Why Everything You Think About Ebooks is a Filthy Lie

So this is going to be a blog about book technology. And I want to kick it off by talking about the title … The Smell of Books. In the last few years I have read hundreds of pages of blogs and newspapers about ebooks. I’ve also been working in a publishing company, where people love to read books, love to talk about books and love to own books. There is a significant proportion of early adopters out there who love the very idea of ebooks and e-publishing, and criticise ebooks only in the way they might criticise any of their beloved gadgets.

And then there is everyone else.

I’d like to start with three misconceptions you might have about ebooks and why you’re stupid for thinking them.

The Smell of Books

The amount of newsprint that has been wasted on the latest prehistoric pundit slash columnist road testing an ebook reader and decrying it as ‘not the same’ as a paper book is absolutely shameful. Their biggest crime, of course, is talking about the smell.

The experience of reading on an ebook reader (or any kind of electronic reading) is self-evidently not the same as a paper book. Nobody is trying to make it so. The advantages of electronic reading are manifold (you can expect me to expound on these reasons in blogs to come), but they do not include any of the following: being able to hand down a worn electronic copy of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to your grandson on his 21st birthday; sitting in a bubble bath reading Wuthering Heights to your girlfriend; or showing off to your friends how many of the Russians you have read.

From My Cold, Dead Hands

Nobody is trying to replace paper books with ebooks. Least of all traditional publishing companies. Most publishing companies are still making 95% or more of their profit from paper books, and most people still want to read dead trees. I cannot envision a point in my lifetime where there will no longer be paper books at all. There is no need to take a stand – you will only overbalance and fall over.

Why Try to Reinvent the Wheel?

Books have been in their current form for a long time. They are beloved objects of beauty. They are perfectly suited to all reading activities. Only two of the previous three statements are true. There are plenty of annoying things about dead tree books. Ever tried to haul a copy of Infinite Jest around over the course of the month or more it takes you to read? Ever got stuck reading Gravity’s Rainbow because you didn’t know what Poisson distribution was? Ever lived in a small town with a tiny library and no bookstore and couldn’t find the latest Dan Brown?

Ebooks have a place in the future of book selling, publishing and reading. It’s time to prepare yourself. Just because you don’t like the idea of them doesn’t mean you might not like them. Just because you don’t like them doesn’t mean they’re not here to stay.

[Image courtesy of smellofbooks.com]

Published by

Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.

8 thoughts on “Why Everything You Think About Ebooks is a Filthy Lie”

  1. Seems like a pretty fair call… nobody seems to know what the hell a Kindle is or what they can do… not to mention always complaining how much they love the feel of paper

  2. Right on, Joel. I compare the introduction of the ebook to the introduction of the hamburger. Hamburgers are fast and hot and available, but they didn’t kill the sandwich. Sometimes you feel like a burger, and other times a baguette, and that’s okay. Noone is forcing you to choose between them. And an ebook in the bath is only going to be good for the company that replaces your (wet) ebook. Although a waterproof ebook for bath readers is a genius idea… Sorta like the Bacon and Cheese Angus from Burger King…

    JB: Yes. Yes! Excellent metaphor. (And I do secretly crave a waterproof ebook reader).

  3. I’m cautiously optimistic about e-books.

    Optimistic because I think we’re going to see some amazing explorations of story-telling once publishers move past the concept of e-books being simple electronic clones of print books. Interactivity, embedded links, and all the other things that digital publishing could do if it wanted to are delicious ideas. Philip Pullman’s new book gets the enhanced treatment in the iPhone app for “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” – very exciting!

    But I’m cautious because the business models haven’t settled down, as seen with the recent stoush between Amazon and McMillan. Those of us who can remember Beta v VHS can attest to the fact that in the settling down phase there is often some wrangling over formats and contracts and pricing. And it’s often the consumers and the creators who come off worst during that time. I’m hopeful that this won’t be the case but – as I said – I’m cautious.

    So while I may not be an enthusiastic early adopter, I don’t think I fall into the “stupid because I misunderstand e-books” category either. I have a Kindle app on my iPhone, but I’m not investing in the Kindle reader which limits me to one format and pays authors significantly lower royalties.

    There is a place for considered reflection when significant change occurs. Please don’t assume because some of us are thoughtful, that we are Luddites.

    JB: My apologies for insinuating that. It sounds like you have personally considered the limitations of the current crop of ebook readers and demurred for now. Sensible enough considering many of their current limitations. My criticisms are more for those who hate the format on principle, simply because ebooks are not paper books.

  4. Very fair comments, Joel. Only a handful of music extremists would be hostile to mp3 players because the experience isn’t the same as playing their beloved vinyl at home where they can smell the sleeve, inspect the grooves or whatever else pleases them – both have an important place in the experience of music and I don’t see why it’s any different with ebooks and paper books. I look forward to reading your future posts!

    JB: Thanks, Luke. I look forward to your comments in the future!

  5. Pingback: The Smell of Books » Why the iPad is Not Going to Save Publishing
  6. You make a really good point about availability. Imagine how many more people would be able to access literature if the content was all electronic? It would be a lot more convenient for people living in rural and remote areas. That is an exciting thought.

  7. Pingback: The Smell of Books » Evolution or revolution?
  8. Pingback: The Smell of Books » Evolution or revolution?

Comments are closed.