It's A Library Thing

3rd December 2010

Are eBooks a great modern invention, or do they pose a threat to reading culture as we know it?

Jack Watkins investigates…

When Optima Magazine’s usually gimmick-wary editor mentions that she’s contemplating buying an eBook reader as a convenient, baggage-lightening way of stocking up with reading material for an overseas break, it’s a pretty clear indication that these devices are no passing fancy. I have to say that I’m unlikely to be joining her in investing in one any time soon, though. It’s not just the prohibitive cost of the things – currently it costs upwards of £100 for an Amazon Kindle, for instance – it’s that, to put it bluntly, I hate the idea of them. To me, they are a betrayal of ‘proper’ books, items that have been among my trustiest companions throughout most of my life.

I might as well lay my Luddite cards out on the table straight away. I must be the last journalist in England under the age of 50 – or, probably, of any age – who has yet to properly master the knack of swift mobile phone texting. I can still go to war on the superiority of compact discs over downloads. And yet I do loathe the knee-jerk conservatism of people who regard all change as a backward step…

No sensible person could now argue that the internet and even the iPhone is not a brilliant inventions, a true aid in the advancing of communication (even if Twitter, for example) still seems a step into utter superfluity. But what if the eBook reader really does, as some pundits are claiming, sound the death knell of the paper book? Aren’t we then in danger of losing something truly precious?

The book trade, which has been quite bullish that it could see off the infernal gadget, is now getting rattled. That’s not surprising. Amazon recently announced that its sales figures for eBooks were now outstripping those for hardcovers. However, my suspicion, for the present at least, is that it’s low grade fiction and cheap celebrity memoirs that account for the bulk of these sales.

“If eBooks are going to have a market at all, they will replace cheap throw away fiction,” agrees a similarly sceptical Bruce Sachs, whose publishing company Tomahawk Press (tomawkpress.com) specialises in non-fiction cinema and music books. “I know that Amazon are claiming high sales,” he continues, “but they are also selling their hardware for ebooks, so the margins for promoting them are better for them at the moment. However, I can’t say I know anyone who buys ebooks, nor have I actually observed anyone reading them in public places. They seem to be disliked by most people I know, especially in the academic community.”

If the big publishers are going to face a struggle perhaps we should shed few tears, for they’ve surely brought the situation on themselves with their naked obsession with celebrity and hype. In doing so, argues Sachs, “they overlook the more fascinating titles, bringing the whole book trade down – in collusion with the newspapers, who ignore the offerings of the independent book market.” However, he does see a hopeful parallel with the music industry, with its recent upsurge in new independent labels which have widened the choice for consumers. “There is a growth in indie publishing, as there is in music, and these publishers will survive and maybe come to dominate the market.” The choice in books will be there; you may just have to look a little harder.

For most writers, eBooks aren’t great news, though. Biographer Andy Merriman (whose memoir A Minor Adjustment, about his daughter who has Down’s Syndrome, might be just the sort of personal experience book to suit the medium) says that generally, he has fears about labyrinthine royalty and copyright issues. “It’s hard enough for an author to make a living from writing as it is. There’s a concern that big name authors like JK Rowling and Dan Brown will publish independently and this control their eBook rights, which will mean less money for the publishers to invest in new authors.”

For any book lover, eBook aesthetics presents a challenge, too. Some users speak of how remarkably like their paper equivalents they turn out to be, and how easy to read they are – pages turned with a brush of the screen by your fingertips – but Bruce Sachs is not convinced. “EBooks seem to miss the point for me. Books have a tactile element to them. They’re not just about words. A well-stocked bookshelf is a personal statement for some people, a way of expressing individual identity. No-one will want to browse someone’s ebook collection.”

Andy Merriman also talks of the ‘aesthetics’ of books, and the “pleasing smell of a musty old tome, the colourfully appealing cover and varying print styles. I wouldn’t like the universality of a single font.”

Merriman’s Margaret Rutherford biography, Dreadnought with Good Manners, has just gone into paperback, published by Aurum Books. This, with its photographs and lists of performance credits, is the sort of book I want to posses, not simply download onto a ‘reader’. Similarly, the offerings from Tomahawk Press are lovingly produced works that function on many levels, books that you want to return to again and again. That’s true of much non-fiction, of course, but many people are not bibliophiles – and even book lovers have occasions when they buy reading material for purely utilitarian purposes, simply to pass the time on trains or planes.

I think that in the end there doesn’t have to be a for-or-against argument, and that we could eventually be looking at a new two-tier system, just as the many traditional-minded music listeners now have iPods alongside their collections of CDs and vinyl. The latter contain their hallowed favourites, while the downloads often consist of ‘new’ discoveries – a track suggested by a friend, perhaps, or some artist they are curious about, but not yet ready to accorded the honour of being adding to the CD collection.

And yet another part of me still remains unconvinced. In an increasingly noisy, technology-driven world, books – and bookshops and reference libraries and all the things that go with them – remain little havens of peace and sanity. If eBooks do prove to be only a passing fad, I won’t weep – but if ‘real’ books slide away, I certainly will.

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