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Harry Connolly put up a guest post* over at Charlie Stross’s blog. Connolly writes,

Well, my book is new. My latest novel came out yesterday and I’ve been surprised by the way sales are running on Amazon.com. It’s a huge difference from last year when the early ebook and pbook sales were pretty much neck and neck.

This year it’s not even close. Early orders for the Kindle edition of Circle of Enemies have been much, much higher than the physical book. The ebook cracked Amazon.com’s Contemporary Fantasy bestseller list while sales rank for the mass market paperback barely moved out of five figures. A number of readers also told me that they ordered digital versions of the book after being unable to find it in a brick-and-mortar store on release day.

 

He thinks that e-books may not cannibalize all book sales. In his case, he sees a greater loss in mass market paperback sales than in hardcover or paperbacks.

 

* Warning: rickroll after the link.

I have no desire to rehash arguments made by many others, in and out of publishing, or who have published with big or small press, about the good and the bad of e-books. Instead, I offer some observations from Teleread (e-books continue to show an increase in sales and that, as a form, books are undergoing changes – thank you, Chris Meadows and Paul Biba for the links) and The Digital Reader.

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Yesterday, I went to Porter Square Bookstore to attend a reading by Tom Perotta (The Leftovers). I am a fan of Perotta’s (I had some reviews from Goodreads that I haven’t yet reproduced here. I managed to repost my essay on Perotta’s Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher.) While self-contained (it was one about two men, one of whom reaches out to the other to provide comfort), it did not seem too compelling to me. Instead, I found the book jacket description to be more interesting: a lot of people vanish (Rapture style). How do the people who are left behind cope (in the absence of an explanation as to why the vanishing happened?)

There were not many questions about his books, per se. There were two involving the profit motive: one person asked if it was any easier to get a second book published. Another asked if he now writes with an eye to screen adaptations. For the latter, Perotta noted that, after Election, the movie, was released, Hollywood seemed excited by the prospects of his College Joe. The book disappointed that crowd in that it was not the slapstick, raunchy comedy people were expecting. As for Little Children, Perotta would have marked that as one of the least likely books to be adapted (an ensemble piece, with a plot about a child molester). The director, however, really wanted it made.

To tie it into this post: One woman asked Perotta how he thought about ebooks, whether he feels they provide an opportunity or if he sees it as a threat. Perotta, like in his books, seemed to give a fair answer. He acknowledged that there are opportunities for authors: new authors can be published, while established authors will never go out of print. His tone, posture, and rushed ending to that statement suggested to me that he understood the virtues of ebooks rationally, he did in fact feel threatened. He did not rail against ebooks. He realized that the medium is undergoing a transition; in the short term, he is satisfied that there is a place for books. His evidence? He gave his reading in a bookstore, which is acting as a forum for readers and authors to interact. More emphasis was given to the fact that he was comfortable in the publishing world. He grew up reading words on paper, and that’s his comfort level. It seems his point is that paper book readers have a culture, and that e-book readers will eventually form a different sort of culture from the one he has known.

I think our current conception of e-books is actually limited, to some extent, by the adoption of the Kindle. The Kindle is a translation of paper to screen. A number of features mimic what people can do with paper (marking pages, writing notes) while improving on others (such as whole book search, storing large collections of titles). But the e-ink technology (in the current black/white, slow screen refresh state) lends itself to be treated like a book.

With the iPad and NookColor, we are beginning to see reshaping of content to fit the color screen of a portable computer. The popularity of the Kindle may have stemmed from its familiarity to the printed word. Sooner or later, e-books will diverge from this current form (book like presentation), turning into slick interactive, multifaceted presentations (probably some hybrid wiki-page/HTML5/video/music extravaganza). We are already seeing that in the Dr. Suess books being converted to iPad and Android apps. It is ironic in that many have tried to expand on the book form (think Griffin and Sabine books, and the Dragonology series) only to bypass it altogether.

I think what is lost in attacks and defense of ebooks is the concept of technology creating culture. Neil Postman, Mark Helprin, and Nicholas Carr have made these points. Technology is neutral in the sense that humans can decide on its immediate use. We also have the ability to select among a great number of tools. However, the authors I cited here make compelling arguments that we are also shaped by our tools. We may not select the proper tool (if we are holding a hammer, it won’t help us with set-screws.) And tools can limit how we approach a task (hence the cliche of, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) They take the argument a step further; technologies that alter language can literally alter how we think.

I don’t think it is controversial to say that humans are generally intellectually adaptable. Postman et al. argue that we are much more malleable than assumed, and to our detriment. Online activity in the mobile age, googling, clicking links, video-centric delivery, and short texts (shorthand, abbreviations, two-sentence paragraphs) tend to promote shallow scanning. One might counter that, if a person is inclined, he will delve deeper. Postman et al. counter, no, they won’t. The nature of Internet presentation, they argue, will make it less likely for people to ruminate, to read deeply, and to think in the silence of their own heads. It is easier to follow the next link.

Of the three, I think Postman gave a framework for dealing with technology. In both Amusing Ourselves to Death and Conscientious Objections, he argues that new technology is here to stay (at the time, he was writing about the pervasiveness of television), and we need to be aware that all such communication altering technologies has the capacity to reshape the way we think. We must take care to exploit its virtues while limiting its disadvantages. In other words, control the technology lest it controls us. What was interesting is that he argued that TV isn’t bad because it provides salacious entertainment. TV is most pernicious when it aspires to teach and to serve as a forum public discourse.

Not just television, but effective television presentation, comes with visual excitement and change. This is the opposite of the arguments one can develop in excruciating detail in a book. One can compare a book (even better, read many books) on global warming to an Al Gore movie or to inane 5-minute segments in television news. Postman would simply prefer that we realize that a 5-minute segment is the worst way  of dealing with complex arguments. It simply isn’t enough, especially given the scientific literature on the subject matter. What TV is suited for, Postman notes, is an entertaining 5 minute segment. Something to make you laugh or cry and enjoy; something with impact, translatable into sensational imagery – sound is no longer enough. Instead, we are concluding that audio-visual presentations (whether on TV or in Youtube videos) comprise  the main solution, rather than a portion. It isn’t that we do not what the limits of technology are; we do not ask if we are using the right tool.

I agree with this assessment. Now, when I peruse textbooks that are written for college students (in neuroscience), I note all the missing pieces of information. Not just nuanced counterarguments, but  complete series of compelling experimental evidence that points to alternative theories. And that happens even in a 700-page textbook. Imagine how much can be lost by reduction into sound-bytes (not compressed, since it implies that the total information is there but reformed into a more efficient notation.) Television has shortened political debates into  short oral bursts (hopefully, with visuals), because its strength is in providing ever changing stimulation. The Internet will reshape reading on a screen, emphasizing scanning, clicking and instant look-up, not necessarily understanding or retention, since the information is always at hand. The new “smart” will be in constructing proper search terms.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, though. As Postman and Carr suggest: be aware of what is happening to you (although I am paraphrasing liberally; they devalue this type of intelligence. I am willing to redefine what intelligence ought to be in this brave new world of ours). Maybe, one can simply use the search engine to find the proper book.

As a final aside: here’s another take on what we can lose. Scintillating intellectual conversation. I was browsing through the stacks at Porter Square Books and saw that there is a new collection of essays from Christopher Hitchens. The book jacket blurb seemed to have a pertinent statement: Hitchens combines intelligence, wit, a huge store of knowledge, the ability to recall from this “offline” repository, and charm. That description does sound like someone who would make a wonderful dinner companion. I can certainly see how conversational flow can be ruined if all of us are googling into our phones. But I sense a hint of elitism in that; for my part, I have a (I hope relatively idiosyncratic) collection of stories about science, quantum mechanics, Richard Feynman, mathematical gambling analysis, gadgets, statistical analysis, novels, World War II, microscopy techniques, and 19th-century European history running in my head. And that’s just a thin slice of what I know. Whether I am good company depends on the people I am with, how well I present my thoughts, and how receptive they are to them. I think the point is that, simply, Hitchens and I (and others) have chosen to remember different things. Maybe the cultural gatekeepers are just annoyed so many people choose to remember something different than they do?

Is curation important? I think so, but only in the sense that it plays to our virtues. We are not indexing machines like Google’s data containers. What we do remember are things associated with great emotional impact. That helps us perform single-trial learning (to, if we are lucky, avoid in the future things that hurt or almost killed us), but in this age, it can help us identify meaningful cultural objects. It may be reflected in the fact that we prefer people tell us of formative events that shaped their lives, rather than a considered answer as to the sequence of life’s happenings that let their lives unfold the way it did.

All this is a way of saying that, I agree with Perotta that reading culture will change. Since I am so comfortable with both paper and digital screen, I do not feel the same loss that Perotta does. I know there are readers out there like me: those who feel comfortable in a library, a bookstore, or on bn.com/ebooks. I pack paper books and my NookColor for trips. I write marginalia in books I own, and I upload my notes to Evernote when I read e-books. But are we the most common sort of e-book readers? No idea; I am not sure what the dominant form of e-book reading culture will be.

Lev Raphael recently wrote of an advantage possessed by paper books: marginalia can comprise both responses to what was read as well as a diary of sorts. It is a physical manifestation of memory, thought processes, and perhaps emotional state. Specifically, this piece was pitched as a counterpoint to the idea that books are simply containers, delivering the content within, with Stephen King making a recent comment to this effect.

I agree with both points and have this to offer.

I still think these lists of pros and cons of e-books or paper books miss the point. The main competitor to paper books isn’t e-books, but every other form of diversion and entertainment. I would say that shunting customers to some “container” is the least of the publishing industry’s worries. I see the e-book/paper book debate as pointless. A true reader wouldn’t care how he is reading, so long as he is reading.

Also, keep in mind that I love reading. I can’t get enough of it. I prefer to fill all my spare time reading. The most efficient way, at my disposal, is to use a software ebook reader installed on my Motorola Droid phone. Before that, I read on my iPod Touch, my Treo phone, my Palm Tungsten 5, my iPaq, a Handspring Prism (the color screen version) and a monochrome black-on-dark-green screen of the Handspring Visor. A tech geek will realize that there is a clear progression: I’ve listed in reverse order the quality of the screens of the machines. So I suffered through some god-awful visual experience, just because I was so enamored of carrying a huge library of books with me, and of reading these books at every opportunity.

And before I had a machine that can contain my bookshelf, I would pack multiple paper books for trips, long or short. This includes packing 2 or 3 books for a subway ride. I feared finishing a book and  not have another book to start. Sure, it’s neurotic; I read quickly, but not that quickly. I did not always divide my reading time among several books, so I agree it is doubly strange to always pack so many books. On long trips, I have been known to pack 8 books; now, when I fly, I can trim that to two so I can read during take-off and landing. It isn’t realistic for me to pack so many books, as I know I can’t read or finish them all. But I can’t help myself.  In my book bag that I take to lab, at this moment, I have 3 books.

My point is that I distinguish between reading and other activities, as opposed to reading on a machine versus reading on paper. I still head to the library (it’s the beautiful, recently renovated Cambridge Public Library) once every few weeks to load up on even more books. I peruse bookstores for fun; I eagerly await new releases from the bn.com/ebooks and FictionWise sites. I see it as a boon that I can add to my electronic bookshelf without my wife noting the amount of space it takes up in our condo.

Enough credentializing. My only point is to say that I have noticed that although the content is the same, I read differently depending on the technology I use. As Raphael noted, writing notes on the margins is easy to do in a book. Coming from a background in which  my work requires me to read science articles, I have not found a better way to annotate articles than to write all  over the paper. I have tried writing notes in a separate notebook, I have tried writing notes on a sheet of paper and stapling it to the article, I have tried downloading the PDF version of the article and making comments, and I have tried archiving the web version in Evernote and making annotations there.

I have also tried the analogous operations on books. Nothing is more convenient, to me, than to write on the document. Part of it is the immediacy, writing next to the passage is quick. It does get unwieldy, since I don’t underline but insist on writing down as complete thought as possible. Try holding onto a book and a Moleskin, and writing while exposing as much of the text as possible.

I would also point out that, some of us are fortunate enough to have some form of location awareness and tactile memory when reading an actual, physical document. For example, even if I cannot remember the precise text, I can generally remember where I found the words.

Another problem with e-book annotations is that not all e-book readers have a way to export the notes one makes. The readers I use won’t let me do that, and so I find myself suffering through an unwieldy software interface to access my notes, individually. It would be faster to go through notes made in the margins of text. So when I read an e-book, I write fewer, but longer notes. I take the risk of forgetting some points before I write the note; after all, one of my reasons in writing marginalia is to help me remember something in the first place.

What one does with the notes after writing them down is a separate matter. I see marginalia as placeholders until I can collect my thoughts elsewhere. Yes, that elsewhere has been on the computer (until recently, Evernote. Now I just write on this blog.) Despite the convenience of digital manipulations, I still find it easier  to thumb through a book and read a few notes or passages to gather my thoughts on a book. Until the notes-interface improves on my e-book readers, this is yet another advantage for paper books.

I think in dealing with technology, noting advantages and disadvantages is fine, but I don’t think these lists really help one decide on its worth. Given the list of pros and cons I made, I don’t see any one format winning out. That is good, because I think each has different things to offer a reader. I do not see myself ignoring paper books, nor do I envision myself reading off my phone or computer screen all the time. Not only is there a time and place for each, but economic and technological advances can limit or expand our options. There may come a time when I find that multimedia and ads have infected e-books to such an extent that I can no longer read them. Or that we may find that paper book costs increase due to demand for wood. Or that print is only reserved as luxury products. Rather than being wedded to one form of technology (whether it’s Gutenberg’s, or Bezos’s, or Jobs’s), it makes more sense to know that what works for you can change in the future.

I am a big fan of e-books. I got my first personal digital assistant (PDA), a Visor Pro, with the express purpose of reading on it. I have since used countless PDAs and e-book reading programs. Currently, I find most of my reading time on my commute to work (by subway) and in “micro-moments.” With a PDA in hand, I can start reading at a moment’s notice, and I usually do, even with only a few minutes available to me at a time. The minutes add up. Currently, I use my iPod Touch for reading books. I must be one be a singleton, holding an iPod on the train, sans head phones, staring intensely at the screen.

I also find ludicrous that anyone would argue that there are clear advantages to paper or e-books; I absolutely love to read, and I cannot care less how I do it. I can point to several instances, in the past few months, where I made a conscious decision to avoid one or the other, for whatever reason. I prepare for air travel by borrowing a few books from the library. I have been purchasing more and more history and science works in e-book form. I occasionally by reference works, on paper, that can benefit from a persistent footprint (e.g. cookbooks, protocols, technical works, etc.) In other words, to hew so closely to one form of text over the other, to the point of making a philosophical to-do about it, is a senseless expenditure of energy. I am a big fan of the pragmatic; I read in the form that is most convenient for me at the time.

With that said, there is something about the smell and physicality of a book that appeals to me. No, I do not read or buy books for showing off; my bookshelves are in my wife’s and my bedroom. I love walking into a bookstore or library; I am comforted. It is my church. The downside of books is the physical aspect of it. There is a reason the bookshelves are hidden in the bedroom: we do not have another spot for them. Clearly, one difference that I found useful in e-books is that they don’t take up physical space. I have 500 e-books on my palm, and I love having my library with me.

At this point, I am thinking that you can guess that the title of the blog isn’t an excuse for why I am not reading, but rather a complaint about how little time I do spend reading. I suppose I cannot be doing so badly: I have a count for most of the books I have read in the past 5 or so years: 318. That includes the e-books and p-books I bought; it doesn’t include the library books I have borrowed and read. I guess it works out to about 5 books a month; it isn’t impressive, given the rate some other readers devour books, but since I have a day job that takes up way too much time (but it’s engaging work!), a wife, and a 3.5 year old, I get some slack, don’t I?

I have already posted a handful of reviews elsewhere on the web; sooner or later, I’ll reprint them here. I will add links to book stores as well as Fictionwise; that’s my vendor of choice for e-books, and they have recently gone from being a retailer to publishing partner. Fictionwise bought eReader, an e-book format and a reading software developer. There are “readers” available for PDAs, computers, and now the iPhone.

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