Do You Own That Book?

I watched Alan Yentob pontificating about the future of books on last night’s ‘Imagine’ programme and . . . blah blah blah. It didn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know and haven’t been talking/worrying about for some time now. There were those who spoke out for the printed word and there were those who ’embrace’ the future, arguing that it’s about the content, not the delivery system. Of course, they went back to the old nugget about how people resisted the change from vinyl to CD and mp3, but I don’t really see them as the same thing. It’s not a fair analogy. The physical act of listening to music is the same whether it comes from vinyl, CD or mp3. The sound might be different, but the act of listening is the same.

But when we read, we have a physical interaction with the object that delivers the words to us.

My TBR pile

We hold the book or ereader in our hand in order to receive the content. We musn’t fool ourselves that the delivery system isn’t important, because why else would Amazon have remodelled its readers over the past few years? Why else would it launch its alluring colour-screen Kindle Fire? Why else would there be competing ereaders offering different functionality? Why else would readers be able to customize and individualise the physical appearance of the ereader? Of course it’s about the delivery system. In this technological age we all love to ooh and aah over the latest gadget. We like it to look cool and we want to be hip and keep up with the times. If it was only about the content and not the delivery system, wouldn’t the audio book have taken over long ago? Wouldn’t we just listen instead of reading? So, there you go – I don’t agree with that argument. It’s about the content AND the delivery system.

But I’m not all ‘bah humbug!’ about the new technology. In the long run it makes no difference if people read on paper or on screen. For me, though, the book is king. I spend all day looking at screens, so picking up a printed book is a pleasure I would be disappointed to have to live without. I don’t want everything to be electronic. The thought of it makes me shiver. My life is already filled with alerts and notifications and bleeps and pings and I don’t need any more. (I’m also pleased to say that my children – who are very much part of the technological age – both love books in their printed form.)

The real issue for me is that electronic books are intangible. We can’t touch them. We can’t really own them – as far as I can work out, you buy a license to read a book, which means you don’t actually own it. The consumer owns the ereader, but licenses the ebook. So, can that license be revoked? Can your Kindle refuse to let you read your book? And because of this, I see people losing touch with the value of the words contained within, just as many people have lost touch with the value of music. They want it cheap or they want it free. And that’s what worries me most.

Ereader, printed book, however you choose to read is good. I’m sure there can be room for everyone. But let’s not lose touch with the value of what we’re reading.

That’s all.

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19 thoughts on “Do You Own That Book?

  1. I have the exact same problem with e-books, you’ve paid for – essentially – nothing. For the same reason I’ve never fully embraced mp3s and still prefer to buy a CD with a disc and everything.

    What happens if there was a digital meltdown and all the books were wiped? I’m not against eBooks, anything that gets people reading is a good thing in my books (get it – books) but printed word is the future.

    • Nicola — as en ebook publisher, I have escrow agreements in place with independent third parties so that my customers will always have a copy of the book, even if our building was destroyed or there was a digital meltdown. If something happened to prevent you accessing your books for more than 60 days, the escrow agreement kicks in and customers would be sent their own copy to do with what they liked. Most publishers have similar agreements in place.

      • that’s good to know – I mean maybe in the wild dystopic future when the world is ruled by machines though?? And everything is online and there are no paper copies! Although I guess then we will lose everything in a powercut… sorry I’m rambling now!

        Seriously though – I am a librarian and a lot of my colleagues are incredibly anti-ebook. I do wholeheartedly endorse ebooks especially with the current tablet boom – anything to get people reading. But for me it will always be paper books – agree with your comment at the bottom of the page Dan about cotton vs silk (although maybe you love books in a whole other way going from that post!!!!)

  2. I really like this entry, Dan. Although my life as a publisher is only about ebooks, I sometimes get nostalgic for the aesthetics of the printed product. Especially with my experience in production where I used to fret over the grammage and opacity of paper (I was always a geek, and still am).

    When people ask me how I can so easily give up the printed book for the ebook, I always tell them that it’s not all about the aesthetics of the object. As you say, the delivery system is also important. Yes, I lose the beauty of my shelves of books, I lose the tactile aspect of paper, I lose the smell of books, and so on. But I also gain in utility, in portability, in accessibility, and in functionality (search, internal and external linking, annotations and highlighting, publishing notes to social networks, discoverability, etc.) It’s a trade off, and whether you think that trade-off is attractive is entirely subjective, of course.

    There is one analogy with music which I think applies. I still have a record player and my old vinyl collection on a shelf. I love getting an album down, putting it on the player, and sitting back with a coffee to listen to the record from start to end, without being able to foward, skip or backtrack. And as I sit there, I will be reading over the cover notes, maybe admiring the cover artwork, and generally taking in the aesthetics of it all. BUT, I wouldn’t give up the advantages of MP3 downloads — yes they’re lovely digital ‘objects’ with no artwork beyond a thumbnail on the screen etc., but without them I wouldn’t be able to listen to my music on the move, or create dynamic playlists, etc.

    Finally, you’re spot on about ownership. But is there any REAL difference between owning something and being licensed to use it in perpetuity? For as long as you live, the bookseller must ensure you retain access to the book you ‘bought’. Indeed, partly because of this contractual obligation, ebook sellers are now starting to move to a Cloud model where they keep your books permanently in the Cloud, so should you have a new device, or move to a different country, you will always be able to download a copy or access the text from their platform — wherever you are, whenever that is. To me, that experience is the same as ownership, it matters not to me that the terms and conditions on Amazon’s site says that I’m license the product. For every practical situation in life, I will have that book.

    • I can just imagine you head-bobbing along to some good tunes, Mark, except in my imagination you’re still seventeen rather than . . . Ahem . . . Cough . . . Anyway, I see your point about covers and artwork on records but I still don’t feel it’s quite the same thing. I’m thinking that your record player or your iPod dock is the delivery system rather than the record or the mp3.

      The thing that strikes me most about the whole debate is that it seems to be split into two camps – the ebook army vs the printed book army. But why does it have to be that way? Can there really be, in the words of Connor McLeod, ‘only one’?

      • I think it’s a front-off between the two armies at the moment because it’s still relatively new. We were there with music, with analogue geeks doing their best to tear down the digital CD. Now there’s nostalgia for CDs!

        I think the world will learn to live with and enjoy both. For art books and other ‘beautifully’ published content you cannot do better than ink on paper. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying it will be many years before a substrate is invented that can commercially replace ink and paper for high-end reproduction. And for the world of textbooks in further and higher education, interactive and enhanced digital books will be hard to beat. And for everything in between, personal taste and choice will ensure both formats coexist (although my guess is that print will become niche).

        And I’m still that 17-year-old fresh-faced kid, you cheeky bugger. (Online you can’t prove otherwise!)

  3. Ohhh, you know how I feel about this Dan (from previous blog post)… lovely lovely books, all touchy feely and smelly of dusty. There has to be a place fo e-books now, because they’re there, and any reading in better than none. But e-books don’t get people reading (some people’s arguments for them) – the people who have e-books would have read printed books beforehand, so they’re not converting non-readers to readers. I’m glad you raised this – it worries me too, and the more people who talk about this the better, in my view. Nice to know your children still like the printed book – mine too. We are a kindle and e-book free household and I hope my wee abode is weighted down by new printed matter this Christmas…. I shall be pretty miffed if it isn’t!

    • We’re a kindle free home, too. I do have an iPad, though, and I do have one book on it. I bought it because someone I follow on Twitter was having a promotion and it was available for 99p. It’s published by a trad publisher and I intended to buy it on paper, but he was having a push to drive it up the rankings, so I lent my support. I now have it on the Kindle app on my iPad. Only thing is . . . I haven’t read it yet. I want to. I will read it. But those printed books on my shelf are just so much more enticing. They look at me in just the right way. Those pages are so good in my hands. The cover is so fine, inviting me to open it and read on. The bookmarks my children made for me make me smile every time I open it and . . . well, why have cotton, when you can have silk?

      And I don’t need a bazillion books in my pocket. I just need one.

  4. I have to confess that, while I have nothing whatsoever against ebooks, I much prefer to read a printed book. There’s something about the feel of them, and the smell, and, well, the *bookishness* of them that can’t be beaten.

    Also, like you, Dan, I spend all day (both when I’m writing and when I’m at the day job) in front of a computer. After all that, the last thing my eyes need is more reading stuff on screens. It feels too much like more work. The printed page is much more relaxing.

    So, y’know, if you and Abi need a superhero in reserve (a sub-superhero? Yeah… sounds about right…), sign me up. 🙂

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