Every six or eight months, I have to talk about books. It still drives me crazy that we pay a fortune for textbooks, and that no one is seriously looking at the e-book market for education, and that no one can seem to get an open source textbook off the ground (despite cool projects like CK-12, Wikibooks, and others). But despite the convenience factor with e-books, there are still way too many advantages to physical books for them to go away any time soon.
I have a paperback copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I bought it — used — about 25 years ago. I’ve read it maybe half a dozen times. I have no idea what I paid for it. The cover price was $3.95, so I can’t imagine that I spent more than 50 cents for a used copy.
If I didn’t have this book, I could go to my local library and borrow it for free. I wouldn’t even have to get out of the car. I can reserve it (or any other book in their collection) online. Then, I just go to the drive-thru window and pick it up. No problem.
Twenty five years from now, I will still be able to read this book (assuming I still have it and can find it). A hundred years from now, someone will be able to read it.
Now, what if I bought that book today as an e-book? The Kindle version is available. It’s 48 cents cheaper than the paperback right now. If I had a Kindle, I could buy it from the device and begin reading it immediately.
But if I had a Kindle, I couldn’t borrow the library’s copy. Their e-books are in the Mobipocket format, which (as far as I know) can’t be read on a Kindle. Actually, most of the publishers are actively trying to keep libraries from lending e-books.
God help me if I’m trying to run a school where these 180 kids get access to this Economics e-book this semester, and a different set of 180 kids gets access to it next semester. I don’t know of any publishers who have a way of handling that.
Back to Vonnegut. If I had the Kindle version (or the Mobipocket version), would I still be able to read that book 25 years from now? I think about the formats that were available when I was in high school. Sure, we didn’t have e-books. But we had music and video. How easy is it to find a cassette deck these days? How about a turntable? I certainly can’t listen to a tape in my car, and I don’t have a portable device that can play them. Sure, I can dig up a cassette deck. And we do still have a VCR. But how long is that going to last? It’s certainly not the same experience as it was in the eighties. Twenty-five years from now, we may look back fondly on the quaint old-fashioned days when e-books were black-and-white, but I doubt there will be very many working Kindles out there. Do you think the publishers will say, “it’s okay. We know you already bought this ebook in another format. There’s no need to buy it again. You can just upgrade for free.” Sure they’ll do that. Just like the music industry did. And the film industry. I complain about having Sgt. Pepper in three formats (and no, I’m NOT going to buy it again on iTunes). I don’t need to start buying books in a format that will quickly become obsolete.
And finally, let’s say I’m sick of Vonnegut and don’t want this old book laying around any longer. I could donate it to the church book sale, where they’ll probably sell it for the 50 cents I paid for it. But if I had the e-book, I couldn’t sell it. I couldn’t even legally give it away. I can delete it, but it’s somehow wrong for me to share this copy with others like I could with a physical book.
Up until very recently, I refused to buy music in digital format because of the DRM. It was worth the hassle to buy the CDs and rip them myself, so I could have them in a non-protected format. This isn’t about doing anything illegal. I’m not copying them and giving them to all my friends. I just want the same flexibility with my music that I have always had. The same is true for books. We need to work through all of these problems with digital rights and format wars and accelerated obsolescence. E-books won’t make sense until we do.
Photo credit: Ellen Macdonald on Flickr.