Ebooks: Are They Just A Fad?
The fierce debate about whether ebooks are better than print ones and if the first are going to replace the latter is almost a decade old and very few people change their initial positions. Feelings are strong. There is not a definite conclusion yet.
On one side, you have more forward-looking readers, defenders of change and improvement over a 500-year-old technology (the print book). These are the ebook lovers. On the other side, you have the conservatives, people who claim they need to feel the physicality of the print book and smell the scent of newly printed pages to be able to have a fully satisfying reading experience.
I belong in the first group. To me nothing beats the practicality of ebooks. The fact that you can carry your whole library on your iPhone wherever you go, the instant gratification of downloading a book immediately after hearing or reading a good review about it, the comfort of controlling the size of the font (I have worn glasses since I was 10!) and the direct access to a dictionary if you are not sure about the meaning of a word make the experience of e-reading rather fulfilling. There used to be the added attraction of low prices, as well. Ebooks were cheaper than their print counterparts in general. But this seems to be changing, as negotiations between publishers and e-reading device providers and distributors are getting tougher.
Another advantage of ebooks is they allowed a huge number of people to try their hand as writers. Self-publishing is indeed a very liberating and democratic trend. To succeed as a self-publishing ebook author you need to sharpen your writing skills in a more Darwinian kind of selection: it is all about the survival of the fittest, and not the decision of powerful editors working in high positions for traditional publishing houses with their huge marketing machines to support and promote their occasional poor decisions.
We mustn’t forget, though, that there’s a third category of readers. A huge number of people straddle both worlds: they purchase ebooks and print books. And most interestingly, they seem to use each kind of book for different purposes. Usually, ebooks are for what they really want to read, protected from public scrutiny by the lack of glossy, flashy covers advertising to the whole world the fact that they love pulp fiction. For these people, ebooks are for the cheap pleasures of badly written texts, packed with sex scenes or violence on every other page, gory murders, saccharine romance, wizardry and self-help. Unfortunately, those are the books most people seem to enjoy reading anyway.
For those people, print books, on the other hand, especially the ones with imposing hard covers, make great gifts for friends and relatives. They can also be used effectively as decoration, standing elegantly in their home library and tricking visitors into believing they have a sophisticated taste in literature, poetry and philosophy. James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Dickens, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Keats, all kinds of philosophers’ texts and art books will be on those shelves. They will never be opened, though.
It’s great that people still have the choice of reading their print books, or just buying them, if they choose to. New technologies are always disruptive and it will be some time before print books are not available any longer. Also, I must admit there are places, like the beach, the deck of a swimming pool or the bathtub where it’s safer and more convenient to read from a dog-eared paperback than from a fancy iPad or Kindle.
In addition to that, in places like South America, for example, one obstacle to the popularity of ebooks is the fact that they are mostly available in English, which puts many readers off. But this is changing fast, as translations and indigenous ebooks are showing up more quickly and in greater numbers, both in Spanish and Portuguese.
What I don’t think will stick are innovations already tried in some ebooks, such as hypertexted passages, allowing the reader to choose and follow subplot paths within the same story, or picking alternative endings. Neither the use of multimedia in a novel, such as substituting video for descriptive passages, or lending audio to the voices of characters to enhance the story (we are not talking about carefully produced audiobooks, read by great actors, though. We will discuss those in another post). Readers of both ebooks and print ones like to follow a well-constructed story fully developed and controlled by the author. They don’t want to make choices about the plot, watch videos or hear the characters voices: the story and the reader’s imagination should be enough to sustain the interest.
My feeling, however is, e-reading will prevail in the end. This is no fad. I firmly believe ebooks, emagazines and enewspapers are here to stay. There is no way back. It will take time for people to adapt to them, which is the common path for radically ground-breaking technology. Let’s give it another 10 years and the stragglers will catch up.