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November 29, 2007

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

Print and Sentiment

The reaction to the Kindle by Internet pundits seems mixed so far, which is fine--everyone gets an opinion, and most of them are wrong. But what amazes me is the incredible attachment to the printed book. John Gruber, a man who never met a sneer he didn't like, links to one typographer's view:

PEOPLE DON'T WANT TO READ BOOKS ON A SCREEN. Why is that so hard for someone as obviously smart as Jeff Bezos to accept? The reason the iPod took off is that music was never meant to be a 'thing' in the first place. It was born as pure sound, and pure sound is what it has returned to. But books were always physical objects, and the printed book as a piece of technology has yet to be improved upon. And won't. Certainly not by something that looks like a prop from Charlie's Angels and has, are you ready, a whopping ONE typeface. For everything! Yay!
Who would have thought? Someone who makes book covers for a living isn't keen on the idea.

But of course, this is completely wrong. Music hasn't returned to "pure sound" at all, and while it might have started that way it hasn't existed in that form for more than 70 years, since people sold sheet music on the streetcorner. Music is a commodity now, and the iPod didn't change that. If anything, it made it worse.

In fact, the music metaphor works, but not the way the writer clearly hopes. He's expressing a kind of nostalgia for the form of the printed word--hence his distaste for "a whopping one typeface" and the concept of reading on a screen, no matter how good it is (and an e-ink screen is shockingly good). People like this confuse the form of the book with what really makes it important: the information inside. The form is important, granted, since a display that distracts or grates on the eyes prevents you from getting at that information. But it's not the book, any more than a CD is the music.

Insisting that a book has to be on paper is like insisting that music has to be on vinyl, because without the feel of a record's grooves "it's just not the same experience." It was a silly point of view then, and it's a silly point of view now. I'm not saying that the Kindle will change everything, necessarily, but it seems curiously obtuse to insist that the change is never going to come just because you like paper. I like paper too, but I'm not going to insist that there's something magical and perfect about it that will last forever.

Here's the thing: like a lot of other people, I've been reading e-books for years now. Every PDA I've owned, practically my first move has been to put an e-book reader on it. It's incredibly convenient: I bore easily, but I've almost always got something to read. And I'm not really an oddity. Lots of people read onscreen for hours a day--you know, what with the Internet, and all.

I could say a lot of great things about electronic text. I took my current job because journalism is going through this same transition (and not always gracefully), and I wanted to be a part of it. I think it's genuinely important. But I will point out at least one way that the form of a physical book is something not to romanticize:

Yesterday I re-read Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks. It's one of my favorite books, and Banks is one of my favorite authors. Sadly, my copy of Player of Games is stolen. It's a bootleg e-book that I picked up my senior year of college. I wish I could have paid for it--but of course, the book's been unavailable in the US for more than 10 years now. Banks's other titles have been out of print for even longer. For some reason--perhaps because of his outspoken Socialist beliefs--American publishers don't bring most of his stuff here, with the exception of a short-story collection and a couple of the weaker (and less political) novels. Good luck finding him in your average Barnes and Noble.

Now, at the moment Kindle doesn't offer those missing Banks titles either. But that doesn't have to be the case. There's no burden for shipping an e-book, or for "printing" it domestically. There's no reason that I shouldn't be able to buy it and give money to my favorite author. That's the whole point of digital distribution--indeed, that's the whole promise of the Internet: it eliminates the physical space that, while traditional, is also cumbersome and prone to interference by powerful actors.

November 26, 2007

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks

Book Burning

Against my better judgement, I'm really interested in Amazon's Kindle ebook. Let's get the objections out of the way first.

First and foremost, it only reads .txt and .azw at the moment, the latter being Amazon's DRM'd file format. No RTF, no PDF, HTML only through the web browser. Second, because its ebook files are protected this way, you can't loan them to someone else or sell them when they're done. There's no used book market for the Kindle.

But I don't think either of those matter, because I doubt they'll actually last. Amazon has stated, obliquely at least, that the platform will open at some point to new applications--but it'll probably be hacked long before that. And there's a fundamental difference between DRM for text and for audio: with audio, stripping DRM often means losing data--burning to a CD and re-ripping, for example, is a lossy process--but stripping DRM off text can usually be done without losing anything. Books that I buy from Amazon will probably be convertible to something else, if I should ever need to do so, the same way that Microsoft's LIT format has now pretty much been cracked open.

It's possible to freak out too much about DRM. The fanatics at Boing Boing, for example, recently had a hissy fit over Amazon's MP3 license, which (in theory) restricts resale. Were they planning on reselling MP3s? Could Amazon actually enforce that? Probably not, to both questions, but that's not stopping people from getting hysterical about it, even though the average user couldn't care less.

The draw of the Kindle, for me, is that I buy a lot of books, and I typically buy them from Amazon. The fact that Kindle is usually cheaper is nice, as is the fact that the books wouldn't take up physical space. Our apartment has a fair share of bookshelves, and they're overflowing at the moment. It would be nice not to have to worry about piling up more dead trees in our limited real estate.

And the free wireless network is also tempting. Despite my disagreement with both its general philosophy and content, you can kill a lot of time with Wikipedia. And an always-on cellular web browser, no matter how basic, is a pretty big value-add. When external applications make their way onto the Kindle--which, again, I think is pretty much near-certain, even if Amazon changes its mind and tries to stop them--it could be a really killer value.

Right now, the only deterrents are the lack of availability and the $400 price tag, and that's probably a good thing. I'd guess we're going to see the Kindle develop over the next 6 months to a year, until it reaches something more like its full potential. At which point I might actually be able to buy one.

All that said, as the title of the post hints, isn't a fire just about the last thing you want your book platform to evoke?

Future - Present - Past