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Digital epiphany

I don't think anyone in publishing would argue that ebooks aren't going to grow in popularity. As Mike Shatzkin has pointed out, ebooks are improving while the last print change was the invention of the paperback. But a lot of folks make the case for print having such superiority that it can't ever really lose. I started to make a list of ebook and print book pros and cons, but I stopped because many of the benefits of ebooks are eReader specific. Also, some of the limitations of ebooks are imposed by DRM, which is not inherent in ebook technology.

A helpful friend recently sent me a link to this Slate article, an essay by a 20-something on why she will never buy an eReader. It's actually kind of funny in a way; one reason she doesn't like seeing people with eReaders is, she can't tell what they're reading. That's actually one reason a lot of folks like using an eReader. She got a lot of impassioned comments, some thanking her for standing up for print and some decrying her Luddite tendencies. One commenter pointed out that a lot of the arguments for print were made years ago when digital cameras came out, and people spoke up in defense of film. That's when I had an epiphany.

We've had almost this exact argument before, twenty some years ago, about sending email versus sending print letters. Every time some writer or other famous dead person's correspondence was published, someone would point out that email could kill print letters and what a shame that would be if that happened as we would no longer have that record. Other folks would chime in that when correspondence was digital, no one would worry about spelling or grammar, or being witty, or insightful— any of the things that made old letters so interesting to read.

Every argument was pretty much dead on. Email is inherently less formal, less structured than print correspondence. And unless you print it out and keep it, your emails might well be a good deal more ephemeral.

Now think about the last time you wrote out a print letter to someone. Subtract the times when someone had just died and business correspondence, and if you're like me that date will be decades ago. My kids have only ever sent print letters for graduation present thank you notes.

Speed, convenience, and low cost trump sentiment and charm. Print letters haven't died out entirely, they've just shrunk to a narrower range of communication. Print books will likely be the same way.

Anyone care to argue otherwise?

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( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 6th, 2010 04:20 pm (UTC)
Not me, miss! I just got a new delivery in the door and can't wait to try it out ;p
Sep. 6th, 2010 04:35 pm (UTC)
Be sure to charge it up! When the light on the bottom turns green, it's ready. They made the charging lights much brighter, btw, a real improvement.
Sep. 6th, 2010 07:48 pm (UTC)
Always good to know we have a charge on!
Sep. 6th, 2010 05:00 pm (UTC)
The lack of print letters means that it will be harder for successive generations to study people in the future. We may be reduced to seeing only what others want us to see.

As for Shazkin, I'd argue that the concept of the eBook is a complete change in and of itself. Any other changes to the format are just moving type around. And it's not a bad thing that print hasn't changed too much, considering that it took forever and a day to actually get movable type in the first place. We shouldn't judge our current pace of technology and claim it's the same for everything about our lives.

Gardening, for example, is still limited to the time consuming process of generating newer hybrids. Even with genetic engineering, you still need growing seasons to see what you get.

Sep. 6th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)
>The lack of print letters means that it will be harder for successive generations to study people in the future.

I wonder about that, in a way. Yes, letters were a window to people of the past, but how clear is that window? It's possible the only letters to survive are those that the sender or receiver were willing for others to see. Jane Austin asked her sister to burn the letters she had sent her, after she was gone, and sure enough, her sister did in fact burn most of them. Sure makes me wonder what was in them!

>Even with genetic engineering, you still need growing seasons to see what you get.

I'm willing to bet somewhere in the world, someone is working on changing that. I don't think there's a limit on humanity's hubris.

Sep. 6th, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC)
I'm willing to bet somewhere in the world, someone is working on changing that. I don't think there's a limit on humanity's hubris.

Most likely, and that bothers me. Mucking around with the speed at which things grow will have unintended consequences, and time is needed to study them.
Sep. 6th, 2010 05:16 pm (UTC)
I agree with you, though I do lament the joys of a snail-mail, hand written letter. It is an art form. It truly is. And though it can, and often DOES live on cyberly, the actual paper version will die out eventually.

You know, my daughter and I where having a similar conversation. She made many great points about email being an archive of its own, and even EASIER to access come later years. I'll steer here here, see if she has anything to say.
Sep. 6th, 2010 05:37 pm (UTC)
It depends. If you store it locally, all you need is a strong magnet to remove all e-mail. And if you store it online, it may eventually broken into and rummaged around in to a much greater degree than seen before.
Sep. 6th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC)
A good point! Of course, your house could burn down, too. Neither medium is invulnerable.
Sep. 6th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC)
I think the archive question is a mixed bag. In the short term (say in my lifetime) t's certainly easier to keep an archive of email than print letters-- not need to throw them out when you move-- but for the very long term, it does require that technology remain both available and backwards compatible. VHS tapes are a good example of that not happening.
Sep. 7th, 2010 01:38 pm (UTC)
I think you're spot on here. As a matter of fact, I think printed books will simply become the province of those books that you must have - the kind of book you currently own in hardcover, possibly in some beautifully bound edition. Paperbacks will go the way of the dodo, as they have always been about cheap and convenient reading.

Still a few years away, though.
Sep. 7th, 2010 01:45 pm (UTC)
What I'm wondering about is how will the affect authors' chance of breaking in? If your workflows are designed to support it, digital-only publishing is cheaper, so there is less financial risk for a digital-only debut. Plus there's not that "debut author books cannot be more than 100,000 words" law.

Or maybe publishers will just let new authors self-pub that first one and wait for the cream to rise from the sea of sour milk? If it can rise...
Sep. 7th, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
I don't really think that second option is ideal for the publishers, since that one-in-a-million SP book that is any good might make the author too expensive to sign - and turn him or her into a monster who is impossible to edit!
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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