E-Books and Informal Book Shares

April 28, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

I read yet another article about how e-books are going to ruin everything, everywhere, and I thought I would hack it up for you. This time, the threat is to small, informal lending libraries, such as the book exchange that may exist in your office breakroom. Because e-books can’t be traded, sold, or inherited, it’s obvious that every old paperback in the world will suddenly evaporate.

That’s my first point. There are millions upon millions of books currently out there in the world, and they ain’t going anywhere. Have you taken a look at a small paperback trade collection lately? There were several at my last job, and they were chock-full of 1980’s mass market paperbacks. So, okay, maybe these collections aren’t going to be refreshed by many newer books in future – frankly it doesn’t look like they are right now. The main point, though, is that the advent of e-books does not mean storm troopers are going to run around town with a wheelbarrow, collecting and burning everyone’s old books.

Second, look. Not everyone is going to get an e-reader. It’s never going to happen. I think the people most worried about the threat of e-books are hyper-literate and overeducated, and we forget there are other categories of readers out there. My parents and my grandma are going to serve as examples here. All three are voracious readers of genre fiction. All three of them trade and share books. And all three read almost exclusively mass market paperbacks. The reason is that they prefer the format. Some people who read hundreds of books a year are never, ever going to switch to e-readers out of simple aesthetic preference. There will most likely be a market for grocery store paperbacks as long as a tree still stands.

Let’s talk about public libraries and e-books. In another window I am reading a book checked out from the San Francisco library using Adobe Digital Editions. It’s rad! The only issue I have with checking out these e-books in PDA is that you can’t check them back in when you’re done – you have to wait the designated time period. [Actually I discovered how to check books back in the morning after I wrote this]. Well, there is a second issue: you can only have five at a time, and that can be frustrating too. Many people seem to think that e-books will kill the public library, but I don’t see how.

One type of informal lending library mentioned in the LibraryThing article is that of hard-to-find books on alternative topics such as midwifery. This made me laugh. The audience for these alternative books is likely to be extremely protective of this sort of resource, and adamantly opposed to switching to e-books. I highly doubt the Reiki masters and naturopaths of the world are suddenly going to stop collecting and sharing reference materials. Even more do I doubt that the independent publishers of these works are suddenly going to switch to e-books and abandon print, not in the next decade anyway.

Let’s say The Worst happens and suddenly every literate person in the world switches to an e-reader, one of several competing brands that each have exclusively formatted books unavailable on the other brands. Does that somehow prevent sharing? Believe it or not, a Kindle owner let me take her device home and use it. If you and I each have our own e-reader, and we switch for a week, who’s to know? Unless they manage to build in a retina scanner that determines the device is being read by an unauthorized user and shoots him with a laser, I think we’re still free to do whatever we want in our homes. What’s weirder, we could even gather around and read aloud. We do that nearly every night at my house.

A year or so ago, I checked out statistics on e-book sales. The math showed that e-books are currently less than a hundredth of one percent of all book sales. To me the fact that people are still hyperventilating over e-books is profoundly silly. It’s a little unfair, too, to insist that trees die to make books and that the author should receive only a couple bucks per copy that may be read by 20 people. In the end, it’s also possible that there are a lot of books out there that don’t need to be published by the million, or at all really. Okay, e-books are here, and they may indeed take over, but it may take even longer than it should.


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  1. You make some great points in this post. Not only that, even those of us who have e-readers still buy paper books. And I can’t imagine stopping either. Another thing I hope happens is the ability to share e-books. Maybe instead of a bookcase in the office, some day there will be a bookcase and a paper list of the e-books available to ‘borrow’ as well!

  2. I’m glad to know that paper books are still holding their own! I don’t forsee myself getting an e-reader anytime soon, although it has seemed tempting at times.

  3. See? Both of you are big readers but you see an e-reader as a sort of supplement to paper books. I think it will be a *long* time before they take over completely, if ever.

  4. I’m an old fashioned gal when it comes to books. I like to turn paper pages, not digital ones. I think e-books are great for people who don’t mind reading with a Kindle, not to mention uber convenient and good for the environment.

    For me, though, it’s a preference thing… I just like the feel of a book in my hands, trading with friends, browsing old-smelling used bookstores… the whole enchalada.

    -Lydia @ The Literary Lollipop

  5. One of the other reasons I don’t see e-readers as replacing old-fashioned paper books is the cost. I don’t know many people who can afford them (or, if they can, are willing to shell out the money for one). I don’t think paper books are doomed. Some people just love drama 😉

    • Precisely! The cost issue is going to put off the majority of readers at least until they stop having the sense of “beta testing.” Like, “I might buy a Kindle three versions from now.”

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