In 1998, I left my job at Intel for a job with an ebook startup called JStream. It was in many ways my dream job, and of every one I’ve held it was the one I’d get excited on Sunday night because I got to go back in on Monday morning. It was a good fit for me because I’m a software developer and also a very avid bibliophile. At the time I took that job, I was in the final few months of producing the original Reality Break radio show. It was also at the point where a number of science fiction publishers were sending me every book they published every month, which sounds fantastic at first until you have to find a place to put them all. Ultimately, I realized there was no way to possibly keep them all, so a number of them were sold back to the Powells Books in Beaverton OR. It was around this time that I noticed that the arguments were confused by conflating two points – the love of reading and the fetishization of physical books. I split the difference in that I loved the reading but I also really love having and touching and owning physical books. Remember that point, we’ll come back to it.
Early on in my JStream days, I had to have the argument over and over and over about how impossible ebooks were to read. If you think back to the state of the art then in handheld devices, were were in the first few years of Palm dominance. The primary argument was screen size and resolution. Back then, I argued against that even when we were talking about 160X160 pixel 2.5″ screens. I read a number of full novels on my Handspring Visor and I found the experience completely pleasant. That was a full decade ago.
Now, I’m in the market for a Kindle in the near future. I’ve been reading up on reviews and criticisms of the device and it’s amusing to me how much of the pushback on the device is basically a retread on all the arguments that weren’t correct 10 years ago and are far less compelling today. “The screen is too small”, for a device with a viewable window that is about the size of a paperback book. “I can’t read it in the bathtub”, which was perhaps the single most common counter argument I heard in the 90s while also being the most nonsensical. You’d think from the fervor this came up that there was no dry reading happening in America. I can’t understand the bathtub use case that would ruin an electronic device but not ruin a paper book. Do people regularly dunk their paperbacks in the bath water?
I ran across this article with the advertising manager of DC Comics warning dire consequences for comcis if mindshare shifts to reading on the Kindle. What amuses me about that is that it’s cast in a “threat or menace” style fear-mongering way with zero mention of getting out in front of this parade. I see no downside in any comics company offering black and white versions of their comics to the Kindle for a reduced price. For any comic that is already in black and white (these tend to be indie books) there is no problem whatsoever. DC could easily take every book they currently publish, create an electronic copy from the inked pages before they are colored and just publish them. Of course they will not be as good an experience as buying the paper copies, but for some audience that is enough. You’d make money from a market that currently does not exist and which you already fear will eat away at sales. Modern day comic sales are already off 50% from mid 90′s. Did it occur to anyone that this might actually be a mechanism for rebuilding the audience that has mostly drifted away? Consider the electronic versions loss leaders in getting kids reading comics once again, and maybe they’ll come back again. Either way, it would cost a few hours of some staffers time per published issue to create an electronic version. The costs of this gamble are so freakishly low, I see no reason why any sensible business wouldn’t just go for it.
As I said up top, I’m a reading lover and I’m a book lover. I have far more books in my house than anyone needs and I’m willing to admit that I’ll probably go to my grave with some of these unread. And yet, I still want a Kindle. I have no problem reconciling the notion of “reading copies” with “collecting copies”, and realizing this Venn diagram is of two non-identical sets. I have hardback copies of all of George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” novels. No way am I buying the final volume in the series in Kindle only. This is clearly a book that I want to own going forward.
However, any book that I would read and then consider releasing via BookCrossing or giving away to my local library sale, that’s a book I could have easily read via the Kindle without a paper copy to deal with later. I enjoy reading Max Allan Collins’ mystery novels and I own many but in general I’m not a collector of them. I’d buy them for the Kindle. I picked up a copy of Mike Grell’s novelization of his Jon Sable character at a dollar store and read it as my beach reading last year. That could have been a Kindle book. At last year’s Dragon*Con, I had interviews for Reality Break scheduled with Mur Lafferty and Tobias Buckell and electronic copies of both of their books. That meant either carrying the laptop or printing them out, which is what I opted to do and was a very large pain in the butt. I’d much rather have had both on a Kindle.
I have over 150 different stories, novels and magazines that I’ve already purchased via Fictionwise, including several years where that’s how I subscribed to both Asimov’s and Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Again, I found that an entirely pleasant experience. When I get my Kindle, one of my first actions will be to redownload that entire library of books I’ve bought in Mobipocket format, which can be read by the Kindle natively. Right out of the gate, I’ll have that library to draw on. Between those, the books I am going to download from Project Gutenberg and the electronic review copies people send me, I’ll have a lot of reading on there before I pay the first cent to Amazon to buy a book. I will not cease to buy paper copies of books, I’ll just refine the choices to the ones I know I want to keep continuing to own for a long time.
I love books and I always will. I love reading and I always will. I don’t understand why more people can’t understand the difference between the two and discuss the pros and cons of electronic books more sensibly. The Kindle is a reading device, not a collecting device, and if your counterarguments against it are from the book fetishization perspective, they are not applicable and will be ignored by me. Yes, I wish the Kindle was in color. Yes, I wish it was cheaper. I’m going to buy one as my vote of confidence in this direction. One day in the future I’d love to have the color e-ink device that can read comics and books comfortably. For now, I’m going with what we have and helping to underwrite the future I want.