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This video, in which the books in the bookstore dance around the shelves, made the rounds recently. It’s clever and beautiful. Right at the end of the clip, the message “there’s nothing quite like a real book” flashes up. That “real book” comment can be read as a message espoused by those who believe that the rise of the eBook and eReader are harbingers of the death of culture. This message marginalises those who chose to read using other formats.

Sony's eReader (Source: James F Clay, Flickr)

Although eBooks have really only begun to win significant ground from traditional books over the last few years, the format has a long history. The first eBook was made in 1971, an electronic copy of the Declaration of Independence. This marked the beginning of Project Gutenberg, which seeks to encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks. EBooks and eReaders, (such as the Kindle, Nook, and Kobo) have been booming over the last few years, with the development of e-ink technology removing the need for a backlit screen and thus making reading on a digital device for longer periods of time more comfortable. Over time, the price of the various readers has dropped, thus making them more accessible. So much so that in 2010, Amazon announced that sales of eBooks had outstripped sales of hardback books and in 2011, Amazon announced that sales of eBooks had surpassed those for paperbacks.

Some sectors of the book world find this scary. They see only losers in the rise of the eBook – booksellers (especially the independents) going out of business, publishers feeling an increased threat of piracy and bypassing of their services, and authors missing out on royalties because of the (generally) lower price points for eBooks. For the reader, there is the loss of that ephemeral delight of “curling up with a good book”, the tactile comfort of turning the pages and feeling the weight of the book in your hands.

Reading a real book (Source: *Jessica {Evelii}, Flickr)

It’s true, an eBook is not going to give you that same sensory experience. For some books, where the physical surety of a bound tome is important, or even essential, an eBook will not provide a comparable experience. For example, books about art, where the quality of the pictures is important, or even books that are art. Kids pop-up books wouldn’t work as eBooks (until some bright spark eventually markets the 3D eBook). Poetry, where the placement of words on the page may be as important and as thought through as the words themselves, may benefit from the physical book.

However, for the bulk of books, the medium is not the message.  Rather, the most important aspect of the book is the text, the content. It’s the ideas and stories contained within the text the reader desires. We read to get a good story, to be entertained and educated. Sometimes, the content of a book can even be more comfortably read on an eReader than in physical form – those 1000+ page epics by your favourite sci-fi writer that you have to have as soon as they come out are actually pretty cumbersome to read in hardback. The new eReaders are easy to use and can be read anywhere a book can (including the bath, if you are careful – you can always seal it into a clear plastic bag as well, if you’re in the habit of dropping your book in the bath).

The other criticisms can be briefly refuted. The eBook alone is not to blame for the closure of independent bookstores. Instead, the combined effect of eCommerce and hugely discounted books sold through big barn-style stores are the real culprits here. Booksellers still have the secret weapons of well chosen stock, excellent customer service and informed, friendly staff to lure people into stores.

For publishers, issues of eBook piracy could be addressed through ensuring that the option to buy a legitimate copy of an eBook is available and accessible to all those who want it. Geo-restriction of eBooks (only selling to a particular area of the world) needs to stop, and eBooks need to be priced sensibly. The services provided by publishers – such as editing and publicity – are still valuable, and will remain in demand. It is just as annoying to read an eBook filled with typos as it is to find them in a print book.

As Margaret Atwood notes, there are no eBooks without authors. For writers, the eBook format can provide opportunities to publish work that might not be picked up by traditional publishers. This includes self-published works by new writers, or short form works by established writers.  Publishing direct to eBook format can also provide authors with a better royalty deal.

Benefits of the eBook

As well as the convenience of being able to carry a whole library with you when you’re on the move, there are other benefits associated with ebooks:

Increased accessibility and customisation for people with disabilities

EReaders have the potential to increase access to a range of books for people with disabilities. The ability to customise the print size on your eReader provides easy access to large print books, and to a range of books that might not otherwise be picked up in large print by a library. Text-to-speech features on eReaders may also prove useful to people who are unable to hold books very easily.

Benefits for students

Apple recently announced that its new iBook software would better enable the creation of interactive textbooks for the iPad. The textbooks will be significantly less expensive than the print versions, and able to incorporate multi-media offerings, such as videos. While the cost of the actual iPad, and the restriction of these books to the one type of device are highly problematic, this proposal is filled with potential – for example, the ability to include a variety of material in a textbook to suit different learning styles.

Green your reading

Which would you prefer to take on holiday? (Source: sirwiseowl, Flickr)

Making printed books uses up resources such as trees, water. Unsold books are incinerated, dumped or recycled. Occasionally, a whole print run has to be pulped, resulting in a huge waste of resources.  EBooks, by comparison, are not nearly so resource hungry, although the eReaders can be (manufacturers are reluctant to reveal this information, so it’s hard to be accurate). There’s a lot of debate about how green reading on an eReader actually is, once you take into account the lifecycle resources used. However, what’s clear is that if you are a big reader, then reading eBooks on an eReader will cut down on your carbon footprint. Twenty-two books on an eReader is equal to one paper book in terms of carbon emissions.

New technology as a driver for literacy

The eBook  and eReader could serve as a lure to non or light-readers. Just as JK Rowling and the Harry Potter phenomenon appeared to spark a fad for reading among kids, the experience of reading on a new device might also attract people to start reading:

“One of the good things about e-readers is that kids are more likely to think they are “cool” and may actually find it easier to isolate pieces of text and read them, especially if they have learning disabilities of certain kinds.” Margaret Atwood

The resurgence of the short form

A lot of fiction writers develop their skills through writing and publishing short stories. The traditional forums for these stories  have been slowly drying up with magazines going out of business and the pages for fiction in those left drying up, or focused on established writers. Publishing collections of short stories are only viable (ie profitable) publishing options for established writers. EBooks provide a market for one-off shorts, much like selling a single from an album on iTunes.

Promotion of genre fiction and more open reading

EBooks have been amazing for niche genres both for writers and readers. There has traditionally been a social stigma about reading particular genres (romance and sci-fi/fantasy in particular), making people embarrassed to read them in public. With an eReader, no one on the bus will know that you are reading the latest Mills and Boon Romance. Ebooks would have partially solved the problem of having to run a separate “adult” cover for the Harry Potter books too. The ease of self-publication (mentioned above) also means that readers have access to more books in their favourite genre.

There are still a lot of issues to resolve in the eBook arena – issues of ownership, how to lend books, file and device compatibility, and how to place quality controls on self-published works. None of these is a real reason not to embrace this new technology. EReaders and eBooks are here to stay, and their emergence should be celebrated, not feared. The future is not one without physical books. People who buy eBooks, still buy print books, and may even buy two copies of the same book, in different formats, depending on their intended use.

The way all our books used to be made (Source: Metro Transportation Library and Archive, Flickr)

Regardless of what you read, why and how you read it, it is the act of reading – to educate, to entertain and to enlighten – which is important. Instead of denigrating one format, let’s celebrate and promote reading, in whatever form it takes.