The great eBook swindle
First they came for vinyl and gave the world CDs. That killed the fleetingly-realised idea of music as object d’art. Then they came for the CD and gave the world downloadable music. That killed the fleetingly-realised idea of the album as...
So much for music. Now it’s the turn of books to meet the digital era and it looks to me as if they are losing out on two levels. They are no longer interesting as objects (how could they be?) and they are now controlled by their creators, sellers and distributors. Right now the readers look like shadows at the party.
I can buy a Sony PRS600 eBook reader for around £200 ($300) if you hunt, roughly equivalent to 25-30 desirable paperbacks and that’s before a single title has been chosen to read on the thing. Alternatively, there’s Amazon’s Kindle which the company will kindly ship from the US to its UK customers for around the same price.
Fancy reading the Anthony Burgess classic, A Clockwork Orange as an eBook? Assuming you want a legal copy you could pay up to $20 (£14); the paperback costs £5.99, less than half the price. So even factoring in the bundled titles offered with some readers, the world of eBooks is looking like an expensive hobby.
Having bought it, can I lend an eBook to a friend? Almost certainly not, unless you are willing to hand over your eBook reader too. Purchasing an eBook gives the buyer the right to view it on one device in one format, a concept that is closer to borrowing than owning. The publishing companies have end-user license (EULA) agreements to regulate this sleight of hand that robs the buyer of almost all control.
Expensive devices that will break down and become obsolete one day, high unit prices, a raft of digital formats that might or might not work with one another in future, and restricting EULAs. Anybody would think this was a conspiracy to take a perfectly functioning medium and turn it into something controlled by the few but which works for nobody.
A taste of this came with the chilling Amazon overnight deletion incident from last year when a range of eBooks disappeared without notice from some owners' Amazon’s Kindle eReaders. Remote deletion of books - neat. They even deleted Orwell’s Ninety-Eighty Four in an act of legal copytheft that at least let critics ram some irony down their e-gullets.
CDs lost the drama of the vinyl album, its cover art and special editions, and deep into the download age the 'album' is rapidly becoming a marketing vehicle for singles in a collected form. So far it looks as if books too will also stop being popular art and end up as digital entities to be punted around from website to buyer. The specialness of the object is not important to everybody but it anchors the medium to the enthusiast.
Meanwhile, the coming market explosion of eBooks has been talked up as a 21st century Gutenberg moment, but It’s hard to imagine the inventor of movable type having to worry about which format his books were printed in or whether the readers would be able to ‘unlock’ the text. What makes paper books so powerful is that they exist as independent objects with a life of their own, answerable to nobody.
Who owns a book? The person holding it at that moment, that’s who. But with eBooks what you own, who it belongs to and how it can be shared with others suddenly becomes uncertain. That uncertainty is entirely man-made.