On Digital Content

Recently, J.A. Konrath has a post on his blog about how he believes that ebooks are the future of the publishing industry. I don't necessarily disagree with him, but I've got some issues with his discussion of people who are resisting books in digital form that I wanted to address.*

1. Konrath's first point is this:

I love the feel of a regular book.

I hear this a lot. The tactile experience of cracking open the spine and turning the pages. The smell and feel of paper. We grew up reading paper, and we have a good relationship with it that fosters warm feelings.

But what if we grew up reading ebooks? Would paper have a single advantage? Who's to say you can't form that same bond with an ereader?
I'm sure you can form a bond with an ereader. And I'm sure that people growing up now are much more comfortable reading ebooks than even I am (and I'm pretty comfortable with digital content). And I'm not saying that ereaders won't become the dominant form of presentation of content. But there is something in human nature that enjoys tradition, too. They still make vinyl records, you know, and people still listen to them. People still write with fountain pens on actual paper. The traditional book is not going to be abandoned in favor of digital media entirely, ever, and especially not if print on demand technology becomes commonplace in physical bookstores (thereby reducing printing cost).

2. Konrath's second point (this one quoted in its entirety):

I want a tangible product.

Me too. I have over five thousand books. I love owning them. I love how they look on the shelf. I love perusing my library.

But I'll be honest here. I used to have over a thousand cassette tapes. I loved owning them. I loved how they looked on the shelf. I loved perusing my music library.

Then CDs came along, and I repeated the love affair.

Eventually I got my first iPod.

I don't even own a CD or cassette player anymore.

I still love to own. But now I own digital files. I still love to peruse my music library. Except now I do it on iTunes.

Tangible is only a state of mind...
Do you see the problem with Konrath's argument here? Because it's embedded in his analysis. He says that he "owns" digital files, but that's just it.

He doesn't.

I mean, sure, maybe he does own some of the music he has in digital format, just like maybe a reader owns some of the books she has in digital content. But if he bought his music from a legal online music provider like iTunes or Rhapsody, he doesn't own it. He licenses it.

Just like those people who bought 1984 from Amazon didn't own that book either, as they discovered when Amazon TOOK IT BACK.** You know what doesn't happen when I buy a physical book from Amazon, even if they shouldn't have sold me that book in the first place***? They do not get the right to come into my house and take the book back from me. It's mine. I own it. FOREVER.

What you might also notice in Konrath's argument is the forces of the market at work. He had cassette tapes and then he replaced them with CDs and now he has digital music. In manufacturing terms, this is called "forced obsolescence"--rendering a product useless or obsolete by failing to support it. You can get a turntable nowadays, and a CD player, and a cassette player, if you really want one, but the idea is that you don't. Instead, the market encourages you to re-purchase your music in a new format to go with the new device.

That's the beautiful thing about books--the basic technology hasn't changed in 500+ years. You open the book, you read it. Done. Period. I don't need to worry about whether I'm using a Mac OS, or whether I have the latest flash updates, or whether my reading device is capable of opening books with DRM or not. I open up the book and I read.

Konrath's example is interesting, I think, because it's precisely my experience with my music collection that makes me less likely to get an ereader. I don't want to have to rebuy all the stuff I already have.

And what if I buy an electronic book and I don't like it? I can't donate it to my library, or give it to a friend who might want it, or sell it to a used book store so that someone else can read it. It just gets...deleted. Like the money I spent on it.

3. Konrath's reason number three:

Ebook readers are too complicated.

I'm with him on this one: this is a bogus excuse. You know why ebook readers are too complicated? Because Apple hasn't designed one yet.**** It's just a matter of time before people are as comfortable with these devices as they are with microwave ovens or home computers.

4. Konrath's reason number four:

You can't autograph an ebook.

I've signed over a dozen Kindle covers, and one Sony cover.

Okay, good for him, but what am I supposed to do? Carry around a bunch of individual slips of paper with random autographs on them? Or have my ereader covered with signatures of a bunch of different authors?***** Konrath's answer here is a non-answer. It doesn't respond to the underlying argument, which is that signed author copies can be valuable and valued. A signed piece of paper or ereader? Not so much.


The other reasons are small ones ("ereaders are too expensive") that will change over time. But the point is basically this -- yes, digital content is going to be around for a long while. It could very possibly take over the vast majority of book publishing as a whole.

But there are still some ways in which a book is simply a superior technology. Not a fancier one, just a better one.


* I'm just going to be quoting parts of Konrath's post that are relevant to me, here, so you may want to check out the whole thing to see his entire argument.

** As you'll see if you follow the link, Amazon has clarified its policy on when it will remote delete books so that it's more favorable to the buyer (and less favorable to the actual author, by the way), but that's not the point. The point is that they can still TAKE IT BACK.

*** Like, for example, early shipment of the Harry Potter books.

**** Although people do seem to like reading on their iPhones. I don't have an iPhone yet, because I don't want to use AT&T for my phone service, but if I could get Verizon on that baby? I'd so be there. (There are also rumors of an Apple ereader next year, but these are speculative. Let's just say that (a) I wouldn't be surprised and (b) AWESOME.)

***** Because I can tell you right now that there is no way that I'm going to let my imaginary Apple iReader be sullied by someone's autograph. You must be joking.

****** By they way, if you haven't seen the rest of the Green Apple Books videos on the book vs. the Kindle, they are worth checking out.


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