Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Into Every Life a Little Rain

The controversy and discussion, heated at times, continues over the cost of ebooks in terms of price and of sustainability, sustainability being the watchword of the beginning of the 21st century. Some pundits decry the death of the print book, as if print will ever go out of style, and blame ebooks on the substandard quality of books currently printed. Printed books already had planned obsolescence built into them a long time before ebooks came on the scene, a very long time. Some of the complaints about eReaders include the cost of breaking them down and returning them to their components parts for disposal, many components of which are toxic to the environment (notably battery acids and the need for power to run them). No innovation is every cheap or doesn't have an impact on the previous technology and, yes, print books are technology of a different sort. The one thing forgotten in this equation is the positive impact on readers.

Technology changes quickly and it is doubtful many people still have their first computers, except a few packrats who save everything they've ever owned. Although trees that are used in the creation of paper for books are specially grown, harvested and used in the manufacture of books, the content of the paper has changed drastically in a very short time. Cloth is no longer a part of the mix and has not been since the middle of the 20th century, thus relegating books to a very short shelf life. Books with durable cloth and wood pulp paper cost money to make and leaving out the cloth ensures books will deteriorate and begin to crumble within five years so that new books must be purchased. This does presuppose a use rate that hastens the decline of the paper, necessitating purchase of another book.

Books are not made to last. Is anything these days? While it was de rigueur to keep a book for the life of a private library, or pass it on to a secondhand shop or libary to be sold adn resold, most books, usually brand new books that have been fingered and not purchased, usually end up in landfills by the tons. That won't happen to ebooks. Digitized files made of ones and zeroes and transmitted at the speed of light (depending on analog or non-analog technology) cost very little to make and will last as long as the technology lasts to support it. Current eReaders could soon go the way of the 5.75" floppy or the smaller floppy disk and not last for ten or twenty years (more like 2-5 years), but the files will remain. Some vendors have a loan feature so that ebooks can be shared between friends. The birth of the virtual lending library.

Public libraries, and some bookstores, lend ebooks over and over to readers who download the copy to their device for a specified period when the book reverts back to the library. A lot of publishers are doing the same thing with Advance Reading Copies of new publications so that the time available for reviewers to read and review is limited. At least the IRS won't need to count those books as income since they disappear within 55 days. Sad, but true. One of the perks of being a book reviewer has just bitten the dust.

Paperback books were created to provide a cheaper copy of the hardback book, which is made of better stuff (still no cloth), and lasts a bit longer. Many readers prefer hardbacks for that purpose, but the cost is usually 3-4x the cost of a paperback, which is made to last about five years, less with more handling. Part of the complaint of the physical book cadre is that print copies cannot stand up to the low cost of ebooks. The low cost of ebooks is a myth, except in self-published circles, because publishers are charging nearly as much for the ebook as for the hard cover book, a business move that will doubtless cost publishers in the end. With ebooks priced at between 99 cents and $5.99, NYT best selling authors' books priced at $12.99 to $16.99 will not fare well and people will either buy the paperback or the hard cover version, which is what publishers want anyway. They make more money on physical books than on ebooks, a point that is not lost on readers since piracy of digital files is on the rise. Price a book too high and the invitation to piracy is engraved and hand delivered.

It is harder to pirate a print book, but not unheard of. It's not more difficult that copying a Van Gogh or da Vinci and selling it as authentic. Happens all the time in every trade from antiques made yesterday and carefully aged to bring a higher price from collectors to now include publishing. It was inevitable. Runway show for designer fashions this week and next month the haute couture is on sale at bargain basement prices in retail outlets everywhere next month. It is the price of doing business when business prices are too high. Everyone wants haute couture but at a more reasonable price. It's why businesses like the Price Club and Wal-Mart do so well -- lower prices.

The glass, plastic, metal and chemicals that go into the manufacture of an eReaderdo indeed cause an impact on the environment, but so do cars, planes and batteries, to name a few, all over the world. Junk yards came into business to dispose of the component parts of cars, planes, batteries, and all sorts of toxic and nontoxic component parts and no doubt eReaders will go there when they die and become part of the wonderful world of breakdown and redistribution. Today an eReader and tomorrow a car in Nagasaki or a cooking pot in Australia. The possibilities are endless. With print books, the only place to go is back into the earth to provide land upon which to build houses and businesses or provide nutrients to grow more trees to make into paper to print more books. It's the cycle of business life.

One of the points that no one seems to be making is that ebooks provide an alternative to readers with arthritis or other debilitating diseases that make holding print books more and more difficult since the size of books has increased with the cost. A friend told me last night that she had to quit reading Stephen King's The Dome because it was too difficult to hold with her arthritic hands. She still doesn't know how the books ends and won't find out until she breaks down and gets the ebook version.

With the move to smaller homes with less space for living, let alone having shelves for private libraries, an eReader can hold more than a thousand books available at all times, and some come with lighting that is actually useful in the dark. Some people have streamlined their homes to less than 300 square feet, which is smaller than my first apartment, or my tenth apartment for that matter. The idea seems to be taking up as little space as possible, something that seems lost on cemeteries since the smallest receptacle is a box to hold ashes, while funeral directors are still selling plots that must be lined with a cement casing to hold the coffin to keep the fluids from leaching into the soil as the body decomposes. No more will people have to worry about decomposing bodies in the soil, not with airtight cement liners and coffins built to last longer than the pyramids. The silk lining will decompose, but not the coffin.

No matter which end of the print book versus ebook controversy you choose, there are pros and cons to both sides. The only reliable and unassailable fact of life is that everything changes. Print books are not going out of style; they never will as long as there are people who cannot afford to buy a single book, let alone a shelf full of paperbacks quietly and quickly aging into pulp. Print books are here to stay. They don't last as long as the hand illuminated manuscripts carefully lined and limned on papyrus or parchment (made of animal skin) and ebooks will last as long as the technology remains available to read them. Someone will find a way to make the devices cheaper and smaller with more functions, but the word remains. Books are here to stay in one form or another, and that makes my job a little easier since I write so people can read.

Pick a side, any side, and hang on for the ride. Everything is changing -- eventually.

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