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?


Anonymous said...

You know, there is something lovely and terribly exciting about walking into a book shop, a library or a second hand book store. The smell, the feel and the look of so many books just waiting to be picked up and read.
I will never lose that joy with books, no matter how many hours I spend each day on the internet. Nothing is like a book you can pick up, carry with you and shove in your bag.

Bec said...

Wow, this is really interesting. No I have never actually read an ebook. And you know, as much as I love technology, I have no desire to either. Like the above person said, there is so much more to reading than just absorbing a story. To smell, feel and see a book is a whole experience. Very different to just sitting and looking at a screen, which I also feel is harder on the eyes, and is not relaxing in the way that reading a hard copy book is. Basically, I like to read in bed before I go to sleep, and I'd much rather relax with a homely tactile book, than an electronic entertainment device...I guess that's just me...

Linda Jacobs said...

I've never read an ebook. For me, the best part of a book is the smell. I always rifle the pages and take a deep whiff every time I open it.

A few years ago, one of my students drew a cartoon of me sniffing a book with a caption that said, "Mrs. Jacobs has another best smeller."

I just can't imagine a world without real books!

Paula Weston said...

I agree re the feel and smell of a book.

"Best smeller" - that's priceless!