"No army has accomplished more than printed textbooks have"
December 26, 2014 2:12 PM   Subscribe

Many are worried about what [e-book] technology means for books, with big bookshops closing, new devices spreading, novice authors flooding the market and an online behemoth known as Amazon growing ever more powerful. Their anxieties cannot simply be written off as predictable technophobia. The digital transition may well change the way books are written, sold and read more than any development in their history, and that will not be to everyone’s advantage. Veterans and revolutionaries alike may go bust; Gutenberg died almost penniless, having lost control of his press to Fust and other creditors. But to see technology purely as a threat to books risks missing a key point. Books are not just “tree flakes encased in dead cow”, as a scholar once wryly put it. They are a technology in their own right, one developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought. And this technology is a powerful, long-lived and adaptable one.
From Papyrus to Pixels is a long essay in The Economist about the changing form of books, presented both as a traditional web-scroll, as an e-book and in audio form.
posted by Kattullus (33 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
Very enjoyable. I still prefer most of my books on paper, in part due to paranoia over publishers or Amazon having the ability to yank it off my device. But for instructional things, vacation guides, textbooks, I would much rather go with something electronic these days. It's also been handy for books I have to read for a book club, but am not sure I will like. Ephemeral reading, in other words.

I liked the bit about the paper book being so simple and sturdy that it's hard to compete with. That's been a lot of the appeal, to me. Especially for graphic novels, it's easier to sit and study the artwork on paper than it is off a screen.
posted by emjaybee at 2:46 PM on December 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


Somewhat ironically, this was published by a stodgy paper magazine that has negotiated the transition to digital rather successfully. (Subscribers get something like 40 hours of audio and video content online each month, in addition to all the articles.)
posted by miyabo at 2:50 PM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


But for instructional things, vacation guides, textbooks, I would much rather go with something electronic these days.

I like e-books fine for fiction or light reading, but I find that I still greatly prefer paper books for instructional or reference or technical material. The difference for me seems to be that I don't find electronic searching and bookmarking as useful as remembering "that thing I want is sort of a third of the way from the end" and flipping through the pages.
posted by thelonius at 2:57 PM on December 26, 2014 [15 favorites]


Industries change, I expect on can purchase and someone(s) are making a profit on buggy whips. But do the three different editions of yellow pages delivered in the last week make sense? Would a collaboration on a topic like Calculus be tuned and refined in a volume with diagrams of incredible quality be used and re-used by students for a few decades? Schools could replenish the expected 10% loss of texts by just buying a few dozen each year rather than with entire new slightly revised editions.
posted by sammyo at 3:11 PM on December 26, 2014


in part due to paranoia over publishers or Amazon having the ability to yank it off my device.

I didn't start buying e-books until I was sure I could prevent this from happening... thanks to Calibre I can back up all my e-books and read them however I want to, so now I'm all in.

I wouldn't want to go back to reading paper books, but I do keep a few 'important' books around on paper, the ones that I'd want to read one last time after the collapse of everything.
posted by Huck500 at 3:15 PM on December 26, 2014 [5 favorites]


The article contains a bit of good news for publishers:
...the print book is “a really competitive technology”: it is portable, hard to break, has high-resolution pages and a “long battery life”.
Also:
Publishers used to guess how many books to print and ship and then pay for unsold copies to be returned to them—sometimes as much as 40% of the print run. Print-on-demand systems—digital technology at the service of physical books—reduce risks by enabling publishers to print smaller batches and then fire off more copies quickly if a book sells well. This has proved especially helpful for smaller publishers, such as university presses, says John Ingram of Ingram Content Group, a book distributor.
posted by Michele in California at 3:22 PM on December 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


I didn't start buying e-books until I was sure I could prevent this from happening... thanks to Calibre I can back up all my e-books and read them however I want to, so now I'm all in.

I wouldn't want to go back to reading paper books, but I do keep a few 'important' books around on paper, the ones that I'd want to read one last time after the collapse of everything.


Very much this. I read almost entirely in ebook format. For special editions and/or books that I really care about, I'll find them in nice hardcovers but for everything else, a nice ebook does the job because its so easy to carry around and read from a variety of devices.
posted by Fizz at 3:51 PM on December 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's a canard that ebooks will replace books. History has shown over and over that new media co-exists with old media. The article says this. The only question is market share which is still being worked out, ebooks are still on the rise and have not peaked yet but ebook adoption appears to be slowing down.
posted by stbalbach at 4:30 PM on December 26, 2014 [8 favorites]


Worst reading interface ever!
posted by scruss at 4:58 PM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


Textbooks. More powerful as an agent of social change than guns. Yup. Better let Texas spearhead this one.
posted by wabbittwax at 5:19 PM on December 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


Clicked on the link. Then clicked "Read Later" t send to my Instapaper account. I'll tell y'all how it went tomorrow.
posted by ocschwar at 5:24 PM on December 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


The difference between paper books and ebooks is simply a choice which we can make based on our own needs and wants. That's great, and I can't see it as anything other than a boon. The whole "book versus ebook" thing is a misunderstanding as great as somebody suggesting a hundred years that women won't wear skirts once they can wear trousers.

The article is split, however, in also wanting to talk about the changes that digital publishing is bringing to traditional publishing. This is far more interesting, and I guess will be far more important.
posted by Thing at 5:56 PM on December 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


What are these “textbooks” of which you speak, earthling?

(I wrote this.)
posted by erniepan at 6:56 PM on December 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


My computer has a print button.
posted by spitbull at 7:19 PM on December 26, 2014


I tried that with' Phänomenologie des Geistes', still printing.
posted by clavdivs at 7:33 PM on December 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


I read a lot on my kindle, but part of the love of reading I developed as a kid was the sensory stuff that goes with reading -- the feel of paper, the smell of a book, the heft of it. I couldn't tell you how many times I've compulsively tried to smell a book I'm reading on Kindle. It doesn't have that awesome book smell. So I still do physical books, especially for something I'm planning on reading leisurely.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 10:17 PM on December 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


Booksellers and publishers see Amazon as similar to the enormous polar bear in the television show “Lost”, trampling through the tropical rainforest devouring victims at random.

That's an oddly specific simile.
posted by no mind at 11:49 PM on December 26, 2014 [5 favorites]


Just don't buy ebooks with DRM, another book or another source for the same book always exists.

I'd agree too that old media always coexists with new media, provided they hae significantly different character.

I love that ebooks have zero marginal cost, meaning both that I can easily carry around a whole library, and share them with friends via email, and that people in poor countries have free access.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:41 AM on December 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Especially for graphic novels, it's easier to sit and study the artwork on paper than it is off a screen.

I think comics are a good illustration of why the two media can not only coexist, but be actively complimentary. While I agree that appreciating layouts, overall impressions and the dynamics of the storytelling is better on paper, I also love being able to zoom in to an individual panel when reading on tablet. Being able to look close without other distractions really helps me parse visually complex panels, as well as pick up on small details. I don't personally find that either medium makes for a "better" experience overall. Instead, I find that my overall enjoyment of comic books is improved by having the option to shift between media according to the specific nature of the content and my current interaction with it.
posted by howfar at 3:24 AM on December 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


I read pretty much exclusively on my phone, and people think I'm weird, and I don't care. Convenience trumps all.

Textbooks though? I want them in paper, and I always will.
posted by walrus at 6:50 AM on December 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


I also love being able to zoom in to an individual panel when reading on tablet

You don't even need comics! As someone who appreciates good type design, one of my favourite things about reading on my iPad is being able to pinch-zoom until the screen is filled with a single letter. I don't know how many times now I've been in the middle of a paragraph only to suddenly zoom in a million percent to check out an unusual ampersand, ink trap or a beautifully italicized k.
posted by oulipian at 9:46 AM on December 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


Having woken up on the west coast to a Twitter feed full of images of an army of 30,000 literally turning their backs on their leader in front of countless media with no repercussions whatsoever, I strongly contest the thesis of this article.
posted by 99_ at 10:29 AM on December 27, 2014


I won a Kobo Touch about 18 months ago, and I have maybe 30 ebooks on it, both free and purchased. It's not a bad format for reading a novel, and it's perfect for travelling or taking onto our boat. It goes for weeks on a charge. But it is inferior to a regular printed book in many ways:

- ebooks seem about as designer-friendly a format as a teletype (ask your Dad) compared to print. Illustrations? Crap.
- table of contents are usually dreadful. The table of contents for the one programming ebook I have runs to about 30+ pages, for something that would have been a very concise and readable 6 pages in the print version. Diagrams and code samples are harder to call up and follow.

Granted alot of the above complaints are unique to the small paper-white readers like my Kobo. On larger colour tablets and with navigational improvements, they would be easier to use.

My biggest complaint remains that ebooks are still seriously overpriced. Their production and distribution costs are vastly less than that of a print book, and a DRM'ed ebook cannot be shared or resold like the average paperback. I estimate that on a broad average of all fiction paperbacks, each will be read by three different owners, so it would take 3 ebook purchases to roplace one paperback... so I think the ebook should be about 1/3 the price of the paperback.

I think the price of ebooks remains the biggest impediment to wider and faster adoption.
posted by Artful Codger at 10:34 AM on December 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


My biggest complaint remains that ebooks are still seriously overpriced. Their production and distribution costs are vastly less than that of a print book

...

so I think the ebook should be about 1/3 the price of the paperback.


That's never going to happen. You seem to think that production and distribution costs make up the majority of the price of a printed book. But they don't; production and distribution costs are only a small part of the cost. I believe something like 15%.

How exactly does everybody get paid if an ebook costs $2.50?
posted by Justinian at 11:38 AM on December 27, 2014


Justinian, I can't comment much on whether Artful Codger's argument is economically sound, but it's clearly not the argument you're disagreeing with.

The bit you omitted is "it would take 3 ebook purchases to roplace one paperback... so I think the ebook should be about 1/3 the price of the paperback". The argument is that, with 0 production and distribution costs + 3 × the sales due to DRM stopping second hand book sales, books should be one-third the price. I think that's pretty clearly wrong, because second hand books don't cost as much as new books, so those potential secondary sales wouldn't count as 1/3 of the value, even if they exist, but I think it is potentially a reasonable thought in principle.
posted by howfar at 12:27 PM on December 27, 2014


> How exactly does everybody get paid if an ebook costs $2.50?

... volume, as howfar picked up on. My point in bringing up the thought experiment re the readership of each unit sold is that if you use that model to compare the cost per individual reader to read a given title... ebooks as currently priced actually cost more per end-reader than paperbacks.

I confess I haven't looked at a recent cost breakdown between e- and print books. But I certainly know what I've paid for ebooks... and what I received, and I feel ripped off. And I have enough of a grasp of digital production and distribution to know that there are significant economies there. If anyone can point to a good recent comparison, I'd be grateful.

I believe that the big publishing houses have carefully set ebook pricing so that the uptake isn't that rapid, so that ebook sales don't seriously disrupt their current print business. And if we're conditioned from the outset to high ebook prices, that gilds their future lilies too.
posted by Artful Codger at 12:43 PM on December 27, 2014


It's important to keep in mind that for many people who have vision impairments, the format of an ebook is quite a gift, the ability to increase/change a font are powerful tools that provide quite a gift for some who might otherwise not be able to read.

It's very much about how you read. At times I want that tactile feel of a comic book, and other times I just want to carry 60+ books in my hand as I travel India and keep my backpack light. I read in many different ways.

I consider myself a reading omnivore and see no reason to put limits on my appetite, it is quite large.
posted by Fizz at 12:46 PM on December 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


History has shown over and over that new media co-exists with old media.

When was the last time you used a scroll instead of a codex? Or a manuscript book instead of printed?

Except for Sifrei Torah, I can't think of many scrolls being produced in the last few hundred years; I was shocked when I realised law records were still being recorded on scrolls in the 1600s - they are extremely inefficient when compared to codices.

Also, I know we're still transitioning out of vinyl, but I doubt even hardcore hipsters have many wax cylinders around.
posted by jb at 6:08 AM on December 28, 2014


Transitioning out of vinyl? Why?

For me, that's a good example of how difficult it is to predict why people value one medium over another. I still enjoy and use my vinyl collection. Yes it's kind of a nuisance, but the artwork... etc. blah blah blah. It's the CDs I resent - I spent proportionally more on them, the covers are not great, they take up a lot of space for what you get, and their resale value is poor (because I'm behind the curve). But it's sure as hell easier to live with a couple of big drives full of music, and it's easier to use in an everyday sense. (I still have cassettes and some reel-to-reel tapes, but no tape machine and I'm down to one barely working cassette player. This is their last year on Earth. I sold my wire recorder years ago...)

I agree that the price of ebooks is part of the problem. Not only are "new" ebooks too expensive, but you see how Kobo (I don't know about Amazon) is trying to monetize the automated re-publishing of public domain texts for their lower price bracket, ~$3 to ~$10CDN as a loss leader. Mostly the rest of their catalog tries to maintain a price close to the paper version. Why? It's not like the authors are gaining any difference in production costs.

Re production costs, one of my friends writes a widely-used medical textbook. She and her partner work basically 365 days without a break every other year to fulfill their obligation to the publisher. They write and review all of the text, and coordinate the review and editing of all the illustrations. They do this in the most basic of ways, using word processing and markup software, but no project management or work-sharing/scheduling systems other than paper and conference calling. Because the publisher forces them to work like this for organizational reasons. My guess, as a sometime business analyst, is that they could save 20 to 30% of their time by rethinking their workflow, and produce a better, more flexible, and current product. This strikes me as analogous to the music industry, where big distributors force production processes to meet their business model while ignoring changes in technology and work organization. It's the triumph of hegemony over progress.

What's missing here is the threat of a profit-displacing black market in textbooks.
posted by sneebler at 9:10 AM on December 28, 2014


I spend a lot of time with kids whose families are poor. Most of them have very erratic and unreliable access to technology. Most of them have never seen a Kindle or eReader before, and are sort of confused when I show them one, and they ask me whether it has video games or email, and they don't really understand the point of it. I can't bridge that technology gap for them. But I can give them books. Lots and lots of paper books, really cheaply, that won't break or get sold when they need something else, and where no one has to feel bad if they get lost or spilled on, and that can be passed on to friends and siblings and parents when they're done. Real paper books are something small that I can do to put information and entertainment and connections with the larger world into the hands of children for whom poverty has made the world very small and limited.

I'm distressed somewhat by how much information is moving to online or electronic-only because the up-front costs (purchasing devices) put the information out of reach of a big swathe of the population in even relatively affluent societies. And I'm sure that eventually, pretty much everyone in the US will have some sort of internet-accessible device, just like pretty much everyone in the US today has things that used to be considered luxuries like refrigerators and televisions and whatnot. But for now, the digital divide is very real, and it means that the kids I know don't get to read blogs or get cheap e-books or watch streaming movies, because they don't have reliable computers or high-speed internet or e-readers. And that bugs me.
posted by decathecting at 12:12 PM on December 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


Justinian > You seem to think that production and distribution costs make up the majority of the price of a printed book. But they don't; production and distribution costs are only a small part of the cost. I believe something like 15%.

I was thinking about a bit more, and it also occurred to me that ebooks pretty much cut out the local retailer, so the publisher has only to deal with a few online resellers (or sell direct) as opposed to many distributors and wholesalers, AND online ebook resellers can do very nicely on a lower markup than required by a bricks-and-mortar store selling physical books.

So, yeah, ebooks definitely seem overpriced right now.
posted by Artful Codger at 2:28 PM on December 29, 2014


For the record, it read just fine on the Kindle.
posted by ocschwar at 7:45 PM on January 14, 2015


Anyone know much about the newer eInk based Android devices? Any caveats? Any do DjVu software particularly well or poorly? Any oddities about making Android software run on them?
posted by jeffburdges at 11:34 PM on January 14, 2015


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