The shock of the new is quickly overcome by boredom. Frankly, I’m already fed up with the repetitive nature of media coverage when it comes to ebooks.
Every news story is hooked on some latest sales record or notable publishing ‘landmark’; for example, Bloomsbury recently reported that worldwide sales of its ebooks have increased by around 1,800% in the last year, a record almost certainly to be broken during 2011, given that the first three months of the year have already matched two thirds of last year’s total sales.
All too often, the really interesting stories — how new technology is altering the ways authors connect with their readers; how big internet companies (such as Amazon) are outmanoeuvring traditional publishers; the problems arising from a public expectation that ebooks should be considerably cheaper than their paper equivalents — get lost beneath the ‘exponential’ sales figure and the now zombified ‘debate’ between those for and against ebooks, which is trotted out ad nauseam to fill column space.
Frankly, I’m sick to death of people moaning that reading an ebook isn’t the same as reading a dead tree book. Of course it bloody isn’t; in fact, I’d be seriously worried if it was! It’s a different experience which I accept that some may find uncomfortable, at least at first. But it’s certainly isn’t automatically a less valuable one. Not when it comes with so many possibilities.
I can appreciate that some people — the writer Denise Mina, for instance — dislike the ‘ephemeral’ nature of any digital download, preferring to be able to hold a book or CD in their hands. And she, at least, accepts that it might just be a generational thing, with youngsters who have grown up with digital downloads thinking it a perfectly ‘normal’ form of ownership. To my own surprise, I don’t actually share her attitude; even my most recent "DVD boxset" purchases have been through iTunes, rather than my local branch of HMV. Perhaps that’s down to my almost total reliance on the BBC iPlayer for my television and radio consumption?
I also accept that printed books can be genuinely beautiful — and sensual — artefacts in their own right; assuredly, that kind of book can still earn space on my shelves.
Fundamentally, though, I read books because of their content, not the means of delivery. If the rise of the ebook means that cheaply printed, quickly yellowing, poorly bound paperbacks go the way of the Dodo, I won’t be shedding any tears.
On the back of its latest ebook sales figures, Bloomsbury has announced that, this September, it’s launching Bloomsbury Reader, an ebook/print-on-demand imprint which will offer a range of otherwise ‘out of print’ titles from authors including Alan Clark, Edith Sitwell and Monica Dickens.
I’m quite sure that other publishers will soon follow, if only because it’s potentially an excellent way of getting more money out of their back catalogues. Given that any book these days can be potentially ‘out of print’ and unavailable in Waterstone’s in less than a year, I see this as a particularly good thing.
I would, though; after all, the majority of titles on my virtual bookshelves were originally published at least five years ago. A lot of them are Project Gutenberg versions, and so literally just the text which I was able to download for free. But others I have paid for, and I believe it’s great that I can still access those books without having to search for years in second hand bookshops and charity shops.
Admittedly, I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘voracious’ reader of ebooks. Partly, this is because I haven’t yet quite got over the constant feeling that reading a simple ‘electronic version’ of a printed book is failing to properly utilise the full visual and audio potential of my iPad — which is why, despite being a self-declared Mac Snob, I still recommend the Kindle to anyone just looking for an ebook reader.
Mostly, though, it’s because the majority of books I read are ones I’m reviewing, and publishers still tend to send those out printed and bound on paper. I have been sent a few PDFs, though, especially by small publishers looking to save on the postage; admittedly, they have generally been a pain to read onscreen, but I do wonder just how long it’ll be before there’s a move towards sending out proper ebook versions? After all, hardly any publishers these days actually print and snail mail their catalogues of forthcoming titles; you now have to download them from their websites.
My most recent review gig for Interzone was on a new selection of short story collections and novellas published as ebooks by infinityplus.co.uk. Given that there won’t be print versions, there wasn’t actually any alternative for me but to read them via my iPad’s Kindle App. But, in years to come, will publishers start emailing ebook versions to reviewers, given that this will be how many readers will actually experience their titles? I guess that’ll ultimately depend on how conservative publishers feel most book reviewers are!