E-Book Paranoia Is So 2009

Last year, I wrote a blog post about one of the many “books are dying” panels that went on in 2009. For the record, I also love the smell and feel of books and stand by my post. Real, physical books are not going anywhere! Anywhere, I tell you!

Now, some perspective.

If Nathan Bransford’s annual e-book poll is any indication, it looks like even more people are embracing this newfangled e-book “trend” than ever before. That’s right. Apparently e-books were not just some phase publishing went through in college. Something tells me that by 2012, that percentages in Nathan’s yearly question will reach more than half. And even when that happens, I will still stand by my 2009 blog post. Here’s why:

We all knew an e-book majority was coming. It’s what we’ve been preparing for. So when I saw this article this morning by Leah McLaren, I had to rub my eyes and remind myself what year this was. Are we really still anti-e-reader? Are we seriously, in 2010, lamenting over the still-hasn’t-happened-yet loss of physical books? This line, particularly stood out to me: “…the act of giving books as gifts – once the simplest of holiday rituals – has been perverted beyond recognition as a result of technology.”

Has it?

Among McLaren’s other “most alarming” concerns about e-books is that:
1) “It has robbed us of the ability to share, discuss and passive-aggressively communicate through our mutual gift-book choices.”
2) “Once e-books completely take over, it will become impossible to know who actually reads and who doesn’t”

These quotes make me think she’s winking at her own foolishness, but this article was still written and published, so it’s getting talked about. With 2010 now ending, it makes me wonder why this article was published in the first place. Was it written in 2008 and shelved? Has the author been out of the publishing loop for some reason?

No matter the reason, the point is that the whole e-book “debate” is still, in fact, a debate. Books still make the best gifts. They always will. Unlike CDs, tangible books are still the dominant format, so gift-give away!

Speaking of the music industry, which is the best and easiest comparison, we’re used to updating our music collection with the advent of new technology. 45s, 78s, 8-tracks, cassettes, and CDs were all viable ways to listen to music. So, the dawn of mp3s weren’t really that big of a deal. They were just one more evolutionary notch. When I get an iTunes gift card, I don’t think it’s impersonal or tacky. I just think “sweet, now I can buy stuff I like in the format that I usually listen to it.”

But books have been in the same bound-pieces-of-paper format since, well… since books were invented. So naturally, we’re freaking out that someone is trying to change them. I find it sad that people like Leah McLaren are still writing articles that fear technology, rather than embrace it. It’s also upsetting that people with that viewpoint need to be reminded that CDs are still around. People even still buy them regularly! Even the majority of people who now get their music digitally are buying them. They just use them differently now, which, ironically, are more for gift-giving purposes. Owning a special edition or boxed set of your favorite band’s work just isn’t the same when you can see the work put into the packaging and liner notes.

The only difference between books and music is that we have a romanticized notion of what a book means. Or, more specifically, that it has meaning at all. I count myself among those who have this view, by the way. But, for the sake of my job and for the sake of the future of literature, I must put my personal feelings aside. 

Books will eventually become novelties too, reserved only for the retro, the collector, or the die-hard. And yes, to me this is sad. There are those of us (let’s face, if you’re reading this blog, you are included in this group) who will always buy books the way music purists still buy CDs (and even records). But we live in a small world, us literary folk. Eventually the “rest” will win. How they buy books will determine how they are sold. As the minority, we’ll do what we can and adapt to the change, and hopefully through it all, we remember that the words inside the pretty covers are what ultimately matter anyway.

9 thoughts on “E-Book Paranoia Is So 2009

  1. Great, insightful post. I was anti e-reader until I realized, “Heck, I can't say I don't like e-readers unless I read a whole book on one.” Which I did and was quickly reminded that I read for the story — to learn, to laugh, to weep, to feel, to think — the medium isn't all that important to me…but the story is. After the first page or two of that first ebook I read (“The Help”), I forgot what I was reading on. Most of my reading is on my Nook these days, simply because that's what works for me. But I still love physical books just as much. There's a place in my life for both. (Of course, picking up and running off with George Clooney will be much easier with a Nook.) 🙂


  2. 'We all knew an e-book majority was coming.' With the greatest of respect, I didn't, and still don't. But I also disagree with Leah McLaren's criticism. An e-book majority (presumably of sales revenue) could grow the overall book market.

    But I believe e-books entirely or substantially replacing paper books is no more likely than movies or radio or TV doing so. All three were widely and loudly predicted to kill print. All four are different ways of telling essentially the same stories. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of print's death have been greatly exaggerated.

    I also disagree with comparisons to music. Paper books remain utterly unique, with no equivalents in recorded music or movies. Recorded music and movies have always been sold as data in a special storage device, which requires another device to be enjoyed. With paper books WE are the playback device.

    Recorded music was sold as inscribed wax cylinder or shellac or plastic discs, magnetized tape, electronic signals you buy on discs (CDs) or, more recently, without the discs and store on your own disc or solid state system. Likewise video tape and DVDs. A paper book is not like a CD. And my view is not based on romanticism or symbolism or purism.

    I have nothing against e-books as such. If I did, I would have sent you a letter instead of this electronic comment on your electronic post!

    As for evolution, the printed book is such a cheap, convenient, low maintenance, enduring and transferable thing that, if it did not already exist, now would be a very good time to invent it!

    I'm all for embracing technology too. Though, if the technology takes the form of a chainsaw, do turn it off first…

    Thanks for the post, Sarah!


  3. Great post, Sarah! I look at my e-reader as a tool in my reading library. But, when I think of only e-readers for everything..nah. I don't want a cookbook on an e-reader when I've got messy hands in the kitchen. And I don't want those great non-fiction coffee table books on e-readers, and I really like my books at the beach and for reading in the bathtub! E-readers do not make good companions with water….


  4. I was very anti-ebook reader until I bought one to read academic articles, thus saving paper and avoiding the eye-strain of the computer. I became a total convert within about a day. Just three of the things that are neat about it: I have read books I normally wouldn't have because they were free or cheap in ebook format; I can send samples of books to my reader and again, end up purchasing and reading books I would not have “splurged” on otherwise; I'm going on a 3 week vacation to a place with no bookstores and can pack tons of books. So in other words, my ereader has broadened my reading world.


  5. I wrote a response to this on my blog, and I'm agreeing where you're coming from. I don't think the e-reader is the end of the world, nor do I think it is really going to replace the traditional book. Not yet, at least.

    Maybe bestsellers will be the printed ones and new authors will have to make their names through the ebooks? Who knows?

    But great post Sarah. 🙂


  6. Maybe they should take books and offer some sort of code when you buy them so that you can have the physical book and be able to upload the eReader version of it to your eReader. Then, people who like having physical books sitting on their shelves or giving them as gifts can have their cake and eat it too! *shrugs* I don't know if that's possible, but it's an idea. I don't have a problem with eReaders, but I do get how people like the physical feel of the pages. Plus, I'm not exactly sure how we'll end up giving ebooks as gifts as eReaders get more popular. You can't wrap a ribbon around a file, sadly.


  7. Great post. I definitely still buy CDs, which I promptly put into my laptop and upload onto my iPod. I love most forms of technology but I'm 99.9999% sure I'll never own an e-reader, and while I'm personally against them I don't really care how other people read their books. As long Powell's never closes I'm good.


  8. Ironically, she wrote that article in an online newspaper.

    I'm a big fan of e-readers. Books have been around a long time, but before that, people were scribbling on parchment or chipping at wax and stone. Why is paper, wax or stone superior to metal and glass? Meh.


  9. Argh… nobody is trying to replace print books! This is just another method by which to read a freaking book, so this kind of lamenting/fear mongering is getting old and dusty as the year draws to a close.

    People read on stone freaking tablets, on papyrus scrolls, they dug into leather bound books and paperbacks – they're going to dig into eBooks. Who knows, perhaps in 100 years books will be broadcast directly into our minds via some Amazon run giant book blender in the sky…. people are reading … who cares what the words are written on, it's the story that matters.

    I'll shut up now.


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