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E vs. ink

My friend Karen posted some thoughts on Twitter about ebooks and readers.

Been thinking about how e-books/Ipad exclude poorer readers. Continued…. Folks with literacy/soc. justice concerns should keep zines/broadsheet etc. in mind. If medium is message, cost of readers excludes many.

It would easy to dismiss Karen’s thoughts because of her history with paper but she has a good point.  A Sony Reader ranges in price from $240 in Futureshop ($179 online) to $149 at Wal-MartChapters is promoting a new reader for $149.00 which isn’t that bad except you realize that a) that is all you can do with it and b) I am buying it so I can buy new books.  I am paying $199 (or $259 if I am looking for a Kindle) so I can spend even more money to use it.

Most of our gadgets are like that.

In our household right now, we have:

  • 2 Sony PSPs and games are anywhere from $15 to $40
  • 3 iPods and songs are $.99 to $1.29 but we can use our own CDs to rip music.  Apps range from free to $4.
  • 1 PS2 and games are $10 and $25
  • 1 Nintendo Wii and games are from $20 to $60 (yet all have come from Lee).

So what’s the difference.  Well I don’t think you can compare Backyard Football or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare to books and education.  My quality of life is not reduced because I don’t have a PS3 at all but my quality of life is greatly reduced by lack of access to books and news media.  Low cost news media serves several important functions in our families life outside of the obvious.

While driving to the cabin a couple of weeks ago, I stopped in Watrous (at Pip’s Esso) for a snack and grabbed a copy of Popular Mechanics and tossed it the backseat for Mark to read on the way up there.  It opened up his mind to several things as he poured over both the articles and the ads.  How many times has all of our lives been enriched by someone doing something similar.  A lot of my spring reading was done by people wandering in to my office and tossing a book on my desk and saying, “you will like this”.  With publishers and their DRM restrictions, you can’t do that.  Even if Wendy and I both get Sony Readers, we can’t share a book.

Reader Store screen capture Everyone is touting Google Books as the answer.  Even Sony has a link to Google Books on the front of their Reader Store.  I have spent hours going through there looking for books to download.  Most of the books you can download in ePub format for free are in the public domain and therefore really cheap to get at Indigo/Chapters/used book store in paper.  Sadly even many of them are not available because of the edition they scanned it from has restrictions on use and you are left with a snippet of what is available.

So even if I do purchase it and really like it, how do I make sure Mark can read it other than giving him my reader.  Even if we bought a reader for him, I can’t transfer it to him there.  Everyone has been fawning over the new iPad app from Marvel and it is very cool but Cory Doctorow makes this point about the iPad but he could be talking about any ebook reader.

Marvel app for the iPad I mean, look at that Marvel app (just look at it). I was a comic-book kid, and I’m a comic-book grownup, and the thing that made comics for me was sharing them. If there was ever a medium that relied on kids swapping their purchases around to build an audience, it was comics. And the used market for comics! It was — and is — huge, and vital. I can’t even count how many times I’ve gone spelunking in the used comic-bins at a great and musty store to find back issues that I’d missed, or sample new titles on the cheap. (It’s part of a multigenerational tradition in my family — my mom’s father used to take her and her sibs down to Dragon Lady Comics on Queen Street in Toronto every weekend to swap their old comics for credit and get new ones).

So what does Marvel do to "enhance" its comics? They take away the right to give, sell or loan your comics. What an improvement. Way to take the joyous, marvellous sharing and bonding experience of comic reading and turn it into a passive, lonely undertaking that isolates, rather than unites. Nice one, Misney.

That’s what I am realizing that we are losing.  Books, comics, and papers are part of the social ties that bind people together in communities.  Around work, the Star Phoenix is a communal paper.  It is read together, digested together, shared, it’s flyers are passed around and deals discussed.  Also, it gets treated as exactly as what Karen is talking about.

Well, we aren’t going to turn back time and to be honest, many publishers are banking everything on the iPad to save them (anyone else find it an odd coincidence that the financially struggling New York Times is features so prominently in Apple advertising)  As I was thinking seriously about buying a ebook reader this week, I took a step back from the side of the cliff and asked myself if what I am losing more than what I was getting and I had to admit it was.  From a design and an engineering point of view, the iPad/Kindle is a great piece of technology and a lot of fun (and yes I know the iPad comparison isn’t fair as it isn’t really designed as a book reader but rather a tablet computer).  Is it good enough to stop supporting a local bookstore (although Indigo/Chapters made those pretty rare in Canada) or lose the social element of reading and learning as an entire community.

So in the end, I continue to support print magazines.  For the record, those include National Geographic, Explore Magazine, Mountain Bike Action, Sports Illustrated, The Atlantic Monthly and The Walrus via subscription or purchasing one monthly at McNally Robinson.  While I only read The Star Phoenix online, we do subscribe at home (where Mark reads it with me every evening) and at work.

2 Comments

  1. I think the Kindle has some great advantages. The environmental benefits of not publishing, shipping, warehousing, and shipping again are pretty huge. Nor do you need loads of rooms and shelves to hold all those books and they are never lost. With the Kindle you can have up to 5 devices you can read a book on. Kindle software exists for ipods/ipad, and pc. So it is pretty easy to share a book within your family or adopted family.

    The prices of ebook readers have come down and will come down. Like PCs, when they get old enough they will get cheap enough for all but the poorest of the poor. The poorest can’t afford books as they are, they just take them out from the library.

    Once e-readers are sub-$100 I can imagine school boards buying them for older students because they will be much cheaper than textbooks. They will be integrated with local digital libraries enabling municipal and school libraries to reduce staffing and storage.

  2. Ed Cyzewski says:

    I recently self-published a book (www.pathtopublishing.com) with CreateSpace and released an ebook through Lulu. I opted to make it available without DRM for two main reasons:

    1) The customer’s experience is my top priority. I don’t make DRM to devalue my work in that it makes it more difficult for customers to enjoy it.

    2) Most writers should fear obscurity more than copying. In fact, while I don’t necessarily welcome it, I am only bothered by plagiarism. I don’t love the idea of my books being e-mailed all over at no cost, but I’d rather have more readers than less.

    The Doctorow article was instrumental in my decision. Bob Miller, formerly of HarperStudio made similar comments about all of this a few months ago on their blog as well.

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