Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ebooks: do you read them?

Booking Through Thursday (BTT) hosted an excellent discussion last week about electronic versus paper books.

The post directed meme participants to an interesting Time magazine article Books gone wild: the digital age reshapes literature by Lev Grossman, and then asked for thoughts and comments.

In the article, Grossman discusses the changes facing the traditional publishing industry in the wake of online books, e-readers, and self-published books marketed by bloggers.

He sees the move towards electronic books as a natural progression in the world of literature. Just as the emergence of books in the early 18th century was shaped by the forces of money and technology as much as by creative genius, so too, he says, is the move from the paper-based novel to the ebook.

Grossman says publishers need to be looking beyond existing means of selling books, given the increasing uptake of e-readers like Kindle and the Sony Reader (for those unfamiliar with these gadgets, they’re electronic devices the size of a small novel, on which you read downloaded ebooks in a format that looks like the page of a novel).

The ebooks available for these e-readers are not just those provided by publishers, but anyone who wants to make their writing available in cyberspace via services like Kindle.

In discussing this recently with two librarians, it seems the issue is not just about a shift in attitudes towards books without tangible pages, but also about the availability of a single platform in which to read ebooks.

From what I understand, existing e-readers only access some books, not all. Which means that if you want to read novels from various sources, you need more than one type of reader - otherwise, you're limited to the titles available to your particular reader. The librarians I spoke to don’t expect to see a huge uptake in the general population until that situation changes.

Interestingly, many of the comments left in response to the Time article on BTT were along the same lines: people like the idea of having an ebook reader – offering hundreds of titles at their fingertips, often with dictionaries, glossaries and note-taking options. But they still love the feel of an old fashioned book in their hands and can’t see a day when they would turn away from the paper option completely.

There’s also a trend for people to read initial chapters of a book offered online and then go out and buy the “real” version to finish reading it.

Personally, I’ve not bought an e-reader, or read a fiction ebook. I can see the benefits of the technology, and would certainly be willing to give it a try, but I too still love the feel of a book in my hand and the sight of books on my shelves.

The paper versus electronic debate has been raging for years and will continue to rage as the industry and the fiction-loving public grapple with these issues.

The traditional system of agents, publishers and editors exists to provide a level of quality control and discernment, preventing readers from having to wade through thousands of un-edited and potentially badly written books before they find the good stuff.

But Grossman says even this open-slather approach will find its own level. “The wide bottom of the (literary) pyramid will consist of a vast loamy layer of free, unedited, web-only fiction, rated and ranked YouTube-style by the anonymous reading masses”.

What do you think about the issue?

Do you read ebooks? If not, would you?

If yes, do you choose work from writers unpublished in the traditional sense or only those already available in book shops? Do you read ebooks to find new work, or because they are a more convenient and cost-effective way to buy popular titles?

Friday, January 23, 2009

A world without America...

It’s a provocative idea to tackle in a novel, and definitely one guaranteed to attract attention.

Australian writer John Birmingham, when he’s not writing more literary fare like He died with a felafal in his hand, pens fast-paced alternative history thrillers. His latest is Without Warning, in which the vast majority of the continental United States is inexplicable covered in a giant wave of energy from space.

The result is the instant disappearance of more than 350 million people.

Not only has the Wave (as it becomes known) devastated the bulk of the US population, it shows no signs of leaving. And while machines and electronic devices are unaffected by the Wave, all humans who come into contact with it instantly disintegrate, meaning the bulk of the continent is a no-go zone.

What starts as an inexplicable mass tragedy – disturbingly celebrated in certain parts of the world – quickly turns into a chaos that threatens the downfall of the industrial age.

The novel is less concerned with the cause of the phenomenon (as one character puts it, “we’re like ants whose nest got hit by a kid with a magnifying glass on a sunny day … we’re probably a thousand years from understanding…”) and more interested with the social, political and economic impact it would have on the globe if the US was to suddenly “disappear”.

Without Warning is told from multiple perspectives (almost too many, as it’s hard to keep track of everyone). The most interesting are a former US Ranger-turned war correspondent, embedded in Iraq with troops suddenly without a Commander in Chief; and a female American assassin in Paris, cut off from her controllers and hunted by terrorists.

In Birmingham’s scenario, with the might of the US gone – and its remaining military forces scattered across the globe – the world begins to unravel.

Jaded assassin Caitlin, frustrated by the attitude of an extreme left-wing Frenchwoman explains the inevitable impact America’s disappearance will have on the global economy and availability of oil:

Think about where it (oil) comes from… Think about what’s going to happen there now the evil global overlord is no longer around to oppress everyone into behaving themselves. Think about what’s going to happen to the evil world financial system now that the planet’s greatest debtor nation has winked out of existence and won’t be meeting its mortgage payments to anyone.”

The alternative history offered here is frightening because, in many ways, the novel's twists and turns are realistic consequences of the current geo-politics and cultural clashes dominating our headlines in this reality.

In Without Warning, things go wrong in so many ways: Paris erupts into civil war when its cultural divide meets head on in the streets; fires break out behind the Wave, where nuclear power plants and unmanned vehicles and appliances – left running when their human operators disappeared – are igniting and burning freely, creating a toxic fall-out that starts to move across other continents.

There are startling images of American citizens in the untouched outposts (Seattle, Alaska and Hawaii) lining up for food stamps, and the remaining millions of US citizens scattered across the planet suddenly seeking asylum as refugees.

Birmingham gives us some great moments (Seattle’s City Councillors are put under house arrest by the military when they decide to vote on whether or not they should still get biscuits during meetings when the rest of the city is on food rations).

He also gives some us blood chilling ones: Israel using its nuclear arsenal to remove the Arab threat closing in, wiping out another 300 million people.

Without Warning is a cautionary tale about globalisation (actually, it makes the current global financial crisis look pretty tame) and picks at the fragile nature of our industrialised society.

It’s hard to know how this book will do in the US. On the one hand, it reinforces the (increasingly unpopular) dogma that “the world as we know it would fall apart without America”. On the other, it shows America at is most vulnerable, and how quickly the rest of the world might turn on it in that state.

Politics aside, Without Warning is a cracking read. Birmingham’s characters have depth, the dialogue is excellent, and the story a page-turner. It’s a tad long, but the journey is worth it.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Does the price of a book influence your choices?

A debate is raging in Australia at the moment about how much we pay for books and how much we could be paying if booksellers were allowed to import cheaper versions.

The argument surrounds what’s known as parallel importation. That means importing international versions of books that are also printed in Australia by local publishers.

The Australian Productivity Commission is considering this issue in a study into Copyright Restrictions on the Parallel Importation of Books, and it’s sparked one of the most heated industry debates in recent years.

In one camp, you’ve got the “cheaper books mean more books being bought and read” proponents (predominantly booksellers); in the other, their “but at what price to the Australian publishing industry” opponents (publishers and writers).

In a nutshell, if booksellers can import the cheaper versions of books, they can naturally sell them for a much cheaper price than the locally printed editions. (This goes for books by best-selling international and local authors, who have editions published in more than one country – that’s why a web search on certain novels might deliver three or four different editions with different covers, and even different titles).

Former NSW Premier, Dymocks Books board member and avid reader Bob Carr argues that parallel importation of cheaper books will mean there will be more books on Australian shelves, which he says is good for everyone.

In a column in The Weekend Australian Review, he says best-selling books are unnecessarily expensive in Australia because bookshops can’t buy from overseas if an Australian publisher expresses an interest in publishing it here. He says the argument that the existing legislation protects local publishers is moot, because more and more Australians are buying books online through outlets such as Amazon. (You can read the full article here.)

One of the most pressing points of contention from opponents of cheap imports is that Australian publishers won’t be able to compete on price with international publishers, which in turn will impact their viability to publish local works.

Brett Haydon of UNSW Press, on his blog Hedged Down, argues that price is not the only consideration when a reader decides to buy a book. He says people don’t choose who they read based on price, any more than they buy books by the kilo.

On this point I agree: if I want a book, I’ll pay the cover price. If it is a new release blockbuster (like, say, a Harry Potter novel), I might shop around to get the best price. But I wouldn’t pass over the book I wanted for a cheaper book I wasn’t as interested in.

However, if there is a choice between a more expensive local edition and a cheaper import – which has exactly the same content – there’s a fair chance buyers are going to reach for the cheaper one.

But here’s the rub: there’s no guarantee the content will be the same when it comes to international versions of Australian books.

In US version of Australian novels, for example, the cultural references, slang and idiosyncrasies that make the story Australian, are often edited out or replaced with something more familiar to American readers.

So it’s entirely possible a young reader might pick up the cheaper imported version of a Tim Winton, Markus Zusak or John Marsden novel to find it full of American references, not the original Australian content.

As Bookseller and Publisher says in its response to Bob Carr, there will be fewer books in Australian homes if “Australian children can’t find themselves in them”.

And so, the debate rages on.

What do you think? Are these issues important?

Do you buy a book based on price? Would you buy a cheaper import? Does it matter if the content is different?

(The Commission has released an issues paper, outlining some key matters to be addressed in the study and calling for public submissions. It’s due to present its findings to the Australian Government in May 2009. You can find out more here.)