MP3 players succeed simply because they're more convenient than the technologies they replace. They don't have to be perfect. With downloaded music you lose a lot : the large piece of cover-art that was so much a part of the old 12" albums. The crackles and jumps on your copy of an LP, that you actually miss when you hear the perfect original. The infinite run-out groove on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But apart from a few diehard afficionados (people I'm all for), that's just history now. Like steam trains.

None of this is anything that particularly worries me. There will always be stories written and read. The rest is all detail.

Right now a paper book is pretty hard to beat for convenience. It's cheap enough to cram into a bag without worrying too much whether it will get damaged. It's fantastic for sharing with others. E-reader technology is a long way from all that. I think there are still some fundamental issues to be resolved with e-readers above and beyond their mere usability.

A Kindle currently costs about the same as 15 or 20 books. While that clearly doesn't stop a lot of people wanting one, it does make the e-reader an expensive gadget you have to worry about. Like I say, you can chuck a book into a bag and not fret too much if it gets a bit dog-eared or even lost. You wouldn't do that with an e-reader as the hardware (as opposed to the writing) is too valuable. So you're less likely to take one around with you. Would you dare take one to the beach and risk getting sand in it? Right now, these devices just aren't cheap enough.

There's also a big issue with digital rights management on e-readers. How many times have you been introduced to a new author by a friend lending you a book they've enjoyed? That must happen so much it's hard to see how the publishing industry could get by without it. But there's a problem. While pirating a paperback is hard - you could photocopy each page, I suppose - pirating an unprotected e-reader book is trivial. It's just a file. What you end up with at the moment are e-books tied to a particular e-reader, which is secure (assuming the DRM isn't cracked) but which means you can no longer share a book you've enjoyed with someone else. You haven't bought the book so much as leased it. You can't hand it on. And that just isn't going to fly.

The music industry has grappled with the same problem, of course. There have been various attempts to get round the problem, such as allowing a file to be copied just a few times, but these are never satisfactory solutions. DRM schemes can and do get cracked. The trend in the music industry is to move away from DRM completely towards a subscription-based scheme or towards pushing advertising onto the consumer, neither of which is particularly appealing. It remains to be seen what the answer is, but clearly the ease with which an e-book can be duplicated is a double-edged sword.

The Environment
As well as all this, in a post-Copenhagen world, we have to consider the relative carbon footprints of books and e-readers. I'm not aware of a vast amount of good science in this area, but it's an important question. Which is more harmful for the environment, a paper book or an electronic one? It's not going to be a simple answer as we're not comparing like with like. There's research from the Cleantech Group (reported here) that concludes that "on average, the carbon emitted in the lifecycle of a Kindle is fully offset after the first year of use" and also that "any additional years of use result in net carbon savings, equivalent to an average of 168 kg of CO2 per year". Which sounds pretty impressive. However, it's not immediately clear who has funded this research and it's perhaps odd that it singles out the Kindle. I'd definitely like to see more research in this area. But the thought of all those tonnes of holiday books air-freighted around the world in suitcases each year, for example, makes me think an electronic reader of some sort has to be better in the long-run.

Right now, e-readers are in their infancy. I think they're still well worth exploring, though. They offer some intriguing possibilities for the writer, in particular the ability to self-publish to a global market. Now, I'm definitely not suggesting that we writers bypass agents and publishers and just self-publish for e-readers. Right now, the conventional route to being published is clearly the better one. That's how I'm trying to get my fantasy novel, Hedge Witch, out there, for example.

But still, I'd like to explore some of these new possibilities, partly out of technical interest, partly to help build a presence, a "platform", on the interweb and partly just for fun. In future posts I'm going to look at how to go about self-publishing short stories to two distinct e-readers : the Kindle and - the one that I suspect might win by virtue of its sheer ubiquity - the iPhone (and/or the forchcoming Apple tablet.)

 To be continued ...


  1. Simon, can't see myself regularly using the Kindle or any of those readers, as I love the feel and smell of a book too much. They interest me strangely though. The possibility of having so many books with me at once is a draw as I always have about three books on the go..

  2. Tina,

    I feel the same myself. But then I recall thinking exactly the same about LPs when those new-fangled CDs came out.

  3. Simon - I've tried to enjoy reading on my son-in-law's Kindle, but I want the feel of the book. I want to turn the page with eagerness or trepidation. I want to see my bookmark, holding the promise of further escape. I just can't find that on a screen. Luddite? I suppose.

  4. Karen,

    I share your preference, absolutely. There are all sorts of things to love about paper books. Just the sight of them arrayed on a bookshelf, for example.

  5. I know everyone assumes that the more advanced technology will eventually overtake the less advanced, as a matter of course, since that is how it's been for the past hundred years (or so). But WHAT IF in the arena of books, it just does not happen like that? Readers love books, not just to read, we love BOOKS. How do you overcome that huge hurdle in e publishing? I don't want to simply read, I want to read a book.

  6. Karen,

    I know, I do feel the same. It' s just that I used to feel exactly the same about all my LPs and look what happened to them. But you may well be right. Books have been around for a lot longer.

  7. Great post, and very even-handed.

    We all love books and it's very easy to loathe these clunky gadgets, but this is the future, one way or another.

    The espresso book machine is another interesting development that should keep paperbacks on our shelves for many years to come, even as we switch to e-readers for the bulk of our reading.

  8. Thomas,

    I'd not come across the Espresso Book Machine before, but yes, I can certainly see a role for that. Interesting!

    There might need to be some way of recycling the book when you've finished I suppose. As you suggest, I think we'll have both paper and eBooks for some time to come.


I'd love to know what you think.