eBooks: replacement or enhancement of the printed page?

In the 15th century Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing process. This new technology changed the world forever. One specific task was made incredibly easy — the spreading of written words. eBooks take us to the threshold of a possible shift in the way we read books.

In this editorial I would like to share my opinion. Earlier this week, I have already shared my impressions of the newly revealed eBook readers, direct from the floor of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

eBooks were possibly the chief subject under discussion at this year's book fair. Amazon may be the most prominent player in the growing market of eBook readers, at least in the US. Here in Europe the market is just opening up to this new way of experiencing books. The premise of which certainly is very tempting; you are able to carry hundreds of books with you, and read whatever you want at the ease of a click. Just like iPod revolutionized the way we listen to music on the go, some expect the same success for eBook readers.

Publishers agree that they don't want to behave as insusceptible as record companies did in the wake of online music stores. Amazon did recognize the potential at an early stage, which explains their rising success by selling of eBooks and offering the necessary hardware too. Only this month, however, two years after the U.S. launch, did Amazon decide to offer their Kindle reader internationally. This will surely put some pressure on Sony and the other combatants who are trying to win the battle for market share in Europe. The refulgent victor could emerge as soon as summer 2010.

Personally, I don't share the enthusiasm concerning eBook readers. I don't read many novels, mostly just reference books or non-fiction. And I prefer the texture of a printed page. As an eBook every book feels the same; they are all transformed into valueless digital files. When I open a beautiful photo book I can appreciate both the art of photography as much as I do publishing. Digitizing books also categorically impugns the art of printing. Before I continue lengthening my list of cons, though, I will list the pros.

Psychologically we always rebuff the new. Fact is the word doesn't need paper to spread. Likewise, clay tablets, papyrus and parchment are media of the past. For thousands of years, humanity has always relied on the ability to communicate. It is clear now that there's no argument against the advent of the digital distribution of books; since, there is today a powerful force that drives it: economy. There is however, yet another force facilitating the rise of eBooks: climate change.

I must confess that I love to exaggerate sometimes, and I certainly do by saying that we are destroying our planet. That is no secret anymore; it was made clear in several striking documentaries, released over the past few years. Still, I'm not a pessimist. I like to believe that we may yet turn the tides. eBooks could help us do that, by reducing the number of trees chopped down. This would also reduce greenhouse gases emitted during the transportation of wood. It's only one very small contribution surely, but every bit helps.

A fervent reader of paperback novels will love the prospect of being able to carry hundreds of them in a device thinner and lighter than one novel even. So, there are practical reasons in favor of eBook readers. On a long and tedious flight, your children can read all Harry Potter novels, if they so choose. Technology can also rekindle excitement for reading with tomorrow's generation. They have a very different perspective on computers and Smartphones — strictly speaking computers are new to my generation, too. I can vividly recall the first time my father bought a computer, back in 1991.

I may not be the target group for eBook readers, but I can still recognize the positivity it can pass onto the book industry. The printed page doesn't last forever; if not kept in a very controlled and secured room, books rot and fall apart — there is always a way of retrieving data from a file.

At the moment, Google is involved in an ongoing legal dispute over its service Google Books. The harshest critics call Google's undertaking of scanning the world's books simply an expropriation. A final settlement could be decided at a U.S. court on November 9. Generally the response to Google's plans of digitizing the world's literature and knowledge is one of excitement. The trend seems to go in the direction of a happy end for everyone. By the time they launch Google Editions, an eBook shop platform, in the first half of 2010, the eBook might have made it to mainstream in Europe.

As a writer I understand the concerns authors have. I studied creative writing in London, and so I track the dislike of digital book distribution. Unless a novel sells more than a million copies, an author will never make a lot of profit. Now, with the rise of eBooks, the author's royalties threaten to diminish yet more. Only bestseller authors will be able to continue make a living with their favorite pastime. Copyright issues have always been in the way of the digital age. With music it was no different. The artists want more than they are getting; this is of course understandable. If I would write a novel I would want to make money with it, of course. No artist today is bohemian enough to claim that they only pursue higher ideals. I'm an artist myself so to speak; besides writing I also work as a freelance photographer.

At the beginning I was also very careful with my photography. Even though, amongst my friends, I'm known as the great tech geek, I never posted my photography online. For a time I showed my work on Yahoo's photo service Flickr, but honestly I never felt comfortable. As I read more about online rights, I became even more sensitive to the notion of showing my work online. Then I decided to make my own personal website, which I can control completely. However, I digress.

What I'm trying to say is that authors have the right to be protective of their work. They invested vast amounts of time in their writing; if success is not the natural result, then they should be allowed to keep the rights of the work they publish. Right now a literary work is protected by law until 75 years after the author's death. This law doesn't regulate, however, the way publishers are allowed to deal with their literary stock. At the book fair in Frankfurt a general euphoria was apparent, though. I felt that people genuinely desired to learn how to use digital technology to make literature last forever. The benefits over the printed page are very similar to those digital photography has over analogue film. Yet in both cases the big difference is what digital technology lacks altogether — the sense of touch.

An analogue black and white photo always has more life in it. Now it's possible to mimic the visual aspects of an analogue film, but it's cheating. I myself use digital photography, of course, but perhaps I should say that I could have learned much more yet had I started with analogue film. It's not that authors are generally technophobes, regardless of their age. However, digitalization gives the impression that a work loses its substance; the tactile is transformed into an abstract illusion — we must solely rely on our six senses to know how a book or a photo feels in print.

Reading an eBook is the same as reading an article online — it feels like I'm simply collecting information. When I open a book, on the other hand, I have to make an effort to find my favorite passage, for instance. Turning the pages of a book is as natural to us as reading itself. Future generations may find reading on an eBook reader just as natural as we do reading today.

I grew up with the computer and the Internet, but eBook technology is one threshold I refuse to lope. And I dare presume that we won't see hundreds of millions of eBook readers around. As sincere as possible, I highly doubt that eBook readers will become ubiquitous as perhaps the iPod has. Yet, I can be very wrong too.

This editorial is the opinion of "Max Majewski" only, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Neowin.net

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