Ebooks are wonderful things. I love them. I read on my Kindle, and on my Kindle app on the iPhone, and wouldn’t give them up for worlds.
With ebooks, we gain convenience and the ability to change font sizes. We gain on price and on environmental impact. We gain a number of obvious things. But we lose, as well, and some of the losses are less obvious.
We’re losing privacy, and we’re losing control of our books. We’re losing readability (both in terms of text design and in image resolution). And we’re losing barriers to entry, which is a two-edged sword.
Privacy: Some ebook readers already “phone home” and report what you’ve read and how far you’ve gotten in it. It’s not hard to imagine that this information could be used in many ways. Even if you’re reading on a device or an app that doesn’t seem to do this, it’s not hard to imagine hackers or security agencies that could install backdoors in your software that would allow them to monitor your activity. Paper books never do that. And it’s almost impossible to track your purchases at random stores, especially if you use cash.
Control: With a print-on-paper book, it’s very hard to take or damage your copy. With ebooks, someone else can take your copy without any physical contact with it. Amazon has already proven that they can pull your books back off the Kindle. Other ebook providers may or may not have the same capability.
Digital Rights Management techniques (DRM) also cuts into your control. It’s quite difficult to craft DRM that doesn’t prevent you from doing things that are within your rights, as well as those that aren’t. Certain types of copying are allowed, even by the most draconian interpretations of copyright.
Readability: Text design is an art that’s generally under-appreciated. But it doesn’t take long with a badly designed book before you realize that something feels wrong. It’s just harder to read, and often harder to understand. It’s not comfortable on the eyes. Something feels “off.”
But being able to change font sizes within a fixed screen size means that you text design and composition go out the window. Of course, the e-readers could come with a hyphenation and justification program, such as the modules that underpin TeX or InDesign, which would help enormously, but they don’t now, and they probably won’t in any near future. Who wants to wait for the text to be re-flowed when you change the font size? Who wants to pay more for the program or for the cpu size needed to run it?
Screen resolution on the Kindle is roughly twice what the resolution is on a computer screen, but it’s still only 1/2 to 1/4 what a printed book offers. And it’s black on gray only. The color screens of iPhones and laptops offer the lower dots per inch to offset their colors. It’s not as easy on the eyes.
Lower Barriers to Entry: The last loss I listed is the lowering of barriers to entry. This means that we gain ease of publishing. But as readers it means that we have a harder time finding the books we’ll enjoy. And as publishers it means we have a far harder time rising above the roar of the crowd to draw our readers’ attention. And that means that more new readers will experience fewer wonderful books in the short time during which they decide whether they “like books” or not. And that’s the worst loss to our literary community.
As usual, I invite you to tell me what I missed or messed up. The comments section doesn’t require registration, although it is moderated to reduce the flood of spammers.