Ebooks: Bastard children of the digital age

An Austrian friend of mine who is a decades long resident of Brazil once remarked to me that ebooks are a joke and that he doesn’t know any Europeans or Brazilians who own any or would even want one. Given their popularity in the Anglophone world that’s an interesting perspective.

I’ve written on ebooks here before: see this post for a general consideration, this post in an editing and writing context, and this post on discovery and happy accidents. It’s a topic that’s worth revisiting from time to time, and particularly for writers it’s one that warrants serious deliberation.

Ebooks are hands down the simplest and cheapest way to publish. They are also the only way, really, that facilitates easy later editing and other changes to a book, such as adding on chapters or re-arranging content. (An addendum can of course be added to a print book but the process is much more involved and slower.) Some authors even choose to only offer their works in an ebook format, and some of them are extremely successful in doing so from a monetary point of view. Far less overhead, you see, and generally better royalty margins. These are all good points to keep in mind.

It’s also good to keep in mind that ebooks stink. Yes, you can easily and quickly edit them later after publishing but doesn’t the need to do so hint rather strongly that you published too early? Moreover, unless you’re setting up your own retail space for your books how much overhead do you as the writer really need to worry about? It’s true that better royalties and farther potential reach (delivery being usually free and instant everywhere) are great advantages, I won’t deny that, but I can’t understand the decision not to at least offer a paper version even granting the environmental concerns involved.

Paper books – must we resort to labeling them real books to differentiate? – are objects of deep love for many devoted readers and it’s easy to see why. You engage nearly all your senses when you read one: each book has its own unique feel, the sound of pages flipping strikes a satisfying whisper, and used books especially have a strong musty smell that comes to be associated with the prose on the page. Every book endears itself in its singleness, far more than a digital file could ever hope to. Is it any wonder that books, like anything else, can so easily be devalued when they are reduced to a few bytes of type in a long list of titles? Think here of CDs or mp3s when it comes to music and the analogy is clear to see. That record you have automatically generates a lot more loving care than that slot in your iTune’s playlist.

Ebooks have real advantages that should not be downplayed, there’s no arguing with that. But as a writer ask yourself this: What does it mean to you that the book you poured your heart and soul into will end up being one more easily disposable commodity to someone flicking through files on their Kindle or tablet? Maybe there is more to it than just keeping costs down and royalties up. Maybe even in the twenty-first century there is still such a thing as heart.

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One Comment

  1. Nick Cody
    Posted February 10, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    From a reader’s perspective, there are some big pluses to using ebooks. Depending on the size of the pdf file, one might be able to carry around 300 books on a 16 GB usb drive. That kind of portability is enticing. Furthermore, you can get the classics for free: Greek tragedies, The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, A Pilgrim’s Progress. I was about 99% favoring traditional books until my lifestyle forced me to consider the advantages of ebooks. Anyway, that’s for the post!

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