Someday we will be able to have conversations about the kindle and other readers without someone bring in up the smell of books. Seriously. I love to read. Everyone I know who has gotten a kindle or a similar device loves to read. We are all book lovers. But all this talk about touch and smell is starting to sound like a fetish community.
My own understanding of the Kindle was clinched the other day when I was grabbing my bag to go out. Normally I’d bring my kindle, but I was loaning it to my wife, so I needed to pack a book, just in case. Of course, I couldn’t pack just one, because one might get finished, or might not be quite the right book. So there I am, tossing a pair of hardcovers into my bag and I have to fight off a flash of annoyance at how cumbersome this is. I have grown so accustomed to the ease of throwing dozens of books in my bag at once without any weight or hassle that the alternative seems awkward.
This kind of cleared up something for me. I have a decent-sized library of well loved books. We occasionally try to cut it down to reclaim some space, but we rarely do more than trim the edges. I am attached to the books, and I have often wondered about their future, especially now that my son is has entered the picture. How do I square these separate ideas of a love of ebooks and a love of paper?
The answer, as it turns out, is a lot simpler than I’d thought. It all comes down to why I keep books.
For the vast majority of them, the answer is simple: because I might want to read them again someday, or perhaps to look something up in them. My habits were established in the pre-amazon era, where your only chance of finding an out-of-print book was if you got lucky enough at a used bookstore. That meant if I found something like a copy of “The Well Favored Man” that I needed to grab it and hoard it, because the odds of my finding it again were pretty damn slim.
The next biggest reason, and this overlaps some with the first, is so I can loan them out. However, I am an old-school cynic on the subject of loaning books, and any book that’s been loaned should be treated as lost. This is why I actually own multiple copies of certain books I consider particularly loan-worthy.
The far smaller fraction are the books that have some value in and of themselves. Some might merely be well-loved stories. Others might be gifts. Some might be signed, or be particularly lovely editions. These are books which, even if I never read them again, I cherish.
Someday, my library is going to be almost entirely composed of that last category. It’s possible that the transition won’t really happen in my lifetime, but I look at the speed of change in general, and I’m betting 10-20 years. I consider this more or less inevitable, but I also find it informative. The trick is that with my understanding of why I keep books, I can clearly look at what ebooks need to do if they’ll supplant my existing categories.
To do that, ebooks need to be reliable, ubiquitous, and transferable. In practice, that means that:
- I need to be able to own the file enough to choose how to back up and protect it, and I need to be able to find it when I go looking.
- I need content to be available in electronic format.
- I need to be able to loan and give ebooks.
Unsurprisingly, DRM is the biggest barrier to these needs, followed slightly by the simple logistical problem of getting books converted to electronic form. DRM (and the perfidious idea that I am “licensing” the material) is a barrier to use that offers me no benefits in return. Sure, there are other barriers – the cost of entry is too high, the technology of the readers is still clunky at best, the available content is limited and the various formats muddle the waters even further – but those are all problems that can do nothing but diminish. The hardware and technology will eventually reach a point where the price and convenience are comparable with (or better than) a printed book.
But it’s all for nothing if the content is still stuck in the mud. The kindle give an interesting taste of what ubiquitous content might look like: you can access your library on your kindle, your phone or on your computer. That’s pretty fantastic, and that’s still a closed system; imagine if it was opened up further.
Of course, this might also have a transformative effect on the books themselves, but that’s another topic for another time.
1 – This idea, that you should always pack a book just in case, is one that may not be instinctive to everyone, but I think most readers get it.
2 – “Parking Lot Rules” (a parenting book) and “Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate”
3 – I cite Amazon here, and not print on demand or e-distribution for a simple reason. While someday we will probably have all this content available on demand, that’s not the case for the near term. Amazon, in contrast, is here now, and it has made exploratory trips to the used bookstore unnecessary because the used bookseller with the book you need is right there. I miss that sense of exploration and discovery, sure, but I
don’t miss the inconvenience and frustration.
4 – I completely understand the need for creators to get paid, but that not what DRM does right now. Consider book loaning and gifting – Amazon controls all kindle content, and there are few technical challenges that should keep me from being able to say “Take this book off my kindle and send it to my dad’s kindle”, much the same way I could hand him the physical book after I finished reading it. If they had such a feature, they might be able to say “We need DRM to protect ourselves, but look how we also use the software to improve your experience” and they’d at least have a leg to stand on. Instead, DRM is an attempt to erect a barrier against change that is doomed since it’s a barrier built on the very source of the change itself. A wall built on a foundation of sand will stand longer than one built on a foundation of bits.
5 – This is the “Bathtub Test”. Right now, one of the smug anti-ereader talking points is how much you lose if you drop it in the tub. It’s a fair cop, especially with readers costing what they do now. But there is a cost of replacing a book you drop in the tub too, sometimes a non-trivial one, since you are losing the artifact and the content (with an ereader, you lose only the artifact so long as you’ve backed up the content). If ereaders get cheap enough or if e-content gets ubiquitous enough, that gap may narrow or even invert.