On April 4, the Pew Research Center's released an extensive report on the country's e-reading habits as part of its Internet and American Life project. It is, as is oftentimes the case with Pew reports, quite interesting and exceedingly bland. (You can find an introduction to the Pew report here; the full report is also available online or as a free download.)
Which gave me an idea: Why not tap into our collective brainpower and organize a roundtable? Which is exactly what I did. This is the final entry in a three-part series; the first entry, "Crap futurism, pleasure reading, and DRM," ran on Monday, and "Walled gardens, cruftiness, and a race to the bottom" ran yesterday.
My role was mainly one of gentle facilitation; the other participants are the inimitable Mr. Zimmer, who, in addition to being the DtU fall guy, has extensive experience in publishing both "traditional" and e-books; Maia Szalavitz, who has written about memory and e-books; and io9's Annalee Newitz, who was already a e-reader vet by the time the Kindle came on the scene. Hope you all had as much fun as we had. --Seth Mnookin
Annalee: I wanted to return to a question that Maia raised, which is whether e-books will become a way for students to pirate textbooks. This interested me because one of the main ways I currently use my iPad is to hold (in the Kindle app, natch) all the books and articles I’m using to research my current book project.
My question for the group is whether you think that e-books are going to become more multimedia affairs or remain basically just electronic text. I love a nice multimedia moment as much as the next person, but I’d rather have e-books that look pretty much like paper books. In fact, I love using Google Books to read nineteenth century works as facsimiles. I guess that gets back to the way I view e-book readers as libraries and archives, rather than as a way to get text with some video jammed rather inelegantly into the middle.
Maia: I was originally really excited by the Kindle as an authorial tool because I thought it would be great to have all the notes I scribble in the margins and underlining available and searchable. No more “where did I read that?” Obviously, that would be great for students as well, juggling multiple texts.
With the Kindle though, it’s way too clunky. Not only is adding a note a pain, but even worse is the inability to quickly flip back through pages and forward again in a convenient manner. I’m guessing this is easier on the ipad— but don’t you guys find that your eyes get tired of reading backlit screens all day and want something easier on the eye?
For textbooks, Annalee, I’m convinced that publishers realize that as soon as they make ebooks the standard, the game is over because of pirating, even if they update frequently. Who pirates more than students? (Apparently, romance readers do a lot more than people expect, nonetheless...) Why wouldn’t they feel that it’s the righteous thing to do, given the high costs of education in general?
I’m also curious how the high production costs to do good multimedia ebooks and texts where the multimedia parts aren’t an afterthought will be handled. Sure, you don’t have the distribution costs you have with print, but you also don’t have anywhere near the profit potential.
Seth: A couple of things I want to make sure we return to before we close this out. Maia, I agree that note-taking on the Kindle is about as much fun as getting a tooth pulled--but that seems like a tractable issue, and for me, the thing that would transform the Kindle into something truly essential. On a slightly related note -- related because it gets to the different ways you can use e-readers: I’m also curious about Maia’s and Carl’s objections to reading long, more nuanced novels (or works) on e-readers. Carl, you said that you “tend to get lost” when reading big novels in e-form; that’s precisely one of the reasons I like reading big (or complicated) novels on my Kindle. I just re-read William Gibson’s All Tomorrow’s Parties for the first time since it came out. When I first read, I remember repeatedly getting lost. (Who, exactly was the Rooster? When did The Suit come on the scene?) This time around, I read it on my Kindle -- so I could just search for whenever a given character first appeared in the text. On the flip side, I just started Graham Greene's The Human Factor -- I'm reading a 30-year-old Avon edition paperback. What I find frustrating is not the fact that the pages occasionally break off in my hands, it's that I can't do a simple search and remind myself who in the hell C. is.
Annalee: As I said earlier, my first experience reading an e-book on a reader was a novel, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and I worried that I would have a hard time getting into it. But I was as absorbed in it on that device as I would have been with a sweet Penguin Classic edition. Like Seth, I can easily read long works on the iPad - I’ve read novels and non-fiction, and I take a ton of notes via the Kindle app. It makes me sad that I’ll probably lose those notes during some backup or upgrade, but generally my need for them is fairly short-lived -- they’re for an article or book I’m working on currently, and aren’t intended to last my whole life.
I suspect everyone has a slightly different way of absorbing information - for some, paper works well; other folks follow books best when they’re in audio form. I should add that one of the things that helped me get used to reading a lot on the iPad was putting a cover on it that looks like a Moleskine notebook. Other people create iPad covers out of old book covers. It gives you that comforting book feeling, which for a lot of us who grew up with paper books is just the psychological tweak we need to “lose ourselves” in an e-book.
Seth: You should download your "My Clippings" file and save all your notes. I have separate documents for every book I've read on Kindle, filled with clippings and comments and quotes and nice turns of phrase. I have no idea if I'll ever use them, but it makes me feel good to have it all in one place. It's exactly the type of thing I'd been half-heartedly doing for decades in notebooks that would get lost...usually before they had much of anything in them.
Annalee, I’m curious about something you said at the outset: that you wanted “to use that e-reader for preservation more than anything - as a place to stow history.” Is this what you meant by that?
Annalee: I think a lot about how we’ll preserve old media in digital form, partly because a lot of the media I love is deemed “trash” or “pulp” or “not noteworthy” by academics and many other people who do cultural preservation in America. I’m incredibly inspired by places like the Prelinger Library and the Internet Archive, where the curators are trying to preserve cultural ephemera (like, say, documents related to science/engineering history). I am also an amateur book collector, especially when it comes to books that most libraries ignore. So I look at iPads, Kindles, and other tablet devices as places where I could collect and preserve books -- as well as access similar collections online.
I want portable libraries. And that’s why it’s important to me that I be able to put open format books on my iPad, so I can share them with others. I actually think a lot about how I would set up a roving media mobile in San Francisco. I could just sit down somewhere with a giant hard drive full of media, tweet my coordinates, and whoever shows up with their own machines can start sharing with me. It would be like a swap meet for e-books.
Carl: I want to take up the question of textbooks, but before I do, let me make a disclosure: I’m about to publish my second textbook, and my publisher is going to be rolling out an app version of it. So I’m not an impartial observer. But I do have some personal experience to draw from.
In the 1980s, textbooks went from being text-heavy tomes with a few simple pieces of art to depending on elaborate illustration. (This is especially true for biology, the field I know best.) Kindles cannot display them with black and white e-ink. Right now, only iPads can. A number of textbook publishers have created electronic versions of their titles, but for the most part they’re pretty much mimics. The only advantage they have over print versions is that you won’t put your back out when you lift your backpack from your desk. But for a lot of students, these electronic editions aren’t as easy to navigate through and to learn from than printed ones.
A few titles are moving beyond mimicry, taking advantage of the things tablets can do that printed editions cannot. John Hawks reviewed one example of this--Ed Wilson’s biology textbook--on Download the Universe. It’s lovely, but it’s a huge amount of work. And for textbook publishers who have to put in a huge amount of work to make a regular textbook, all that extra work is not fun to think about.
That being said, there are some incentives for textbook publishers to make the jump. Printed textbooks are expensive, and their cost has driven a market in used textbooks and textbook rentals. An electronic textbook with powerful DRM could potentially escape that fate. And instead of waiting three years to come out with a new editions--the typical cycle--publishers could continually revise textbooks, as Wikipedia is continually updated, to stay au courant with the latest research. So my guess is that in a few years, textbooks will be where the book industry as a whole is today: increasingly electronic.
Annalee: For the same reasons I support PLoS and other open science journals, I support the idea of DRM-free textbooks. I don’t like the idea of textbooks being locked down to protect the IP in them. If anything, textbooks should be easily accessible on as many devices as possible. They provide an enormous social benefit, and I want people to be able to read textbooks even if they don’t have a lot of money. Obviously the writers and academics who create these books should be compensated for their work, but DRM won’t solve that problem.
Maia: I do think piracy will be a huge issue with textbooks. For one, there’s a great rationalization for it (I’m a student! I’m poor! I’ll never pay my loans off anyway and why should I support the big evil publishers anyway? It’s not like there’s even an “artist” involved). Secondly, students are also the people with the most time and energy to break DRM.
Regarding “getting lost” in books, I just find that the material I read on paper sticks in my head better and that makes for an overall better experience of a literary novel. You do want to “be lost” in the experience (which is why I don’t want any multimedia distractions) but you don’t want to “feel lost” as in, “I’m losing the plot,” literally. Although I will say I did greatly enjoy Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad on the Kindle.
Seth: Funny you should reference Egan's book -- which I also loved, and also read on the Kindle. I did, however, find the PowerPoint chapter incredibly frustrating to read; it wasn't reformatted at all, and was in miniscule type. I actually went and re-read that chapter in the library.
Alright, folks -- I think we had some good stuff in there. Hope everyone had fun; I definitely did. See you on the other side...