Justin Hollander’s defense of the traditional paper book (‘Long Live Paper’, New York Times, 10 October 2012) is well-meant but given the severity of the challenge it faces from e-books, it is a relatively milquetoast argument. It gets to the nitty-gritty late, and as such is unlikely to convince those enamored of their convenient, pocket-stuffing e-readers. What could possibly be the downside to the idea a student could go to school with an electronic backpack that weighs–and might cost–a fraction of the traditional one? Five hundred books in that e-reader of yours, imagine that! And the price would surely fall as well. Right? (Not quite: current pricing models show the publishing industry prices e-books quite closely to physical books.)
Hollander addresses some of these claims but still only goes part of the way in critically addressing the supposed promise of e-books. One good way to compare a technological innovation with an older technology is in the relevant technological dimensions: in their affordances and features. For instance, a book is easily sharable; it can be thrown about a bit; you can stuff it into your pocket, you can even spill a little water on it; and so on. Or consider accessing the information contained therein. Readers know accessing a particular piece of information in a book is never too hard: page numbers, bookmarks, indices did most of the work required quickly. How easy is it to get to page 155 in an e-book? Are e-indices as easy to use? (Along these lines, one of Hollander’s best points is to note the dependency of e-books on power supplies.)
In the case of comparing the two technological objects at hand–the paper book versus the electronic book–the primary issues remain their facilitation of information sharing. Thus, access, sharing, distribution and interaction should be our primary axes of interrogation, ones that make this debate more substantive. For instance, can the publisher restrict the number of people who can read a e-book? The physical copy of the paper book can only be read by one person at a time but sharing is quite easy even if limited by copying difficulty. The advantage of a digital book is that it can be easily copied and read by more than one person. But this can be restricted. The cost of transmission to a remote reading partner in an e-book is negligible. If this aspect of the e-book is restricted, then what happens to one of its primary advantages over the dead-tree version? How about annotation? To annotate a book, you must scribble in the margins, or underline or highlight destructively. In the case of a digital book, edits and annotations can be made in the margins but their length does not have to be restricted. These annotations can be hidden so that other readers of the book are not inconvenienced. Will e-books meant for scholarship and study facilitate tools for annotation?
It seems that the gorilla in the room, as far as Hollander’s Op-Ed is concerned, is digital rights management (DRM). Consider the restrictions raised as possibilities above. They are part of the e-book future, for they are certainly part of its present: restrictions on the number of readers, on the number of times it can be opened, whether it can be written to, whether it can be printed or not. DRM offers publishers to lock up books in ways that go beyond copyright law (and it affords them the protections of the Digital Millenium Act ((DMCA)). To introduce e-books as a replacement for paper books is to also potentially introduce a form of control in a zone that does not showcase it yet.
A move to digital books is only a good one if e-books fully utilize the virtues of their digital format. If the only advantage to be drawn on is that of cost while access is ignored or only selectively drawn on, then the bargain is going to be a bad one for the most important figure in this whole picture: the ‘consumer’. Er, the reader.