The Changing World of Book Reading: The Implications of E-Books, by Emmet Carmody

My personal project focuses on our fast-changing relationship with books, giving particular attention to the publication of e-books and its implications for readers, writers, and publishers. The story of the written word is a remarkable one, which has seen mediums evolve from the simplicity of stone tablets to intricately complex technologies such as tablet devices and e-readers. Needless to say, this journey highlights the advanced accomplishments of human technology and engineering, but it also pays testament to the importance of our relationship with words and books; though the medium may change, we have always given massive amounts of attention to the creation and consumption of shared ideas. E-books have yet again modified this relationship, and their rise to prominence has brought the commercial world of books to a crucial inflection point. The potential of e-books can also be harnessed to drastically alter book-based education in schools and universities, and has created unprecedented possibilities in archiving. As with the onset of any wide-scale change, however, the concept of digital books has its opponents. Many contest that the digitalisation of the written word is a challenge to the existence – or at very least the prominence – of hard copy books. A charge frequently levelled towards e-books is that they lack the magic of traditional printed books, and deficiently alter the ritual of reading. Naturally, not all arguments against the prioritisation of e-books are sentimental – those economically involved in printing and publishing industries are understandably concerned about what the future holds. As we alter books and the ways in which we read them, we also alter all book-based commerce that surrounds them, requiring both social and commercial adaptations. I am fascinated by watching these adaptations unfold, and observing how the potential of e-books can be harnessed in both the commercial sphere and on a larger social level. My seminar blog will offer personal musings and interpretations of the implications of these changes.

Though e-readers were initially released and marketed around 5 years ago (the First Generation Kindle was released in November of 2007), it is since 2010 that the popularity of e-books has really soared. In the last two years, debate has intensified between e-book enthusiasts and those who refuse to embrace them. An interesting way of approaching this argument is to question what the book actually is. Johanna Drucker, author and visual theorist, argues that hard copy books and e-books are ideas and concepts that simply take up different types of space:

“The pernicious effect of introducing a new technology is that proponents of the invention tend to mis-characterize older forms… Writing persists, to this day, with its intimacy and immediacy, while print forms and other mass production technologies continue to carve up the space of communication according to an evermore-complex division of ecological niches. Books of the future depend very much on how we meet the challenge to understand what a book is and has been.”

The connotations of looking at e-books this way are interesting: e-books need not be considered a misrepresentation of a traditional hard copy book, but a selective representation of our ideas, which will continue to occupy a number of mediums.

That being said, the traditionalists bemoan the increased diversity in the ways that we read text, and see the e-reading boom as more of a hindrance than an evolution. Many well-known authors, such as Johnathan Franzen, have spoken out against e-books, citing varying reasons, ranging from the potential deterioration of the print industry, to the simple lack of tangibility possessed by a hard copy print edition. Whatever the case, e-books and e-readers have began to integrate themselves into both society and the market-place in earnest, and it looks as if those involved in book writing, printing and publication will simply have to do their best to adapt. E-books are currently outselling hard-copies, and their immense public popularity show no signs of letting up.

On initially setting out on my personal project I would was of the impression that the new e-market would be terrible news for most publishers, but it would seem printers are those in the most trouble, a sentiment which was heavily expressed by Cork University Press production editor, Maria O’ Donovan, at a guest lecture in the university’s Brookfield complex, on Tuesday 6th March of this year. In actuality, many publishers are flourishing in the digital market, thanks to their ability to exercise cost regulation over e-books much less problematically than with hard copies. For example, second-hand copies of e-books cannot be sold in discount stores or second-hand book stores, and publishers have a greater say in what price a book should be available at, whereas a commercial bookshop may have more power to decide what books should be sold at discount prices. This agent pricing model allows publishers to charge a stable amount of money for the purchase of a bestseller, and because of its digital format it cannot be resold or as easily passed around. Increased efforts invested by publishing companies in formatting their e-books will also make piracy more difficult, though it remains next to impossible to avoid the piracy of downloadable mediums entirely.

E-books also have a potentially instrumental role to play in the field of education. Digital archives and online educational resources have already revolutionised scholarly work, and massive amounts of money are being annually invested in digital humanities. Websites that archive books in a digital format and host multiple versions of encoded literary texts are plentiful. V-machine.org, for example, has proven to serve as a fore-runner for a lot of online text projects. Another extremely valuable resource, that has proved massively popular with e-reader owners, is the extensive digitally archived book collection of Project Gutenberg. Perhaps the welcome message displayed on the Project Gutenberg website best describes what the online archive offers:

Project Gutenberg offers over 38,000 free ebooks: choose among free epub books, free kindle books, download them or read them online. We carry high quality ebooks: All our ebooks were previously published by bona fide publishers. We digitized and diligently proofread them with the help of thousands of volunteers.”

As a volunteer effort, the website is quite remarkable and shows what is possible in collective digital archiving. The majority of the texts available on the site have been made available in a variety of formats – plain text, HTML, PDF, EPUB and MOBI – so that anyone who owns or has access to a computer, e-reader or tablet device can access and download them. Many similar sites exist, with the number of public domain works being made available for legitimately free download expanding on a daily basis. Librivox is similar volunteer effort to Project Gutenberg, in that is an open source project that houses the largest online catalogue of audio-books, all of which are recorded and amassed by volunteers. Librivox’s founder, Hugh McGuire, is far from skeptical about the future books, and stresses that the “creation part (of books, and book archives) is as important if not more important than the consumption part”, and finds the new dynamics of interaction and collaboration in the creation of books has been facilitated by the digitilisation of books.

Indeed, it is difficult to not be impressed and encouraged by these digital book projects, which have already changed the landscape of education and recreational reading alike. Whether e-readers themselves will be implemented into education remains to be seen; the issue of cost is obviously a problematic issue, and other minor inconveniences of e-reader based education have been pointed out, such as the lack of page numbers in the vast majority of e-books. However, it is important to remember that e-readers and e-books are a very young technology, and patience must be exercised if we wholly intend to integrate them into classroom learning. Personally, I find the growth of the e-reader and e-book market to be positive on almost all fronts and, given the efficiency and growing popularity of books in the digital format, the introduction of e-book based education is imminent. I remain skeptical of the doomsayers, who suggest the growth of the e-book will ultimately result in the extinction of the hard-copy. I am of the opinion that a relatively steady balance will eventually be struck in the book market, which will more than likely favour the production of the e-book, with a certain amount of hard-copies continuing to be produced. Picture-books and poetry books, for example, would remain to be far more effective through the medium of print. Books containing large amounts of photography would require considerable resolution, which may eventually be achieved but as of now is next to impossible to acquire on an e-reader.  Poetry reading, as an art form in itself, is a tradition I cannot see poets parting with any time in the near future. All of those involved in book production at this moment in time can only do their best to adapt to the changing book environment. Who’s to say that eventually print-copies and e-books can’t share a symbiotic relationship – a complimentary existence as representations of our ideas? I, for one, would certainly not rule it out.

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