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!
Ha! I actually guessed right regarding plagiarism. Dancing around to celebrate the rare moment of rightness 🙂
And I’m with you –I love the feel, the smell, the look of a real book. But I’m afraid that I’m part of a dying breed.
I should dance, too. I got plagiarism right (yippee).
As for ePublishing and eBooks, I don’t think they’ll go away. But I don’t believe I’ll ever own one of those devices unless it was a gift. Then, I’m not sure I’d use it – at least not to the extent they are designed for. I see them as fragile, electronic, doodads (and expensive ones at that). Yes, I have an ipod, but I got the music from my CD collection, not from downloads on the internet. So if I lose my ipod, or it gets damaged, I still have my music. Can’t say the same thing for an eBook.
Another con for you: Even on the plane, there is a time when they ask you to turn of all electronic gadgets. That’s the time I want to read the most and if I had an eReader, I’d have to stop reading! No, thank you!
I’m hanging my head in shame; I got the plagiarism wrong. Ah, well.
As to ebooks/epublishing . . .
It’s here to stay and has its place. For my child with the vision impairment, it might be a godsend. I’m a Luddite like you, but I’m going to have to learn some of these new technologies in order to help my kid.
Another upside is that many writers I know whose books have gone out of print or have been dropped by publishers for some other reason are now uploading their works to their own sites or cooperative sites such as BookView Cafe. That’s creating a new revenue stream for them and I’m all for that.
Piracy? Yep. It’s happening right and left. I don’t think that opposing epublishing will do anything about it though. Anyone with a new scanner can do the work and WILL do the work for whatever reason.
To me, a true dreamer at heart, the real work we should be doing as creatives is to educate people that our "products" are valuable and merit reasonable remuneration. IMHO art — and creativity — (not stupid celebrity crap) are undervalued tremendously in our culture. This is one reason why people feel that pirating novels is their right.
I guess I’m a Luddite as well. I’m not a fan of eBooks. Not at all. I don’t have an eReader, can’t afford one. And even if I could, I’d be buying twice the books. It’s no fun to have 100 eBooks on your reader and nothing physical on your shelf to leaf through.
I’d thought an eReader would come in handy for traveling, since I always fill my bags with books of various genres thinking I’ll finish them all while away. An eReader surely would save space in this regard. But then someone pointed out to me the whole "Turn off all electronics" thing on the airplane and I realized that would cut way too much reading time out for me. Plus, I need the distraction most at that time.
So no go for me. I’ll keep lugging around my physical books and hope that there are more folks like me so that I can continue to enjoy them that way.
Congrats on ‘plagiarism’! I’m with you on the tactile feel of a book, and I think there will always be collectors’ editions of works of literature, but whether everyday reading matter continues to be printed on paper is another thing.
There’s always the environmental argument, but e-Readers also require manufacture and are not, on the whole, biodegradable. As with computers, nobody mends such electronic items any more when it’s cheaper to throw them away and buy the latest new version.
I use electronic publishing for some, but not much of my reading and buying. Like Pari, I think it’s here to stay … and to grow.
The one system I want to check out is Barnes & Noble’s new Nook, an electronic reader that you can use to share a book with someone, and a system so good that it’s already sold out beyond the holiday season.
Hi Stacy – I’m also slowly uploading my CD collection onto my computer and cherry-picking tracks to go onto my iPod, but I’ll be storing my original CDs in a box in the attic, not chucking them out, just in case. I came across someone not that long ago who left her iPod in a back pocket and then accidentally sat on it. Bye-bye music collection …
I hadn’t thought about the disadvantage of having to switch off your eReader at certain times on planes – good point!
Yeah, I blundered on that one, too. Mea culpa. (Congrats to Stacy, incidentally, who got it right!)
Being able to alter the font size of a book to suit your individual requirements is a great one, I think. I also have a friend with health problems who said it was much less tiring for her arms and hands to hold an eReader than a large paper book.
Being able to offer e-downloads of out-of-print books is terrific, but does it then discourage conventional publishers from considering bringing the book back into paper format? I don’t know.
I think you’re absolutely right about creativity being undervalued. I nearly did this week’s blog about celebrity books. They’re so often seen as something that’s produced rather than created. It would be wonderful if people appreciated creativity as a skill just as worthy of hard coin as mending a burst pipe or servicing a car, but we’ve a long way to go I think ;-]
Philosophically, I have no problem with e-readers. I know many people who have them – including a number of booksellers – and enjoy them. I’m not at a point where I’m ready to consider owning one myself – I’m still at the "I don’t want another gadget in my life, downloading books feels like a big hassle" stage. To me, the biggest advantage of an e-reader would be the ability to carry a number of books with me when I travel – but, one of my favorite ways to spend time at airports is browsing through the bookstores. So I’d probably end up with both a bunch of books on an e-reader, and a bag o’books from the bookstore – not the world’s worst crisis, but sorta not the point of having the e-reader.
Gotta say, if I were a bookseller, I’d be wanting to work with Amazon or Sony to see if they’d let me be a retail outlet for their devices – or if they wouldn’t play ball, some other e-reader provider. Since e-readers aren’t going away, it feels like now is the time to grab the trend and turn it to booksellers’ advantage. Do we know if anyone’s tried that?
Yeah, when things are getting lumpy on the final approach is just the time you want to have your nose firmly buried in a book …
And for the really doom-laden among you, eBooks are also vulnerable to electromagnetic pulse damage from a nuclear explosion!
I hadn’t come across Barnes & Noble’s Nook, but if you can share it with a friend, what’s to stop you sharing it with hundreds?
I shall have to investigate further!
That’s a very good point about booksellers getting in on the ground floor, and I’d be very interested to hear from any who have. Is there even any one compatible format for eBooks, or are you locked into the individual device you’ve bought?
And do booksellers see themselves evolving into hardware suppliers – the eBooks and cases and accessories – like the service industry that’s grown up around the iPod and iPhone?
The problem is that a book costs money not just to write in the first place, but to physically produce the reading copy. Once the electronic conversion is done to make it into an eBook, it’s a few minutes of download time, and will people still see the value of paying money for that? Or will they just look for a fileshare website where they can get it for free?
Well, that nuclear aspect settles it for me – no e reader for me! 😉
Actually, I had a turning point moment when people were asking me to sign their Kindles at B Con. You can’t fight that kind of tide. Plus, the second students start carrying around their textbooks on an e reader, that generation is converted, period. It’s evolution.
I’ve decided, (in conjunction with my agent, to release my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbook (yes, I finally finished the book!) in Kindle format – which can now be downloaded to any PC, and they’re working on a Mac version. It will cost less than half of what it would if I released it through a regular publisher and be out instantly, I can update and upload a new version every time I want to, and I just decided to be bold about it and see what happens. People want the book now, and now I can give it to them now.
I’ll be getting a Kindle for Christmas–there have been numerous occasions where it wasn’t convenient to bring along the several books I wanted, so having an e-reader would have been very handy… particularly for research books I need on the fly. I will still always have physical books, though, particularly for the plane issue.
Piracy really is an issue of the century that has to be solved if artists are going to continue to work. I could see a system in the future where the creative types banded together to form a task force whose job it was to simply shut down any ISP which was allowing illegal downloads. (Obviously, there are laws which would have to be in place allowing that sort of immediate action. Or… is this the time of the Old West again, where the task force are simply gunslinger hackers, stopping the proliferation of illegal activity?) I don’t think creative types can rely on the slow and ponderous movement of government to solve the issue, or fight it alone. (I wonder if that force could be licensed, like police officers, where they have the right to arrest–stop–a site, block it, until its day in court?) Anyway, I could see a cooperative of creative types from across the spectrum of the arts banding together to fund such a force, because the money they spend wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket to compare to the money they save. Would it end it? No–just like having a police force hasn’t ended crime, but having a force is a heavy deterrent.
e-readers are here to stay, and with them, a problematic issue which undermines entire industries… which hurts the economy… which in turn hurts the very person who thinks they’re saving a few bucks by downloading illegally. When downloaders start making that sort of cause/effect association, maybe they will start opting not to shoot their own well being in the foot. It’s not enough to show them that downloading hurts others… they have to think it hurts them in order to want to stop.
I don’t think most conventional publishers are particularly interested in bringing back golden oldies (unless the copyright is expired and there’s no one they have to pay). From my observation, they’d rather find the next brightest shiniest thing.
The authors I know who are self-publishing (rather than vanity or pay-for schemes) on their websites often are the victims of dead publishers, retired or fired editors etc etc. Some of their books have been out of print for a decade or two and their fans still want them.
I think Toni is right that the people who are pirating will only respond if their actions hurt them in some tangible way. It’s an esoteric concept to think that stories will go away if writers can’t make a living (Just like healthy food will go away if it becomes too expensive for farmers to hold on to their land to farm) but if there were real fines and monetary consequences for the pirates, that would make a difference.
I’ve never, I confess, been one of those so-called "first adopters" who gets the new gadget the day it comes out. I sort of have the same philosophy as comedian Rita Rudner who said (years ago, obviously) that she wasn’t getting a CD player until someone assured her that it was the last thing that was going to be invented.
Seriously, though, I see the e-book becoming the dominant form only under a couple of conditions. First, the reader gets down below 100 bucks. Second, wider (as in near universal) acceptance of some sort of cross platform format, so you can get books from other sources than the one company who makes the reading device. A lot of devices can play MP3 music files which is why the format took off despite being crappy.
Barnes and Noble’s nook allows you to share a book but only as you are able to do so now: lending it to one person at a time. And when it is "with" that person, it is not with you, the owner.
OOh i got Plagiarism right! Surprising.
I thought a few of the new ereaders (nook?) do have it set up so you can lend books. Or they’re working on it. I dunno. I can’t afford an ereader anyway, so it’s a moot point for me right now
The Kindle allows you to have up to 4 people on the same library, I believe. I totally want one. The Nook looks awesome too, but the reviews yesterday said the software leaves something to be desired.
I had a Sony ereader back in the ages when there were practically no books available as ebook. I’m excited to see the changes. This is a tide no one can turn back – the price point will lower, the books are cheaper. They will figure out the DRM and manage the piracy issue – look at Napster, and the resultant iTunes. Cheaters will always find a way to cheat.
First, some corrections on misperceptions.
In most cases, you don’t lose the books if you lose the reader. The books are stored on the website where you bought it so you can download them again.
Many of us already own ebook reader hardware, and we don’t know it. Many game systems now have reader software as does many smart phones, Blackberrys, etc. You can even get ebook software on some Internet connecting TVs.
The cheapest ebook hardware is free. If you have a friend or family member who is a tech geek, they may let you have their old PDA or whatever, and they’ll probably upload the correct software for it while they are deleting their old info.
I know lots of people are resistant to ebooks, but I always ask this question– if the books you want to read are only available as ebooks, would you read them? With the rapid loss of bookstores and the shrinkage of book lines and the types of books printed, the loss of reading material is very real. Just try to find certain kinds of mysteries or a short Regency romance in paper, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The way things are happening in the publishing biz, the situation is only going to get worse.
On the piracy issue, our strongest ally is our readers. If we educate our readers that piracy hurts authors and endangers the kinds of books they like to read, we have won half the battle. Reader tips have been my main means of helping bring down pirate sites, and members on reader lists have also expressed surprise and dismay when they discover they have hurt authors by their actions.
One means I’ve used to educate readers is my blog posts on copyright. Here’s a link:
Click on the label "copyright" to find the article.
Zoe, I’ve often compared the onset of ePublishing to what has been happening in the record business in recent years. I wrote a blog about it a couple of months ago on my website, but the gist of it is that the technology that put record stores out of business and allowed the artist to draw a straight line between himself and the record buyer has reached the publishing world, like it or not.
Looking back thirty years or so, I can remember when cassette tapes made their first big impact in the music business. The record companies were screaming that the end of the world was approaching and that we should all prepare for the day of judgment. People would now be able to buy an album and then COPY it onto a cassette tape. Oh…my…God!
Of course, when the record companies figured out how to deal with the new technology and make money off it, then the alarms fell silent. This is kind of where ePublishing stands today. The traditional publishers, with their office buildings and huge staffs and equipment and so forth, feel their very existence is threatened by this airy upstart spawned by the internet.
Like the record companies of the 1970s and now of the 2000s, they will have no choice but to figure out a way to get on board. I hate to say it, since I am a tangible-book guy, but one day (not in our lifetimes, thank God), all the books we know and love will crumble to dust, existing only in climate-controlled museums and in our digital files.
Erm, how do you sign somebody’s Kindle? (Pardon my extreme ignorance!)
Congrats on the ePublication of Screenwriting Tricks! That’s one that ought to be on everyone’s Christmas list!
As you point out, the ability to constantly update the text is a wonderful aspect of this type of publishing. And having seen the word processor/computer/internet explosion, as well as the advent of the mobile phone, I can appreciate that the eBook evolution is already upon us.
What I’m trying to find out, is if and how authors can publish in this format and not get ripped off in return for their pains.
How do you KNOW you’re getting a Kindle for Christmas? Ah, hang on, I seem to remember you once saying you quietly undid all your presents ahead of time and then rewrapped them … ;-]
You raise great points there, and I think I see a short story plot in your proposal for an intellectual copyright police force. Or maybe a novel! It’s a great idea, because at the moment there seems to be nothing stopping anyone except a lot of useless lip-service about how bad it is, and how it shouldn’t be happening.
Do I seem to remember that Stephen King was publishing a downloadable book a few years ago, in segments? If memory serves, he was charging a voluntary fee, and promised to keep making the next segment available providing a certain percentage of people were honest enough to pay up. (They weren’t.)
You are so right! I sometimes think that being an author is like trying to keep a load of plates spinning on poles, all at once. Just when you think you’ve got them all moving, the oldest one topples. It’s an immensely frustrating business. And yeah, everybody does seem to make a lot of noise about the next debut author.
If you’ll pardon another simile, I once likened this business to being a racehorse – you’ve a brief honeymoon period where you’re patted on the nose and fed carrots, but if you don’t run fast enough, you’ll soon be dog food.
So, that’s another vote for draconian measures from the copyright police ;-]
The term "first-adoptor" is a new one on me and has kinda sinister overtones. It sounds like the kind of thing you have to stand up and admit in group therapy sessions …
But, the single cross-platform format, and the price issues are excellent points. Thank you for those.
"Barnes and Noble’s nook allows you to share a book but only as you are able to do so now: lending it to one person at a time. And when it is "with" that person, it is not with you, the owner."
Ah, THAT sounds like a good idea! I wonder how it’s enforced? Does this mean that Big Brother is watching you …?
Push me, kicking and screaming, into the new electronic reading world. There were those who missed the flickering candlelight, the smiles of the lamplighters, the voices of the town criers, the clop of the carriage horses. I shall miss books signed by authors whose words I have come to love and damp fingers turning pages.
I think a lot of us are reluctant to shell out several hundred for an eReader of whatever description, but iPhones aren’t cheap either, and they seem to be everywhere!
The turning point will come when the leading edge of the market starts to become only available in that format, forcing people who want to read that particular book to adopt the new technology whether they like it or not. I can appreciate Dusty’s comment about MP3 being a crappy format as far as sound quality is concerned, but will the ‘quality’ of a book be affected?
Thank you for putting forward such a positive viewpoint, although you are the technical goddess among us when it comes to all things digital ;-]
I’d like to be excited, too, but I still feel kinda wary about the whole thing, hence my request for info from everyone today.
Thank you so much for contributing this information. As I said at the start, I wanted to ask questions in the hope of getting answers, and I’m delighted that you have been able to correct some misperceptions on my part. This is exactly what I was hoping to receive. Thank you again!
I totally get that eBooks are here to stay, but it would be sad if paper books petered away. They are far more likely to stand the test of time.
And I do know that I’m going to have to dive into eBooks at some point – both as a reader and a writer. The question is, do I jump now or wait until I’m pushed? Ho hum.
I remember somebody in a movie set in late-Victorian era London remarking that traffic had been halted because a horse had slipped and fallen on the cobbles, and how much faster everything would move once the new internal combustion engine had been adopted as the only form of transport …
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
But you’re right, what will we be signing at conventions in the future? Will we be adding a digital message to a digital blank page? Or will we all have forgotten – as they threatened when the word processor first appeared – how to hold a pen!
You sign the Kindle cover, Z. Everyone has custom cloth/leather/whatever covers for theirs, and they have authors sign the covers, and then retire that cover and start over when it’s full of signatures.
Do you think if we called it something besides "piracy" that it might help deter the theft? There’s a certain romanticism to piracy — you even included Johnny — and a rebellion against authority that makes stealing downloads seem okay. If we call it what it is, stealing, maybe it’ll help be a deterrent?
Or not. I could be wrong.
Ah-ha – it all becomes clear. And a nice idea, too. I can see that might become quite competitive …
You’re quite right about the term (and I did make the comment about stealing books) but how could I resist an excuse to include a pic of the pretty Mr Depp?
hi,i got what you want to say that ebooks are here to stay but paper books are meant to represent the ancient time,culture,although ebooks have a advantage of being safe than paper books but the feelings of our ancestors can't be brought by ebooks,ojnly paper books can do that…………..
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I love the best of both worlds when it comes to technology verses old world ways. I too love books and I have at my convenience hundreds of reference books and novels,I also have gygabytes of ebooks.The printed word has been around for thousands of years (ex: dead sea scrolls) and I believe will remain,albeit on a small scale,for years into the future.