I’m still agnostic about the whole e-book thing but it’s obviously a question with which we’re all going to have to deal. Yes, there’s plenty of people who say that they’ll never abandon paper and ink. But consider this latest piece of functionality:
“Our vision is every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds,” said Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive.
Amazon also announced a new feature, Whispersync, which would allow readers to begin a book on one Kindle and continue, at the same point in the text, on another Kindle or a mobile phone.
There’s a general trend in computing now where more and more software exists on the Internet rather than on your computer — for example, Gmail as contrasted with Microsoft Outlook. These new Kindle options seem a move in that direction. You would no longer have a personal library. Instead, you’d have instant access to a collective library of unimaginable size. Gotta say, it does sound quite appealing.
Sceptics might want to consider the point that Jenny Lee makes here.
[I]t’s a mistake to deride electronic publishing by contrasting the e-book with some idealised (usually old) printed volume that is an enduring source of value and pleasure. The fact remains that most books today are manufactured as disposable items. Even hardbacks are simulacra of the ‘real thing’ – printed on paper that discolours when exposed to light, their cardboard covers coated with paper textured to look like cloth, their glued spines hidden by woven bands.
As an experiment, I recently set out to dismember a John Grisham hardback and a 1907 evangelical tract (it’s hard to find books you can conscientiously carve up). While Songs of English Praise resisted my assaults on its sewn binding and cloth cover, the Grisham book succumbed to a swift blow of the Stanley knife; its most durable element was the dust jacket, which was so heavily laminated that it merely stretched when I tried to tear it. With a narrowing quality margin over digital books, such printed volumes can no longer claim longevity as their trump card.
In any event, as Sherman Young argues in his recent volume The Book Is Dead, new media forms do not need to match old ones; they merely need to be good enough at the price, as paperbacks were when they first appeared. This has become clear in scholarly publishing. In the 1980s, scholarly publishers entered a vicious circle of declining print runs and increasing cover prices as the volume of journals and monographs outran demand. Average US monograph sales fell to about 750 per title by 2000, and in the UK they plumbed depths of 250 to 300. Journals too became unaffordable for all but the best-endowed academic libraries, and sales to individuals collapsed. In the years since then, even venerable scholarly houses such as the university presses of Oxford and Cambridge have turned to e-books as a way out of this dilemma.10 The shift has gone further in scholarly journals, where the dominant model is digital publication with electronic transmission over the web. To supplement the static electronic texts, the big ‘content aggregators’ make their contents more accessible through electronic databases, search facilities and RSS feeds. Here, a demanding audience that was traditionally a haven for printed works has accepted digital texts that are ‘good enough’ rather than lose the diversity essential to intellectual exchange.
It’s that ‘good enough’ principle that ensured the demise of vinyl, even though there’s genuine arguments that can be made about the advantages of old-fashioned records as opposed to CDs or MP3s. No matter how aesthetically pleasing album sleeves were, it wasn’t enough to trump the portability of the new formats.
Yes, the more I think about it, the more it seems obvious that the e-book revolution is coming, whether for good or for ill. I mean as a mainstream phenomenon: there will always be some people printing on paper but it seems more likely than not that at some stage in the not too distant future the preferred format for trade publishers will be digital.
Which raises all kind of issues. To make the most obvious point, if – as Amazon clearly hopes – the Kindle becomes the default application that will give a single company an astonishing control over what we read, a power best understood by imagining a single corporation controlling all the sources of paper.
No one knows the future but we need to start thinking some of these issues through.