Sunday, April 29, 2007

eBooks: learning to choose

[Disclaimer: By day, I work in marketing for OCLC, and our eContent division is NetLibrary, which markets eBooks to libraries, which then loan them to users. This post isn't about that process, that product, our partner publishers or that space at all. It's my own take on portable eBooks. Anyway... what I mean to say is that this is Tinker Andy's thoughts, not OCLC Andy's. Selah.]

So... two links from BoingBoing in the recent past about eBooks. One from Charlie Stoss on "Why the commercial ebook market is broken" that has lots of good ideas on the topic. It goes at it in terms of the economics, what people might/might not pay for an ebook, why we don't have cheap readers, etc. etc. And there's a second link to a Locus feature by Cory hisself called, "You do like reading off a computer screen," that explains that we do like reading off computer screens... just not novels.

I don't buy either of the arguments completely, and I'll tell you why. It's because I am, after almost 10 years of reading all kinds of content on various PDAs and Smart Phones, completely format agnostic. The main issue, I think, is this: reading for pleasure on a portable device requires a new skill, and learning new skills -- especially those required for leisure -- isn't necessarily fun.

I love books. Period. Not pBooks, not eBooks. Just books. Got that ol' English degree from Cornell to prove it, too. Got a house full of the paper kind lining the walls. Love to buy 'em, borrow 'em from the library, loan 'em to friends. I love to highlight passages, turn down corners, write in the margins. The ones that are beautiful... I love to protect.

But back around when I got my first Palm, sometime in the mid-late 90's, I began to love eBooks, too. I owe it to the orneriness of my friend Bill (Hi, Bill!) who insisted that I try reading books on my Palm. He was also the one who insisted that I buy a PDA in the first place. Since I had, and I loved it, I was inclined to at least hear him out on the whole eBook thing... but I was skeptical.

"It's a crappy screen for a book," I said.

"You just need to get used to it," he replied. "Read two whole books on the thing and you'll be a convert. I promise."

I huffed, but I trust Bill. So I found a free reader that had decent scalable fonts, and I got two free books from Project Gutenberg that I'd been meaning to read. I spent a little bit of time formatting the raw .TXT files in Word before pulling them into the e-reader, and then I plowed into the process.

The first book was almost literally painful. It was the "Autobiography of Ben Franklin." Reading the novel on that little screen... with weird, three-word line-breaks... and having to hit the page-down key every five seconds... it was horrible. It made me feel like my brain was itching or something. It was icky. It was hard. It was...

New.

And I hate, more than the pain of learning new things, refusing the pain of learning new things. I'm all about "The Beginner's Mind" some days. So even though it made my eyes bleed and gave me meningital cramps, I finished the book. It took me three months of reading here-and-there. I think I read eight other pBooks in the meantime. But I did it. And then I took a break.

But Bill had said, "Two." So I buckled down and loaded up "A Tale of Two Cities," which I'd managed to not read for 30ish years, despite loving Dickens and being an English major. It started out hard... but by the end... I'd gotten used to the process enough that I was pretty much ignoring the pain. It wasn't as easy for me as a paper book. But I could see a real difference between the first and second experience. Enough that I tried a third.

And by the end of the third book, not only was it easy... I was hooked. Because my Palm Pilot had my life on it at that point; schedule, phone numbers, notes, memos, games, to-dos, etc. And for one device to have all that PLUS a couple books to keep me occupied for 5-minutes-here while I'm waiting for a meeting and 2-hours-there while I'm stuck at the airport... forget it. Done deal.

Now I read just about every-other book on my Verizon Windows Pocket PC Phone Thing. Some I buy, some I borrow, some I get for free. And I don't really go through all kinds of sturm und drang about whether or not I'll have a "cultural artifact" or not. If I want to read a book, and it's available as an eBook, and I see it there first... boom. I'm an American, for the love-of-mike. That's how it works for us. See. Want. Get.

All the arguments Charlie and Cory make are good. People won't pay more for eBooks than paper, and they probably won't pay, in general, a lot more than 50% for eBooks, because you don't get "a thing" that you can put on your shelf. Etc., etc.

But we sure pay a buck for iTunes don't we?

Even at the right price, though, most folks won't even pay 10-cents for a novel they love if it makes their eyes hurt. And they won't use a funky full-sized book reader if it offers no space bonus over a paper book.

But once you get used to a new medium...

Listen, o best beloved... I own "Cryptonomicon" in hard-cover. It's one of my favorite books of all time. Last year, it got to be time for me to re-read it. Before I picked up the 2.9 lb. tome, though, I checked out eReader.com. The eBook version was about $7. So I bought it. Again. Yup. Because it was worth it to me not to have to lug that brick around for the three weeks I knew it would take me to read all 928 pages (that's print pages; on my wee screen, I think it was 4,500 pages... not kidding).

It's about choice. My choice.

But I didn't have the choice until I learned something new.

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