I’ve lost grey matter beating my head on the walls of this blog and elsewhere on the internet that the advent of eBooks does not signal or signify the death of paper books, nor should it. Anyone who wants paper books to go away is in the business of reading for the sake of technology and not access. With that in mind, it is sad that there are many in this nation, especially librarians, who consider a potential decline in the number of paper books or “the death of print” as a widening of the digital divide. They are right and wrong.
Let’s look at how they are wrong first: Think beyond America (few do) and the number of people across the world we cannot ship physical books to or books that are not printed in their language. With cheap cellphones and pricing plans everywhere in the world except this country, eBooks are made more accessible anywhere you can get a cellphone signal. Now that is access. The digital divide closes. Now, look back at America. We are a nation that takes expensive technology as a given and works for change from that premise. I think we need to take a step back and look at how we consume and address (read: fight) our own patterns of consumption before we cry about how others cannot consume the same way. For instance, I will never buy a Kindle (single function) and truly question the purchase of eBooks for an iPad or similar device. More about this in a little bit.
How they are so, so right: Access to paper and electronic books in the US is a hot, confusing, expensive mess. Most libraries are woefully underfunded and understocked and the stacks of most university libraries are off-limits to the uninitiated, in many cases taxpayers who paid for them in the first place. And why in the name of everything right and sweet are new paperbacks almost $10 a piece, forget larger paperbacks for $14.99 and hardbacks upwards of $40? So, if getting to paper books is this hard, think how much more of a barrier there is is for the average American to get to electronic books. American internet and cellphone plans are the epitome of price-gouging and, in this economy, the first things to be cancelled when drawing up a budget. Following that, unless you plan to read only free, public-domain eBooks for the rest of your life, the pricing structure for for-sale eBooks is completely bogus. Up to $15 for a new eBook – they have to replant more electrons, you see – and don’t give me all that about having to pay the authors and editors because y’all know how much you were paid for paper copies of your books back when. The big honking cherry on top is the question of ownership and sharing. This brings me back to the point earlier in this post when I questioned the purchase of eBooks for any reader.
Is my purchased eBook really mine? In other words, can I do whatever I want with it, including giving it to a friend after I’ve finished reading it without giving away my reader with it? I recently stumbled across librarian Bobbi Newman’s really cool blog and am absolutely intrigued by the notion of checking out your local library’s electronic copy of a book on your reader. How many libraries do this? But, more importantly, when can we do this between my iPad and your Kindle? When can I give you my eBook that I bought for $14? And will a SWAT team come crashing into my house Brazil-style and cart me away to Penguin-Knopf Prison Cell Block C because, somewhere in the fine print of all the legalese surrounding the purchase of an eBook, it says I cannot give you my eBook as I would have my paper copy? Again, if the process is this difficult for me to understand, a technologist who works with Project Gutenberg, to fathom, how much harder is it someone who simply wants to read a book, not pay a fortune for it, actually own it and maybe give it away when done with it? Note that I did not even get into how you have to purchase an expensive eReader first (and its attendant DRM agreements with the providers of every chunk of content you put into it) before you go about borrowing library eBooks.
Yes, I can see how the digital librarians worry. But, I wish they, especially the more high-profile ones, would speak out more and louder against the dictates of the publishing and telecommunications industries instead of taking them as a given. We need less gatekeepers and more gatecrashers.
At the time of this writing, I am considering attending Books In Browsers 2011 as a PG representative, where I hope to learn a lot more about the current state of eBooks and generate ideas to increase access to electronic and paper books. Literacy creates opportunity.