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Are e-books catching on for all the wrong reasons?

Since 1985 digitized books have been creeping up on the market, but with the Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and other readers — many of which allow you to download books in moments over wireless Internet connections — the paper book is fast be becoming a thing of the past. Consumers are beginning to prefer e-readers over paper books because of the smaller size, lighter weight, and lower cost to purchase a book. An e-reader itself is smaller and lighter than most single paper books, and can often hold dozens or even hundreds of books.

Taking a look at books exclusively, consider the following potentially backwards moves we’ve made as a culture.

Energy and environmental impact.

Traditional books are made of trees grown specifically for the purpose of making paper. Those trees are cut, harvested, and processed into paper. Then ink and binding are then applied to form a book. Once that book is made, there is zero energy cost for it to continue to exist. It will exist for decades, indefinitely even, with almost no energy cost to upkeep. When it reaches it’s end-of-life, it can be cleanly recycled.

E-readers on the other hand, are made from materials like glass, plastics, polymers, lead, copper, silicon, and various other chemicals and materials necessary for electronics manufacturing. Add the potential for more lead and mercury in the battery, and you have and expensive and messy manufacturing process, for a product that has a life expectancy of maybe 3-5 years. After all this, a frequent energy upkeep from coal or nuclear energy recharges the batteries for a few hours. Improper disposal can easy leave these products in our landfills or worse. The carbon footprint of e-readers is one that will never end: servers, infrastructure, manufacturing, and waste.

It’s mine. Or not?

When you buy a paper book, you do exactly that — you buy a copy of the book. You can read it, mark it up to your hearts content, and then shelf it to pull out when you’re ready. If you know someone interested in reading it, you can lend, sell, or donate them your book.

Think you can do the same with an e-book? Not even close. You don’t even technically own your copy — it’s licensed to your purchase account. You can’t sell it or lend it out, unless you want to hand over your e-reader. Lose access to your account? Vendor go out of business? You’re out of luck. In fact, you could argue that e-books don’t have the same physical, durable-goods properties that paper books have: Once you have the first, you don’t have to manufacture additional copies.

Technology Changes

While writing this article, I went to my bookshelf and found a book from 1975 (and I recall seeing a book from the 1960’s around here somewhere recently). I can still sit down and read it today, 35 years later. How much has technology changed in the last 10? Does anyone still use floppy discs? Does anyone still have a floppy drive for that matter? Probably not. So while you can still read a paper book from 35 years ago, you probably can’t read a floppy disc, CD, or hard drive more than a few years old. Technology changes so rapidly and obsoletes itself so quickly that using electronic storage for anything that we really want to endure time is an effort in futility. We’ve begun digitizing everything, even down to our medical records.

Inexpensive vs Cheap.

The low price of e-books has had almost unseen impact on books. Authors and publishers who choose to sell paper books are having a tough time with the low price of e-books. A $12 paper book can’t hope to compete with a $3 e-book. So what do the publishers do? They try to cut costs, starting with the paper. A website called Permanence Matters shows striking examples of the impact on book quality and longevity when publishers cut costs with paper. Instead of books which last decades, you end up with books which start to fade after just a few years on the shelf.

The speed of sales

Some authors now are deciding to publish e-books exclusively. Possibly to sidebar the cost of printed publication, or because the lower cost of e-books will help them sell more units faster”? What does that mean for the longevity of their books? Or the establishment of a lasting name for them as a respected author?

E-book publishers can’t expect their books to be around for more than a few years, or even to get a lasting reputation as a writer. Why? Readers are likely to read their books, and then delete them off their readers when the next piece of interest comes along. An e-book isn’t the thing that can sit on a shelf or get passed on to someone as a source of inspiration or simply as a good read, or for that matter, can be picked up a few years later with a quiet “I forgot I still had this…”

Arr-gh!

If you want to steal a book you have to walk into a bookstore and steal it yourself, but e-book piracy is a much stealthier and harder to fight crime. People can pirate an e-book with little more effort than it takes to register for their favorite news site, without realizing the consequences of their actions. Some sites even claim to give away copies free, often times during “limited time giveaways”, which are simply fronts for piracy, and can put an unsuspecting consumer in danger of legal action for copyright infringement.

While the US has strict laws regarding digital copyrights, pirates find ways of circumventing these laws, often by having their sites and domains hosted in countries where copyright law is much less strict. This impacts authors and creates misconceptions for consumers who simply think they’re getting a good deal.

Closing up shops

Buying your books online has another consequence few people realize. Bookstores are closing up and people are losing the income that they need to make ends meet.

“The number of independent bookstores has been declining for some time, from about 6,000 in the early 1990s to about 2,200 today, according to the American Booksellers Association. Sales of all books are declining, down almost 8 percent in September, which followed a 6.5 percent drop in August.” — Source: StarTribune.com (12/11/2010)

The larger chains are actually clearing out paper books in an effort to sell more e-books.

“Barnes & Noble has already cleared space at the front of its stores to display the Nook and push e-books.” — Source: WashingtonPost.com (5/20/2011)

So readers, I’ll open it up for comments. Some discussion points:

  • How does the above article make you feel about the direction we’re going with paper books and e-readers?
  • Do you own an e-reader? How does it affect the way you read paper books?
  • Are you a published author? Have you published in traditional paper books or e-books, and why?
  • Do you have anything to add that I didn’t cover above?
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