The laments I hear about ebooks is the loss of the book culture. There is the loss of the smell and feel of books. There is the loss of the interpersonal connection of books. There is the loss of the cultural signal of book covers. Some see value in the actual turning of pages, as if the shifting of space by paper has some independent meaning. There is some fear that digitization means that books are lost.
To some people, the physical book represents a pillar of civilization. To be true, the mass availability of printed works changed the world, contributed to the rise of the middle class, making the acquisition of knowledge easier for greater numbers of individuals.
Every innovation heralds changes in culture. Who can forget the infamous “Video Killed the Radio Star”. The printed book decimated the tradition of oral storytelling and the culture and community surrounding that. By hanging on to the print culture, what is it exactly that we are preserving?
Is the argument that we read more with print than in digital form? Not me. I find myself reading at every spare moment. I don’t even mind the wait in line anymore. That merely means an extra page or two. Is the argument that we will learn better if we read in print rather than digital form? That depends highly upon the individual but there will be no shortage of studies on both sides of the argument.
I’m not advocating for the elimination of print books. What I am advocating for is to measure a book by its contents rather than the mode of delivery. Is the story of To Kill a Mockingbird any less powerful because it is read on a Sony Reader than in a paperback purchased at the Half Price Bookstore? Of course not. The power of To Kill a Mockingbird is in the narrative.
We need to decouple the word “book” from its binding. A book’s quality is not dependent on its publication in hardcover, paperback or digital. A book’s quality is wholly dependent on its content alone, or at least that is how books should be judged. Romance has long been ghettoized because it is mass market trash. Hardcover is considered the holy grail not because authors view hardcovers as more worthy publications but because hardcover means (among other things) that more mainstream critics will pay attention.
Particularly for long form narrative fiction, the method of delivery does not change the content. What is being challenged is our memories associated with our print books. Having grown up with print, having loved our print books, it’s hard to disengage the memories and feelings with the mode of delivery. If we had learned to read on a digital reader, had formed memories with our digital readers, then I think the print form would be less romanticized.
As Scott McLee wrote in a post at Inside Higher Education:
And while it is painful to witness the erosion and collapse of large sectors of infrastructure for print culture, this is happening under the strain of internal contradictions, not because of e-book devices.
The erosion and collapse of the print culture is occurring because in its current iteration, it is economically unsustainable. To quote from McLee’s article again:
As Colin Robinson, a seasoned editor who recently lost his job at Random House, puts it in the latest issue of the London Review of Books: “A system that requires the trucking of vast quantities of paper to bookshops and then back to publishers’ warehouses for pulping is environmentally and commercially unsustainable. An industry that spends all its money on bookseller discounts and very little on finding an audience is getting things the wrong way round. Following the strictures of their accountants, the large houses will intensify their concentration on blockbusters. High street bookshops will abandon deep stockholding, becoming mere showrooms for bestsellers and prize-winners. Ever more people will read the same few books.”
The beauty of digital technology isn’t that it is limiting but that there is more choice. Print on demand is becoming increasingly more accessible. Digital reading devices are becoming more affordable. The future of books should not be one or the other in terms of format.
Digital publishing should mean that no book is ever hard to find or inaccessible to any reader, regardless of the date of publication and the locale of the reader. The future of books should mean that the reader can take control of her reading environment. Should she wish to read in ebook format, the publisher will have made every book available to her in digital format. Should she wish to read in paper format, the publisher should have every book available to her in print format, whether it is through traditional fulfillment or print on demand.
In digital publishing, the ideal is the content and the reader reign supreme.