by Zoë Sharp
The topic of eBooks and ePublishing has come onto my radar recently, and I confess it’s something I haven’t yet ventured into. I know I should – like a lot of things – but there’s always the pros and cons to consider. And, for me, the jury’s still out. Hence the title of this post. I’m asking for a consensus of opinion. I have questions, not answers.
It’s a fact of life that eBooks are here to stay. Whether they eventually overwhelm conventional paper publishing is another thing. I hope not. There’s something tactile about reading a book that cannot, for me, be replaced by the onscreen experience. Things just read differently on paper. Maybe I’m just a Luddite at heart.
To begin with, eBooks tended to be used for technical manuals that were for a limited audience and expensive to produce in other formats. I can still remember the joys of my first Amstrad word processor, when it – or I – did something stupid that the manual did not seem to have an answer for, you could throw the heavy tomes against the wall. Many’s the time they landed with a satisfying thump in a corner of the office.
Time’s moved on since then. It’s only two years since the introduction of Apple’s iPhone and Amazon’s Kindle, and then the Sony Reader hit the market earlier this year. The explosion of the iPhone and the iPod has meant that every man and his dog seems to spend half their life with those little white earphones in place. It’s hard to remember a time when it wasn’t so.
But I digress. In theory, the numerous eBook formats that have sprung up to support this growing trend of the digital reader are all protected against illegal copying.
Stealing books is not a new idea. When I used to live in a big university town, the most frequently shoplifted books from our local bookstore were textbooks. The trend towards eBooks has meant that students can obtain required textbooks much cheaper than their print versions.
I can see all the advantages of an eBook. For voracious readers, it allows them to have a huge collection in a very small space. They can search the text for keywords. They can carry a large number of books around at any one time – invaluable for travellers. Video clips can be embedded. Font size can be enlarged to order for the visually impaired. You don’t even need a bookmark to remember where you left off, nor a flashlight to read them under the covers.
You need an electronic reader of some description to read an eBook. You can’t drop them with impunity. You can’t dry them out on a radiator if you fall asleep reading in the bath. The readers are more attractive to thieves than an ordinary paperback, in which case a large book collection could be lost. Some devices are difficult to read in strong sunlight, and they require a power source that can malfunction or run out at an inopportune moment. Digital formats change, are updated, and they degrade, where paper books have lasted hundreds of years and can become valuable heirlooms.
But the main argument against eBooks seems to be the one of piracy.
In researching this piece, I’ve come across a lot of comments on other blogs and in response to articles on ePiracy. Some people have a theory that making a copy of something is not technically stealing it, and how many of us can say, hand on heart, that we don’t own a film that someone videoed or digitally copied from the TV, a book we didn’t buy ourselves, or a piece of music that wasn’t downloaded. I’m not suggesting any of us are likely to walk out of WHSmiths with a couple of hardbacks stuffed down the front of our trousers, but there is a generally casual attitude to ‘acquiring’ pieces of software, for example. If it’s out there somewhere for free on the web, people are very reluctant to pay for it.
As an author, I would, of course, far rather every reader I have went out and bought themselves a spanking new copy of my book – preferably in both hardcover and paperback – and if they feel a friend really ought to read it, too, that they go out and buy them their own copy. But I know this is just never going to happen. Thanks to the Public Lending Right (PLR) system for UK-based authors, I am more than happy to recommend that people simply borrow my books from their local library, but in other countries where authors don’t receive a tiny payment each time a book is borrowed, this is not such an attractive option.
As far as I understand it, unlike a paper book, eBooks cannot be transferred from one person’s device to another’s. You can’t simply lend a book to a friend. Some devices apparently monitor or track readers and their habits, restrict printing, and also the number of times the eBook can be transferred – from one device to an upgraded version, for instance – and eventually it’s entirely possible for the service provider can block access by the customer to ‘their’ copy of the book. It seems to be more like a long-term rental, with strings attached, than an outright sale.
But, you’re not supposed to be able to copy DVDs or CDs, either, and yet they are, often within hours of being released. The first hooky copy of the new Star Trek movie, according to The Times Online in November, was made at 11:31am on the day of its cinema release.
According to another article in The Times Online, best-sellers like the new Dan Brown were available even before official publication, and within a couple of days of release there had been more than 100’000 downloads by filesharers. The small size of a book compared to a movie – 3Mb as opposed to 1.5Gb – make it much easier to download.
And some books, like the Harry Potter series, which JK Rowling decided would not be released in e-format at all, have been hugely pirated, partly due to sheer demand. In the United States, the article reckoned, an estimated 1.7 million people own e-readers of some description, not to mention iPhones or similar devices.
British publishers are trying to stop piracy through the Publishers Association, which allows them to log the details of websites infringing their copyright and get the links removed. They’re fighting a losing battle.
And although research published by Oxford University in March 2008 put forward the theory that digital piracy may actually benefit those being affected in terms of driving up the buzz about a product without the need for spending money on marketing, things have changed a lot. The question is, have things accelerated too far, too fast since then? And do the benefits outweigh the lost revenue?
So, what’s your opinion on ePublishing and eBooks? Good thing or bad? Is piracy robbing authors and killing the industry, or is it getting otherwise little-known names out there to a wider audience? Do you like reading digitally or prefer paper?
What are the pros and cons I haven’t considered?
Like I said at the start, I have more questions than answers, and I’m very interested to know what you all think on the subject, and what your personal experience has been.
This week’s Word of the Week is an odd one. If you were asked whether the word ‘plagiarism’ meant ‘piracy’, ‘kidnapping’ or ‘robbery’, which would you choose? To contestants on a recent UK television quiz show, the answer seemed easy and obvious – they opted for ‘piracy’. Probably most people connected with the world of literature would make the same choice. Surprisingly, the correct answer is ‘kidnapping’. Plagiarism is defined as ‘the taking and using as one’s own of the thoughts, writing or inventions of another.’ At its root is the word ‘plagium’ – a Latin legal term for kidnapping or man-stealing. Hands up if, like me, you got it wrong!