Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections on ebooks

I had this idea for a series of posts when I was just getting started on the blog where I would rant on and on about this or that subject. I even created a category for it! But then, I almost immediately neglected the category. I’m a generally amiable guy, not frequently disgruntled. Maybe freakish though. Anyway, I thought I’d revisit the concept.

So I got a Kindle for Christmas last year and have been reading as many ebooks as possible. I’m certainly not an expert on the subject, but I have some assorted thoughts, some freakish, some disgruntled, and some just plain gruntled.

  • The hardware is reasonably nice. The electronic ink display is perfect for reading. It’s a little heavy, but not much more than a typical mass-market paperback, and about on part with a medium sized trade paperback. That being said, it’s much less awkward to hold, as you don’t have to fight the binding to keep the book open. On the other hand, the touch interface isn’t quite as responsive as I’d like. Not sure if this is due to the E Ink or processor power (or perhaps a bit of both). It takes some getting used to, but it works well enough. On rare occasions I’ll accidentally flip past too many pages quickly, but that doesn’t really happen enough to call it a real issue. All in all, it’s a quality device, and I’m pretty happy with it from a hardware standpoint.
  • The interface is sparing and easy to intuitively use, with the only real exception being the aforementioned lack of responsiveness on the touchscreen, which takes some getting used to. But I do love the ability to search, highlight, and annotate my books (especially non-fiction). For years I’ve wanted to do a “CTRL F” on a book, and now I can do so easily (in the past, Google books was often helpful, though not consistent in this respect).
  • The lack of page numbers. Hoo boy, the lack of page numbers. This is the one that makes me feel like a bit of a curmudgeonly dweeb, but I reallly miss page numbers. Oh sure, half the time I’m converting page numbers to the percentage complete and the concept of one “page” is elastic and arbitrary in the extreme (for example, compare 1 page in Gravity’s Rainbow to 1 page in Harry Potter – ostensibly the same measurement, but thanks to font size, line spacing, and margins, you’d probably have to read 3-4 pages of Harry Potter to equal 1 page of Gravity’s Rainbow, and that’s just from a words on the page perspective, not a literary value or density of ideas perspective), but I like page numbers. I don’t think this really qualifies me as a luddite, but perhaps I am a bit of a crackpot. Still, I really miss page numbers, and the worst part is that on many occasions, the book will have page numbers available, they just aren’t displayed by default. What you get by default is just the percentage complete and the mystical “Location” number which kinda/sorta makes sense, but is still inferior to page numbers. Maybe this is all just a frame of reference thing and I’ll get used to it, but it’s been a few months, and neither Location or Percentage really strike the right cord with me. This is completely a perception thing. I want to feel like I’m making progress and percentage doesn’t increment often enough for that… On the other hand, the location increments too much as you read, making it hard to wrap my head around. All of this would be a moot point if Amazon would just let us modify the interface (for all I know, they do, but it’s not obvious where). I know this is an old argument and I don’t want to start a holy war here, but for crying out loud, it’s obvious that there is a segment of Kindle consumers who fucking hate location and percentage and just want page numbers, why can’t Amazon just let us choose what we want displayed?
  • Amazon sure does make it easy to purchase new books and send them to your Kindle. The issue, of course, is that I’m not locked into Amazon’s proprietary format/store. Other stores are hit and miss as to whether or not they work with the Kindle. Baen books works, and will even email the file to your Kindle for you (which is nice). But Baen books is awesome like that (leave it to the hardcore SF publisher to embrace open formats and systems – the grand majority of Bujold’s library is available for free online, but I bought from their store anyway, because I want to support them and Bujold). Google’s new bookstore doesn’t work with Kindle, nor does Barnes & Noble. So far, this hasn’t been a disaster, I just hate the notion of DRM systems and being locked down. At least Amazon seems to have made kindle readers for almost every conceivable device, so there is that. I haven’t played around enough to see how well all these different readers work, etc…
  • For the most part, I don’t really miss having a hard copy of most books. There are definitely books I plan to purchase a physical copy of in the near future (*ahem* at least a couple of these) and I suppose there is a benefit to the physical copy that you don’t get out of a digital copy, but I’m generally a pragmatic guy, and the pros seem to outweigh the cons. Steven Ray Orr makes a pretty good case for physical books, but also seems to be embracing digital copies, like me:

    Each book and every bookshelf is a biography of the owner. If you were to explore mine, a great deal would be revealed. The obvious: science fiction, Stephen King, and political theory dominate my history; and the aesthetic of a collection is more important than strict organization.1 The odd: Twilight sits upon a stack of feminist thought; at least four Bibles line the shelves, amidsts athiest manifestos and Christian scholarship; and there is an Atari 2600 gathering dust and taking up precious space.

    And then the books themselves, holding more than the author’s intended words with stories added by each reader: God Emperor of Dune is dog-earred on every third page; Twilight has been defaced, all red pen and hate; and numerous novels are bookmarked with old receipts or gum wrappers, indications of unsuccessful attempts.

    And it’s true, though I think at least half of my books are squirreled away in boxes in my basement. Still, I really love that my copy of LotR is a box set bought from the Scholastic catalog in gradeschool (and that the paper is yellowing and becoming brittle with age – Jesus, those things are going on 20-25 years old now…) and I like having some reference books and whatnot available, not to mention books from my favorite authors. Like Steven says, your books say a lot about you… and we all know it. I don’t think I consciously rearrange my shelves to make me seem like someone I’m not, but if I don’t like a book, chances are I’m not going to want to see it often and it will thus be banished to the boxes in the basement. But if I do like it, I’ll probably keep it visible.

    I haven’t gotten to a point where I’ve started buying physical books that I’ve read digitally, but apparently this happens somewhat frequently. It’s what Eric S. Raymond calls an Identity Good:

    An identity good is something people buy to express their tie to a group or category they belong to or would like to belong to. People buy The New Hacker’s Dictionary because they are, or want to be, the kind of person they think should own a copy of it.

    Interestingly, Eric is writing about how posting free copies of his books online has helped his physical book sales… in part because he tends to write books that people want to be identified with.

    I would go so far as to predict that any book (or movie, or CD) that functions as an identity good will tend to sell more rather than less after Web exposure. All three of my in-print books happen to be identity goods rather strongly, for slightly different but overlapping populations.

    Now, I do find this interesting, because I’m probably more willing to try something out that goes against my grain in a digital version. Is that because it’s then not sitting on my shelf? Maybe, and maybe the lack of physicality makes it seem like less of an investment. I’ll have to pay attention to this going forward…

  • The selection of books available on Kindle seems reasonable until you start to get obscure… and unfortunately, the obscure stuff is what I really want to get after. Some classics in various specialized fields have made their way to Kindle versions (The Mythical Man Month and Peopleware are two great, long out-of-print examples), and that’s wonderful. But there are tons of things I want to read that are out of print but unavailable on Kindle. I know that there is some work involved in digitizing books, but it’s not a huge effort – tons of folks have undertaken projects like this will plenty of success. And this is before you even get to the dumb slap-fights that Amazon is constantly getting into with the publishers. This isn’t meant to come down on one side of the issue, because everyone is to blame here, and at this point, I feel like the publishers are being a little too cagey for their own good. Especially now that you get all these rather odd situations in which the ebook costs more than the actual book itself. How does that work? It’s a naked money grab, and everyone knows it. Of course, publishers should be able to set their prices to what they want, but it’s patently absurd to claim that the exact same content somehow possesses more value when it’s published with little to no overhead (i.e. no materials, printing, etc… neeeded). Publishers make a lot more money on an ebook version, even when it’s cheaper than a paperback (and notably, most of the time, that extra profit is not making its way to the author). Most of the time, the books are priced reasonably (or at least cheaper than the print versions), but maybe publishers should be a little less money-grubbing. Again, it’s not like readers are entitled to cheaper prices on everything all the time, but that is part of the promise of digital books in the first place. It just makes no sense that an ebook would ever cost more than a physical copy (unless we’re talking about a used copy or something)… This is one issue in which I tend to agree with Nicholas Carr on, and he has some interesting ideas about the ideal consumer need:

    Buy the atoms, get the bits free. That just feels right – in tune with the universe, somehow.

    There’s a lesson here, I think, for book publishers. Readers today are forced to choose between buying a physical book or an ebook, but a lot of them would really like to have both on hand – so they’d be able, for instance, to curl up with the print edition while at home (and keep it on their shelves) but also be able to load the ebook onto their e-reader when they go on a trip.

    It’s a well thought out argument and I’d love it if that was ever implemented, but I’m not holding my breath either. It’s too much of a cash cow for publishers, who are probably struggling these days (another reason to perhaps not be too upset at ebook pricing) and won’t see the consumer delight in getting booth a physical and electronic book in a single purchase as being enough of a benefit for them…

And that about covers my initial thoughts on the subject. I guess there’s a fair share of disgruntlement above, and that is honest and true, but I also really do enjoy reading ebooks. I expect a fair amount of my reading will proceed on ebooks. If they’re available. Grumble, grumble.

2 thoughts on “Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections on ebooks”

  1. Boldly you jump into eBooks.

    I can’t quite get there. I want to. It would be so convenient. I am dreading the day I move out of this apartment, because I will need a small army to take my books with me. Fifty years from now, all my furniture will be hardcovers and paperbacks stacked in piles. My grandchildren will be confused as to why grandpa insists on keeping so many dead trees around the house. Neighbours will think of me as that crazy old man stuck in the past.

    I’m sitting here with a Kindle in my Amazon shopping cart. I will probably keep sitting here vacillating over this decision for the next hour and then finally go to bed, defeated.

    I blame you, Mark.

  2. Ha! I might not have taken the leap either, but it was a gift, so I went with it. There are definitely books I’ll still want a physical copy of, but there are also books that I might not have checked out if it weren’t for the simplicity of using ebooks… Worst case scenario, if I really love a book and must own a physical copy, I can buy it again (I suspect that won’t happen often though)…

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