Monday, May 17, 2010

eReaders - The End of Paper Books?

I've spent a lot of time over the last little while thinking about e-readers and whether or not they're going to eventually mean an end to paper books. I really hope not.

It's not that I don't want people to be environmentally conscious. I do and I recognise that every little bit helps, so even though switching to ebooks isn't going to have the same impact as, say, driving a fuel efficient car or walking to work every day, I don't think it's a bad idea to do something to help the environment, especially where trees are concerned. This seems to be a hot topic for debate at the moment, but so far, even where there is a clear support of the continuation of paper books, everything I've read suggests that, over all, for avid readers, ereaders are the environmentally conscious way to go. Two blogs with differing opinions on the subject, but which present essentially the same research are Daniel Goleman's (E-Reader Versus Book: The Eco-Math) and Earth Beat (The future of paper books ... and e-readers).

So, why, as an environmentally conscious writer, would I not want ereaders to replace traditional books? A few reasons.

The first and biggest reason is that I think our society depends far too much on technology. Just about everyone in North America remembers that wide-spread, three-day blackout and the rolling black and brown outs that followed it. In the realm of disasters, it ranked pretty low, but it wasn't nothing. Some people died as a result, because they had no air conditioning and the financial damages done to businesses due to products spoiling or stores having to stay closed for long periods of time, was immense. And that is a system that has been in place for many, many years. What makes us think that the Internet (something new enough that I remember when only rich people could afford it, something which, at the time, couldn't be accessed without a dedicated phone line and ten minutes of horrible beeping and gurgling) is any less likely to spontaneously go down? Or, Hell, if you believe the Internet is bullet proof, good luck using it if the power goes out again. Good luck charging your ereader, too. If we've converted all of our old books to efiles and, especially, if our new books were never (or hardly ever) actually in print, a technological breakdown would be crippling to the acquired and compiled knowledge of the entire world. Think the burning of the library at Alexandria. Having all of our knowledge stored in one place is a bad idea.

It's also a money thing. Right now, especially, people don't have a lot of money to spend on, well, anything. So while an ereader might save you money overall (from what I can tell, ebooks aren't that much cheaper than paper, but they are a bit), most people don't have the money to spend on an ereader up front, and if they do, and enough people switch, it's going to drive the price of traditional books up - which means that people who couldn't ever hope to afford an ereader now won't be able to afford paper books either. Any new technology does this at first, drives out the old technology while simultaneously being too expensive for many people to afford (I saw this first hand with the transition from tape-cassette to CD, Discmans to mp3 players and videos to DVDs), and yes, eventually, it does balance out, but in the meantime, it sucks for the people who are too poor to afford the new stuff and (because the new stuff is so widely available to those who can afford it) can't find the old stuff anywhere.

Then there's the issue of the traditional in traditional books. It may sound a bit snobby and like it's not much of an argument, but there is something to be said for the feel of a paper book in your hands. There is something to be said for the idea of taking your book on a plane or a bus or to the beach or camping or hiking through the mountains and not having to worry about what happens if your batteries die. I don't know, the idea of reading The Paper Bag Princess to a kid on an ereader just doesn't work for me.

As for the solutions to the environmental implications of sticking with paper books, my suggestions to the publishing world at large include using recycled (preferably sustainable) paper and natural inks and printing books on demand, rather than printing huge quantities then warehousing them and eventually pulping the unwanted ones.

Obviously, this is a subject which readers and writers alike have strong opinions about and most of the articles I've read contain very evident biases (I read one article comparing various ereaders and paper books, which ranked most of the ereaders' readability as high and the readability of paper books as medium.) and I don't want to suggest that I think that ereaders in general are a bad idea, or that people shouldn't take steps to help the environment. In fact, I think they're a good idea, especially for people who want to read a book but don't necessarily want to own it (especially popular books which may not be in stock at a nearby library but are often overstocked at bookstores) or for people who spend a lot of time travelling and don't want to put fifteen books in the carry-on when they go on vacation. I think there are a lot of great uses for ereaders; I just don't want to see them replace paper books.


Rhiannon said...

I'd like to see printing houses switching to paper made from hemp or similar plants...but that would require a complete economic shift from tree paper to that paper, and that people will only do if they're forced. Which is annoying, but there you have it.

Might be forced to soon, though, if this oil spill nonsense continues. We're going to need all the oxygen factories (forests) we can get once all the plant life in the oceans is dead.

I dunno. I can see the upside to ereaders, but I also have this half-formed notion that they're for lazy people. On the other hand, books aren't waterproof.

But the paper thing is also one of the reasons why I couldn't bring myself to finish and publish romance novels, even for fun. The idea that forests might be killed for my deliberately horrible fiction makes me sick on the inside. Perhaps now that there's ereaders, I might look at the idea again...

Athena said...

You make a fair point. I'd like to check out the Harlequin sales for Ereaders, if they're good, we might just have a way of supporting ourselves ;)

E said...

I can't support anything that says that switching from paper to electronic media is environmentally friendly after seeing a strip-mine where the coal that powers said electronic media comes from. If you really think that electricity is more environmentally friendly than a one-time printing of a book you can read again and again without having to recharge it, go take a look at a coal mine.
And, as for the "readability" of ebooks, I can't sit at a computer or look at an iPod with a backlit screen for more than an hour, while I can easily spend three or four times that reading a book. And, when the text is backlit, I "skim" and skip any big chunks - which is definitely a bad thing when it comes to books, because that's where all the good description and character development is, all the things that draw me into a story so that I completely forget where I am and what time it is for those four or more hours.
Amazon's already had copyright issues with their Kindle ebooks - they published 1984 without buying the rights first, and had to wirelessly retract the book from millions of Kindles when they found out. And, while they did leave a credit amounting to the price of the book on each person's account, this raises questions of what else they can do with the ereader's wireless technology. If the government decided, for example, that Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother" was a threat to the security of the state, it could instantly be removed from the libraries of everyone who had it on an ereader. This amounts to somebody walking into your house, taking your book, and leaving you money in exchange. The ereader will be a boon for China - just another, easier way to stifle free speech.
Finally, there's the little matter of value. An ebook is not going to last more than one person's lifetime - according to Amazon's copyright, your license to read and use the ebook dies with you, and you can't pass it on or transfer it to another ereader. And at the rate technology changes, how many people are going to hand their ereader on to their children? On the other side of the spectrum, books can last for centuries, amassing collector's value as they do so. And you can't press a flower between the pages of an ebook, can't leave a note in the margin for some future reader to discover (not that there will be future readers, with Amazon's copyright), can't slip a photo into an ebook or sign it "Happy Birthday from your loving aunt" or, best of all, hide a crisp twenty behind the front cover. Not to mention: what happens to libraries in the age of the ereader? I may be old-fashioned, but some of my best memories are of the library, and some of my favourite fantasies are set in libraries. They're not just warehouses for words, they're magical kingdoms in their own right, where you never know just who or what will pop out at you or where you'll be carried away to next. Libraries are dying as it is; the ereader will be another nail in the coffin.
So call me a Luddite, but I won't be investing in an ereader anytime soon.

Rhiannon said...


Hee hee..just kidding. All of your points are excellent, and valid, and I agree with all of them.

I also didn't know about that copyright nonsense. How would Amazon even know if you're dead? Do they guess? What if you're declared dead, but you're not actually dead? What if someone dies with the same name, and they also have a kindle? Will the copyright expire for all kindles owned by people with that name? And why bother, when books get passed on to new readers all the time?

One of the things I'd love to do is learn how to grow and process hemp so I can make paper (and yarn) when society goes to shit.

The best use for an ereader I can see (beyond the saving of trees...and assuming they can make one with a kick ass, environmentally friendly battery charged by love and rainbows...but not literal rainbows) is for a friend of mine who's got a learning disability that affects the way she processes the written word. But she's got software that'll read text files for her on her laptop, so...*shrug*

I haven't been to a proper library since I finished school. I always end up owing them far too much money, which is better spent on just buying the damn book. But I do have very fond memories of camping out in a chair, powering my way through my selections from the Sci-Fi/Fantasy shelves while waiting for my dad.

I love libraries. >:D