If you haven’t already, you might want to read part 1. That covers the physical and practical aspects of becoming a devoted e-book reader after 30 years of reading paper books. Now I’m going to get more into the philosophical side.
In four days of reading e-books, my sense of what a book is has changed. Suddenly even small paperbacks that I would have happily shoved in my coat pocket a week ago seem so heavy. The trade paperback of The Name of the Wind that I borrowed from a friend is unthinkably enormous. (I’ll probably return it to her and borrow a digital version from the library.) I’ve heard endlessly about this sort of change in thinking on a societal scale, of course, but it’s different to experience it personally.
I really get the evangelism now. It’s the library-in-my-pocket thing for me, more than anything else. I don’t remember feeling this way about portable digital music, because it didn’t change my listening habits; I’ve never had a big iPod, only a little 2GB Shuffle on which I generally listen to one album or playlist at a time, same as I did on my Walkman and my Discman and my Minidisc player (remember those?). I’ve never minded waiting until I got home to put a new album on my Shuffle if I was tired of the one I had going. Now I use my phone the same way, fine, whatever, no big deal. But e-books are changing the way I read. Over the weekend I interrupted my reading of Loss of Separation, a pretty grim horror novel, to read a fluffy Regency romance. I’ve never been a book dabbler before. Putting a book on hold so I could read another book is shocking and strange, because with paper books it’s much, much harder to do. I might lose my place in the first book, or even lose the book! No worries about that now with automatic last-page-read bookmarking and good file management. As with libraries, the impractical has become practical. Technology is wonderful.
It’s awe-inspiring to hold this little chunk of metal and plastic and think, Right now I could be reading a horror novel or a romance novel or a fantasy collection or a science fiction anthology, or if I don’t like those I can download a million million others. Whatever literary itch I have right now I could scratch, right now. I can’t even imagine how it feels for people who buy books, who can pick and choose among all the books available for sale. For the moment, to save my budget, I’m limiting myself to what I can get legally for free. Do you know what’s out there legally for free? More books than I could read in my lifetime.
Do I still love paper books? Of course I do. Do I still love sitting in my living room, as I am right now, and being surrounded by my fabulous personal library? Of course I do. Do I want that personal library condensed down impossibly small and in my pocket for me to access whenever I want, with full-text search and easy one-handed reading? Of course I do.
However. (There’s always a however.)
Do I want my friends to be able to visit that virtual library the way they can visit my living room now, to browse and borrow and exclaim over shared old favorites? Of course I do. Any library needs a door so people can take books out and (hopefully) bring them back, and right now DRM’d e-books only have windows through which we can see but not touch.
While I posited a publisher swap-paper-books-for-e-books program on Twitter yesterday, I doubt many people would actually participate in something like that. Ownership is still valuable in this era of content licenses. So is the trust that lets you watch calmly as someone takes your book and walks out the door. I trust my friends that much. Libraries trust their users that much. Publishers don’t seem to trust readers that much, and no one wants to do business with someone who doesn’t trust them. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote about getting to know people online:
You can accomplish quite a bit over the net. The only real barrier is faith. As long as you’re clear that the parties will be honest, speak in good faith, and avoid a debate team approach, you can get a lot done.
It’s one of the reasons I’m so hard on people, here. Bad faith–intentional or not–rots the foundation of communication. If you can’t trust that I’m sincerely agreeing, or disagreeing, with you, how can we speak with any sort of depth?
Faith is indispensable.
I want to see that kind of faith and sincerity in the e-book conversation. Right now it’s still all about theft. We simply have to get past that somehow, because lack of trust leads to digital security theater, and it is impractical and wasteful and offensive and foolish.
As an example, consider the number of hoops I had to jump through to read DRM-protected NetGalley e-galleys on my phone. First, to even access the pages where I could download those files, the publisher had to personally approve me. Then they had to send me the link to the galley page (though I could have found it by searching NetGalley). Then I had to download the galley to my laptop and open it with Adobe’s software, which I’d already installed and authorized. Then I had to install Aldiko, the one and only Adobe DRM-compatible Android app, on my phone and authorize it. Finally I was able to connect the phone to the computer and copy the files over. The only thing I don’t have to worry about is deleting them, because they’ll expire the day the book comes out. The whole experience felt as though a disapproving butler allowed me to enter a mansion, followed me around to make sure I wasn’t stealing the silver, and searched my bag when I left. This is not a good frame of mind in which to write a review.
I’ll keep jumping through those hoops and setting aside my personal frustrations with them, because I have a professional obligation to consider as broad a range of books as possible, even the ones that are awkward or annoying to read (like the giant bound manuscripts that hit my desk occasionally). But why would your average book blogger put time and effort into helping to promote books from a publisher that treats reviewers and readers like thieves? It’s so obviously counterproductive as soon as you take human feelings into account.
Most readers just want to read and talk about books, not profit off of them or rip off publishers and authors. Most readers think publishers and authors are awesome. Or at least, most readers think authors are awesome. I don’t think most e-book readers think very highly of publishers anymore, and that’s tremendously sad, because of course all the people who work in publishing started out as passionate readers. If publishers alienate potential future publishers, then the prediction of the industry’s death is self-fulfilling.
It seems entirely unconscionable to let that happen. As much as things are changing, I absolutely believe that traditional publishers have a place in the digital world. As much as writers struggle to earn money, I absolutely believe that traditional publishers can support writing careers. But they’re not going to get there by driving their customers away. In addition, within the community of readers and authors, lack of trust is causing tremendous distress and divisiveness.
Now that I’ve become a devoted e-book reader–which in the end really was as simple as finding the right reading device for me–I will be doing a lot more thinking about how publishers can ethically, respectfully make money off of people like me. I joked to friends the other day that I was about to start the Please Raise My Taxes Party, because I’m so tired of the notion that having a few extra pennies in my pocket is preferable to libraries staying open. Maybe first I should start the Please Charge a Few Cents More So You Can Pay Authors Well and Absorb Losses from Going DRM-Free Party first. The principle is the same.