Why I Was Wrong About Ebooks

25 Jun

Several years ago, my colleagues and I at a small, independent publishing company gathered in our conference room to discuss, with some trepidation, the state of the publishing industry and the likely effect emerging eReaders and tablets would have on sales. We all recognised that a revolution was starting. We all wondered what would happen to our jobs and livelihood, and many of us, like myself, were even mildly excited about the possibilities the new technology offered. As an editor, eBooks could be seen to have presented a real threat to me and my profession, and to some degree they do, but, as an author, being able to publish directly to a large, technology-driven readership was a prospect that piqued my interest. However, at our meeting, after much deliberation, senior management concluded that, although eBooks were coming, they weren’t coming just yet and wouldn’t present a threat to our industry or to printed book sales for many years to come.

Fast forward to 2011 and the collapse of Angus and Robertson and Borders, among the largest players in the book retail industry in Australia, and it is clear for all to see how wrong they were. How wrong we were.

Several reasons they believed eBooks wouldn’t challenge traditional printed books, and certainly not to the level suggested by hot-headed media commentators at the time, were thrown around:

(1) People love to browse bookshops. Bookstores, with their paper-smelling stacks of shelves dotted with engaging “wobblers”, and watched over by turtleneck-wearing, bespectacled booklovers, are where the crème de la crème of intellectuals gather to sip lattes and fawn over the newest releases.

(2) The smell of books. Oh, that heady scent of pulped paper liberally poured over with carbon black, titanium dioxide and wax. (This is one of the biggest reasons proponents of the printed book give for sticking to tangible books over eBooks.)

(3) No-one wants to read on-screen; it’s too much like work and too hard on the eyes.

(4) Who wants to read an eBook in bed (where a lot of booklovers do their reading) or in the bath?

(5) People like collecting books. They like having bookshelves filled with books that reflect their personal tastes and make them look clever.

(6) You own a printed book and can share it with friends or give it away. You can’t do that with an eBook which is actually only licensed to you.

(7) The Australian market for iPads, Kindles, Nooks, MobiPockets and other eReaders is still far from saturated.

What I now know is that none of these reasons was ever going to halt the advance of eBooks and their steady encroachment on traditional publishing. I know this because last night, I—me, book editor and publishing professional of 14 years, avid reader, collector of books—popped my iPhone4 into a ziplock plastic bag and took it with me to the bathroom, where I spent an hour luxuriating and reading Justin Cronin’s The Passage. (Editing aside, I do much of my reading in the bath—always have.) For the past few years I have kidded myself that electronic devices and bathwater are arch-enemies. Not so. Cue the tiny ziplock bag and rubber iPhone case and reading in the bath has now “gone digital” remarkably easily.

Since I have had the iPhone4, a little over four months, I have bought several eBooks, usually paying $4.99 or less. Titles I have picked up are largely work-related (grammar guides and how-tos) but I have also purchased several novels and short story collections and downloaded a lot of free apps and eBooks. Admittedly I haven’t yet shelled out the $9.99 to buy an eBook version of a bestselling paperback novel, but I am sure that time will come.

So why the change? Why would I, a devout printed booklover, turn so easily? The answer is convenience. Other circumstances, such as having a baby, no doubt hastened my conversion to eBook reading—after all, it is much easier to read on an iPhone while holding a sleeping baby than it is to read a hardcover or paperback book, which requires two hands. Pregnancy related apps on the iPhone, which link to websites that cover a range of pregnancy questions probably helped initiate me into reading onscreen on the iPhone. So perhaps there were extenuating circumstances, but I now believe that none of the points above would ever have remained important enough to stop me going digital eventually. Let’s look at them in detail again:

1. Bookshops are fine if you’ve got time to browse the stacks. But when you’re a busy mum trying to fit in writing, house cleaning, shopping, socialising, writing and freelancing, finding the time to sip lattes at your local bookstore is just about impossible. Kindle and other apps on the iPhone allow me to see what’s new and keep in touch with latest releases without having to change out of my spit-up covered pjs (Ah yes, it’s a glamorous job, editing. Luckily most of the manuscripts I see don’t make me spit up too much 😉

2. The smell of books is one of the most commonly repeated reasons for not converting to eBooks, but really? I mean, really? How many dedicated book sniffers do you know? And anyway, most of my books smell like mould from being … dropped in the bath … or being thumbed through with wet, soapy fingers. Several smell like wine and some may even smell like cheese, these being my two favourite things to put in my mouth when reading (with the exception of the end of a red pen and sometimes a partially loaded gun when editing). Smell is clearly not a reason to swear off eBooks forever.

3. While it isn’t quite the same as reading on paper, reading on a small screen isn’t that bad. Plus, all editors will tell you that it is harder to pick up errors on-screen than it is on hardcopy, which is perhaps a blessing given the state of the grammar and punctuation in some self-published eBooks whose authors haven’t bothered hiring an editor! But I digress. What I have found is that the illuminated screen means I can now read in bed without eliciting whines of: “It’s 1 a.m., for God’s sake turn the light off, Kaz!” from my long-suffering, non-reading partner. Also the lit-up screen makes a great torch to guide my way to my wailing infant’s nursery at 4 am for her early morning feed and nappy change and if I’m feeling particularly naughty and manage to switch off the mummy guilt for a second I can even read while I nurse. (Bad mummy, bad!)

4. So, that’s reading in bed/nursing already partly covered. It’s actually far more comfortable to read lying down holding a slim smart phone or eReader than it is holding a heavy hardcover or thick paperback. Plus, if you’re nifty, you can do it one handed, leaving your other hand free for reassuringly hugging your partner and pretending you’re asleep, or whatever else you might want to do. (I can see this being a real boon for dedicated readers of erotic fiction, but let’s not go there). Surprisingly, reading in the bath is also easier on an iPhone, providing you take precautions. The touch screen and scrolling worked just fine through a “zippy” and being able to read one-handed meant I could shave my legs at the same time. (Kids: don’t try this at home. Having a child has made me a masterful multitasker, but nicks from safety razors still sting).

5. I have been one of those “never throw away a book” people my entire life, until recently. When we bought our own home a few years back and I had to move box after backbreaking box of books in, including Greek Democracy and Politics in Early Athens and other such gems that were required reading for the Ancient History strand of my degree, I had a change of heart. Out went the textbooks I acquired in university. Out went the books I never got around to reading. Out went anything that didn’t live up to my expectations. Having said that, I still have hundreds of books, so many that I have no more bookshelf room. My new role as mum and the lack of a second income has put a partial ban on book buying outside of St Vinnies or charity shops, and my partner has put a total ban on buying any more bookshelves. So I either have to be extremely selective about what I purchase and maintain a stringent door policy of “one comes in one goes out” or I turn to eBooks, where my options are limited only by my finances and the amount of memory left on my phone.

6. Yes you can lend a book to your friends, but, really, I don’t advise it. Nine times out of ten whenever I have lent out a book it has never been seen again. So you don’t own the eBook that sits on your eReader or iPhone, big deal. You also pay considerably less for it (particularly in Australia) than you do for the privilege of owning a printed edition … and you don’t have to find shelf space for it either. You can recommend it to all and sundry by writing a review, and you can still recommend it to your friends and help spread the word and support the industry.

7. It is true that eReaders haven’t lived up to their anticipated potential in Australia. I don’t have one because I have a laptop and an iPhone and I’m not sure how much the iPad or Kindle or some other eReader would make a difference to my habits. But almost everyone has a smartphone that enables them to read eBooks and with ever more affordable eReaders and more and more eBooks hitting the virtual shelves every day, surely this will fast change. Not only that, but the publishing marketplace is more global than ever before, meaning that publishers (both traditional and self-) from around the globe can cheaply and easily make books available to readers worldwide. Publishers and authors should be looking at the global market for eReaders, rather than being too parochial and taking into account only local sales.

When I look back on it, I think the reason that we were easily persuaded and placated by senior management back then in the mid-to-late 2000s was not that we didn’t believe eBooks would be big, but that we didn’t want to believe it. Even today some publishers and publishing professionals still have their noses stuck in a traditional printed book and refuse to remove their rose-coloured reading glasses to see the screens lighting up all around them.

As an author, I’m pleased to say I was wrong, because the eBook revolution is offering authors much more creative freedom than traditional publishers ever have. As an editor, I’m pleased because I’ve seen how the ease and affordability of e-publishing has allowed self-published authors to finally begin to be more professional and channel their “start-up” costs into getting expert editing and cover design, rather than putting it all into the exorbitant cost of printing. As a reader I’m even more pleased, because anything that provides me with a convenient and simple way to access written information while juggling my other daily tasks is, quite simply, a godsend.

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Posted by on June 25, 2011 in Uncategorized


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