Where I think eBooks are at – or more reviews on obsolescent products

I was reading a post by a gentleman name of Tom I’ve been following a while. He’s active in the library industry and seems fond of eBooks.

I started in with  a comment and realised I was saying a few things outside the purview of his post.

You really should read it but I’ll précis it here.

A recent Listener editorial was negative about eBooks. Tom responds by letter and on his blog*.

In it he posits the obsolescence of books, the foolishness of libraries for missing this, with phrases such as:

  • With ebooks there’s no need for the book buyer, the people (sorry libraries) who hold up the book industry, to visit a physical store anymore.
  • This is our (libraries) fault.

I read this a few days ago now and wasn’t sure of my response, which usually means it’s sparked a few thoughts that need to brew. Many thanks for that, Tom.

I get where he’s going – and particularly with regard to libraries – but I guess my response is around the democratisation and atomisation of creativity. Allow me to explain.

I see the current value of the eBook model as a following stage from the book, but I actually think the book (as a concept, not as a physical thing) itself is what will be outmoded by more short format communication tools such as blogging etc. I’m viewing books and eBooks as the same things, in essence.

One of the factors that I see behind the novel (a relatively recent** phenomenon preceded for millennia by the epic poem cycle) and the “serious nonfiction book” has been the publishing industry’s need to deliver a content package which will gain market respect. If it looks like a book, some people will buy it. This applies in e-form too.

We are increasingly able to finetune our content. I’ve spent a lot of my life reading journalists from PJ O’Rourke to Hunter S. Thompson (actually not that wide a range if you know them both). What I have had access to is book form collections of articles they released over time. This is what a large part of non-fiction book content is. Sometimes it’s honest about it, sometimes it’s hidden but well crafted and sometimes it’s painfully obvious and badly done.

I’d rather find new PJs and HSTs and hear what they’re thinking about the day they’re thinking about it. Yes I know there are issues of authorial voice – but I think that even the concept of author-as-unreachable-expert is breaking down. So for me, a lot of nonfiction publishing in any format is not just obsolescent but obsolete and still twitching. I rarely will read a nonfiction book. The marketplace of ideas is simply too rich.

Longer fictional narratives – ok you got me. I still like to read novels whatever I said above. But that’s me, who has been brought up to function in that system. I believe in it, I love in it – but I’m not so sure I believe it’s here to stay. I definitely believe that large-form text narratives will follow a similar decline as the ranks of gamers, Whedon freaks and right on down to LOLCATivores rise. I’ve watched my 74 year old mother-in-law’s reading habits change since we introduced her to the net. She’s still a voracious linguaphile*** but her wordplay lately includes telling me I’m being basement cat when she feels I’m being an improper son-in-law.

So what am I saying? I’m saying I think classifying long-form eReading as any different from the digital reading we’ve been doing socially since – well you pick. Teletext? BBS? The telegram?

Let’s start that one again. What I’m saying is this: There is no such thing as eReading. There is no eBook. There are short- and longform texts, and some companies around marketing longform (and combined shortform) content packages on digital platforms as eBooks. This too shall pass.

I recommend looking at TOR. They’re a science fiction publishing company. They’ve been putting CDROMs with entire parts of their catalogues in the back of their books for years. Yes, this is essentially freeware booklength content aimed at generating business based on reputation and fair dealing. Yes, this strategy was generated long before the eBook question. Heck, iD software did with the Doom franchise in the 90s.

As for libraries? I guess I’m saying Tom’s wrong, right and wrong again. He’s wrong because he knows full well libraries are aware and thinking of eBooks. He’s right that we should focus more on this question while it is in play. I think – and I’m happy to be told I’m wrong in turn – he’s wrong again because I get the feeling a logical conclusion would be to invest as much of our time in eBooks as possible. I think that would be putting all our eggs into very much the wrong basket.

*a strategy I highly recommend – when I did so over a Sunday Herald article I also emailed the article author to give them a heads up, which also felt like good practice.

** 18th Century or so according to my fave cheap reference source.

*** She was once kicked out of a scrabble club after she complained about people playing with the help of word lists which is my definition of awesome.


About seanmurgatroyd
Library (Shared blog): http://diligentroom.wordpress.com/ Personal including infoculture, book reviews: http://diligentroom.wordpress.com/ Music: http://seanfishmusic.wordpress.com/ Last.fm band page: http://www.last.fm/music/Seanfish @seanfish

7 Responses to Where I think eBooks are at – or more reviews on obsolescent products

  1. Tom says:

    Thanks for your response Sean. I agree the form of “book” in the electronic world is probably in for a shake up. Informational texts are becoming out of date as soon as they are published. I’m reading a book about ebooks right now, and it’s less then 6 months old and parts are very out of date.

    I work in a distance library, so any time we invest in ebooks is hugely advantageous to us. Ebooks save much time and money when you are couriering print books out. And the current mode of learning, doing a course with a an associated text book, is probably going to be around for a while as the education industry seems a bit too conservative to do away with the textbook format. But new forms of publishing and sharing information are going to change teaching and learning.

    In my post I was reacting the fact libraries were’t even mentioned in the editioral. I know we don’t make money for the book industry, at least libraries aren’t the ones making the book industry profitable. But we should be mentioned in the conversation of ebooks and the future of the literary world, books and bookshops in New Zealand.

    My main point of my post, and I think it was lost in overzealous editing, was why should I support bookshops if I can get my content elsewhere. Why should I buy a print book from Whitcoulls if I can get it’s e version for half the price?

    I do think it’s worth supporting libraries as store houses of knowledge, social spaces, fulled with trained librarians who help navigate their storehouses. Who knows what libraries will actually look like if there are only or a majority of “ebooks”,(insert desired word here, until we have a better word for “long form digital text”) But a library may be a social gathering place with a librarian and a computer. I think a library can be anywhere a librarian is. Hopefully this means the most boring parts of library work, circulation, disappear.

    I’m really saying the market will decide about ebooks and this will impact libraries. I do think libraries are thinking about the issues around ebooks, but I wish NZ publishers were providing books in e.

    It’s not so much I’m fond of ebooks, I’m fond of books, don’t care about the container, I want to get to the ideas inside, and I’m very fond of saving $.

    Sorry for waffling on, but I don’t think we actually disagree! And I think most would agree, this is a very interesting time to be a librarian.

  2. Gareth says:

    Not sure how much gaming you do Sean, but the ranks of gamers are on the rise. Personally I think that long form fiction narratives are going nowhere but up and while both eBook and hard copy formats will stick around, the eBook format will come to dominate, particularly in the cheaper end of the market. So where does that leave libraries? How do you lend an eBook temporarily? BTW I have 12 physical books waiting to be read and 648 eBooks waiting on my iPod.

  3. seanmurgatroyd says:

    Hi Gareth,

    I’m definitely an avid gamer, and I definitely had those (particularly my favourite genre, the RPG) at the back of my head. If you’re looking for a new treat, try Grotesque Heroes – it’s turn based fantasy combat on a square map – very much good old D&D style 😉 . It has a sense of humour that so far nicely makes fun of the tropes of other games in that genre.

    Where that leaves libraries is what I’m asking I guess. The Overdrive eAudiobook service (which various libraries use to provide that kind of content) runs with DRM active on .wma files and a trust-based TOS for mp3. There are loan periods without any formal need for “return”, and each library has an agreed number of licences per copy. Leaving aside discussion around DRM it would be easy to build a similar architecture for eBook content.

    Short term I’m advocating trust-based approaches between libraries and their suppliers and libraries and their users in the realm of digital content. Ultimately I’m advocating transforming ourselves into digital educators and teaching people how to manage their information streams.

  4. Gareth says:

    The discussion around DRM is short but not sweet. It is theatre that makes you jump through a few hoops in the hope of delaying the inevitable until the first week or so of sales peaks. Archie cannot talk to Charlie without Bob hearing when Bob and Charlie are the same person.

    Which leads to the discussion of artist remuneration. Once we know how writers are going to be paid when no-one pays money for books, then we’ll know what libraries are going to look like in the future.

  5. seanmurgatroyd says:

    Lol yeah but I actually ran into the concept first via Charles Stross (whom Doctorow reads…)

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