The ebook – a satnav for readers

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OK, so what can eBooks give you that real, physical books can’t?

Choice. Theoretically, you’ll be able to access millions of books instantly. You’ll be able to carry thousands of books round with you. Why you should want to carry thousands of books round with you isn’t immediately clear; research, perhaps, or education, or travelling. But reading a book isn;t like listening to tunes on an iPod. You don’t switch from one book to another that quickly. I don’t get to the end of a chapter in Moby Dick and think, ‘I want to read a couple of paragraphs of Jane Austen now’. (Actually, I never want to read Jane Austen at any time.) So not thousands, but the ability to take all your holiday reading in one slim volume is quite nice.

Immediacy. You can download it instantly and read it there and then. This could be quite good. But it’s been slightly mitigated by the Amazon next day delivery service. Waiting 24 hours for something isn’t that long. However, if you want to read something you can access it quickly. Those who use googlebooks know already how consulting a book there can save you a lot of time going and digging it out in a library. For research purposes this could be great.

Weight. This is an advantage. If you’re schlepping heavy textbooks around, the ability to carry them in a device weighing ounces is dead good. And if you’re on a long trip, you don’t have to worry about which hefty paperback to take: take them all. An eReader is lighter to hold as well.

Searching. Search facilities are good. Although, as I posted earlier, you don’t get that sense of perspective about the text. (Actually I don’t  think the Sony eReader has a search function, rendering this advantage rather moot.) But you will be able to find a reference quickly.

Cost. Might end up being an advantage, but isn’t much at the moment. A lot of the main costs of books are not in the physical production, but in everything which makes the book – editorial, design, proofing, marketing, etc. So I’ll doubt they’ll be much cheaper. And the readers themselves cost $250–400. The price point is going to be the big thing. If publishers price things too high, then piracy will increase. That was one of the key reasons why, since the days of the C90 Cassette, customers ignored all the ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’ warnings. Customers believed that they were being ripped off, by having to pay £14 for a CD. I don’t think books are in that scenario now – if anything the cost of a book has gone down in real terms over recent years. If publishers want to mitigate the effects of piracy – they’ll never do away with it entirely – their best bet is to keep the price as low as possible. (While giving the authors a better royalty rate, of course!)

I’m not sure what else is a real advantage. Having had a chance to look at the Sony and the Kindle the other day, I was pleasantly surprised by the reading experience. Type on the Kindle was good to read and the device was light and easy to handle. Having said that, the graphics were appalling. I tried looking at the map at the front of a Stephen King book and it was like a fuzzy photocopy. Don’t know what photos look like, but it was like a computer screen circa 1986. A paperback doesn’t run out of batteries (although it doesn’t iluminate itslef in the dark, either).

The publisher I was with summed up the differences between eBooks and physical books as the difference between a SatNav and an Atlas. A SatNav is great when you want to go directly o your destination; when all that matters is getting there. But if you want to see what else is around, if you want to choose a different route, or simply grasp the bigger picture, you need an atlas. In those terms, the eBook is good for straightforward reading: long flights, holidays, novels, perhaps narrative history; where you just want to start at the beginning and finish at the end. But for anything else, you’re still best off with an atlas.