How eBooks and e-Readers Fall Far Short of Dead Trees

eBooks have been a great thing for me- I rarely think to carry a book along with me or have a bag for carrying one, but I always have a smartphone on me, plus an iPad at times. When I was in Spain in 2009, I read a novel on my iPhone that’s over 1000 pages long in paperback form. No, a 3.5″ backlit LCD screen isn’t the nicest reading experience, but I’d like to borrow a saying from the photography world that I believe applies here:

The best way to read a book is the one you have with you.

I find myself reading more because my books are always accessible- the new technology is really improving my life. But the eBooks I store on e-Reader devices still fall short of the books I store on physical bookshelves in in several aspects:

  • Availability. In an identical manner to the music industry switching from physical to digital formats, you can only find material available online. I can put any book on my bookshelf at home, regardless of whether I bought it online or locally; from a big corporation or independent store; new or used; or even checked it out from a library or borrowed it from a friend. eBooks promote a monopolistic model where the only convenient way to get your content is to get it all from the same for-profit provider. (Some devices offer a much more confusing way to shoe-horn a couple of extra formats in, but it’s inconvenient by design.)
  • Compatibility. Physical books have become completely universal worldwide, regardless of the way they were bound or the kind of paper used. There is no characteristic of a book that makes it unusable. But the world of eBooks is still encumbered by the DRM that exists to prevent this very thing. Once you go with a Kindle or Nook or iBooks, good luck getting your book out to a competitor’s device.
  • Freedom to distribute.Physical books are distributed in many ways:
    • Lent to friends
    • Given as gifts
    • Distributed to classes
    • Lent to library patrons
    • Placed for public reference in phone booths, school registrars’ offices, and churches
    • Smuggled into countries that repress free speech

    Right now it’s clear that the eBook industry wants to turn each reader into a directly paying customer. This isn’t wrong, but it fails to address each of the many ways physical books have come to be distributed.

The eBook economy has undeniably created a great experience for the primary use case: buying and reading a book. Which makes sense, since that’s the most profitable one. And the convenience that presents makes me willing to change my previous buying behaviors- I’ll buy more from one big company and be irked by publishers that don’t sell through those channels. But I’m disturbed by the near-total lack of a free-as-in-speech alternative for digital books as there are for other kinds of online publishing and distribution. Even the Free Software Foundation, which puts its ideals first even when extremely inconvenient, doesn’t seem to have a digital alternative to the current monopolistic model.

When we’re talking about something as essential to civilization as books, I’m surprised there isn’t as free of a digital equivalent yet. How can it be done now, or how might it be done in the future?

I wrote this post as a reflection on my own experiences. Then I read The Future of Reading (A Play in Six Acts) and was stunned by how well it proves the same issues through quotes on physical and electronic books, sometimes from the same people.

2 responses to “How eBooks and e-Readers Fall Far Short of Dead Trees”

  1. Zeke,
    Of course you know I agree with you on this but I do love me the kindle. However, what I do HATE is the total disregard of the book. There is NO cover and NO intro pages which drive me batty. When I am reading and I encounter a character that seems out of place, I often refer to the “first published” note to get an idea of what the author may have been experiencing for a point of reference for my small mind. Home, no wait, double tap, no wait, menu, no wait, 20 minutes later and I am ready for bed. Arrrrghhhhhh!

    1. It’s interesting that the cataloging-in-publication data at the front of most books is indeed missing. You’re right, and it really isn’t much to ask for on a digital book.