17 February 2009

And the Book You Rode In On

John Siracusa has worked as an ebook editor, which gives him a natural bias toward digital publishing, but be makes an undeniably strong point about the inevitability of that trend in this article at Ars Technica. In particular, Siracusa addresses some favorite counterarguments in favor of the codex this way:

Take all of your arguments against the inevitability of e-books and substitute the word "horse" for "book" and the word "car" for "e-book." Here are a few examples to whet your appetite for the (really) inevitable debate in the discussion section at the end of this article.

"Books will never go away." True! Horses have not gone away either.

"Books have advantages over e-books that will never be overcome." True! Horses can travel over rough terrain that no car can navigate. Paved roads don't go everywhere, nor should they.

"Books provide sensory/sentimental/sensual experiences that e-books can't match." True! Cars just can't match the experience of caring for and riding a horse: the smells, the textures, the sensations, the companionship with another living being.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Did you ride a horse to work today? I didn't. I'm sure plenty of people swore they would never ride in or operate a "horseless carriage"--and they never did! And then they died.
That analogy might push us to consider further implications of digital publishing. The horse economy required an infrastructure of hitching posts, watering troughs and ponds, livery stables, and of course manure-removal systems. That was eventually replaced with a completely different infrastructure of paved roads, parking lots, gasoline stations, and smog alerts.

The infrastructure of the printed book includes bookstores, libraries, magazine stands, bookshelves and bookbags, and paper-recycling depots. What will the infrastructure of digital publishing look like? Or will it be indistinguishable from the infrastructure of digital communication?

(Tip about Siracusa's article from the Daily Dish.)


Anonymous said...

The one thing that books have over digital media that the article doesn't address, is longetivity. For all its fragility, paper lasts an incredibly long time -- longer than any electronic device/media, by many orders of magnitude. Also, once created, paper does not need further energy to sustain it. Digital media has a way of become obsolete unbelievably fast.

The comparison of books with the progression of vinyl to CDs and MP3s is a poor one. All these media are relative infants when compared to paper. Besides, vinyl is making a resurgence because, it turns out, it last *longer* than digital renditions of music. (It's the Smithsonian's preferred media to preserve sound -- CDs deteriorate too quickly.)

Will that prevent ebooks from taking off? I don't think so. The article makes many good points -- day to day convenience being a major one. Paper books may eventually become obsolete, but only if the electronic version of the book can last as long as the paper version.

J. L. Bell said...

The ability of digital books to last is indeed an issue that the "infrastructure" will have to address.

I think there was a big step forward when people started thinking of ebooks as information, rather than artifacts. They're not plastic disks encoded with data, like CDs. They're the data themselves, which can be stored on CDs, hard drives, Kindles, iPods, etc. The storage can be done by individuals, institutions, companies. Those data can be even output and stored on paper.

As the storage technology improves, which it inexorably will do, we can move the data from one form to the next. That's easy if people act early enough, when the old technology is still in wide enough use. It gets harder when time passes and we find we've discarded the old technology, like floppy disks.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Excellent food for thought! I enjoyed this.

david elzey said...

I worked in a different industry for a whole that had to deal with similar prognostications over its pending demise by upstart technology -- movies. The idea was that television would gut the movie industry because people wouldn't want to go out to movies if they could sit at home and be entertained for free.

And in those beginning years there was a dip, when television was still getting its legs and movies were floundering. Television built its infrastructure, if you will, developed the networks and worked on its quality; in turn movies began introducing color and wider screens and epic spectaculars.

It's been over 60 years since thise forecasts that television would replace movies and they're both still plugging along today. Similar entertainments delivered through different technologies.

The horse/car analogy doesn't work because electronic media won't replace books. Cars didn't merely replace the means of transportation, they changed the speed of it, and the experience of it. But electronic devices aren't changing the speed or the experience of reading, and the reason people don't read as much isn't because they can't carry around their entire libraries. Both traditional books and e-readers have their place and their markets, and both will be with us for the future, slicing even thinner that discretionary dollar that people have toward their own personal entertainment.

I'm neither for nor against. Authors still aren't going to get paid any better than janitors, and I don't see how a new delivery device is going to change that.

J. L. Bell said...

TV didn’t kill movies, but it sure did a number on vaudeville, magazine serial fiction, and radio dramas.

david elzey said...

I thought vaudeville was cannibalized by silent movies, and radio killed the magazine serial. Radio drama became soap operas. And part of these were changes in people's tastes. Vaudeville made way for more sophisticated forms of comedy entertainment, and even the soap operas of today (The OC) are different than those of the 1950's.

It's all entertainment, it's still just new streams from the same river of storytelling.

J. L. Bell said...

My impression from reading memoirs of folks like Groucho Marx and Moe Howard is that live entertainment and movies coexisted for some time into the sound era. The 1940s magazines I have still have several ongoing fictional stories, but that tapers off in the 1950s.

In any event, my larger point is that the parts of life replaced by new technology are harder to find and miss because, well, they've been replaced. Nobody sits around worrying about radio dramas, telegraph operators, or livery stables anymore. They just aren't there.

Movies haven't been replaced because of TV, to be sure, but that business changed considerably. And other forms of entertainment were affected even more.

I agree that it's all storytelling: radio, movies, TV, "webisodes." And printed books and digital books are also similar means of storytelling through prose (and perhaps pictures). Will the latter replace the former entirely? Probably not.

But ebooks may replace some forms of printed books, just as some cheaper types of movies shifted to television. Ebooks may force more printed books to do things ebooks can't do (audiobooks and the Kindle aren't good with illustrations), and vice versa (print is a lousy medium for animation and music).

I'd like to think that the reduced costs of manufacturing an ebook will result in more income for authors. But I agree that's unlikely to happen. Instead, it will produce more competition, meaning more people scrabbling for readers' attention, and consequent splitting of the rewards. Plus, the ephemeral nature of a digital download will probably make people want to pay less than for a paper book.