A sucker for a good pun, if there is such a thing, I couldn’t resist the title of this post. It came to me as I was visiting Amazon, and emblazoned on the home page was an ad for their Kindle device, and with the Christmas holiday getting closer, I found myself wondering whether I want a Kindle or just a big stack of books. When Amazon introduced the Kindle, company CEO Jeff Bezos touted the Kindle as nothing short of revolutionary, and indeed it is an intriguing gadget. Barnes & Noble has recently announced the Nook, advertised as “the world’s most advanced e-Reader”, and the Kindle’s most promising competition to date. Both of these devices are remarkable, yet as Bezos said in a Newsweek article a few years ago, “The book just turns out to be an incredible device.” A book, is in fact more than just dead trees, or kindling, with a few must-haves missing from these high-tech e-readers. As compelling as these devices are, the lowly book still has a lot to offer.
The social functions that books offer haven’t yet been reproduced electronically. Books can easily be passed on to friends and family. If I like a book, I might buy an extra copy as a birthday gift, or I might just pass on my copy to you. Even if I don’t like a book, maybe you will. Tired of your book? You can sell or trade it, as once purchased a book is your property to do with as you wish. Books have a life of their own, as they are exchanged for cash or other books at a good used book store. My ragged-edged, scribbled-upon book might wind up in your hands tomorrow.
Amazon’s Kindle lacks any ability to share a licensed book. The Nook has a somewhat limited ability to share books, where a Nook owner can pass a book to a friend for fourteen days. But there is no way to simply pass on your book forever, sending the e-book on its way to friends or colleagues. Or, if I need to clean up my e-bookshelf (1500 books is large, but not that large), I can’t resell my books, but instead must delete the title. This dramatically changes the principle of ownership when you buy an e-book. In essence, the book distributor takes on a much more powerful role, deciding by fiat that anyone who reads a book must buy it, a notion made clear by Amazon’s recent decision to remotely delete books from their customers Kindle devices.
There are other problems as well. Books have a regular, familiar format that has stood the test of time, in Western languages, opening from right to left, and easily read from left to right moving down the page. To the credit of the engineers who developed e-ink, the e-ink page looks a lot like a book page. But an e-book’s text is stored in an electronic format that is not readily transferable to other devices, something that should be very easy to do. There is no agreement on a common format for e-books. Of course, the e-book you buy will work in your e-reader, but what if you buy 100 books, and then a new, fancier e-reader comes out from another company. Your old e-books must remain behind in the old reader. Without a common format, electronic books are tied to the device for which they were purchased. Once again, the distributor holds all the cards, in Amazon’s case using a proprietary format. The Nook is somewhat more open, but still not completely.
Books, even paperbacks, are remarkably indestructible. A well made book, treated with kindness, can last more than a few decades. An e-book, while theoretically indestructible, would seem to me to be only as permanent as the e-reader where it is stored. From the little I’ve read, the Kindle’s backup plan, once again tilts away from e-book ownership. Backups are only usable on the device they were purchased on. But what if that device gets stomped on by an elephant? Or lost along with your luggage? Yes, once read a paper book will never look as good as new, but it will still be there to provide enjoyment to the next reader.
When we consider the big picture, e-books look even more problematic. We have a huge societal investment in the sharing of books, via our library system. This social investment, and our investment in public education, go a long way toward providing citizens with the opportunity to educate themselves. This investment sprang from a common belief that an educated populace, particularly in a democracy, will lead to better outcomes for all. Think of it: someone can go to school, learn to read, check out and enjoy books from the library, all through a common investment in education. It is really remarkable, and, most would agree, a small price to pay for an educated populace.
E-books dramatically change the social value of reading. While there are free e-books, there is no agreed upon strategy for publicly sharing e-books. I can’t give my e-books to the library, Amazon won’t let me. Even if our libraries, through our tax dollars, could afford a reasonably sized e-book collection, there is no common infrastructure to share it with patrons. In order to read any of those e-books, a patron would have to buy a relatively expensive e-reader. The economic barrier to reading becomes very high in a world of e-books, for individuals and society.
I have no power to enforce Amazon or Barnes & Noble to conform to my ideas, but let me propose a few reasonable ideas that make an e-book a better deal for customers and society:
- Lower the price. The current $200+ price range is too high for an e-reader, an unjustified price even with wireless access.
- Alternatively, if the e-reader’s price can’t be lowered, dramatically lower the cost of e-books. $9.99 for a bestseller that you can’t resell or share is still too high.
- Cooperate with other vendors and customers to devise a common format, so e-books could easily be kept for future reference, even if you buy a newer model from another vendor.
- Provide libraries with turnkey kiosks or web infrastructure for sharing titles with library patrons.
- Provide a process to allow libraries to accept donated e-book licenses.
- Allow customers to easily recover books if a device fails or is stolen. The customer should not have to take care of backing up their devices, the vendor can easily keep track of your electronic bookshelf.
- Recognize that the customer is the owner of an e-book, with full rights to share, sell, give away, or delete as they wish.
- Recognize that society derives benefit from an educated populace, and that is an ideal worth supporting.
The root of these problems is our profoundly limitless supply of greed, as far as I can tell. Both Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and publishers would have a great deal to gain by selling a cheap, e-reader, and building out the infrastructure to support it. Instead, the current incarnations of e-readers just seem like an all too obvious ploy to lock in market share and monopolize profit. That is what corporations do well, of course, but the societal value of reading is too important to leave up to corporations.