The Ongoing Debate on the Value of Ebooks

Ai carumba, I am so tired of the debate on either side of how ebooks are good/bad, creating jobs/killing bookstores, good/bad for the environment. As a publisher of primarily digital books, my time, effort and soul is poured into creating books, most of which come out as digital only formats. I have been looked down upon by the literati – those who ‘love the smell of the paper and glue’ and shunned by local bookstores who think of them as cheap and ugly.

Now the latest argument is that ebooks erode our values – as touted by the talented Jonathan Franzen. He – along with others – state that the lack of permanence of ebooks represents societal demise, where nothing we own can be trusted. True, much of what we used to consider our own is now ‘licensed’ – music, movies, now books. Many lament that their art doesn’t sit upon the wall or a shelf, ready to be gazed upon and pulled out to view when we want to – like 50 years from now.

My problem with this permanence sentiment is that it is a very narrow, mostly western view of recent history only. For the majority of history, most of our art and stories have never had permanence. It has been played out and told as stories passed down by generations in the form of words and hand gestures, both of which lack the ‘permanence’ that printed matter has. I’m not saying that art shouldn’t have permanence, without it we wouldn’t know about Shakespeare’s talents or Dante’s story. But this view that the sky is falling because we have ebooks is a narrow one and one that lacks the full vision of what ebooks are doing for many people.

First and foremost, ebooks have opened up the door for many authors to publish their books. Sure some of them aren’t so good, but many are, and it’s a wonderful thing that they are getting read, even if by just a few people. Almost equally important is what technology has enabled for readers. No longer are books relegated to those who can afford them, but can be shared among friends for almost next to nothing. Case in point is a $24.95 print book which can be shared by many for $4.99. In a world where we are titillated by apps, movies, television, isn’t it nice that we might be reading more – regardless of what we’re reading it on?

When I first got started in this business, I had a lot of preset notions to overcome and a lot of ignorance on what ebooks were. I was kind of hoping we were past all that? I guess not. But the latest argument in the anti-ebook debate about the lack of permanence of our societal e-stories is just wrong. The stories told by countless generations of first nations peoples and tribal cultures around the world are not any less relevant and meaningful than the stories we write on paper. According to those mentioned above, these stories are less valuable than our paper ones because the words might change from generation to generation.

I don’t know what your answers are, but I believe that we can’t really own anything, permanence doesn’t exist and the desire to keep things such is a fruitless venture. Live in the now, that’s all we have. The words we read in this now, no matter what they’re printed on remain imprinted in our memories and on our hearts. That’s what important. That we had the experience of those stories. And thanks to ebooks, we have more of those experiences and those stories.


3 thoughts on “The Ongoing Debate on the Value of Ebooks

  1. Dean from Australia

    Since grappling with and accepting the notion of the ebook, I have framed my arguments for them around the notion of the reading experience. When a reader delves into a story, they delve into an experience that stimulates their mind and captures their imagination. It shouldn’t matter how that experience came to them.

    The digital phenomenon is still in a state of transition and I think there will be a shake up of this phenomenon quite soon. But it’s here and it’s here to stay.

  2. William Topek

    That ebooks somehow lack permanence is perhaps the silliest – and most untrue – argument I’ve heard yet. Countless people have discovered to their personal embarrassment that digital data such as email and photos are often much more resilient than their more material counterparts. You can always burn a scrap of paper or a photo with negative; digital data is so easily stored, transmitted, and copied it can have far greater staying power.

  3. The Background Story

    He – along with others – state that the lack of permanence of ebooks represents societal demise, where nothing we own can be trusted.

    Yah know people who used to write on stone tables must have thought the same thing about paper. Just sayin.’ 🙂

    Besides, paper doesn’t have permanence. It yellows, tears and gets eaten by moths. My treasured Sweet Valley books from my late childhood are now full of mold. I can’t pass them on to my future daughters.

    The oldest book I have is a book of short stories which my grandma used when she was in fifth grade. It’s almost 80 years old and barely whole. It’ll be a miracle if it survives another generation. So no, it isn’t permanent.

    The medium is never permanent — stone tablets, cave drawings, campfire storytelling, parchments, books, digital files — but the art is permanent. For me, when someone resist the change in medium, it’s almost the same as resisting the chance of a certain piece of art to be passed on to the next generation. What if people opposed printing on paper, then? Think about the many pieces of great literature that we would not have known, had the printing industry failed to become mainstream. The same thing can be said for digital media now.

    Almost equally important is what technology has enabled for readers.

    I very much agree. I’ve read lots of public domain classics in the last few years — for free on the Internet! I’m buying a Kindle, too, so I can’t wait to buy e-books because they’re really cheaper than printed books. I’m super thankful for that and I’m sure there are many others/

    Technology isn’t a bad thing, really. If we’re all more open-minded about the possibilities.

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