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On the Net: Ebooks Again? by James Patrick Kelly


Ebooks Again?

by James Patrick Kelly

not dead yet

Although ebooks have come a long way since we last discussed them <http://www.jimkelly.net/pages/e_books.htm> in March of 2001, many pundits would cite their perceived lackluster performance in the marketplace as proof that they were just another dot.com fad. Well, it ain’t necessarily so. Sales of ebooks rose 27 percent in 2003, to $7.3 million, according to Publisher’s Weekly <http://www.publishersweekly.com> citing statistics from the Open eBook Forum <http://www.openebook.org>, the electronic publishing industry’s trade organization. Unit sales increased a whopping 71 percent to 1.3 million. And that’s just a snapshot of for-profit ebook publishing; it doesn’t take into account the gajillions of worthy self-published ebooks given away free to all comers. Closer to home, consider that all of the ebook publishers I mentioned in my previous column are still in business, thank you very much. Consider also that many of you are perusing an ebook version of this column using a digital reader, either Adobe <http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep2.html> or Palm <http://www.palmdigitalmedia.com> or Microsoft <http://www.microsoft.com/reader/downloads/pc.asp> or Mobipocket <http://www.mobipocket.com/en/HomePage/default.asp> or one of an ever-expanding galaxy of less well known software. However, ebooks do not yet threaten publishing with a business plan meltdown in the same way that cheap CD burners and mp3 file-sharing have disrupted the music industry.

And why is that? Most of us would be hard pressed to hear the difference between a song played from a CD and the same song played from an MP3 file and, of course, there is no difference between a music CD and a duplicate burned to a blank CD-R disk–other than the gaudy packaging. What keeps print from making the great leap forward into the digital age are the unsurpassed (as yet) ergonomics of the dead tree book.



In August of 2003 Jeff VanderMeer <http://www.jeffvandermeer.com> and Fantastic Metropolis <http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com> published a fascinating survey <http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com/show.html?iw.books> that featured a clutch of writers, artists, and editors talking about their love affair with books as physical objects. Jeff asked whether these celebrated book folk had any special rituals they practiced after acquiring a new book and whether they thought books still needed to exist in a digital world. He also asked if they would cite examples of well-made books and if they had any special memories connected with books. And who responded? Here are just a few of the many: Michael Chabon <http://www.michaelchabon.com>: "(I like) The way a book can serve as a repository for a photograph, a ticket stub, a feather or a leaf," Ellen Datlow <http://www.datlow.com>: "I feel a thrill when I find a particular out-of-print book I’ve searched for a long time or upon rediscovering (physically) certain books that meant a lot to me as a child," Neil Gaiman <http://www.neilgaiman.com>: "(I like) The smell of paper, the way the book feels, the look of it, the heft," and

Mary Doria Russell <http://literati.net/Russell>: "As an anthropologist and as a novelist, books have always been my tools. I treat them like a mechanic treats a set of socket wrenches." Also quoted were Peter Straub <http://www.peterstraub.net>: "I sniff old books, not new books" Gene Wolfe <http://mysite.verizon.net/~vze2tmhh/wolfe.html>: "I wish I could say that physical books are necessary, but I sincerely doubt it," L. Timmel Duchamp <http://ltimmel.home.mindspring.com>: "The book as material object speaks to me, always, of its history," M. John Harrison <http://www.mjohnharrison.com>: "I read books with an exaggerated care, presumably as a result of childhood warnings to ‘respect’ them," and Tanith Lee <http://www.tanithlee.com>: "(I like) Everything. Touch, smell, appearance. Content, of course." If you want to read some truly eloquent defenses of the paper book, check this out.



Now I’m not about to argue with my distinguished friends and colleagues – I participated in that survey as well! Of course I agree that paper books are beautiful. But are they the final word in reading? Do ebooks have any inherent advantages over paper books? Well, sure. Consider the environmental impacts of the paper book, not only at the beginning but also at the end of its useful life. In comparison, an ebook never wears out. The cover won’t fade or get torn off. No matter how many times you read one, the binding doesn’t fail and release crucial pages at random into a cruel and uncaring world. Ebooks won’t turn yellow or smell musty. Silverfish? Not!

But wait, there’s more! In February of 2004, Cory Doctorow <http://www.craphound.com/>, Campbell-award-winning writer and my nominee for science fiction’s alpha-geek, made a compelling case for ebooks at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference <http://conferences.oreillynet.com/etech>. You may have heard of Cory’s gutsy ploy of making his first two novels available for free downloading simultaneously with their paper publication by TOR Books <http://www.tor.com> with the blessing of his editor Patrick Nielsen-Hayden <http://nielsenhayden.com/electrolite>. I heartily recommend that you read Cory’s speech, Ebooks: Neither E, Nor Books <http://www.craphound.com/ebooksneitherenorbooks.txt> in its entirety, but here are some highlights:

Ebooks are almost infinitely mutable. You can turn them into webpages, send them to a publisher to be printed on paper, format them at home however you please (large print, double columns), have your computer read them aloud to you or send them to your cousin in Stuttgart. You can carry hundreds of them around on a flash memory stick the size of a Bic lighter. You can find any ebook in your elibrary at the tap of a few keys and search that book in an instant for a place or a character or a memorable quote.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, some of you are saying, but I don’t like to read books off my screen and besides, I can’t take them to the beach or read them in the tub. Cory responds to this objection with his two certainties (maybe these should be CAPITALIZED as in THE TWO CERTAINTIES): "1. More people are reading more words off more screens every day. 2. Fewer people are reading fewer words off fewer pages every day." The consequences of The Two Certainties are profound: at some point the ascending digital line must cross the descending print line. Not if, friends, but when. The Two Certainties point to a future in which ebooks inevitably dominate paper books. This might come to pass because print will die back when we print-reading dinosaurs die off. Meanwhile the digital generation will have become accustomed to reading off screens, and may even prefer them. Or it might happen because of some breakthrough in display technology, driven by economic pressure to take advantage of the superior functionality of the ebook, which will make believers out of even the crustiest of print fans.

We interrupt this column for a brief rant.

Maybe what’s holding ebooks back from wider acceptance aren’t readability problems, but a nomenclature gap. What the hell are we supposed to call these things? Are they ebooks or eBooks or Ebooks or e-books or E-books? I’ve seen all of these formulations used. My spell checker thinks they’re e-books but I have a contract with an e-publisher who says they’re eBooks. Proofreaders across the country are snapping their red pencils in frustration. Come on, efolk! Get your act together!

Sorry, but I just had to get that off my chest. Now, back to the column.

You know, thirty some years ago you couldn’t bring your personal music library to the beach either. At the dawn of the Age of the Walkman <http://pocketcalculatorshow.com/walkman/history.html> that cutting edge gizmo cost $150 and it only played one or at most two albums – you had to tote a case full of cassettes if you wanted any kind of selection. Now you can buy yourself an Ipod <http://www.apple.com/ipod> or one of its myriad knockoffs and stick "10,000 songs in your pocket" according to the ad campaign. And are you surprised that you can do this? No way – you read Asimov’s. You’re a science fiction fan, ferchrissakes! Do you seriously doubt that E-Ink and digital paper <http://www.research.philips.com/InformationCenter/Global/FArticleDetail.asp?lArticleId=2817> are on the horizon and will certainly arrive in your lifetime? Guess what? Sony <http://www.eink.com/news/releases/pr70.html> is betting that they’ve already arrived.

I should say here that I have long been one of those saurians who disliked reading for pleasure from a computer screen. But a couple of months ago, for reasons too boring to mention, I popped for a personal digital assistant (PDA) <http://www.pdastreet.com>, mostly to keep track of appointments and addresses when I was away from my desk. As it happened, shortly after I made the buy, I went to Florida to attend the International Conference on the Fantastic <http://www.iafa.org> and to soak up some rays. On a whim, I loaded some ebooks into my new gadget. By the time I got off the plane in Fort Lauderdale I’d fallen in love with my PDA as a reading device. Yes, the screen is smallish but I can change the font at will. Maybe it isn’t exactly ideal for the beach because direct light washes out the backlit screen, but my days of sunbathing are over and this thing is made in the shade. Often as not it’s my book of choice for bedtime reading. And if my wife wants to turn in, we can douse all the lights and I can read from that cheerily lit screen.

The other night as I was looking at Jeffrey Ford’s <http://users.rcn.com/delicate> wonderful The Empire of Ice Cream <http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/originals/originals_archive/ford4/>, I flashed on how very pleased an SF-crazed eleven-year-old named Jimmy Kelly would’ve been in 1962 to learn that in the future they would invent a neat-o kind of book that made it unnecessary to read under the blankets with a flashlight after bedtime.



If in fact ebooks are our future, then we readers are about to step onto the roller coaster that music fans have been riding for the past few years. When you buy an ebook, what rights are you acquiring? You can lend your paper copy of Asimov’s to your brother-in-law when you’re finished with it, but are you allowed to lend him your ebook version of this magazine? These are crucial questions –ones that Cory Doctorow addresses in his prescient essay on ebooks. Next time we’ll hear more from Cory and look at the impact of copywrongs on our little corner of literature.

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"On the Net: Ebooks Again?" by James Patrick Kelly, copyright © 2004 with permission of the author.

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