Who Loves Books More: pReaders or eReaders? (aka, Doug gets Tongue in Cheek)

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Summary: Now that Macmillan books are returning to Amazon (albeit kind of strangely and with a weird limp), the most important question once again remains: just who is the bigger booksnob? People who love the feel of paper in the hand or people who love the feel of plastic? EBook readers or pBook readers? I put the question to the test.

Sunday, 07 February 2010

(16:34:29 CST)

Who Loves Books More: pReaders or eReaders? (aka, Doug gets Tongue in Cheek)

I've been wandering around Amazon's website for the past few days, looking at the big gaps where the Macmillan titles used to be and, well, are back now but somehow they don't feel posted properly. The shelves are arranged funny, non-euclidean. It's as though they had great big boxes of books in order, snatched them all down, and then shoved them all back on the shelf again. Just not quite right. In ways you cannot tell with the naked eye. You have to have faith that something is wrong to even notice it. It's a wild, weird trip.

Don't know what I am talking about? Well, I'll sum up with as little commentary as possible. (1) Amazon demonstrates how to make eBooks profitable: both sell the books, "own" the format, act as the primary go-to group for the format, and sell the readers. (2) Macmillan, despite getting a fair amount of money off the books, thinks that having one person act at two levels is atrocious, unless it as them, and so demands a rewrite of the rules. (3) The new rules say that Amazon is no longer seller of books and owner for format, but are now a licensed agent of Macmillan, who is the real seller...and also the publisher, though they couldn't legally take the format from Amazon and so have come to terms with that, sort of, but give them time you Amazonian bastards. (3a) Oh, and Macmillan wants Amazon to pay less for the books and make more profit. (4) Amazon goes "NOOOOO!!1!" and for some reason assumes the best course of action is to remove everything ever touched by any Macmillan employee ever from their shelves, both hardcopy and digital copy, effectively ripping holes into their own website just to spite a profit-generating business partner. (5) At this point, I am going to bail out, but you get the drift.

And the drift was this: eBooks (electronic books, in this case we are talking about the Kindle's azw format, but for the sake of this post assume any book that exists in digital form) are so important that pBooks (books actually printed out on paper), the true "book" by most people's definition, are being considered collateral. In a simple allegory, that's just like threatening to burn down your house because your woman wants to repaint the bathroom. The only reality in which this makes sense is if it's predicted that the bathroom will become the most important room of the house. Get it now? This was a fight by two big goombly large corporations not over the present, but over what they consider to be the future: a technology currently crippled by DRM and a shoddily underdeveloped experience that is adrift in layer upon layer of ownership issues, pricing concerns, and all sorts of other pains. It's the complicated kid in the corner, the one who drools and bites people, but does some really cool stuff, too. Everyone is acting like that kid is important all of sudden. What's more, he is so important, that common sense tactics like "Hey, let's teach him some manners"—because, and let's be honest, it is not his fault that people have assumed that half-assed teaching techniques are enough for him to cope—are waved aside by such top-notch arguments like "Maybe if we make him bite more people, and hide the number of times you can bite him back from the end user, wouldn't that be special?"

Which brings us to the real question: who loves books more? The ones who like these eBook things? Or the people who hate them? I'm an eBook expat, somewhat. I see the potential in them and have tried out a dozen different types and a half dozen different methods of reading them. I have long defended them, but I have to say that the continued trends of treating them like competition with pBooks (by the people who stand to make the most off of eBooks) and shoving them in deep quagmires of rules is not endearing me. I now only buy books in eBook format that I don't really care if I have a copy around in a few years, meaning the kind of thing that I wouldn't mind waiting for the mass-market version of. However, despite my pragmatic approach to the whole thing, about once a month (at least), someone takes a few swipes at me for daring to read the things, as though my reading some eBook was the same as me going down the local library and just having a big old piss on the shelves, or maybe ripping the book out of the hand of an orphan and slapping them for reaidng. I can dig people not liking eBooks. Some people don't like Charles Dickens and some can't stand reading hardcovers. We have our preferred flavors; but the eBook thing is rarely treated as a preferred flavor and some sort of moral choice of being with us or against us (us = book culture). I've decided to answer the question by putting it to the test: do eBook lovers (those comfortable with eBooks) or haters (those who hold that only physical books matter and eBooks are a cancer) love books more?

eBook Lovers... eBook Haters... The winner is...
...are forced to buy every single book that they want to read. ...often use libraries, bookswaps, and such to avoid paying for books. While Haters interact deeper with book culture just to get their books, Lovers are more willing to spend money on it. In the long run, a smaller group willing to spend more money mean they are going to own more of the marketshare. Maybe a Tie for now, but Lovers are going to win this one unless your average pBooker gets more monetarily vocal.
...grin and bear typos and other mistakes. ...use a red pen to correct said mistakes with margin note explaining why the typesetter should go back to school, sometimes being unable to finish a book with a typo. The Lovers are ate up by learned helplessness, while Haters are crippled by OCD. In the long run, though, at least Haters expect books to be written better than a tenth grader on a social networking site.
...are obsessed with the color contrast and refresh rates of their screens. ...are obsessed with the smell of their books. Gasses and particulates released by decaying glue, cheap ink, dust mites, and the collective oil of previous readers makes for a weird fetish. Lovers
...can only leave their children a beloved book collection in their will if they want to violate nineteen laws and risk their children going to jail for intellectual property theft. ...can only leave their children their beloved book collection in their will if they want to risk having an awesome memorial library made in their honor. Haters win all the glory in this one.
...potentially have a couple of Micro-SD cards worth of a books to show off to their friends. "Dude, I got the complete works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Trollope, Austen, and Hardy in my wallet, sure I've got plenty to read!" ...potentially have a couple of walls worth of books to show off to the hot girl from class. "Hello, beautiful, I cannot help but notice you are looking at my exquisite wall of leather bound first editions..." Good luck impressing anyone—especially the hot nerdy redhead in your physics class—with those Micro-SD cards, unless storage devices are her thing (and if they are, dude, marry that one). It will be many years before a wall of books fails to impress even non-literate types. Haters
...try and ignore the plastic waste created by their gadgets. ...try and ignore how many acres of Bambi's forest they have wiped out for their love of James Patterson, alone. This is a Tie. If eBook gadget adoption is for the long term, with all the increased efficiencies and expanded gadget life, then ultimately it will be a ecological friend. However, at the current rate of gadget-of-the-week, it probably isn't. However, books have long been a acres of clear-cutting causing bleached pulp-paper with high shipping costs. Just because they are made of an "organic" product, does not mean they are honestly eco-friendly.
...revels in their ability to change screen sizes and adjust settings to fit the readers' needs. ...revels in their ability to print different editions for different needs readers. Large print books make me feel like I have been drinking, suffered a concussion, or sitting way too close to a book. What can be done on eBooks with a single flick of the button requires an entire new print run with pBooks. Lovers
...deals with the weird uniformity of experience with their books by tweaking fonts or contrast so that their brain doesn't go "Man, didn't I just read this book? ...deals with the uniformity of experience by not having to worry about it thanks to the miracle of fonts, paper weight, stitching, , margin widths, incidental illustrations, and page sizes based on centuries of experience and art. Haters, with their fancy bindings and all.
...are most likely to get into a fight in a bar over what the iPad 2 will really mean. ...are most likely to get into a fight in a bar over how awesome Hermione Granger is. Sniveling fanboyism only gets worse when it comes to gadgets, so Haters
...rarely get snarky about people who read pBooks, and have good-sized pBook collections themselves. ...act as though Lovers are traitors to the book cause. It's kind of like the edict that the big difference between people with and without tattoos is that those with tattoos don't care if if someone is without. Lovers

Yes, sure, I stacked the table for effect. Because, in a lot of ways, this is a pointless and aggravating argument. It shows up in other forms: there are those who think that someone who reads fiction hates books, or that someone who shops at anything but a small-box store hates books. You have those who are really pro-library and really anti-library (how dare they make books available for free?). As long as you have any sub-culture, book-culture included, you are going to have those who lay claim to the real keys to the Kingdom. And they are almost always wrong. Sub-cultures created out of society's needs and desires are a collective entity, always will be. The only way that these self-claimed key holders will turn out to be right is if you buy into their ability to dictate the keys. Sometimes it happens.

Books, though, there is no need for someone to be right or wrong about what really is a book. We are in a society (meaning the US specifically, right now) where something like 25% of the people read less than a single book a year, and where something like 2/3s of the rest do not read more than one a month. The best selling books are almost universally acknowledged as poorly written, and money is favoring the prolific pulp far above the constrained genius. This is not time for book lovers to turn on one another and blame each other.

Honestly, I do understand some of the vehement hatred towards eBooks. The same people who hate eBooks are the people who considered book reading a bit of a bird finger towards technology. You can take your Flash games and your chat programs and shove them, I'm going out on the porch for an afternoon of book reading, a cup of hot tea in hand. No programming here, just time and dedication is required. There's something uncivilized in the chaotic multi-layered sludge that is technology. Now, though, technology and books are becoming one. All of that talk about hating computers and "curling up with a good book" is coming into conflict. It's new, and books culture seems to be losing respect at the same time (and largely due to videogames and social websites), and so why not treat it as another part of the cause?

It is mostly just the complete lack of real argument against eBooks in-and-of-themselves that gets me. I guess that's the way the cards fall, huh? New things are considered bad things by the same people who might one day get the most used out of them, while early lovers and adopters are often into it for the same newness that makes other people hate it. For now, though, my stance is that eBook lovers are not to blame while some pBookers who refuse to admit that something might be wrong with the industry are at least in the cusp of the problem. The problem is that neither of us will get to decide. Guys with big bank-rolls and market research based off of out-dated models are going to make that decision.

Ah, well, at least I still have the complete works of Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, Austen, and Shakespeare. Either way.

Si Vales, Valeo


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