Reading Tomorrow: The Great E-book Debate

Select Westland/ Tranqubar titles are now available as e-books! In fact, we are amongst the first Indian publishers to upload digital versions of some of our titles. From bestsellers such as Rujuta Diwekar’s Women & the Weight Loss Tamasha, and Bishwanath Ghosh’s Chai Chai: Travels in Places Where You Stop but Never Get Off to detective fiction (Sudhir Thapliyal’s Mansuri, Macabre), to literary writing (Mridula Koshy’s If it is Sweet), to memoir (B.G. Verghese’s First Draft) – a range of our titles are available as e-books on Amazon Kindle. In fact, readers can download a free sample chapter before they decide to buy a book.

While we are proud of this development, we are also curious about what such technological changes portend. For one, what happens to books as we imagine them to be – sentient beings of paper, rich with the scent of ink?

The opinion is clearly divided. New York-based Bob Stein asserts that in our postmodern world, books are outdated, almost as obsolete as certain architectural forms: ‘I love gothic churches and I’m sorry we don’t build them anymore, but we don’t. They’ve served their function and so has the novel. […] Humans were not born with a gene that made us gravitate to print.’ Still others suggest that books are likely to become as precious, as rarefied as works of art. Jacob Weisberg of Slate says, ‘As the Gutenberg era draws to a close, books take on greater magic as artifacts. What no longer serves as technology lives on as art.’

Indeed, as early as 1979, Christopher Evans in the The Micro Millennium predicted that due to the electronic media, the 1980′s would  see ‘the book as we know it, and as our ancestors created and cherished it, begin a slow but steady slide into oblivion.’ More recently, Nicholas Negroponte agreed when he averred, ‘The physical book is dead in five years.’

Others are less quick to write obituaries. Christopher Mims says, ‘If the bustling, recession-inspired trade in used books tells us anything, it’s that old books hold value for readers in a way that not even movies and music do. That’s value that no e-book reader can unlock.’

And still others believe that books and e-books can co-exist. According to Brett Osmond, ‘There is a school of thought that e-books may actually create more demand for the paper version. In the future you may simply buy the book and you are able to read it in a range of formats. You might begin with the paper version, then take a chapter on your e-reader while you’re walking the dog or pick it up on your computer.’

While the printed book’s survival chances are being debated, another area of discussion is whether e-books are an evolution, an improvement on the physical, hard-bound novel. Are e-books in fact superior to the printed book?

Several voices suggest they are. For one, e-books are praised for their portability.  Jacob Weisberg says, ‘Among the other places I have been reading Slate, Salon, an electronic version of the Wall Street Journal, and the e-texts of various novels and short stories, in last couple of weeks: aloud to my wife in a car at night; in a taxi, again at night; while brushing my teeth; on a plane without an overhead light; standing on the subway; in bed; while eating Chinese food with chopsticks. These are situations in which reading is ordinarily either awkward or impossible. They present no challenge, however, to my new favorite gizmo, the Rocket e-Book.’

For another, e-books are enhancing the speed and ease of accessing information. Gloria Mark, Professor at the University of California Irvine, says,  ‘It’s the entire experience. […] Hypertext offers loads of advantages. If while reading online you come across the name “Antaeus” and forget your Greek mythology, a hyperlink will take you directly to an online source where you are reminded that he was the Libyan giant who fought Hercules. And if you’re prone to distraction, you can follow another link to find out his lineage, and on and on.’

Then there are the environmentalists who highlight that e-books save trees; there are the readers of say, erotica, who point out that e-books allow them to read titles in public that they would not normally peruse; there are publishers who praise the e-book’s basic inviolability, for each book is encrypted for a single user, and can’t be copied, forwarded, or resold; there is the cost-conscious buyer who avers that e-books are obviously cheaper than paperbacks, for haven’t publishers eliminated expenses such as paper, printing, binding, and warehousing? And finally there are new writers who assert, ‘Unless you were Stephen King or Margaret Atwood, most stores would spend more time[dismissing] your book than carrying it – making it fairly impossible to get your work into the hands of each reader who wanted it. Suddenly, with online booksellers and ebooks, new writers’ work is nearly as accessible as the old established guys.’

But for all the clamour in favour of the e-book, there are an equal number of dissidents. Often, one hears the voice of the sentimentalist, or the reader who shares an abiding emotional connect with books. Pooja Mazumdar says, ‘I still remember the first time I had (note: “had”) to pick up an e-book. […] The soft riffling noise of flipping from one page to another was replaced by carefully scrolling down the page with the help of an irritating mouse, the pages were stark white, and yes they gave me a headache! What’s more, there was no way I could earmark a few pages so that I could turn to them later!’

David Leek emphasizes that it’s almost impossible to live imaginary lives, adopt imaginary countries, while reading an e-book. ‘It’s hard to get lost in an e-book. Often, the print is small and you might be reading on a laptop, phone or other device where you could get interrupted by phone calls or e-mails. A printed book, on the other hand, is actually a great form of escape from the world.’

Still others point out that e-books really aren’t as cost-effective as we’re given to believe. Dan London says, ‘The Kindle 2 costs $359. Each book costs $9.99. The last 6 books I bought at the bookstore cost me a total of around $95. To read those books on the Kindle 2 it would have cost me around the same amount. Add in that I’d have had to pay the $359 for the Kindle and we’d be looking at $455. In fact, the book Reality Check by Guy Kawasaki costs $18.65 for the hardcover and $16.47 for the Kindle version. For two dollars more, I have a version that I can let my wife read, give to a friend, take notes in the margins or even sell.’

And others protest that e-books slow reading speed. Sandra Aamodt, former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, says, ‘People read more slowly on screen, by as much as 20-30 percent. Fifteen or twenty years ago, electronic reading also impaired comprehension compared to paper, but those differences have faded in recent studies.’

But perhaps the most significant argument deals with the impact that e-books can have on language. Seven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies says, ‘There is no question but that the transition from the culture of the book to the culture of electronic communication will radically alter the ways in which we use language on every societal level. The complexity and distinctiveness of spoken and written expression, which are deeply bound to traditions of print literacy, will gradually be replaced by a more telegraphic sort of “plainspeak.” Syntactic masonry is already a dying art. Neil Postman and others have already suggested what losses have been incurred by the advent of telegraphy and television – how the complex discourse patterns of the nineteenth century were flattened by the requirements of communication over distances. That tendency runs riot as the layers of mediation thicken.’

Jacob Weisberg, though, strongly disagrees. ‘The notion that physical books are ending their lifecycle is upsetting to people who hold them to be synonymous with literature and terrifying to those who make their living within the existing structures of publishing. As an editor and a lover of books, I sympathize. But why should a civilization that reads electronically be any less literate than one that harvests trees to do so? And why should a transition away from the printed page lessen our appreciation and love for printed books? Hardbacks these days are disposable vessels, printed on ever crappier paper with bindings that skew and crack.’

Admittedly, no one can predict how the average reader will adapt to technology, or even if she will. As publishers, we can only hope that no matter what the future dictates, words thrive.

We’d like to open this debate to you:

Do you think the book, as we know it, is dead, or dying?

Would you read your favourite novel, or that title you’ve been yearning to read, on an e-reader? Why?

Which do you find more convenient? An e-reader or a paperback? Give us your reasons!

Do you own an e-reader? If yes, what genres do you read on it? If no, why not, and would you consider buying one?

We do wish to hear from you!

9 thoughts on “Reading Tomorrow: The Great E-book Debate

  1. Congrats on the publication of your books as ebooks! For what it’s worth, I don’t really find a difference in “getting lost in” an ebook vs a book. I think it’s all about the writing and the story, no matter what format the book is in.

  2. Technology is a double edged weapon. If printing books destroys trees, does the electricity to make eBooks and run eReaders come out of thin air? How are the Data Servers and eReaders made anyway?

    Plastic and virtual money has not yet replaced paper currency. The printed word is more like Gospel, while the digital world is still evolving. Can an eBook ever replace the charm of getting your own copy autographed by the author?

  3. A very thought provoking debate. I guess, change is inevitable. Authors wrote on paper earlier. Now they write on Computers and Laptops. Soon readers too will shift from paper books to ebooks. I look forward to reading your ebooks and am going to get an ebook reader soon. And like the earlier comment – it is content that matters more than the media!

  4. Thank you for your responses!
    Natarajan, you’ve made a fair point. Books do possess features that technology would find hard to replicate.
    Vikram, that’s true: and we wonder where such technological innovation will take us.
    Keep writing in, do!

  5. E books can never replace paperbacks. The pleasure of reading your favorite author while lying down on your side of the bed cannot be compared with reading an e book on an ice cold laptop.
    When computers were just making headway, I used to wonder how people can write on computers, how it is possible to unleash the flow of thoughts while you are sitting in front of computer , today when my fingers are swinging on the keyboard , I wonder how cumbersome it is to first write on paper and then transfer on computer, and editing is so much easier..cut, copy, paste, delete, spell Technology does not only change the way things work but also the mind set.
    E books or paper books not sure but for sure like everything else technology will change literary world too.

  6. As an author I wrote on paper earlier, now I can’t dream of doing without my laptop!
    As a reader I stil read printed books but love to get on to e devices – the smaller the better. Love to read on my Blackberry and I’m hoping to get a Kindle soon.
    Whoever said ‘change is the only constant,’ really got it right.

  7. Hey there just wanted to give you a quick heads up.

    The words in your content seem to be running off the screen in Safari.
    I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I thought I’d post to let you know.

    The style and design look great though! Hope you get the issue fixed soon.
    Many thanks

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