What are ebooks and ebook readers really for?


Electronic text is not new, but the ebook has started to be seen as a new medium recently. The reason of this is the easy identification of ebooks through their unique reader devices. But is it right? When a new medium emerges, for a while it sits in a straddling position between carrying through the old content, and not exactly being sure what the shape of the new should be. We are now at the end of this period with ebooks, and it is possible to start seeing what the new content for the medium is going to be, and how it is going to be different from previous ones.

I am a book omnivore, with a personal library of several thousand volumes in each of three languages, Hungarian, my native tongue, Italian, and English, and a sprinkling of others, more or less exotic. The touch, sound, smell of books all conspire to create the experience of reading. My first instinct when I pick up a book is to open it slightly and smell it, recognizing instantly dozens of unnamed combinations, of paper, ink, and aging almost as if I were a book sommelier in some borgesian universe.

But I know that the age of the paper book is ending, just as that of the papyrus scroll has.

Yes, the paper book has a lot of advantages—I don’t see myself reading with an ebook reader soon in the tub soon—, just as the mainframe had many advantages over the personal computer. And just as that didn’t stop the mainframe slipping out of the central conversation and development of the computer world, the same books will become much more, and more varied than just their dead tree varieties.

More and more people are reading more and more text every day on screens of all types. Reading is not going to die with the paper book. Personally I have started reading full books on screens many years ago. When phones became computers, I was glad to switch to them for reading books: people would always look at me a little condescendingly as I pulled a book from my back pocket to read at the supermarket’s checkout counter… but nobody was sparing a moment when I would stand there staring at the phone in my hand. Battery life sucked, and on phones that are intensively used in their various functions still you can drain the juice pretty quickly.

But it is likely that you have the phone with you all the time, and I remember that the dentist in Croatia didn’t seem to be too upset as I asked if it was ok to read while she was working on my teeth. (I think it was “Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom” by Cory Doctorow, in the picture. Correct me if I am wrong.)

I have been looking forward to special ebook readers, and I use a Cybook Gen 3 now, thanks to my friends at Simplicissimus, based on electronic ink, with great battery life of literally weeks, fantastic screen which the more light you have the better it gets to read from. The software on the Cybook is not great, and they have no client software for your PC, but I found Calibre to be close to an “iTunes for books” client, if a little rough at the edges.

So what’s new? What is different from before, apart from the device instead of the paper? A lot, most of it due to the Internet, and more will change still.

Before the Internet the bookstore, the library, and the newstand were the main places where you would find things to read. Not anymore. Nowadays with a simple query you can start on a journey of exploration that leads you through online magazines, wikipedia articles, essays, blog posts, all related to your starting point, and all interesting. It is probably not uncommon to open these pages as new tabs on a browser, and after having looked at them, rather than read them in an orderly manner, leave them there, and save them for later, eventual reading. Recognizing this common behavior the Instapaper service with its ‘read later’ browser button was born: it enables me to quickly save what I eventually want to read, and through the magic of RSS syndication, and device synchronization find it on my ebook reader, or iPhone for that matte

I contend that this is what ebook content and ebook reading devices are really for: reading collected materials, discovered through relevance, and recommendation engines, which get funneled automatically through to the device.

Yes, we will keep reading novels as well. But they will change too! The shape, size, and rhythm of the modern novel have all evolved as a consequence of the implicit dialog between readers, and the publishing industry. None of these parameters is a given. You would not pay ten dollars for a ten page masterpiece, but no publisher would be able with the help of its wholesalers and the bookstores to put it on the shelves at a lower price. Don’t you ever get the feeling that a great novel, entertaining as it might be, would have been much better at 400 pages rather than 800? Often what you glimpse there is economics of the publishing industry at play, rather than unrestrained creative outpouring.

With the ebook, and online distribution, many of the previous rules stop being valid, or necessary. For the novel, serialization will be back in vogue. Asimov’s Foundation cycle was originally released in the pulp magazines of the ’40s as a series of short stories, and only later was collected in a trilogy. And these days we have publisher TOR releasing Cory’s latest novel, Makers, in 80 weekly installments on its website.

So we will see a flourishing of new forms of creative writing too: poetry, collaborative fiction, tweet-stories, and more.

Journalism is not going to die just because the traditional printed newspapers are not finding a way to survive. Similarly, even if many of today’s players in the sector will try to resist change, and will find it impossible to adapt to the new, writing, and reading will be with us in the electronic age, and for the better for both!

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