Back from a peaceful two week holiday in the depths of the French countryside – no internet, no mobile signal, walks and swims with a decreasingly grumpy teenage son – I found amidst the weekend newspaper articles analysing the UK riots an interesting Financial Times feature announcing that this is the summer of the e-book. Its author, Carl Wilkinson, sings the praises of e-readers in place of a heavy stack of physical books in the suitcase. The article goes on the describe the flurry of innovation in publishing, a healthy phenomenon that I wrote about here a while ago.
But I do disagree with the FT’s opening premise that e-readers are better for holiday reading. The owners of the house we rented will find I’ve left them a stack of paperbacks finished on holiday, so the weight in the luggage is only one way. And here are all the other reasons physical books, including the paperbacks Mr Wilkinson predicts will be squeezed out of the market by e-readers like the Kindle, are superior.
1. You can’t safely spill sunscreen or wine on an electronic device, or get sand in it, or leave it out in bright sunshine.
2. You can’t share books on a device. I can’t even get e-books I bought on one device onto another device I own, although no doubt one of my domestic IT support staff (sons) could do it for me. I certainly can’t read the e-books my husband downloaded because he’s onto his next e-book on his iPad. E-books torpedo domestic and friendly sharing.
3. They could do the same to the second hand book market (our local Oxfam book shop was damaged in the riots although I fear it was wanton damage rather than self-improving looting; 2nd hand book sales form an important revenue stream for the shops). Nor can you leave your e-books on the book-swap shelf at the local station. No doubt publishers think it’s a good idea to shrink the second hand trade, but they’re wrong: a small number of additional physical sales of new books for them does not remotely compensate for the loss of consumer welfare from a much smaller book market. Besides, as reading is an experience good – consumers have to do it to know how much benefit they get from it – publishers should be thinking of the second hand market as a sort of advertising that drives longer-term sales of their product, especially as students – the most likely long-term readers – have low incomes. Publishers will only thrive if reading thrives!
How big an issue is this? Without having researched the question of second hand sales thoroughly, I did find this report of a now out-of-date US study (via the Booksellers Association):
“Used books are one of the fastest growing segments of the US book industry and the report notes that, propelled by e-commerce, the used book market is ‘exploding’, and it estimates that in 2004 total used-book revenue exceeded $2.2 billion, with 111 million used book units sold, up 11% over 2003. Overall, used book sales are estimated to comprise 8.4% of total consumer spending on books.”
4. You can’t cut and paste quotes from an e-book. Their makers are so paranoid about “intellectual property theft” that to quote from an e-book on this blog, I have to retype the whole thing.
5. How are you supposed to refer others to specific pages of the text – in a footnote for example, or in a review? Floating “locations” have replaced fixed “pages”. Will authors have to start numbering their paragraphs, as if in a mediaeval manuscript?
6. I particularly hate the Kindle. This is a personal thing, as obviously many eager readers luuuurve the Kindle. What I hate is the smallness of the screen, meaning you only get a couple of hundred words of text on it. I read quickly so have to keep thumbing to the next “page” and get thumb-ache. I hate not having the text immediately preceding the bit I just read. I hate having to keep scrolling back by several “locations” to go back to something rather than just turning back a page. I also hate the greyness of the screen and the ugliness of the device – and correspondingly do love my iPad on which I read work papers and an occasional e-book. I hate the way my e-book has comments and highlights from strangers on it, even if I can turn the feature off.
7. I have other idiosyncratic dislikes of e-books too. For example, I can’t see what other people are reading when I’m on the train. This used to offer moments of delight. One time, sitting in a block of four seats on the Tube, I was reading an improving economics book, and my fellow-passengers were reading a Nick Hornby novel, Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle, and Herodotus. How cheering is that?
Enough ranting. Tomorrow, the first of my reviews of my holiday reading.