In the latest of our guest blogs, SF author Adam Christopher tells of his newly discovered love affair with digital media…

Recently, my wife and I did a spot of spring cleaning. There was one bookcase in particular, a chaotic jumble of books, ancient ornaments, and our not insubstantial CD collection. It was my wife who suggested we pack the CDs up and store them away. Why did we need to have access to them? We’d transferred the whole lot into iTunes in a lossless format, and that digital library was regularly backed up, so she suggested it was time to banish them to an inaccessible cupboard.

She was right, and I realised that the last physical CD we had bought had been in 2005.

You may be thinking that this is just a typical sign of a thirtysomething couple starting to drift away from their tastes and hobbies of old. Not so. A quick audit of our digital music library revealed that I’d bought more new music, and had discovered more new artists that I now count among my favourites, in that last five years than I had in the previous ten. These days, after sampling individual tracks, I’ve been able to grab not only a band’s new album, but generally their entire back catalogue, in just a few clicks. Instant gratification.

The packing up of the CDs brought an important question to mind, one which I’ve been debating with myself ever since. I’m a huge music fan and have switched entirely to digital. I’m a writer and a reader, so why can’t I do that with books?

Like mp3s, ebooks make sense. You save a vast amount of physical storage space. You can take your entire collection, or at least a substantial portion of it, with you on a portable device. As someone who travels a fair bit, taking 8GB of music with me on my iPod touch – weeks worth of listening – is not something I’ve ever questioned. However, sitting on a plane with a carry-on back filled with two or three novels, and I quickly start to regret the weight and inconvenience.

One of the arguments against ebooks from readers, writers and collectors is that it removes the romance of reading. People are attached to books – their feel, smell, the whole experience of reading. Books look good on the shelf (certainly unlike CDs). You can sit there and admire the spines. You can carefully chose the next one to read. Books can be signed by the author, personalised, cherished. I’m not arguing with any of that. Is there any greater olfactory pleasure than walking into a good secondhand bookstore?

ebooks are the antithesis of this. Like an mp3, an ePub file has no physical form. You could put an entire library on a reader and not be able to look at anything. An author can’t autograph an ebook. ebooks don’t smell, an experience so important to reading.

However, I think this is missing the point. eBooks will not, and cannot, replace physical books. Let’s go back to music for a moment.

CDs killed the cassette tape, because it was the inferior format. DVD killed VHS for the same reason. But CDs didn’t kill vinyl. In terms of audio quality and presentation, vinyl is far superior to CD. You get large-format artwork and packaging, and on a good stereo, the sound quality of vinyl probably can’t be matched in the home.

And get this – vinyl is still produced. Certainly not in the quantities of the past, and certainly not everything is available in this format. Vinyl has been pushed into a niche collector’s market – heavy weight pressings, collector’s packaging, limited editions. Collectable vinyl is a beautiful thing.

The same thing will happen to books. Take, for example, the works of Stephen King. I’m on a mission to read all of his novels, from the beginning, in publication order. So far, I’ve been picking up the bog-standard UK paperback releases. Sure, they’ve got nice covers, but they’re nothing special. I read the book, I put it back on the shelf. Given the length of some of his novels, this usually means with a creased spine. They’re functional, but that’s it.

But I’ve got a limited, numbered edition of his 2009 book, Under the Dome. This is a wonderful object. It sits in a special hard plastic case, in a cupboard, in the dark. I love this book. But I’d never, ever dream of reading it. It’s too precious to bend, crease, get fingerprints over it. I’ve got the regular hardcover edition, which I did read, and I must say it was a right pain – the book is 1,100 pages and weighs a tonne in hardcover. The eBook, on the other hand, weighs only as much as my eBook reader.

While eBooks have been around for a while, the concept of e-reading hasn’t really gained traction, although I suspect that may change in 2010. Not necessarily because I believe everyone is going to suddenly go and buy an iPad, but because of one particular feature of the iPad that will help bridge the gap between physical books and eBooks. It’s not a feature that will be confined to the iPad either – I expect many similar, non-Apple devices to start appearing in the second half of this year, all featuring some variation of adaptation of the iBookstore and the iBook reader, which has one vital feature.

A friend who is a voracious reader but resistant to eBooks said to me recently that the problem with eBooks is that he couldn’t look at his to-be-read pile. He had a massive stack of books by his bed, and just the act of glancing up and down the spines every day kept the books in his mind.

I agree with this completely – I have a TBR shelf in my front room, which I look at constantly. And I have a large collection of eBooks on my desktop computer, but whenever I look in the folder, I’m surprised at what I’ve forgotten I had.

But starting with the iPad’s iBook software, you have virtual shelves, with full-colour covers. You can now look at your TBR pile, digitally. Perhaps importantly, given that the aesthetics of the reading experience are important for book lovers, it looks really good – the covers are there in high res, in full colour, sitting on CG wooden shelves. It’s a pleasure to browse and pull books off with a tap of your finger.

The iPad may be the first to take this approach – certainly a nicer looking one than the Kindle or Sony eReaders – but by no means will they be the only ones. True enough, the iBook reader is also linked to the iBook store, and given the domination of the iTunes music store for digital music, it may well be that the iBook store goes the same way. But that’s for another discussion.

The $64,000 question is whether I really will switch entirely to a digital reading library. I’m really as much on the fence as anyone – a lifelong reader and writer, the “physical book experience” is important to me. But I never handwrite fiction and have no interest in carting moleskine notebooks around. Music is as important to me as reading, and I’ve very easily given up on physical media. Switching to eBooks as a rule, rather than an exception, makes sense. It’ll free some precious shelf space for a start.

Paper books will always exist, I’ll still be buying them to get signed at conventions. But maybe they’ll join that precious edition of Under the Dome in the cupboard, and I’ll enjoy the story in an electronic form.

There’s the key right there – it’s the content that is important, not the packaging. A crappy story is still a crappy story even if its produced as a leatherbound, gold-edged collector’s edition with vellum pages. We love reading and writing not for the hunk of wood pulp in our hands, but for the story. Story is king. And, while a crappy story is crappy no matter what, so a good story is a good story no matter what.

There, that’s it. I’m going digital. For the moment it looks like I might be in a minority, if a recent article by the Telegraph is anything to go by, but at least you can’t call me a Luddite. The future starts here.

Telegraph link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/7734166/The-majority-of-Britons-are-still-wedded-to-CDs-DVDs-and-books.html

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8 Comments

  1. Great article and good arguments. I love my ereader but I still prefer to buy and read books at the moment. I’d suggest that might change eventually but my ipod gets less love than the CD player in the car and although I have broken the “!” key on my laptop because I am always on line, I still carry a notebook (at this precise moment 2) everywhere. Today however I did manage to resist the temptation to bring ereader AND a paperback so only have my sony pocket. Vive la revolution!

  2. I think there won’t be a revolution until the price of an ereader slips towards the £50 mark. At the moment it’s mainly the fervent readers, with hundreds of books in the TBR pile and groaning shelves, who really see the benefits. Personally I love the portability and the fact that I’m not adding to my chronic problem with shelf space. But I’m the only one in my family sufficiently bothered about stuff like that to go out and get one.

    The fact is, no matter how good ereaders get you can’t hand them to an author to sign your book, you can’t read them in the bath, and you have to recharge their batteries every once in a while. So the paper book will be with us for some years yet.

  3. Very interesting article. Personally I much prefer to read physical books. So does a massive 95% of people surveyed by HP, according to an article written by The Music Void’s Editor and Founder Jakomi Mathews. He states that a surprisingly large proportion of people are staying faithful to the “old school” method of owning music, books, and films, thus abandoning digital. It’s well worth a read!

    http://bit.ly/alqdBy

  4. I think one important element will be schools. We’ve already seen schools giving out laptops to students – how long until the first school gives out iPads or some other eReader?

    Once our children are used to eReading, the market for books will drastically change.

  5. Sandra, I have found it interesting that friends children who have grown up with much more access to digital content than I did still get excited about tree books much more than ebooks. I don’t doubt that it will eventually change but I do wonder how quickly and how completely. I am curious to see whether the more bookishly inclined children still seek out the physical format in ten years as they do now.

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