I Have an E-Book Dream

When I moved last year I carted along 41 boxes of books. I haven’t counted them — I haven’t even sorted them well, just shoved them willy-nilly into bookcases — but I’d guess I have around 1,500 books.

Of those, perhaps a hundred are books that double as works of art — heavily illustrated books produced by publishers who cared — while a few others have sentimental value.

The rest, though, are valuable — or not — for the words between their covers. I keep them because I haven’t read them yet, or am likely to want to read them again, or want to have access to the information they provide.

But I’m sick of carting them around. They’re heavy, they’re bulky, and they limit how small my living quarters can be.
I am not one of those people sentimental about physical books — except, of course, for the ones that really are art in book form. Reading pixels instead of print is fine by me.

And if I could also always have 1,500 books with me when I’m traveling — so I don’t have to decide in advance which ones I want — and could actually find the one I’m looking for by the simple method of remembering the author or part of the title or the subject matter, I’d be extremely happy.

Not to mention how wonderful it would be if I had all my reference and nonfiction books stored to my home computer, so I could look up that key quote or detailed explanation whenever I wanted it.

I don’t, however, want to read all those books on my computer itself. The computer is fine for research, and for reading the news while I drink my morning coffee or taking in a short story over lunch, but for serious reading I want to curl up in a comfy chair or prop up in bed.

So I need an e-book reader. But there are snags.

The obvious choice right now is the Kindle. You can download right to the device and Amazon has 250,000 books available. What annoys me about the Kindle, though, is that it’s proprietary. I can’t buy the Kindle editions for any other reading device (though I can apparently download other electronic books onto the Kindle, just not as conveniently). I really don’t want to contribute to Amazon being the only game in town.

Farhad Manjoo explains this problem very well in an article on The Big Money called “Fear the Kindle.”

Otherwise, there’s the Sony Reader or downloading books to cell phones. Lately, I’ve been thinking that one of those new netbooks would work as a book reader — they’re small enough to fit in a large purse, and wouldn’t be as tricky as a laptop for reading in bed.

But all these methods still feel like a stopgap, like we haven’t really solved the hardware issue for books the way we have for phones and music players.

And I want to see it solved. In fact, I want much more than that.

I have a dream.

I want instant access to every book written in the world (and off-world, once we develop settlements elsewhere or meet interesting aliens). I’m tired of not being able to get hold of a book because it’s only published in the UK or of paying an arm and a leg to get something shipped from Australia.

Paid access, of course. Writing is hard work; writers should get paid. Since we’re talking about my dream here, let me add that I’d like to see the bulk of the money go to the writers, along with the editors and others who do the work to make the book available and readable.

But since I’m paying for it, I want it to be easy to read and use and save and share — to be able to use it precisely as I use the physical books I buy right now. And I don’t want to find out in two years that I can’t read any of those books anymore, because my device is obsolete and no one’s updating it. (I bought the Rocket e-book reader; I know from obsolete.)

That’s my dream. It’s not an impossible dream. The barriers to it aren’t technological — the technology exists. The barriers are corporations who are invested in certain ways of doing business — not just Amazon, who’s trying to corner the market, but the established publishers who want to hold onto their current methods and the other businesses tied into those systems.

Right now, we’re at the edge of change. The change could be simply a shift to a new group of players in the publishing world — Amazon rather than Random House et al.

Or the change could be broader than that, could open up publishing much farther and both give writers more income and readers more choice.

That’s my dream. And it’s no coincidence that one of the ways I’m pursuing the dream is by being part of Book View Cafe.

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Nancy Jane’s flash fiction for this week is “Sirens.” Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press.

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I Have an E-Book Dream — 7 Comments

  1. I think the Kindle is about 90% there. Yes, the stuff you buy from Amazon is DRM-protected, and I don’t like that. However, there are many, many other sources for books besides Amazon. Baen Books sells DRM-free books, and you can get lots and lots of classic books and quite a few more recent books from sites such as feedbooks.com.

    I don’t think I’ve set down my Kindle since I got it. I’ve read a lot of books that I wouldn’t otherwise have read, and I’ve built up a classics library that I never got around to with paper books. It takes up very little space, and (on my Kindle 1, at least) the storage is essentially unlimited.

  2. I read the article and its concerns, while serious, are not as serious as the article says. If you buy something from Amazon, it’s got DRM. That’s not the whole story, and Amazon is not the only source of books for the Kindle.

    There are a lot of ways to get books that don’t have DRM, especially if they’re in the public domain, as I described above in my previous comment. If you don’t mind doing a little work you can turn anything into an ebook and format it for the Kindle. Gutenberg.org has a lot of stuff on it, and it’s relatively easy to convert.

    When the ipod and the ipod Store came out, all the music was all DRM. Now, that’s changed. Amazon.com sells .mp3 files, without DRM. I suspect Amazon would rather sell non-DRM books, if the publishers would allow it.

    I think the trajectory will always be towards allowing the end-user, i.e., the reader, to do the things they wish to do with what they’ve purchased. And what most people want to do is share – if they have a book they like, they want their friends to read it.

    The Kindle’s DRM is less than ideal, and it prevents sharing. But I think that will pass, as more people demand the ability to share the books they’ve purchased. Once ebook purchasers have enough of a market share, the publishers will listen to them.

    Check out http://www.webscription.net. All of the books sold there are DRM-free. The publisher says that they don’t worry about “theft” because it is a minimal problem (whatever the word “theft” can mean in a digital world). They also try to price their books in a way that purchasing them is less trouble than stealing them.

    I think that’s the answer, and I suspect Amazon and the publishers will be following along in the next few years.

  3. I wasn’t aware that anyone besides Amazon could offer books formatted for Kindle. That does give it a broader application. I still would like to divorce the reading material from the hardware — to be able to use any electronic reader and download ebooks from any source.

    You may be right about DRM eventually disappearing, too. I hope we’ll eventually end up with saner protections all around. While I certainly want to protect the right of creators (especially writers!) to earn money for their work and to protect it from those who would pass it off as their own, DRM and copyright laws that protect major corporations more than individual artists are a big step in the wrong direction.

    I really appreciate your thoughtful comments here. That’s exactly the kind of dialog and information I was hoping for when I put up this post.

  4. The Kindle is no option for anyone outside North America, as its abilities aren’t offered anywhere else. I also dislike having my property on other people’s servers.

    Even with the Sony finally being released in the UK and Germany, it seems that if I wanted to buy English books I’d only be able to do so at Waterstone’s website, not in Germany and certainly not at the Sony ebookstore because it only accepts US and Canadian credit cards.

    As long as the business wants to keep forcing me to read German when I want to read English, I’ll import real books *shrugs*.

  5. Maybe I’m being naive but what happens when the technology crashes? You know, you didn’t back up your computer and now you’ve lost all your files? Oh, gee now we have better technology, beta, tape, video, DVD so you can buy it all over again? I’m not really a technophobe I’m just tired of purchasing the same product over and over again. I’ll keep the books I love on hand thank you very much. After all I always know where they are.

  6. Estara, that sort of thing drives me crazy, too. I really want to see the national barriers to book traffic removed. I’d like to easily lay my hands on Spanish-language books from Argentina, for example, not to mention books published in the UK and Australia. But ordering the physical book runs into money, and it’s not always possible to order something internationally. In my best of all possible worlds — and having read Candide, I use that phrase at least semi-ironically — we could all get any books we wanted from anyplace on Earth. But we’re not there yet.

    And Laurel raises a good point about the technology crash problem. The other part of that is even if we can avoid the crashes, how to we save material in a form that can be read in even 50 or 100 years — much less 500 or 1,000. Paper’s not a perfect medium — it wears out — but ink on paper doesn’t require any devices for future reading.

    But I still dream about access to all the books I have — not to mention all the ones I’d like to have — without having to haul all those boxes around.