E-books? I can almost hear you groan and mutter “Not that old chestnut again!”

Yes, I know, it’s almost been done to death. Is the traditional book doomed? Will e-books supplant them? Etc, etcetera, etbloodycetera. In fact, some of you may read some of the points below and get a certain feeling of deja vu…

Well, it’s popped up in the news again with a BBC item on how e-book sales shot up last year. Which is good news for me as an author, since Winter Song and all my other titles are available in both formats.

And as a reader I think that it’s a good thing in principle. I don’t use up as much space as for dead tree books, for one, and while I’m not entirely sure about the environmental benefits,   I’m willing to be convinced.

But I’m hardly messianic about it, as some are (There’s an organization called EPIC made up of  e-book authors who are positively desperate to be proven right, that the traditional book is doomed – I’m not quite sure why they’re such zealots), and I don’t buy into the idea that the book is doomed.

For a start, the book’s demise has been prophecised since some bloke called Wells at the end of the nineteenth century mentioned it in The Shape of Things to Come, and it hasn’t happened yet. I seem to remember that with the advent of videos, pundits were gleefully predicting a similar death for cinema. What happened was that cinema changed its approach, making going to the films a social event.

Author readings at bookstores may be the first wave of a similar adaption in the book world, although that particular aspect may affect e-books every bit as much as traditional ones.

But while as a reader I approve in principle of e-books, I have several problems with the way they are at the moment, which is what has prompted this post. Increasing numbers or e-copies for review have caused me to scale back my reviews, and I only see the problem worsening.

E-books are being plugged because they represent a way for manufacturers to prise money out of you the consumer. You can’t upgrade a book – you can bring out new editions, but there’s no onus on you to buy it. Based on every piece of new technology of the last twenty-five years, that won’t be the case with e-readers; instead there’ll be a new version which probably won’t be compatible with the old one. So all these people who are gleefully converting their libraries to virtual will almost certainly have to do the same again with someone brings out The! All! New! NookPlus! But it’s a great way for publishers to cut costs, especially for reviewers.

Second, I’m still not absolutely convinced about the environmental case. Doesn’t the manufacture of Kindles and Nooks and iPads use up resources? And do downloads really have absolutely no environmental impact? I suspect that like the use of ‘clean’ fuels, we’re simply moving demand for resources from one area to another, as has happened in places like Indonesia when bio-fuel took off. And any environmental impact will only worsen with increased demand.

Lastly, and most importantly for me as a reviewer, I find reading e-books anything but the immersive experience I get with traditional books. In perfect light and sitting at the right angle, I can see the screen of my netbook, but that determines how and where I sit.  To have the print at 100% on pdfs, I find pages have to go across screen, so I continually have to back up to check I haven’t missed anything. Reducing the size to where it fits on a page makes it so small I struggle to read it. Printing pages out costs money, especially if it’s a 400-page book, for example.

As I get older, I’m becomingly increasingly oriented around what I can find in the local library, which in the case of Bath, is nine Kate Wilhelm novels I’ve never read…

I’m sure that future generations won’t have these issues, but I suspect that enough people will to secure the future of traditional publishing in some format or other.

Expect to see more posts when the BBC -or someone else- highlights the issue in the news again.

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• May 5th, 2011 • Posted in Books • Comments: 0