Why I have mixed feelings about eBooks

I love my Sony Reader; it has a great screen, excellent battery life, and I can read outdoors in bright sunlight. But I still have mixed feelings about eBooks. Why? Well, there are a number of reasons.

First, there’s the issue of book prices, about which I wrote at the weekend. It’s always astonished me that, at least until the arrival of Amazon’s Kindle Store, you could actually end up paying more for an electronic version of a book than for a print edition.

Something that has had the physical printing and distribution costs taken out of, and doesn’t need the marketing incentives that chain bookstores insist on being paid to put a new novel on the table by the door, still costs more than the print version. It’s as if the publishing industry has looked at how the music industry handled the transition to digital and thought “Yep, we like train wrecks. We’ll go for that.”

A bit of imagination wouldn’t go amiss here; first, cheaper prices for eBooks should be possible; I know there’s the need for infrastructure, servers, and licenses for the Digital Rights technology, but I’m still pretty suspicious that that makes an electronic file worth as much as a hardback. What I’d love to see is innovative pricing – like “Buy a print edition, and get the electronic version for £2 extra,” so that I could have a searchable version on my laptop, or a copy on the Sony Reader to save weight when I go on holiday.

Price isn’t everything

Price, however, isn’t the biggest concern I have with eBooks. It’s to do with the market and the place for small bookshops within it. When I buy a print book, I never buy it by mail order, or even from a chain bookstore. I go to my local bookshop, the Stoke Newington Bookshop, and buy it there, or ask them to order it. If I’m visiting family in Winchester, I go to P&G Wells. We also have another good bookshop, Pages of Hackney, nearby, though I’ve not yet been in there.

And, I don’t mind paying a bit more to buy books from these bookshops. I think it’s vitally important that there are good independent bookshops. I appreciate that some people like the fact that you can get the latest Harry Potter at a discount in the supermarket, when you pick up your groceries. And if all you want is the most popular books, that’s fine.

But some people do want other stuff. They might want more political books – whether fiction or non-fiction. They might want gay books, or any of a range of things that, frankly aren’t going to find a space on the shelves in a supermarket. There are still specialist bookshops, like Gay’s The Word, but those are dwindling in number.

And what happens if the specialists and the small independent bookshops vanish? Those who want the more obscure books will find that they have little choice but to buy online, and many will be unwilling – or unable – to do that.

A person confused about their sexuality might be willing to buy a book and pay cash, but many will think twice if it means handing over their credit card and address details to a faceless corporation; some readers may recall the fuss in the USA when it was suggested that details of what library books people borrow could be requested by law enforcement organisations. Many people simply don’t like the idea of someone else, especially in authority, knowing what they’re reading.

So, whether it’s for their friendly, informed service, their promotion of local authors, and willingness to cater to the local community – or just the fact that you can walk in there and pay with cash – local independent bookshops are vital in ensuring that there’s a range of books available, beyond the big names that the chains and supermarkets want to sell and promote.

A white label store

And that causes me a dilemma; on the one hand, I want to support my local bookshops, because it’s vital to the idea of pluralism. But I like my gadgets, and I like the convenience of my Sony Reader, too.

Realistically, there’s no way that most independent bookshops could run their own eBook store. But I wonder if it’s possible to have a ‘white label’ eBook service. By that I mean something that’s run by several of them, or by an independent organisation, which allows bookstores to put their own ‘skin’ on it and, ideally, to highlight the books they think are important, and to set their own pricing, so that they can compete on a more level playing field.

Of course, there’s always the danger that few organisations can compete with the Amazon juggernaut, though Apple will doubtless try. But I’d hate to lose an ecosystem like the more open ePub/ADEPT one, where you can buy whatever reader you like, and buy books from wherever you like. I can stock up my Sony reader from Waterstones, or WH Smith, or any one of many other online stores. And I’d really like to include my local bookshop in that list.

I think it’s also possible for independent bookstores to add value, and give people another reason to shop there. They can bridge the gap between eBooks and the way books have traditionally been sold.

Imagine, for instance, if your local bookstore could retail eBooks, and even help you load them on to your device. So, people who don’t have a computer can take their reader along, and the nice young man behind the counter will be able to say “There you go, I’ve put your latest John Grisham on there, Mrs Higgins.”

And – though it might take some thinking about the mechanics of it – they could even do some of this anonymously, allowing people to buy eBooks with cash if they wanted, and rather than having to use their own email address to authorise their eBook reader, customers would have an anonymous account at the local bookshop.

I don’t think this idea presents any obstacles that are insurmountable, technically. How much would it cost? No idea. And I don’t know any booksellers to ask them what they think of the suggestion.

But I do know that local independent bookshops are too precious a resource to allow them to wither away, without at least trying to find a way for them to fit into an increasingly digital future.

Note: Some links on this page include my Amazon Associates ID.

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