Until this month, I’d never even glanced at an e-book. Now I’ve read three and can’t stop thinking about where this is going.
The Story Thus Far · It was the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Stieg Larsson that pushed me over the edge. I was on a road-trip and too tired one free evening to even think of going out. Also, on my last long airplane leg I’d read the first book in Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, enjoying his agile high-velocity plotsmanship even while my suspension-of-disbelief wavered; who know Sweden had so much bad craziness?
So I decided to read the other Millennium books without visiting a bookstore. Along with those, I’ve used the Tab to read Gene Wolfe’s The Sorcerer’s House and am about to dive into The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher.
My early take is that, on balance, for the purposes of reading, I prefer the glowing pixels to the dead trees. It’s easier both on my wrists and on the temperate rain forests near where I live that they cut down and grind up to make paper.
But, you know, there are two things you do with books: read them and share them. Which presents problems.
Electronic Book Alternatives · I imagine that the book-reading options on the Galaxy Tab are a good sampling of what’s available now and will be in the near term. Without trying hard, I’ve accumulated four different book-reading tools.
Kindle Android App · There’s a lot to like about Kindle; they have a ton of books, and the prices are decent, and you can read anything you buy on anything you own, and the reader is nice and fast.
The selection of books is a lot smaller for Canadians, though; for example, they didn’t have the second and third Larsson books.
Aldiko · This is an ePub reader with a couple of nice user-interface features. Get the details from Ryan Paul’s recent write-up in Ars Technica.
eBook · This is a program that came with the Galaxy Tab, and it sort of looks and feels related to Aldiko, but has a very slick reading UI, with a dramatic and graceful page-turning animation. I have no idea who made it or what it’s all about.
Kobo · The Samsung also came with a “Readers Hub”, including News (“powered by PressDisplay”), Books (“powered by Kobo”), and Magazines (“powered by Zinio”). When I found myself stuck in my hotel room looking to read Larsson, Kobo was the only place that would sell it to me.
I wasn’t particularly impressed; the typography was weak and lost some vital separators that obviously were there in the paper version; scenes and their conversations would shift with no visible indication. Also it was a bit pricier than Amazon.
On the other hand, they claimed that when you buy the book, you get the ePub file, which I liked. Only when I tried to download it I got this little file containing just a URN; when I questioned this via email to the support address, I got a fairly opaque answer saying that this was the key I’d need to unlock the ePub on “Adobe Digital Editions”; say what? I’ll dig some more on that later.
Hardware Choices · I find the Tab pleasing as a book-delivery tool. It’s light, readable, and responsive. I turned the font-size down a couple of notches in all the reader apps. I suspect that the 7-inch form factor may prove a better bet than the current iPad form factor, simply for reasons of weight. I’ve never given a Kindle or Nook a serious try, but I was impressed by Mark Jaquith’s argument that maybe you want both kinds of readers.
The Elephant in the Room · I own many books. A lot of them were bought used or passed on from friends and family. I’ve passed on a lot of books to my friends and family. My wife and enjoy some of the same books and disagree enjoyably about others. Recently, it’s been fun sharing graphic novels with my 11-year-old, for example Bone and Hikaru no Go.
I admire fine typography and good photoprinting and high-resolution data graphics.
If we’re not careful, we could lose all of these things.
Bibliophilia · I’m not terribly worried about the aesthetic aspects. Fine-book publishing has never really enjoyed much in the way of economies of scale, so I don’t see any reason why the likely dramatic decline in mass-market paper book production should really hurt it.
Frankly, fine typography is not essential to enjoying Stieg Larsson, and it’ll still be there for Edward Tufte for as long as he wants it.
Sharing · This is the sticking-point with me. There just absolutely has to be a way to do it. The problem is subtle, because it matters whether people are reading on something like a Kindle that sits on the coffee table and gets passed around the family, or on an intensely personal device like the Galaxy Tab; mine is stuffed with highly-confidential Google stuff, and highly-personal email with friends, enemies, and loved ones. If you want to read on a personal device, there’s not only the emotional objection to the loss of sharing, there are financial issues; at current e-book prices, it’s unattractive to buy three copies in a reading family.
Those in the business of books are unlikely to be losing sleep because I’m whining about sharing, but they’d better be careful. We saw what happened in the music space, and I think authors are way more vulnerable than musicians. First off, no matter how much piracy is going on, a musician can always fall back on live performance. Second, your average novel, compared to music or video, is remarkably small; trivially easy to share once the digital locks are broken, as broken they will be.
How Much? · Consider William Gibson’s Zero History, which I recently purchased and enjoyed in hardcover for around $25. I’d be surprised if Mr. Gibson got more than a dollar or two, and when it comes out in a $12.99 paperback he’ll be getting less.
I’d be totally happy to buy an e-book for more or less what the author gets paid, plus a markup of maybe 100% to cover the costs of marketing and editing, as long as I can share it at a family-and-friends scale. It’d be a no-brainer.
But given the current arrangements, I’m being charged just a little bit less than I pay for paper and getting a whole lot less, and it just doesn’t feel like a good deal. Of course, a setup like I’m proposing would leave the publishing industry as we know it in ruins. Which wouldn’t bother me in the slightest as long as the authors and editors can still get paid.