Friday, October 15, 2010

e-Make it so

E-readers do get a lot of publicity, don’t they? Virtually every Bookseller news round up has at least one article about them. There are websites and blogs devoted to them. Print journals carry articles about them. They’re big on the agenda at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Perhaps it’s hardly surprising when you think that e-readers are in the hands of some of the most powerful technology and communications firms in the commercial world.

One wouldn’t like to accuse e-reader manufacturers of having a vested interest of course, but sometimes it does feel like a conspiracy to shove the things down your throat. Amazon can’t do enough to push its Kindle. They even have a link to the publisher on the webpage of books that are not available as an e-book so you can tell them you want to read it on a Kindle. That’s consumer power for you, isn’t it? Or perhaps it would be if the button also gave you the option to ask the publisher to drop the price, or to publish more books like this and less like that – or even to ask Amazon to shut the f up about its Kindle.

E-readers, we are told, are far superior to the printed book. The same size and weight as a paperback, but one e-reader contains scores of books. How great is that? Very convenient if I’m going on holiday; saves having to pack half a dozen bulky books. Unless I’m driving, in which case it doesn’t matter how many books I shove in the car. I don’t know about you, but I don’t go on holiday that often. The bulk of my reading-on-the-go is done on train or bus journeys, at lunchtimes, in waiting rooms, and I usually find one book in my bag is enough. I haven’t yet mastered the knack of reading more than one at a time.

Still if persuasion doesn’t work, then perhaps fear will. E-readers are making the printed book obsolete, along with newspapers and magazines. If I don’t buy an e-reader I won’t be able to read at all! In the United States one in ten Americans owns an e-reader and e-books already account for 15% of the books market. E-book sales are estimated to account for between 2-5% of total UK book sales. One estimate is that this will increase to 10% within the next four or five years.

Hang on. If one in ten Americans own an e-reader, doesn’t that mean that nine in ten don’t? If 15% of books currently sold in America are e-books, doesn’t that mean that 85% aren’t? And if the UK e-book market is going to expand at such a heady rate that 90% of books sold will be traditional print books, do I really need to rush out and buy an e-reader?

Well, perhaps I do if I want choices. It might be nice to have the option of buying a book in hard copy or e-copy. E-readers are funky machines and they’re getting better – and cheaper - all the time. So I’ve bought a Sony e-reader: it’s light, pretty, has a nice screen and supports a number of formats including pdf and word documents.

For therein lies the rub of the e-reader. Far from increasing my choices, it limits them. If I want to buy an e-book I’m restricted to a particular format. That means that many books just aren’t available to me. I can’t shop on Amazon as I don’t have a Kindle. The Sony comes with a list of bookshops I can shop at though, bizarrely, I’ve discovered that the Sony e-book store, with its hundreds of titles, is only available in Canada and the US. I don’t like being told where I can and can’t shop. If I want to buy a printed book I can go into any bookshop in the world – or on line - and end up with a product that is formatted and ready to use (with no risk that the batteries might run out while I’m reading it).

The retailer I can shop with is Waterstones, but they don’t go out of their way to make e-book shopping easy. The website is a horror: on one pc I can’t complete a sale because the “submit” button doesn’t show. This, they tell me, is because of my pc security settings. I change them. No improvement. On another pc I can complete the sale – but I can’t view the website properly; it comes out as a list and I have to scroll acres of white space to find any information. My husband reports the same viewing problem on another pc. So that’s 3 pcs on which I can’t both see and buy. But come on Waterstones: if every other e-retailer can manage to provide me with a useable website and working checkout why can’t you? Do I have this problem at John Lewis, Hawkshead, White Company, Amazon, et al?

And, friendly though my local bookseller is, I’ve never been asked to provide my name, address, job title, business address, and telephone numbers before I’m allowed to buy a book. If you shop for an e-book with Waterstones, you will be as you’ll also have to create yet another account and password (in addition to the one with the retailer) with Adobe Digital Editions before you can download your purchase. Once upon a time you could define people by the books they collected: in the future I suspect it will be by the log ins and passwords they collect.

Maybe I’m beginning to wonder if I should have bought a Kindle...or maybe I should just stick to what’s easy, convenient and readable. A book.

Stephen Fry has suggested that because of e-books bookshops could go the way that blacksmiths’ did when cars came in; their numbers will reduce, perhaps drastically. Maybe so; but we all know that horses didn’t disappear and that some people still ride for pleasure though it’s not a necessity any more. Thousands of people are still buying typewriters in preference to computers. Perhaps it’s true that in future more people will read on e-readers than will read printed books (though looking at the figures I can’t feel quite the same excitement as the e-reader manufacturers do – and if my experiences to date are anything to go by the e-reader really has nothing better to offer me than does a book). Captain Jean-Luc Picard often relaxed at the end of a long day on the Enterprise with a real, bound, copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare in preference to reading it digitally. And if it’s good enough for Captain Picard, it’s good enough for me.

Stephen Fry says Bookshops could go way of blacksmiths 16 September 2010 - http://www.thebookseller.com/news/128629-fry-says-bookshops-could-go-the-way-of-blacksmiths.html

…but he also says the “paper book is not dead” Sky News 13 September 2010 – http://tinyurl.com/33dl324

E-books: the end of the word as we know it, The Independent 7 October 2010 - http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/ebooks-the-end-of-the-word-as-we-know-it-2099796.html

Why typewriters beat computers, BBC, 30 May 2008 - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7427237.stm

See also No typewriter for old men: Cormac McCarthy to part with beloved Olivetti - http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/dec/01/cormac-mccarthy-auctions-typewriter

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