Read ebooks? Fuck you! (says the book industry)

It is 100% impossible for humanity to invent a technology superior to printed books. Who doesn’t love the feel of the printed page, suffused with organic volatiles that emit its distinctive scent, bound into a form so perfect that it’s hard to believe humans invented it, that –

Me. I don’t love printed books.

Now, I own hundreds of printed books. Some of my best friends are printed books. And yet I prefer to read books on my phone and tablet. Call me old fashioned, but you just can’t beat a good backlit screen that you can read in the dark.

I’m not here to convert you, though. I just want the book industry to stop hating me.

Readers rejoice: Printed book sales rise for first time in four years as ebooks undergo decline”, blared a headline from last year. Real readers don’t read ebooks, it smirks. Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of The Publishers Association, added:

Those who made predictions about the death of the book may have underestimated just how much people love paper … Digital continues to be an incredibly important part of the industry, but it would appear there remains a special place in the consumer’s heart for aesthetic pleasure that printed books can bring.

The real story is more complicated but the commentary is always the same: “Yay, printed books are selling well! That’s because they’re just better,” they’ll say. They won’t for a minute entertain the possibility that printed books are selling well for reasons entirely separate from their supposedly superior physical form.

The Financial Times thankfully was a touch hard-headed:

Customers enjoy the touch and feel of printed books: Americans read an average of 12 books a year, and most of those are physical. But they also prefer low prices, and do not like the fact that ebooks are comparatively expensive. Take The Whistler, John Grisham’s new blockbuster, which was selling on Amazon this week for $14.47 in hardback and $14.99 on Kindle.

That is the new reality: ebooks from publishers such as Penguin Random House and HarperCollins often cost more than hardbacks as well as paperbacks. Mr Bezos’s efforts a decade ago to promote mass adoption of the Kindle by discounting bestsellers to $9.99 and making ebooks cheaper than books has faded. It is now the other way round: Amazon favours print.

… Hardbacks and paperbacks are relatively cheap because Amazon discounts them; ebooks are expensive because it does so less. The way to view this is as an industry reaching a competitive equilibrium after a decade of disruption, with the main forces — Amazon on one side and the big five publishers on the other — settling on a truce. They cannot formally agree one since it would provoke renewed antitrust action, but that is what it looks like, with the revival of the book as part of their detente. It makes perfect sense for Amazon … The equilibrium also helps publishers, which profit from ebooks because they can digitise print titles and sell them at higher margins.

… But for now, the book’s renaissance suits Amazon, publishers, and readers. “It turns out people like paper if they are not penalised financially,” says Mike Shatzkin of the consultancy Idea Logical. A decade after the Kindle’s launch, Mr Bezos is rewarding them.

Given their enormous and largely artificial disadvantages, it’s astonishing that ebooks sell any copies at all. Beyond lacking the aforementioned orgasmic touch-and-feel of the printed page, these include:

  • Higher prices
  • Inability to resell or lend ebooks
  • Unsuitability as gifts
  • Total absence in bestselling categories like colouring books, children’s books, and novelty books
  • Poor copyediting of backlist titles (my 2013 ebook of Stand on Zanzibar from Gollancz is littered with typos, probably due to a bad OCR process)

Only two of these five disadvantages are truly — if perhaps only temporarily — inherent to the ebook format: unsuitability as gifts, and absence of colouring books. The other three are obviously man/publisher-made, price being the foremost. And why must we suffer them? vikingzx on Reddit has a theory:

…big publishers are trying to drive ebooks into “luxury niche” status because they don’t like the changes they bring to the market. They’re not fans of the way ebooks have changed things, and they don’t want those changes, so they’ve been steadily jacking the prices for the last few years with the aim of being around hardcover for the “convenience” (sort of like how a movie theater charges you extra to buy the ticket online, though it actually saves the theater money) in order to stall ebooks from being picked up by the market.

And it’s working! We’re still buying ebooks, despite rising prices, because of their convenience.

I don’t know what truly lies in the hearts of big publishers, but having worked with them for many years, I know they’re fearful of change. They don’t want to disrupt a market they’ve dominated for decades by hastening the adoption of ebooks, which could lead to all kinds of frightening new retail and lending possibilities that they have less control over. Not that they love Amazon — but better the devil you know.

This unholy alliance has undoubtedly stymied the development of ebooks. We’d see lower prices, better lending and reselling options if there were true competition.

(I told a lie earlier: you can lend ebooks, even with Amazon, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing this given the deliberately awful user interface that Amazon requires users to navigate to set up ‘Family Sharing’ — because, of course, you’d only want to share books with your family. As far as most readers are concerned, it doesn’t exist.)

So why do so many people persist in buying ebooks, despite the book industry’s best efforts? Why are we willing to pay extra for a bunch of bits that can’t be lent or gifted or sold, and lives on a device that constantly distracts us, requires batteries, and even worse, can’t be used in the bath?

It’s because they’re better. There, I said it. There is no other reason why people would buy ebooks.

A few weeks ago, I was lying on the sofa reading Paper Girls, a graphic novel. After a few minutes, I realised I was having to squint to make out the words. I wondered if I’d somehow set the room lights to be dimmer than normal, but no, they were at their normal level.

The problem wasn’t the room lights — it was that the graphic novel, being a printed book, didn’t have a backlight. I’d gotten too used to the convenience of having a lightsource built into my reading materials.

Smartphones, tablets, and dedicated ebook reader devices like the Kindle have gotten a lot better in recent years. Both the iPhone and the Kindle were launched just under ten years ago; since then, they’ve become lighter, sturdier, faster, more than quadrupled in resolution, and increased their brightness and contrast ratios.

Back in the day (i.e. five to ten years ago) you’d frequently hear “Oh, I don’t want to read on a screen, it hurts my eyes”. OK, fine — but is that really still the case with an iPad Pro 9.7” with 264 pixels per inch, ambient light colour correction, and ultra-low reflectance? Or an Android phone with a display exceeding 500 ppi?

It ain’t 2007 any more. Today, in many environments, ebooks will hurt your eyes less than a printed book. And let’s not ignore the fact that you can resize the text on an ebook.

Now, it’s true that, unlike music, there isn’t much benefit in holding a thousand books in our pockets. But it’s also true that ebooks are often more convenient. When Neal Stephenson’s Anathem was published, I carried it to work every day for a week. That bad boy weighed 1.5 kilograms. My phone, whose display is only slightly less nice than my iPad’s, weighs 190 grams. It doesn’t have the sweet, sweet scent of printed pages, but it also doesn’t give me backache.

ebooks get better every year, whether big publishers and Amazon like it or not. That’s what consumer technology does; we don’t buy our phones and tablets for reading books, but we read a heck of a lot on Facebook and Twitter, and ebooks to ride along for free. Every year, our ebooks can be read with higher resolutions, larger screens, longer battery life, True Tone colour-correction, ‘night shift’ modes, and waterproofing.

The software side has advanced much more slowly, due to Amazon lack of competition and its détente with publishers. Even so, Amazon has grudgingly improved the reading experience. Any highlighted passages and notes made on Kindle devices or apps can now be automatically synced with Goodreads — a godsend to researchers and journalists because it’s much quicker and more accurate than transcribing text by hand or by copy-and-pasting. Just imagine what else we could have, with true competition.

There is, dare I say it, a whiff of privilege that comes from those who laud the superiority of printed books. Before you take too much offence (“I’m not rich and I like printed books!”), my point is that ebooks offer genuine advantages that go beyond convenience.

If you’re poor, you can download thousands of classics from Project Gutenberg for free without having to take the time and money to travel to a library. If you have bad eyesight, you can adjust the text size at a tap of button rather the buying an expensive large-print copy. And if, like me, you’re a millennial who’s had to move three times in three years, you can keep hold of a massive library without any hassle.

A full quarter of books sold by major publishers in the UK are ebooks — and once again, barely any of those will be kids or novelty or colouring-in books, or books purchased as gifts. Considering that, it’s clear that a significant proportion of readers find ebooks more comfortable and convenient than printed books.

So: I don’t expect the book industry to embrace ebooks. Businesses are gonna business: if they can make more money by jacking up the prices of ebooks while talking them down, they’ll do that without a second thought.

But they need to quit pretending that they’re friends of real readers who like reading real books. They need to stop with the endless disdain and mockery of any kind of new reading technology that gasp, for some people might actually be better than the codex!

Most of all, they need to remember: ebooks are real books. And people who read ebooks are real readers. Stop fucking us over.

Top photo CC deferrol

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