Monday, November 26, 2007

Ebooks: The future (???) of reading

It's funny how things come and go. I published an essay about a year ago in the journal Television and New Media about ebooks and electronic reading. It's had some response, and a version of the piece will be included in my forthcoming book, The Late Age of Print. Even so, there's been some sense for awhile now, particularly since the dot-com bust, that stand-alone electronic reading devices were pretty much over and done with--at least, for the time being. I know, I know: Sony's had one out for a few years now; I've seen and tried it at Borders. Nevertheless, it doesn't seem to have had a great deal of uptake, much less sparked widespread discussion about the future of books and reading.

That's starting to change with's recent announcement of Kindle, its electronic reading device. It's been featured on the cover of last week's Newsweek and in stories by NPR; it's also whipped the technology wing of the blogosphere into something of a frenzy. (D&R is no exception here.) Suddenly, ebooks and e-reading are sexy again, the stuff of public commentary and conversation.

I'll be honest: having researched and written at length on the history and technology of ebooks, I'm skeptical of Kindle's possibilities for success. Every few years an ebook "revolution" seems to flare up, only to flame out shortly thereafter. Witness all the hoopla surrounding the Rocket Ebook and other such devices, which were touted in the late 1990s as the Next Big Thing. Where are they now, other than selling for pocket change on eBay?

Though I may not be optimistic about Kindle's future, there are a few significant differences that set it a part from earlier stand-alone e-reading devices. The most significant factor for me is probably, which is unusually well-positioned to market and sell the reader. But even more interesting to me is the careful messaging that's going on around Kindle. In contrast to many earlier forays into the realm of ebooks and e-reading, Kindle isn't being marketed as a replacement for printed books. Instead, media reports about the device, and indeed the marketing surrounding it, all speak reverentially about the smells, sounds, and textures of printed books. The Newsweek article I mentioned earlier even touted the printed book as having one of the best "interfaces" (to impose an anachronism) of all media hitherto created. Kindle's being sold not as a replacement for printed books, but rather as a supplement to them, or even as a way of augmenting them. This definitely shows signs of having learned from past mistakes.

Here are a couple of the rubs for me. First, Kindle can only hold 200 books. Now, that may sound like a lot, but at a time when iPods and other such devices can hold thousands of megabyte-consuming songs, couldn't the designers of Kindle have done better with what is, after all, mostly text? What's more disturbing to me, though, are the terms of service Kindle and many other ebook devices attempt to impose. Once you buy a book and download it to your Kindle, you're done--as in, you can't pass it on to anyone else due to embedded digital rights management technology. This "friendly" new e-reading device, like many digital technologies abounding today, is working actively, if quietly, to undermine the First Sale Doctrine. This basically says (among other things) that once someone has sold you some good, she or he is no longer at liberty to dictate to whom you can give or sell it. Kindle thus represents yet another salvo in the book publishing industry's ongoing war against the used and pass along book trades. Worse, now a major bookseller is in cahoots with the publishers.

I can understand why the book industry, as well as the Author's Guild and the sellers of new books, might be discomforted by the passing on and resale of books. None of these groups profits directly from the circulation of these objects in the after market. But I wonder: is it as simple as that? Does cutting off the ability to circulate books after their first sale really help authors and publishers? Or is this an unimaginative way of creating demand by manufacturing artificial conditions of scarcity, a way that neglects the degree to which informal and unauthorized economies of exchange actually can increase people's desire for at least some consumer goods? (Here I'll refer you to Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks, which addresses these concerns more cogently and in more detail than I can here.)

All that to say, if you really want to revere the printed book (and I'm talking to you,, you need to respect its ability to circulate more or less freely and to create ebook devices that do the same. Lock down culture all you want. I'm not buying until I start seeing some keys.

Coming soon: my reflections on this little ditty from, which now appears on the page for a book I co-edited called Communication as...: Perspectives on Theory: "Upgrade this book for $9.19 more, and you can read, search, and annotate every page online. See details...." Sigh.


Brett Boessen said...

I suppose what's interesting to me in all this is to wonder why there have been, as you indicate, a succession of ebook rumblings every few years or so. Why is that?

Is it simply book publishers hoping to cash in on the digital revolution? That seems a little pat, given how often they have tried and essentially failed to produce a product folks are interested in buying.

Is it that they collectively feel they've been close with previous efforts but just haven't gotten the combination of features right for US consumers? From what little research I've personally done into ebooks, it seems they're all pretty much similar in this regard.

And then there's the fact that the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) computer has what I consider to be an awesome feature that allows it to transform from ebook to laptop. If this program takes off, there will be millions of ebooks around the globe. What made them decide to make that a prominent feature, especially with their apparent ideological commitment to spreading a certain kind of digital awareness to third world countries?

Personally, if it were easy to convert all my books to digital files I could read and annotate on a portable reader, I'd do it. But I'm still waiting for that.

Ted Striphas said...

Hi Brett,

Thanks very much for your comment. I agree that there's no one reason why stand-alone ebook devices have yet to take off, and I will say that the OLPC you mention sounds like quite an intriguing development indeed.

Part of what's at stake here is, I suppose, a number of competing factors. Among them is the ideology of the printed book, which suggests paper and ink convey a greater sense of "presence" than electronic impulses ever can. I disagree with that idea, for reasons I talk about at length in my forthcoming book. But in any case, it seems to me that if stand-alone ebooks are ever going to take hold, somebody will need to undertake a great deal of counter-ideological to try to convince potential ebook adopters that digital bits are just as capable as printed books of conveying what Walter Ong once called "the presence of the word."

But even then, it's all still just smoke and mirrors....

Anonymous said...

Hi Ted i found really interesting your text. Im doing a ebook project and im focusing on future trends about ebooks...will libraries disappear that kind of things could you tell me a nice article that talks about it..
Peter F.

Ted Striphas said...

...thanks, Peter, for the compliment. I'd be happy to share my essay on ebooks, if you'd like. Feel free to email me for a copy: