I had planned to write something on ebooks for a while, as I’m a recent convert, and as it has suddenly become the hot topic of the day, beside that big Sports Day happening sometime soon, I’ve dragged my post-Harrogate festival hungover corpse-like body up and pounded out some of these thoughts.
As you may have seen, one of the panels at Harrogate turned into a fascinating and controversial debate on the subject. Personally I thought this was great, as panels can sometimes be a little staid, though the discussion did become muddied with the question of self-publishing, which people sometimes forget is a different debate altogether. My thoughts are more about the actual issue of ebooks versus print books. My view: there is no issue. End of. Both are reading, both are good for authors. Either way it goes towards my royalty payments. (You can read about the panel here http://www.theleftroom.co.uk/?p=1716)
I was a latecomer to ebooks. I’m a lifelong bibliophile and while no Luddite, not the fastest adopter of technology. I didn’t have a computer until I was 22. I refused to get an ereader for years, even though my house is groaning with books and I have to take at least one for every day I’m on holiday. I won a Sony reader in a competition and didn’t use it much, mainly because it was too much of a chore to plug it in to the computer, and their ebook store was very hard to use. Then I got an iPad and the Kindle app, and since then I’ve read dozens of books on there.
There are many advantages to them. Lighter suitcases. The chance to read anywhere, for small bursts. I can read in bed without using one of those silly clip-on torches -for me this is the main advantage as I do most reading then. The saving on storage space – I was almost killed by my books last year when a case collapsed on a gas pipe. If you’re enjoying something, you can instantly buy the sequel and read it too. I’ve bought far more books since I started e-reading. Especially if they are cheap, I’ll buy things to stock up and read another time. Often I don’t finish them, but I’ll try more things without having to stockpile or get rid of an unfinished paper book (to my mind one of the saddest objects in creation, staring down at you accusingly from the shelves). You can carry your library round with you- I used to give myself chronic shoulder pain as I’d always take two books out, in case I didn’t like one. Also, papercuts are a real bitch.
And then there are disadvantages. You can’t get them wet, or sandy, and if you leave them in the sun they seriously overheat. If you take them to the beach you’re worried about losing the whole device, rather than a cheap paperback. If the device gets dropped or stepped on or runs out of charge, you’re screwed. You can’t easily lend them yet. You can’t take them out of the case and give them a hug when you’ve especially loved them. You can’t tell how long they are, or enjoy the tactile joys of smell and touch and colour. They’re no good for flicking back and forth, or remembering what the cover was like. Reading on a device with other apps makes you more distracted (though if the book’s gripping enough, this won’t happen). You can’t nosey into what other people are reading on the train. I’m weird so I will probably end up re-buying any books I’ve especially loved on the ereader. You can’t get them signed, either.
So, we can learn a lot from ebooks. How to play with price points, how to promote things online (quickly and responsively), how to adjust blurbs and descriptions. How willing people are to pay for things if they are as easy to get as falling off a log (I would never be bothered to hunt down pirate ebooks, especially if they are full of typos as I hear they often are). I do think publishers need to stop being scared of them and learn these lessons fast. Good content is ultimately what people want, but ease of delivery and price is what makes them press ‘buy now’. I don’t agree with the 20p model – that smacks of desperation. I’d like to pay about 3.99 for most ebooks. Anything more than that and I’ll hesitate. If something’s on at less than £2 for a day or so, I’ll take a punt and try a new author. If people don’t like selling at that price, they shouldn’t have allowed paperbacks to be priced at under £4 in supermarkets and on Amazon. Whatever you say about production and editing costs, you can’t expect people to pay more for a digital file than a physical book. It’s one thing about ebooks that makes me hugely angry. It’s true we mustn’t let the price of ebooks collapse too – but in that case we shouldn’t have let the price of paperbacks go so low either. In other countries, a book costs at least £20. Visitors from Australia and New Zealand are stunned at how cheap ours are. I think it’s too late to adjust upwards, and cranking up the ebook price just makes people feel they’re being shafted.
I’m not very worried about piracy either. I think that if people can get something easily and cheaply without stealing, they won’t. I lived in China for a while and it’s basically not possible to get non-pirate films there. Eventually we got sick of them, the quality was so unreliable and so many would cut out before the end (still no idea what happened in Life is Beautiful so I assume it ended well). Books aren’t the same as songs – we want to take them away and savour.
Ultimately, I think we all get too hung up on these things. It’s either ‘Oh no, I love books too much, I want to press myself against their frayed pages in a manner that would get me arrested in a library’, or ‘Paper books are only for weak Luddites, in my ebook utopia I will have you all rounded up and burned at Fahrenheit 451’. I think it’s great if people read more and find different ways to do it. What I’m more scared of is that people will stop reading altogether. Our real competitors are TV, games, films, and everything else that distracts from the written word. If a book is something you can flick to on your phone or tablet device, so much the better. But we need to make sure they’re easy to get and not more expensive than physical books, and we need to understand that the internet is like upending a box of flies and then trying to stuff them all back in again – once something’s out it’s out. All you can do is try to keep up.