Monday, October 24, 2011

eReaders--Isabel Swift wonders: what's with the "But I love BOOKS" response?

I'm sure you've had the same experience--or have been one of the players in this conversation.

But first, a bit of background….

In addition to being VP of editorial for Harlequin, over a decade ago I also chaired a digital/eBook task force charged with exploring this new business opportunity. Additionally, much later, I was part of the new business group launching a number of new digital initiatives. So I guess what I'm trying to say is: I swing both ways. And in the course of my work, I had a lot of conversations with people--readers, writers, booksellers, digital entrepreneurs. Today, I still love to find out what people are reading--and how they are reading.

Back to the present. So, I'm at a dinner party, or cocktail party, or just striking up a conversation in line or traveling--and the subject of books and reading comes up. Often one person has an eReader (frequently a Kindle, sometimes an iPad or other eReader) and is either extolling its virtues, or reluctantly (or not) going through the learning curve.

Someone else invariably chimes in (sometimes with passionate intensity) "But I love BOOKS! I could NEVER get an eReader!" Then they go on a bit about the smell, turning the pages & the multitude of pleasures, information and sensation that a physical object offers. The self-confessed eReader reader is given the hairy eyeball, or at best, a pitying look. Emotions can (and have) run high over this line in the sand, this perceived chasm.

And don't get me wrong--I love books too. Physical books. But I am stumped as to why there is such a prevalent and passionate assumption that physical Vs digital is an either/or choice. Like once you purchase an eReader, a scarlet TTTWW (for Traitor To The Written Word) will be emblazoned on your forehead and a magnetic force field will drop down (visually similar to the Cone of Silence in Get Smart) preventing you from ever touching another physical book with your dirty digital hands. You have not remained faithful to the books that raised you--dipping your wick elsewhere is clearly felt to be a relationship ender.

Huh? I just don't get it. My reading world is not monogamous! I believe in choice! I love stories. I love storytellers. Books have not changed my life--stories have, with their information, insights, compelling worlds, emotional challenges and eye opening truths. Stories that are shared though listening (conversation, audio, radio, lectures,...), seeing (performance, films, TV, museums,…) or reading (books, newspapers, magazines, documents, letters,…).

Yes, the story's trasmission vehicle can make a difference in the impact of a story. Watching the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels concert live Vs at an IMAX theatre with rabid fans Vs on a DVD alone at home delivers quite different experiences. Reading a hardcover, paperback, listening to the story on audio, reading it on an eReader all deliver a different experience.

Sure, there may be preferred formats for certain stories. Haven't you heard people say "You don't need to see that movie in a theater, it'll be fine on DVD"? I assure you watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show live at midnight is a great example of the transformative impact of how you experience a story Vs sitting at home with the remote.

But everyone understands the benefits of access, choice, convenience. As a reader, I don't like to be without something to read. And while I am usually a fairly committed reader, I must confess I'm not entirely monagamous. As a frequent traveller I have found myself lugging stacks of material: manuscripts, educational/business reading, fun reading, recommended reading, themeatically appropriate reading, books 2 and 3 in the series, just in case… You know what I'm talking about!

Now I can have everything on one slim tablet and people no longer ask me if I am carrying rocks in my suitcase. Maybe I'll have a paperback in my purse too--cheerful in the knowledge if I tire of it or finish it, I have other options. Bedtime reading with sleeping spouse can cease to be an issue with a back-lit iPad. And another interesting aspect of the digital reading experience is product privacy. No one knows what you're reading.

(Though for some that could be a drawback, as looking intellectual, educated, in-the-know and generally superior could be the key driver behind plowing through an improving literary tome. But surely a secondary market will spring up of sheaths for one's tablet that will say perhaps: "Don't bother me...Riveted by Rushdie!" or "Intellect @ Play" or "I'm improving myself. And you?")

Alternatively, maybe you really don't mind carrying two or three volumes around in your gigantic purse. Perhaps you are unmoved by the ability to download a recommended read instantly at the dinner table in The-Back-of-Beyond. Unlike me, perhaps you may have a house filled with empty shelves, just waiting to be filled, with your other bookshelves are stacked with easy-to-find, easy-to-search titles. But that is not my world.

So enough with this "I love BOOKS!". Of course you do. But I love stories….


Annely said...

The only thing I don't like about eReaders is the fact that most of them use a proprietary format. As a student, an eReader was an incredibly tempting alternative to lugging the dozens of textbooks I'd need each semester. I was literally two minutes away from ordering the Kindle on Amazon, and then I stopped short when I realized that different readers were incompatible with one another. I wanted the Kindle, but the major book retailer in my area (Indigo) sells Kobo, and my mom, who has a Sony eReader, wouldn't be able to share her books with me on that device either.

Also, paying for an ebook doesn't mean you own it. You simply have a licence to it. You cannot (legally) share it, trade it or resell it the way you can with paper books. As a student, reselling my textbooks and buying them used was a great way to save money. Also, say goodbye to comparison shopping for the best price on books. You're stuck with the retailer that sells your book in the compatible format.

Of course there is the ePub format that is compatible with all/most readers, but many books are not readily available in that format, and although a number of workarounds do exist (by downloading this or that conversion program), why should I have to bother?

And with your argument about having both physical books and ebooks, I say that if the selling point of a reader is to have all your books on one device wherever you go, why would I still want to buy physical books?

I love the electronic reader concept, and it is still the best choice for those like you who tend to travel with a lot of books at a time, but I cannot justify purchasing one given the limitations. I suggest just going with a tablet in which you can install an app from each Reader store and just download books from wherever you want.

Isabel Swift said...

Annely, excellent points. The proprietary issue is never a consumer friendly one, but it tends to be an element of most nacent businesses--hard to recoup your investment when the market is still in such flux.

Ultimately, it's all about the balance of what you need and what is available, as you've noted. Luckily, enough people are out there trying eBooks out, so creators have incentive to keep creating.

For me, the point is not that everyone should get an eReader, but like you, people should weigh their needs and assess their options--not create a format divide.