At what cost e-books?

Two things have recently come together for me to remind me of the potential cost of e-books recently.

I’m not talking about the dollars and cents cost – that is obviously much lower than buying a physical book. Nor am I talking about the environmental cost. Admittedly, it takes power to read an e-book, but there must be a lot of physical books which absorb not only power in their production, but also resources such as paper.

What I’m talking about is the loss of skills.

The first instance which really brought this home to me was recently receiving a Kindle. When you turn it off, it somewhat ironically has varied screensavers of the bygone age of printing: blocks for printing, type, rolled up newspapers, sharpened pencils. All very beautifully photographed in black and white, but also a bit sad.

The second was speaking to an illustrator who works primarily on children’s books and text books. As we all know, traditional publishers have been really shaken up by the popularity of e-books. From the outside at least, it seems as if they are running scared. As I understand it, this has lead them to be more and more conservative in their choices for books, and also on the outlay they are willing to make on a book. My friend the illustrator is at the end of the food chain, and so when publishers don’t publish as much, or decide they can recycle illustrations from previous editions, he’s one of the little people who lose out.

This is a great post I read recently on this subject: Birth of a book from Katy at Storytelling Nomad. It certainly brought on a dose of nostalgia for me.

I recognise that the market for books is not infinitely expandable, but arguably, publishers (and ultimately readers) are shooting themselves in the foot by taking this approach. By producing less titles, they make it harder to get published, especially if you are a new author. Therefore, more people are bound to either be disheartened by rejections, or turn to Indie publishing, compounding the problem.

By providing less work for all the people who rely on the publishing industry, (graphic designers, illustrators, printers and so on), they decrease the skills base available to them, as people are forced to move into different industries.

I was taught graphics by a fabulous old gentleman who had worked in advertising in the days before computers. This was a man who really understood colour, layout and the impact of different fonts. He made us draw letters by hand, and there are a great many fine nuances in their shape which influences the feel of the finished piece. Now that we can all produce our own covers, and the formatting of the book is largely a dictate of whichever device we are producing it for, all of that sophistication is lost.

As someone about to become an Indie author myself, I realise that this may seem like a slightly hypocritical rant. πŸ™‚ However, I do think there is a place for both e-books, and truly beautiful hard copy books. Maybe this is how physical books can truly differentiate themselves? If we want a quick read, an airport book, or to sample a new author, then e-books seem a good way to go without using precious resources.

But for a really treasured tome, or to own books by authors we adore, perhaps we should be willing to spend a bit more for a beautiful thing. Maybe this is just my buried luddite coming out, but the loss of the special for the ease of the mass produced seems to make us all poorer. Love to hear your thoughts.

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18 thoughts on “At what cost e-books?

  1. From an artist’s perspective, e-books as well as digital distribution platforms for music were a long time coming. It’s true that the publishing industry gives jobs to a lot of people; however, it’s also getting cluttered by a marketing model based around names and the prestige around them. With e-books and their cheap prices, people making their way up the ladder have a chance of offering their work and getting noticed.

    Just think of a well-known writer selling his book for ten bucks. Now picture a lesser known talent who sells an e-book novel for a buck a piece. This is a way of telling the well-known writer that his book better be ten times as good than the cheap one. It gives the small time people a chance and it puts pressure on the already established names to keep producing quality material.

    Besides, if the e-book market becomes overcrowded with people who are honestly not very good or not interesting, they will be phased out by the times. They won’t sell for the reasons a publishing house wouldn’t accept their manuscripts for publication.

    • Hi Joe,
      I quite agree with you about e-books giving the little guy (or gal) a chance and breaking the system – after all, this is the path I’m choosing to take myself!
      I suppose it just seems a bit of a shame now that we can do it all ourselves that the refined skills of graphic designers and illustrators in particular are less in demand. A little like dressmakers and tailors becoming ’boutique’ arts when mass manufacture of clothes came in, or skilled stonemasons when tilt-up slabs arrived. There are pros and cons both ways, but these are skills which are hard to get back once they are gone.
      Thanks for dropping by! πŸ™‚

  2. My house is a library, and I have gotten really good ant finding space for bookshelves where you wouldn’t expect one. I have them specially made to fit the space. Why? Because there are few things so compelling than a wall of books with spines to run your fingers down as you browse the titles. I love the smell of the paper, the feel of it beneath my fingertips. I like to SEE the hours and hours of entertainment I have waiting for me, and to know where to go in my house for the travel books, or the sci-fi, or the follk and fairy tales, my shelves of history.

    I order some from catalogs or through Amazon, I find them in thrift shops, received many as an inheritance from my mother. And I treasure every one of them. I still miss book catalogs in the libraries, because I liked not knowing exactly what I wanted, and it was lovely to wander through the cards. I might have to break down and get a kindle or a nook, but I will never give up my books!

    • Sounds lovely Naomi! I have a wall of books, but my folks have so many they work as insulation for the house, as they line every wall.
      I’m hoping that e-books and physical books can co-exist peacefully – there are some books you really wouldn’t want to read twice, and of course it is a great chance for new authors. But I’m still a big fan of the real thing. πŸ™‚

      • I think you are right, Kat. My mom also used to say that books made great insulation, and she was convinced (this will date me) that they would offer a layer of protection against radiation should anyone decide to drop a bomb. I think the insulation they provided was psychological, but real nonetheless!

  3. I have to walk with the aid of a stick, and this effectively leaves me one-handed. This is a nightmare when travelling alone and wrestling with a travel case.

    I had some trouble on such a journey, struggling to put an enormous Ken Follett tome back in my case. Instead of being offered help, one of the coach station staff yelled at me to get out of the way. I returned home on the Sunday and ordered a Kindle to pop in my handbag as soon as I got through the door.

    No more struggling and being yelled at for me! πŸ™‚

    I love the feel and smell of “real” books, but my Kindle certainly has its uses.

    • So true! Although a newbie at this ebook thing, I do find it’s compact nature quite useful too. Now I’m not limited to reading only slim novels which will fit into my bag on the train – I can have a whole library! That’s pretty shocking that station staff yelled at you when you were struggling – how would they like it?

  4. I think the kindle will soon become colour, opening it up to new markets such as comic books, childrens books with illustrations and text books with diagrams.

    I do not think we can stand in its way. In the UK E-book sales increased by 54% in 2011 compared to 2010, so think it should be embraced.

    I blogged yesterday on the history of the book, and if Kindle (Or E-Readers) could be the next evolutionary stage of books.

    If you would like to read it it can be found here http://philipdeane.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/is-the-kindle-the-next-stage-in-literary-evolution/

  5. I will always own books, those I read over and over are like treasured friends, and I take comfort from having them on my shelf. Kindles are convenient, and perhaps we under utilize their capabilities and their ability to even more easily integrate art.

    • I know just what you mean about returning to particular book friends. Kindles seem a good way perhaps to find new books which might become old friends though?
      My understanding at this stage (and I am just starting to look into it), is that art can be integrated now, but due to the different formats, it can be hard to determine exactly where an illustration will appear in the text. I could be wrong here – happy to be corrected!

  6. “I recognise that the market for books is not infinitely expandable, but arguably, publishers (and ultimately readers) are shooting themselves in the foot by taking this approach. By producing less titles, they make it harder to get published, especially if you are a new author. Therefore, more people are bound to either be disheartened by rejections, or turn to Indie publishing, compounding the problem.”

    You summed it all up perfectly right there. Just like the record industry, they are shooting themselves in the foot by trying to fight the ‘problem’ rather than find a way to work with the problem and turn it into a positive.

    I love books – smell, touch, weight, design, everything, but I love my eReader too because now I can conveniently carry and read my books even on the most crowded subway car, something that’s not easy to do with a hefty hardcover. I now download books to my eReader (a Kobo here in Canada is the equivalent of a Kindle for the rest of the world), and if I love it, I buy a physical copy; if I hate it, I don’t. I buy more than I don’t.

    The publishers need to embrace that. eBooks are not going anywhere, just as MP3s aren’t going anywhere. We all know how many record stores are left in the world (95% less than there were ten years ago) – Publishing needs to wake up or else our beloved bookstores will be gone just as quickly.

    • Wow – interesting figure on record shops! I assume this covers all hard copy forms of music (just sold a bunch of my old LPs to an actual record shop – apparently they are having a revival – although this could just be the owners wishful thinking!).
      You’ve got to think at there is some boffin out there who could come up with a good marketing model which services both markets, because while people seem to like their e-books, they don’t have the same kind of attachment to the individual books as they would to a hard copy. So perhaps traditional publishers should be offering a discount on the physical book for people who have already purchased the e-book?

  7. Great subject to discuss. As I read your post I recall my own, much more negative, way of thinking about 3 years ago. I believe if I search hard enough, I can probably find on my blog an old post dedicated to ebook hate (seriously, at some point I thought they were the root of all evil). Today, you can probably notice that a lot of my reading comes from ebooks, and I love it. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t like actual paper books, because I still buy and treasure many many of them. But my buying habits have changed.

    Nowadays, I tend to get paper books that distinguish themselves in quality and design. Just recently I bought a gorgeous “Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter” adorned with the author’s original illustrations. I have a collection of Easton Press leather bound classics, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. But when I want to read a latest Stephen King or Dan Brown, an ebook is sufficient for me. My Kobo became my greatest ally on trips and commute, in school and before bed. It’s light and easy to hold, and it contains hundreds and hundreds of books to suit my ever-changing mood. It’s hard not to fall in love with that aspect of ebooks.

    Now when it comes to the publishing industry, I think they are the ones shooting themselves in the foot. Ebooks are here to stay, it is a proven fact. With everything else going digital, its foolish to dismiss the change. However, the publishers pay so little attention to the quality of ebooks, it makes me sad. I like a pretty book, and same goes for its digital counterpart. The formatting is usually horrible and the books are full of spelling mistakes. It seems that nobody proofreads the files before slapping a price sticker on them. Illustrations are often abandoned and I’m not sure why. Ebooks DO support them. Yet publishers never fail to charge a significant amount for these horrendous creations; sometimes even on par with paperback editions. It costs them barely anything to produce or to store the books, so I don’t understand that factor.

    Finally, I believe ebooks help indie authors, like yourself. I haven’t seen this many self-published authors only five years ago. Now anybody can put together a book, design their own cover and put it up for sale on Amazon. It’s great. But I do feel bad for all those working in the publishing industry like printers or illustrators, because they are the ones who end up losing jobs, not the publishing executives. It’s sad, but inevitable. Same thing has been happening since the Industrial Revolution. Same thing will happen many centuries from now.

    I agree with you that ebooks and beautiful paper books can co-exist together. I hope bookstores will adapt to change (offering digital kiosks instore maybe), instead of going the way of Borders.

    • You hit the nail on the head with your references to the Industrial revolution – mass markets do cause loss of craftsmanship. Good on your for buying those particularly beautiful books though. Perhaps this is the area where we can preserve these skills, and have the best of both worlds.

  8. It’ll be interesting to see how it all turns out. With some e-books like 11/22/63, you get the choice of getting them with a short movie. I think that one is a documentary, but if other e-books started doing that then maybe more graphic artists would be needed for that sort of thing. Of course then that’s getting away from the point of actually reading a book instead of watching a movie. It’s funny that you bring up the point about power because I’ve been wondering why there are no solar-powered Kindles. The technology for it has been around forever. I still have a solar-powered calculator that’s worked since high school and that was a very long time ago! It even recharges itself after I hold it in front of a light bulb for about a minute. That would be nice to have in e-readers! Yes, I’m already addicted to the electronic format and I never thought I would be. But I think there will be room for both.

    • That really is a very good point – as you only ever read an ebook in a lit environment, why can’t they be solar powered? Surely a market for them, and especially useful when you’re on holiday and may not be able to recharge so easily. Good thought! πŸ™‚

  9. This is all so true – so many skills are just passing into history and although they might survive, it won’t be as the fabric of our everyday lives, but as luxuries, like conservation areas of our culture. It makes me think again of books in the middle ages being so valued because of the time, skill and effort they took to produce. There’s a place for the e-book and a place for the hard copy. I would hope care and skill will eventually go into producing e-books – we will always need good design and attention to detail.

  10. I have always operated under the principle of support the artists/musicians/authors that you really like. So yes, maybe I will borrow my friend’s copy of a book and read it instead of buying it, but if I really, really enjoy it, I will go and buy the book. I am actually trying to self-publish right now, and my concern is that people will illegally pirate it or something instead of buying. I guess that’s the nice thing about hard copy books – kind of hard to pirate πŸ˜€ But I definitely agree with you about the possible future of book selling – ebooks for quick reads, and then beautiful hard copies for those books you want to treasure and keep for the rest of your life.

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