Earlier this week, the NW Book Lovers website published an essay by bestselling novelist Jonathan Evison arguing in favor of old-fashioned, paper-and-ink books. It’s the first in a series of six essays by this year’s PNBA Award winners, and it’s as charming as you’d expect from a writer of Evison’s calibre. It makes a case clearly and succinctly for “actual books”, praising their feel, their smell, and even their use as an aphrodisiac. It has been greeted with a chorus of approval from book lovers.

Unfortunately, it is also misguided and wrong.

I have a lot of respect for Jonathan Evison as a writer, a raconteur, and as a friend. His three novels to date have rightly established him as one of the most exciting young novelists emerging from the Pacific Northwest, and his dedication to promoting writers and literature is second to none. He’s a fine writer, a fine father, and a fine man. But as I read his essay for the second and third time I feel a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s as if a friend has just served up a plate of rancid oysters, and I’m forced to choose between enduring my distaste or speaking out and risking our friendship.

Kindle book pileFortunately the literary arena has always been open to disagreements. I should start by saying that there’s much I agree with in Evison’s essay. I too have fallen in love with the physical presence of my most treasured books, a collection that also includes the brick-like cornerstone of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. I agree that physical books can become cherished possessions, reminding us of specific places or times in our lives. In marrying the physical with the intellectual they remain unsurpassed as conduits for memory and experience. My house is populated with stacks of hardbacks and paperbacks, dog-eared with love.

It’s on the issue of ebooks that I find myself radically diverging from Evison’s views. It’s currently fashionable for ‘serious’ writers to trash-talk the digital era. Jonathan Franzen has very publicly denounced the “impermanence” of ebooks, while happily pocketing thousands of dollars in royalties from their sale. His fears seem to echo Evison’s, and those of book lovers everywhere: that ebooks are transitory, disposable, characterless, and that they will erode our ability to enjoy and absorb literature. But this has not been my experience of ebooks at all. I happily own a Kindle. It resides alongside my collection of books – old and new, paperback and hardback, read and unread – as a device that augments and expands my reading experience. I still buy physical books, and I’m reading more than I have done in years, both digitally and on paper. Franzen’s feared corrosion of values sounds suitably grandiose and doom-laden, but in reality it’s about as accurate as the Mayan calendar.

So why this fear of ebooks? In part it’s simply old fashioned technophobia. While the Sixties and Seventies looked to the future for their inspiration – creating a wealth of science fiction along the way – the current trend is to harken back to simpler times. Things used to be better before technology had its way. Human existence was deeper and more fulfilling. Modern life is rubbish.

In the case of ebooks, there is also the suspicion that they will drive the traditional book from our shelves forever. A similar fear spread through the music industry with the advent of mp3’s; in the future we’ll all be living in minimalist spaces designed by Swedish architects, the walls bare of anything but Zen-infused concept art. I refuse to believe that’s true. I have an iPod, with a collection of hundreds of hours of music stored on it. I also own shelves filled with albums and 7″ singles, EPs and limited release test pressings. The human urge to possess cannot be overridden so easily. Some books I’m happy to read on a screen. Others I want to cherish and curl up with at night. The convenience of my Kindle hasn’t made me love my worn, yellowed hardbacks any less.

The arrival of the Tablet in many ways echoes the invention of the paperback. Most ebooks are cheaper than their physical counterparts, and their ephemeral nature lends itself readily to pulp genres and mass market fiction. As a moderately unsuccessful writer I’ve found that ebook sales now make up around 80% of my book sales. While many readers are unwilling to pay $15 or more for a book by an unknown author, they’re prepared to hand over $2.99 for the ebook. I’d love it if everyone bought my physical book and cherished it, sharing it with friends and discussing it at parties, curling up with it at night in the intimacy of their bedroom. But I’ll settle for an ebook sale and a new reader.

Somewhere along the way we have confused the love of books with the love of reading. For many dedicated readers it seems infeasible that they might enjoy a book without the dry rustle of paper, or the musty smell of history. The sensory experience and the intellectual experience have become fused. But this need not always be the case. Any reader will tell you that a good book can transport you away from the mundane and the tangible. A great writer can suck you into the world of his or her creation, making you forget your surroundings, and even the book that you hold in your hands. When we admire (and desire) a book as a physical object we’re not admiring the author’s work, or the writing. Often we’re simply admiring the cover design, or the quality of the paper stock, or the typeface. We’re revering the marketing team behind it, or the sense of history in its crackling, yellowed pages – when we should be focusing on the author’s voice.

I’m not suggesting that we should stop loving books, or collecting them. It’s still one of my great pleasures. But let’s not mistake our opinions as book collectors for our opinions as readers. An intelligent, balanced, emotive, transcendent work of literature still retains all those qualities, whether you read it on a page or on a screen. The power of writing lies in the words.

Of course, when writers as talented and as eloquent as Jonathan Evison write essays denouncing the ebook as a technological upstart, it’s hard to ignore their voice. Even when it appears on a computer screen rather than the printed page.

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DAN COXON is the author of Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand and the Non-Fiction Editor for Litro.co.uk. His writing has appeared in Salon, The Weeklings, The Good Men Project, The Portland Review, and in the anthology Daddy Cool . He currently lives in London, where he spends his spare time looking after his 18-month old son, who offers more plot twists than any book. Find more of Dan Coxon's writing at www.dancoxon.com, or follow him on Twitter @DanCoxonAuthor.

25 responses to “The Argument for eBooks”

  1. Jim says:

    In many ways ebooks are more permanent than traditional books. If I lose my hardcover of Freedom, it is gone. My kindle recently broke, but I can buy another or use my phone, but my ebooks wait there, backed up in the cloud, for me to download again into a new device.

    In my experience ebooks do threaten physical books a little, and publishing a lot, which worries me, but also have the effect of increasing the amount of reading going on.

    • Dan Coxon says:

      I agree to some extent. The permanence issue is a tricky one, though. A physical book doesn’t require any kind of device or program to interpret it, while an ebook depends upon them. They’ve already found that some of the early digital music files are now obsolete, as their formats are no longer supported by any available programs. I think it’s about time that the publishing industry started following the music industry’s lead, and offering free ebook downloads with the purchase of hardbacks. You have the convenience of the digital, but also the physical object to sit on your shelf. It’s already revived vinyl sales for the music industry. I can’t believe more publishers haven’t tried it.

      • Dave Newton says:

        Much of the anti-ebook sentiment seems similar to the views expressed against Penguins when they were first introduced in the 1930s – they’re not ‘real’ books and cheap books will put the booksellers out of business.

        Some publishers are including electronic editions with their books – see SF publisher Baen Books who include a CD with some hardcover releases which has not just that book, but a selection of other works by the author and various special features. Baen were also the first publisher to convince their authors to make one or more of their novels available for free download as a ‘taster’ to potential readers. According to anecdotal evidence from some authors this not only increased their sales of other titles but also the ‘free’ book.

  2. Cornelia Amiri says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article. Books are books whether in electronic format or print. Electronic and print don’t make any difference as to the quality of the book. I like having print books to put on bookshelves and to read in the bathtub with. Some pluses of books in electronic formats are convenience, being able to make the font larger and look up the definition of words right on the e-reader, usually lower prices, and also the green factor:saving trees, saving us from pollutions of their production and also saving us from the pollution per their transportation.
    Ebooks have actually been here for about 15 years, though not as popular as they are now, and will continue, and gain popularity even more, but print books aren’t going anywhere either. For about the last seven years, I believe, most publishers have published most of their books in both print and ebook formats. I love to read and I like books whether they are print or electronic books.

    • Dan Coxon says:

      Thanks Cornelia. And, of course, as well as physical books and ebooks, we must all keep reading online essays too…

  3. jonathan evison says:

    . . . bottom line for me: i’ve got a lot of friends who are booksellers . . . i’m committed to keeping them in business . . .

    • Dan Coxon says:

      My dream is that the big chain book stores will die off (too impersonal, not enough knowledge and passion) and the indies will survive. With the demise of Borders it looked as if that was almost starting to happen. Independent bookstores aren’t just places people go to buy books. They’re social hubs, sources of information, places for sharing and discovering. I sincerely hope the arrival of ebooks won’t change that. I worked for ten years as a bookseller – some of those for Borders. I know from experience that the model is broken, but the survival of the independent bookstore is vital. To foster that, people have to keep reading – even if some of their reading takes the form of ebooks!

    • Jim Thomsen says:

      With the advent of the Kobo Reader and Kobo’s partnerships with indie booksellers, you can support indie booksellers AND buy primarily e-books.

  4. Thank you very much for this. This describes exactly what my position is on the print vs. digital debate–i.e., I love the stories the books contain. While I have several books I appreciate specifically as physical works of art, ultimately, the important thing for me is the stories those books contain. Having shelves and shelves of books is wondrous, but the magic of the language those books contain is even more so.

    And besides, given my lifetime goal of reading All The Books, I could not possibly fit them all in my house if I restricted myself to print!

  5. Angelica says:

    Please allow me a comment from the poorest of the financially strapped. As academic as I may wish to be, our abode can not handle the sheer number of titles I have cherished and wish to re-read and share with my children. We have practically no room for books. On top of this, being in the lowest financial bracket this side of starvation, we have the tendency to run into SlumLords who happily allow us to sit in mold, mildew, infestations and the like. Most of the books we once had have hit the trash heap, not even being allowed to be recycled due to health concerns.

    Think of people with dust and mite allergies, too, btw!

    Enter the E-book….safe, small, convenient and not a health concern. I and my family get to enjoy and re-enjoy and curl up in our chosen corner reading our favs, the new, the old, the weird…and never again do they need to be tossed, or slipped aside to make room for more.

    I’ll happily have a full, large physical library…when I have the abode to house it. Until then…I LOVE my e-reader!

  6. Good essay, Dan. 10 yrs from now we’ll be arguing about something else entirely, whilst buying our books on whatever device is around in those futuristic times. I am a book lover. I have thousands of paperbacks and hardbacks and never thought I’d transition. But I have, because it makes sense, and I realize how irrational I was previously being.

    As a writer and publisher I’m also keenly aware of what an advantage these books are for those of us who haven’t been promoted in the biggest newspapers. It levels the playing field a little and makes these books… dare I say it… profitable.

    I particularly liked your last line. It’s time for people to get over their nostalgia.

    • Dan Coxon says:

      Thanks David. You publish the Beatdom journal, right? Never thought I’d see a Beatnik writing as a proponent of ebooks, but I love it! I was always a Burroughs man myself.

      • Yeah, I edit and publish Beatdom. We’ve been doing ebooks since 2007. Usually we sell a lot more ebooks than regular, but this past issue was different for some reason.

        I’m a Burroughs man, too. It was Kerouac when I was a teenager, then Ginsberg, and now Burroughs for some reason. He’d definitely be a proponent of ebooks – he was always an advocate of any and all new technologies (or hypothetical technologies).

  7. Sorry, but I can’t join you there on the ebook screen. I’m a poet. Layout is important to my compositions. The ebook world has yet to develop a tool to present poetry as it should appear, although the ability to create .pdf files comes closest. I also find that, when researching classical authors long out of print, the ebook renditions of their works have abysmal formatting. They don’t come anywhere close to the print copies in my personal library. Let me know when the ebook evolves to the level of print, and then maybe I will cross over to you there.

    • Dan Coxon says:

      Poetry is an interesting case. I agree that it isn’t always as successful in digital media as prose, but I’d also suggest that both the format and the poetry will probably evolve. We’re already starting to see some works make use of the possibilities of ebooks – it won’t be long before poets start to fully explore these.

      As for classics, I’d be intrigued to know whether you bought ebook versions from established publishers, or the free versions. My experience has been that the formatting is terrible in the free or cheap versions, but much better in those published by established (print and digital) publishers.

      • Debra Tachibana says:

        I find it to be a flaw with purchased ebooks as well as free ones. The medium I’ve been using to acquire source material is Kindle for the PC. I can’t speak for Kindle or Nook devices. It goes without saying that the Google and Gutenberg project books are in the abysmal category.

  8. Morgan says:

    I’d take some issue with the idea of technophobia as a source of fear of ebooks. I’m a web designer and a gadget lover, but I just refuse to do the ebook thing. I see all the pluses, but for me the act of discovery that takes place in a bookstore trumps it all. To me there is no honest digital equivalent of that experience. I’d also argue that despite facebook, paper books are way more social than ebooks. How many times on the train have I had conversations about books or went an explored a book because someone on the train was reading it. Ebooks feel like another retreat into a sad, impersonal digital world. What I would like to see (and I think is starting to happen), would be to buy a paper book and get a download code for the ebook. That perhaps would get me to buy a device. I’d even pay a few more dollars for it, similar to what’s happening with the vinyl resurgence. But it would need to happen at a bookstore level, not Amazon for me to do that.

    • Dan Coxon says:

      I totally agree – I can’t understand why publishers aren’t bundling ebook downloads with physical books. Every time the subject comes up we all think it’s a good idea, but no one seems to be doing it. Can it really just be a logistical issue? Or have they not realized that most ebook readers are also paper book lovers? For most of us it’s not an either/or decision, we’d quite happily read both.

      • Morgan says:

        I don’t get it either, it seems like no-brainer. I don’t know if it’s logistical, institutional, or infrastructional (that’s probably not a word). Vinyl codes started with smaller labels, so maybe smaller publishers need to take the lead. I also wonder if there would be pushback from Amazon or B&N who need the revenue from ebooks and their associated devices?

  9. Shelley says:

    Once a real book is in my hands, it’s mine.

    An ebook never is.

    I like things less mediated.

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  11. Howie says:

    I disagree that not embracing ebooks is driven by technophobia. In some cases it is instead driven by a love of bookstores, the satisfaction that results from browsing through one, and an appreciation for all that bookstores bring to their communities.

    Browsing online through thousands and thousands of books is a not an enjoyable experience. You might think, well, that’s fine; we can have both ebooks and independent bookstores, but that’s not likely to be the case for long. Although it is true that independent bookstores can now sell Kobo ebooks to their customers, they do so mostly as a convenience to their customers. Typically, a bookstore makes about a buck, at best, on an ebook purchase. No bookstore can survive on that. More often what happens is that people browse bookstores and find books they want — often with input from the bookseller — and then leave to purchase them on their ereader. Bookstores cannot survive as mere showrooms.

    I agree that ebooks can serve a useful purpose, particularly for frequent travelers or for people with sight issues. But most bookstores are already hanging on by their fingernails, financially. If ebooks become the predominant platform of choice, independent bookstores are likely, sadly, to disappear.

    • Dan Coxon says:

      It’s a tough situation. The bookstore, as you portray it, sounds like an outdated and inefficient business model. But I’m not sure that’s the case. I have lots of books. I have lots of ebooks. I have never browsed for books in a bookstore then bought the ebook. And I know I’m not the only one. I agree on one point: great bookstores will survive because people love them, and because people still want places to find, discuss, and buy physical books.

  12. John says:

    Evison never denounces ebooks outright. In fact, he mentions one thing I have never thought about – that ebooks make reading easier for people with neuromuscular disorders. What insight! I’m an ingnoramus (plus have no disabled friends) for never envisioning that positive aspect of the ebook revolution. As for preferring them over real books — no thanks. I side with Evison. We all have a preference and I think Evison’s essay is about preference not which is better. How can you call someone’s preference wrong?

    Everyone thought vinyl records were dead. Now they’re coming back. Indie record producers offer vinyl along with digital recordings. Vinyl record pressing companies are returning and some are being revived. It’s becoming a preference for some true audiophiles. Like old vinyl LPS I doubt books will ever disappear entirely.

  13. Dan Coxon says:

    Physical books are my preference too (as are vinyl records). My issue with Evison’s essay is that he argues for the exclusion of ebooks, except for those with disabilities or mobility issues. I love books. They line almost every wall in my house, and I’m still buying more. I also think that’s true for lots of people with ereaders. But ebooks are here to stay, and if they encourage more people to read, and make reading easier, then I’m totally in favor. As I say in the essay, I’m now reading more than ever before – both books and ebooks. Having mp3s hasn’t stopped me listening to vinyl either. I’m arguing in favor of words and ideas – that’s what should really matter, not the medium they’re delivered in.

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