Thursday, November 18, 2010

E-Books: Here to Stay . . . But Where?

You’ll get no argument from me: E-readers and e-books are here to stay.

However, I’ve yet to buy an e-reader. I’m traditionally a second—or third--generation adapter: Wait until the bugs are worked out, prices fall (and my income rises), and, in the case of e-readers, distribution issues are settled. Right now, the iPad looks like the one that I want, even after my disappointment with the iPhone.

I wonder though: How far will e-books  penetrate the world of readers? Pretty far, it's fair to say, but will it be as far as the tech-topians promise? Might these dreamy notions fall a little short, along with other such predictions as the jetpack, the self-cleaning living room and “someday humans will no longer have to eat”?

Now, as a self-publisher, I’m no growling Luddite Fool. When my contemporary Dracula novel Dragon’s Ark (which you all will read, of course) comes out in March 2011, you’re darn right I plan to distribute it as an e-book through both Smashwords and Scrib’d, plus any other major e-book distribution systems that should appear between now and publication day. (The way Tech World changes, I won’t be surprised if both distributors suddenly become as passé as Lady Gaga should be right now.)

Nevertheless, Dragon’s Ark as an e-book still lingers far back in my mind, like a forgotten thumbnail on my e-drive. I’m much more thrilled by the ten advanced reading POD copies I ordered from Lightning Source now sitting in a box on the piano downstairs, ready to be placed in the hands
of actual willing book dealers and interested reviewers. Solid material objects, tangible books, 6” x 9”.with both heft and a knockout cover (by Cathi Stevenson). My heart glows with romance.

In one of his recent postings, the excellent Joel Friedlander (one of independent publishing's more tireless promoters and my book’s interior designer) claims that, statistically, more people are downloading and reading books than ever. The downloading number is easy to track, but the reading? Beyond self-reporting, I don’t know how the number of actual
readers can be confirmed.

And so, I wonder, how many of these e-books are being actually read? Or downloaded and simply forgotten among all the other noise that sprinkles onto our hard drives every day? This is especially important to consider when e-books are being sold at prices as low as 99 cents. At that
that price, that latest YA bodice ripper you bought from Smashwords could well find its way to the bottom of the digital sock drawer. (I bought the e-book of Kemble Scott’s The Sower for $2.00 and still haven’t read it.)

A bound dust-jacketed copy of War and Peace and an e-book of same are certainly the same in terms of
the text contained, but they still feel distinct from each other. One has the weight of a lovingly bounded, attractive real-world object that waves at you from your bookcase or night table whenever you pass by. (“Hey! Your wife gave me to you for Christmas! I cost $37.00! You promised you’d read
me someday!”) And when I did hold in my lap in bed, I felt the sweep and weight of its long human history, how it stretches across time. Like the soul, it felt immeasurable and lofty.

The e-book of War and Peace, I’m less sure about. As a thumbnail on my e-reader it may seem closer to a mere abstract idea, with the same status as the folder marked “Real Estate” (which I haven’t opened in two years). Among all the other files I’m sure to have on my iKindle (or KindlePad), it may be just another thumbnail. Assuming it’s cheaper, it may be even be easier to forget about. And I’ll
never receive a book of that caliber as a gift in that format.

E-readers and e-books are not the same thing. Where one goes, the other doesn’t necessarily follow. I can see using my e-reader to download basic reference works for the editing business or a book I’m writing. Or to read a novelist I’m new to and whom I’m not sure I want taking too much money or
shelf space. I’m still likely to prefer my hard copy issues of The New Yorker, especially if I forget it on the bus, drop it in the bathtub, or leave it out for my in-laws' dog to chew on. With
bound paper, I won’t be out so much.

Now, I’ll hazard a couple of predictions:

First, e-books will almost completely fill the role once played by mass market and pulp paperbacks. And, as happened with the mass markets, some fine books will wind up buried among the hundreds of thousands of volumes of  Tommy Tinkle, Teenage Detective versus the Zombie Army and DIY
Dentistry—Is It for You?

(Note to the ghosts of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford: It’s not any easier now than it was in your day. Getting novels like Pop. 1280 and Wild Wives published is no longer the challenge. Getting them read is.)

Second, I’m willing to bet that Dragon’s Ark will sell more copies as an e-book than it will as a POD trade paperback. BUT—and here’s what I find interesting—of those who download it, how many will get around to actually reading it versus those who bought it in paper?

I’d sure like to know.

Whatever happens, despite the advice I’m hearing, my book won’t be going for 99 cents. Whatever you can say for or against Dragon’s Ark--a universe-and-a-half away from War and Peace--it’s not that forgettable.

Copyright 2010 by Thomas Burchfield 

Edited 11/19/10; 11/28/10

Photos by author

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published March 2011 by Ambler House Publishing. His essays and blog entries can be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.


Stephen Theaker said...

On the question of how many people will read an ebook they buy, on Kindle at least people are very likely to read them, because they'll often have read the preview first. I've finished all but one of the books I've bought for myself on Kindle.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks for your info, Stephen! That eases my mind a little.

ganymeder said...

I think the iPad looks cool, but I don't know if its an ideal ereader. One of the main selling points of ereaders is the e-ink, which you don't get with tablets. The e-ink is easier on the eyes supposedly, and I've found that to be the case when using my Nook.

If eyestrain isn't an issue though, and you have a smart phone, you can certainly read tons of ebooks without a dedicated ereader at all. I did that for several years, and it's very convenient to always have your books on you when you're standing in line or waiting on something. I got tons of reading done that way.

Yes, I do have many books on my TBR (To Be Read) for my Nook, but I also have a whole shelf full of TBR paperbacks at home too. There simply isn't enough time to read everything I want to read. That said, if I'm buying an ebook, I usually download a sample first to see if it's compatable, I like it, etc. If it's free, I'll usually just download it and I may or may not eventually read it. I have read many free ebooks though. Currently I'm reading Geek Mafia free from If I like it enough, I might buy the paperback just to have a physical copy.

Also, price point is an issue on whether or not I'll buy an ebook. If I've read an author before and like them, I'm willing to pay. If I haven't read them before, then I won't pay as much or will try to read free content first to determine whether or not to spend the money.

Your book sounds interesting, btw. I'm interested! :)

Thanks for an interesting post!

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thank you, Gany for your comments! I still haven't got my e-reader yet. Your reply makes it clearer what I can expect. I'm still thinking about the i-Pad, but it's clear I'll have to do more shopping.

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