Publishing Industry, Take Two: eBook Readers

The topic today is physical books vs, ebook readers. I thought this was going to be a simple post, but it’s grown to a behemoth, so I’m actually going to split it up into a couple days worth of conversation.

And so, as is my wont, let me back up a bit before I get going.

I mentioned the other day that I’m in what feels like a moderately unique and strange position of experiencing the process of growing up as a writer in both the past ten years and during current times. When I got serous about getting back into the shotgun seat, I decided to take a few conscious steps to re-enter the world.

The first month of my reentry I was to do nothing but write. This I accomplished.

Then for three months I was to begin posting with some fervor, and begin reading other people’s work–especially in newer short markets. I also fell upon the culture of podcasts and other social media, and endeavored to experience everything I could. I paid attention to new names, new editors, new publishing lingo, new ways of distribution, and new energy in areas like SFWA and whatnot. My whole goal during this period was to create a sense of understanding about how the world worked now.

The last three months have been about positioning myself to be ready to do some real work. This meant completing a few short stories, but mostly it meant completing my two novels (which grew unpredictably to three). It also meant getting more serious about re-energizing the networking part of the game. Having completed this portion of the process, I’m now fell ready to actually start. (I hear you…sounds like a stalling game to me, too. But seriously, I like to do my homework. I like to at least feel like I understand how things work, even if I don’t [grin]).

Through it all, though, there has been the writing, though. I figured that in the end one thing would be constant, and that is that it would always be about the writing.

Lately, though, I’ve begun to wonder about that.

I worry, really, that it’s not about the writing at all–or at least not very much about the writing. But I’m getting ahead of myself now, and before I go all curmudgeonly on everyone I think I should make a couple statements.

Statement 1: The next few posts are going to be about some specific things I’ve been thinking as I’ve gone about getting back into the game.

Statement 2: These are not really complaints, though sometimes they may sound that way. These are statements of position, comments on the state of the industry from this limited point of view. You may chose to see them as positive of negative as you wish.

Anyway, with that, let me actually get to my conversation regarding electronic book readers. I’m going to start by noting a podcast I recently listened to.

Adventures in SciFi Publishing recently included a long and very interesting interview with Tracy Hickman, who first came to prominence with the old Dragon Lance books, and has since gone on to become a big-big deal. You should definitely listen to it.

In it Hickman passed along two statements that I thought were notable here: First, that a book is essentially a souvenir, something that you keep around and put on your bookshelf if you liked it, and second that publishers need to change their focus away from being book printers and toward becoming an identifier of quality. When I first heard them, both of Hickman’s comments resonated with me. But as I let the statements settle on me, I think they are just a bit too simplified.

For example, while a book is a souvenir, it is also more than that. A book is a unique method of delivery. A book is a marketing ploy. A book is a storage device. A book is a physical experience.

I recently bought a Kindle, and I like it a lot–not as much as Lisa loves her Kindle (which is to the point where she will not read much of anything unless it comes in e-format)–but I like it a lot. It’s a nice device. But a physical book is a different experience, and there are things about it I miss when I’m reading ebooks. I do agree, though, that a book is also a souvenir, which an ebook certainly cannot be.

That last is an important idea. I think you need to pay attention to things that are unique about a format because these are the things that eventually define them.

To expound a bit, I mentioned that a book is a delivery method. This is true of both physical books and ebook readers. They are different delivery methods, but both serve the same purpose at that level of abstraction, hence these are weak differentiators. I also said a book is a physical experience, also true of both physical and e-books…and audio books as well, actually. But I’ll talk about audio later. Anyway, what’s important here is that because there is no contextual difference in roles of these two items regarding things like being a delivery method or being a physical experience, personal opinion matters. By this I mean that if I like one or the other better, then it wins for me. If you like the other better, it wins for you. There is no wrong answer, only what works best for you (unless you’re trying to make other people feel stupid, which seems to be the purpose of a helluva lot of communications these days).

So, Ron, what’s your opinion on these things and your ebook reader?

Well … it is clearly more expedient to buy an e-book and get it loaded up–except, of course, if you need to deal with format conversions and whatnot, which have a high annoyance factor. To be honest, my life is complicated enough without having to think about what folders I’ve put files into and how to click what buttons to convert them over to things my Kindle reads well…and the conversions suck half the time. It’s really easier to order the danged thing online and wait two days for the delivery to happen at my front door. It’s not as fast to order and receive a physical book, but it’s easier and at least as reliable.

Then there’s the physical nature of delivering the story.

An ebook reader does things a physical book can’t. Changing text sizes, for example (which is great for my aging eyes because my eyesight degrades a bit as the day goes at this point of my life). Or allowing automatic look-ups of words. These are great advantages. But a book can do things an e-reader can’t–specifically, I can peak deeper into a book more easily. I tend to do that a lot, I finger two or three or four pages forward to see where stopping points are. This is possible with an ebook, but if you have to go past a couple screens, the steady clicking gets annoying and it’s easy to lose you place. Also, for magazines, I tend to like to read shorter stories first, or otherwise pick around. This is nearly impossible with an e-reader.

I also admit I fight one more personal bias.

I’m a newish writer who has spent a lot of years working on my own stuff and reading other writer’s pre-published material. I have probably read and critiqued thousands of stories prior to their publication. When I read on a screen, it feels like I’m reading a manuscript, not a story. I have only recently realized this after I picked up a couple stories I didn’t particularly care for and read them on the Kindle. Now that I’ve figured this out, it’s easy to notice. When I read on the screen, I fight a mental surge that says this is not a published piece of work–it’s a mental block I need to overcome every time I pick up my e-reader.

Still, at the end of the day, for pure reading, I think I would read on the Kindle a bit before I would pick up a physical book.

It’s a close call, though.

That’s enough for today. Tomorrow I’ll plan to focus on other aspects of the ebook reader vs. physical book debates, and then I’ll eventually move on to what I think this situation means for us newbie-ish writers. That’s the plan, anyway.

We’ll see where the future takes me.

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  1. Pingback: Typosphere » Blog Archive » The Publishing Industry: Take II – The Work

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