Jay Thinks About ebooks

Long story short--ebooks will not replace regular books. "But Jay," you may be saying (if you are not Anonymous), "ebooks are soooo much more convenient." Or "oh Jay, you Luddite, ebooks are the wave of the future, like the internet to news." Or even, "oh, Jay, books are sooo twentieth century and ebooks are the new thing!"

Yeah, I don't buy it.

And it's not just because I often prefer paper to electronic. I send paper cards instead of ecards (despite the fact that I work for one of the largest providers of ecards in the world). It's not that ecards are bad--they aren't. They're super cute, in fact. They have music. They have animation. They have sock puppets. I send them all the time. But for the important occasions--your birthday, Mother's Day, to say thank you for something--you're going to get an actual card or, depending on the circumstances, a handwritten letter!*

I don't think ebooks are going to replace regular books for three reasons:

(1) price. Right now, many ebooks are free. Yay! I love free. But many of them also cost money. Sometimes, a LOT of money. Agent Janet Reid has a blog entry here about her recent experience buying (or, rather, NOT buying) an ebook because of price. And she's an agent who (a) loves books, and (b) loves her Kindle. And (c) she knows the author's agent! but the cost was just too high for her.

"But Jay," you ebook apologists are saying, "price can be fixed." Good point, apologist! Price can be fixed, and I think as ebooks become a more common** technology, the publishers will get a pricing format down, just like they have for regular books. But they still won't replace regular books because...

(2) People who love books have a fear of technological obsolescence. Think, for example, about the music you buy. If you are as old as the dirt hills, like me, when you first started buying music, you may have purchased albums.*** Then, after a brief detour into 8-track tapes (ask you grandparents), you moved on to cassette tapes, then CDs, then, finally, digital music. And think about how bitter you are every time you have to replace the same exact songs with another format. I know for a fact that I've got a box of cassette tapes lying around my house somewhere that I refuse to throw in the trash because I already paid for those songs and I don't want to pay for them again. Even though I can't play them, because I don't have a tape deck. Say what you want about books, man, but books have been around for centuries, and if you know the language and the right people, you can still read the earliest ones.

(3) People like having them. As Janet Reid points out in her entry, if she gets an ebook, only she can read it. She can't lend it to somebody else, or donate it to a library, or use it for a doorstop. She can't leave it on her shelves for years and years and, when she dies, pass it to an antiques store where someone like me can open it and see that it was a gift to her from her loving husband on Christmas, 1949. In addition to containing awesome stories, which they do, books are tangible exchanges of emotion. Because they can last for decades, they contain memories as well as stories. This is going to sound cheesy, but one of my favorite moments in When Weather Attacks (aka The Day After Tomorrow), is when the characters notice that the uptight librarian is clutching a huge book to his chest. "What's that?" they ask. He tells them it's a copy of the Gutenberg Bible. "We didn't know you were so religious," they say. "I'm not," he says. He's protecting it, because, if the world is ending, he wants to save it from being destroyed.**** An ebook, while it may be more convenient (a fact about which I have my doubts), is never going to be saved when climate change turns all of New York into an artic desert. It just ain't going to happen. But the Gutenberg Bible has been around for 500 years, and it can't be replaced with electrons.


* Yes, I've shared this little insight with our business intelligence people. They don't seem to care, since the company makes paper cards, too, and this tendency of mine doesn't cost the company a customer overall. If I were sending fruit baskets instead of ecards, they would care.

**no, this is not a contradiction of my main point. "More common" and "replace" mean two different things.

***note to people born after 1980--"albums" were a technology in which sound recordings were carved into grooves on vinyl disks, which were then played by spinning them on a "turntable" (like a pottery wheel) and running a small metal needle over the grooves. They are still available, but mostly only real music lovers (read: hip/crazy people) typically buy them.

****Incidentally, librarians get a pretty good rap in When Weather Attacks. Although they are initially portrayed as normally uptight and stuffy librarians (like all movie librarians--apparently librarians don't write screenplays), there is the aformentioned scene where the librarian protects one of the treasures of our time (which, frankly, librarians do every day), and another librarian diagnoses one of the main character's leg infections with what I can only assume is a Merck Manual. Librarians: They Know How To Do Stuff Because They Read!


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