I didn’t think I would ever again address the print vs. e-book issue in this forum, or any other. It seems to me that e-books have settled in as another format for reading, but are not going to replace my beloved printed tomes. Earlier this month, Erin Mitchell wrote about her preference for having copies of books in both formats, to allow reading most comfortably depending on circumstances. I had not been aware that some readers want this option, but it makes perfect sense. Reading is a pleasant activity. Why not make it as pleasant for yourself as possible? Erin’s comment that there’s not a right or wrong format for books is absolutely correct. To each his own, or to each, both.
I would dispute her statement that booksellers see the e-book as a threat; I think most of us know that they are here to stay and that there are plenty of readers who still want print versions. The threat is the predatory pricing of the print versions by certain retailers. The opportunity to sell e-books, or “bundles” of both is something we would welcome, but at this point the only truly viable option for doing that is to partner with a company whose track record of tolerating competition or any retail channels that it does not dominate is less than sterling.
Two incidents in the last few weeks have brought the e-book debate back to the front of my mind. The first was the latest round in ongoing Amazon/Hachette contretemps. I enjoyed the back and forth, the on-line comments, and the letters to the New York Times regarding the misunderstanding (misuse?) of George Orwell’s work as much as anyone. But in Amazon’s latest volley there was a more troubling comment. Several years ago, Jeff Bezos stated his determination to rid the world of printed books, which he considers an outdated technology that must be destroyed. I haven’t heard this aspiration from him for a while, and I thought he had come to an acceptance of the coexistence of the printed and digital word. Not so; he has reiterated his desire to do away with paper books. I resent him more as a reader than I do as a bookseller. Apparently, this quest has just been on the back burner until he has enough power to start the burning.
The other occurrence that brought me to the e-book world was a phone call from an author whose first book is being released next month and who wants to include my shop in his book tour. We set a tentative date, and the author offered to send an ARC for my Kindle. Fortunately, we had already had a lengthy conversation and I had positive feelings toward him. I explained that I did not have a Kindle, nor would I ever have one. I don’t think I ranted too much, but I explained that when he talked to independent booksellers, it might be best not make such an offer. We know that authors have to deal with the giant, and don’t hold it against them. But we can still make a stand in our small way. We settled on his attempting to get a version for my iPad, and within a few hours, the attempt was successful.
I haven’t read an electronic book for months, if not a year or more. I have started some on my iPad, and switched to the paper version because it is more enjoyable for me. If I am reading for a book group, or a possible review, I like to take notes. I know I can do it on that infernal keyboard, but I prefer a few pieces of scrap paper stored in the back of the book. I simply like the feel of paper over plastic and metal. But now I had a book for which I had only one option. On the plus side, I can read on my deck for a longer time as the light fades earlier and earlier in the evening. When I was annoyed the first time I tucked myself in bed with the reader because it was too bright, I recalled (it really has been a while!) that I could fix that. My husband finds it a lot less annoying than my reading light. On the negative side, as the eyelids drooped and the fingers loosened, I got whacked on the nose and startled awake. (I’m extremely nearsighted and hold the book very close when reading in bed.) The awakening reminded me that I should close the reader rather than let it rest comfortably until I rolled over on it. On the plus side again, it kept my place, saving some time the next day.
Knowing that most of the people I talk to about books are not a representative sample (they are, after all in my shop to buy printed versions), I decided to branch out a bit. I questioned my hairdresser. I know she reads voraciously and almost exclusively on her Kindle. She comes to my shop to buy gift books: board books for baby showers or Lean In for a young woman graduate, but never buys for herself. As she tried to make me look younger than my years, I asked why she preferred electronic reading, expecting answers such as “instant availability of the book I want” or “convenience of having several books at once and never running out.” The truth was a little different. I also asked what types of books she likes. She couldn’t tell me titles she had read recently, only that they cost 99 cents, and some were really good and some were really terrible. Even if I had electronic books on offer, I doubt that I would be her preferred retailer.
Technology gives us more options to enjoy the arts. It’s not an “either / or” limitation but a “both” expansion. I can stick to my preferred book format whenever possible, but I have access electronically to works which are not available on paper, whether they be long out-of-print classic mysteries or ARCs from an independent publisher. Those who find the e-reader more comfortable can download to their heart’s content. Those who switch between formats can have it both ways. Those who choose their reading by price have limitless possibilities. The only frustration with the current alternatives that I have heard expressed is from my patrons who do not have electronic readers, and who are “completists.” They see a list of their favorite author’s works in order, and wonder why they have not read No. “6.5,” which turns out to be a novella in the series, only available electronically. I explain the situation, and that the “book” would probably not have been published otherwise. They sigh and move on.
Film did not replace live theater. Photography did not replace painting. Recorded music did not replace opera, or orchestras, or rock band concerts. New technologies offer more availability, not less. Why then, does someone feel that his preferred format should eliminate all others? Perhaps because it’s the one where he has the best chance of total domination and control.