baxter_alan_sepia150Writer Alan Baxter has an amusing blog post in which he grumbles about pesky e-book luddites and why can’t they get a grip. All the arguments he makes have been rehashed here a number of times, so nothing in the post is really news. But the part of me that enjoys a good, amusing rant feels like seeing to it his post gets some wider recognition, especially since I agree with a number of his points.

Baxter posits that “you can’t be a fan of SF and lament the rise of ebooks”, lauding them for their science-fictional nature.

And in science-fiction we’ve been reading about technological advancements since… well, since there’s been science fiction. When I read a book on my iPhone, which I regularly do, I’m living something that just ten years or so ago was still science fiction. The phone in my pocket does more than most of the gadgets on Star Trek – even Star Trek: The Next Generation, and that’s only twenty five years old.

(He’s a bit wrong, actually. I was reading e-books on my Palm Pilot twelve years ago, so it wasn’t really science fiction back then. But I get what he means.)

He says that e-books, like paper books, are just another form of story delivery system, and what avid readers want are not books in and of themselves, but the stories in them. And I definitely agree. I suspect that as electronic story delivery systems get better and better (and cheaper and cheaper), a lot more people will come to realize that maybe they don’t hate e-books after all.


  1. I think technological changes are exciting!

    I received a transistor radio for my 14th birthday, had piles of records and cassette tapes, and now I can either stream my music from the Amazon cloud or listen to my 32GB on my MP3 player that fits in my palm.

    In high school, I could have never imagined a smart phone that was not only a phone, but a game player, interactive map, email, etc. There was no such thing as an interactive map or email either! It’s so far beyond the Star Trek communicator.

    Our first computer was a Commodore 64 with 64k of memory and no hard drive. You had to type everything from the command line and swap out floppies. Now I have a 1TB external drive sitting on my desk and you can get 2TB for around $100 – amazing!

    And now I can carry 1300+ books with me anywhere and read them anytime, in something the size of a paperback.

    When I think about it, it makes me feel like my husband’s grandmother, who saw technology change from horses to cars to planes, must have felt.

  2. The first two points – screen quality & e-reader price – are well chosen. I’d stop there and show the contrasting reasons specific people love ebooks. (Mobility. Ease of holding. Font size. Clock). Then lend them an e-reader and wait for the click :).

    Tongue-in-cheek pokes at SF fans are fair enough, if you’re fed up hearing the most tired lamentations. But once you’ve got down to the weaker arguments, they’re more likely rationalisations for a very sensible scepticism. Should we expect SF fans to withhold comment until they’ve had an opportunity to try something? If anything I’d expect them to be _more_ willing to blow off steam.

    TBH, if you have to i) assume cheaper versions of _the same_ books, ii) effectively dismiss/ignore DRM & the social aspects of books, iii) _fail to mention the archiving problem_ — I tend to assume *you’re* the one making irrational arguments. Failed your saving roll for shiny, as cstross puts it.

    As a hard SF fan, I am in fact _obliged_ to lament a rise of ebooks which relies on technology being locked down in defence of corporate profits. I’m not going to evangelize ebooks to the non-technical while they look like something out of dystopian cyberpunk :).

  3. @Alan: While your points are valid, they are also avoidable. DRM can be broken (at the moment). Ebooks can be gotten cheaper, and even free. Archiving is necessary, but it’s do-able. And you can pick your hardware according to your preferences.

    The most absolutely, unchallengably important aspect/potential of ebooks–my entire library in my hand, ready to read right now–that’s what stops me in my tracks. It doesn’t get any better than that. Everything else is mere detail.

  4. I have 2 ereaders: a Kindle and a Sony 350. I live in a house full of books – there literally is no floor-to-ceiling wall that is not covered with books in my house. My husband is an engineer and a hard SF fan – and he doesn’t like ereaders. He’s not a luddite by any means, but there’s something comforting about being surrounded by books, and being able to put your hand to one any time you want.

    while ereaders have a lot of benefits, I find that I’ve got books stockpiled on both my readers that I forget about – or, if I go into collections looking for a book to read, I have to also sit down at my computer to do Amazon searches to remind myself of what the books are about to decide what I want to read next. It’s vastly easier to constantly see the TBR pile of pbooks by my bed and to browse through them looking at back covers and reading blurbs to see what catches my erratic fancy.

  5. @Steven: We’re talking at cross-purposes & probably violently agree. But that doesn’t exactly answer my points.

    For me, the massive draw was Free Stuff, a lot of which I’d read on computer already, with a side order of cheap Bujold. (The two categories overlap now, how cool is that? Looking back, I was surprised how much I’d read from the Baen Free Library). I don’t consider this a generalizable argument, and Baen’s pulp is not a substitute for wider reading.

    “DRM can be broken” belongs on of those bingo cards of tired, zombie arguments. I concede my relative who asks me about ereaders probably would be _able_ to do so. He’s a very long-term computer user & has a techy friend. But realistically, it’s not going to happen. He’s going to buy X device and books from X store. He’s only going to hack it if he needs to, because something doesn’t work — but by that time it’s too late. The number of people who’re actually going to strip DRM immediately after purchase is tiny. So its irrelevant when we’re trying to sell a general audience on the idea.

    His (dying) computer was built by a tech-y friend with two hard drives, and he has what looks like a functional automated backup between the two (probably a shareware program). He’s also got a usb backup of family photo’s he ‘doesn’t want to lose’. I’m sure similar paranoia could easily convince him that, once he he’s got a fair-sized collection, he should start burning them to CD.

    This is the UK; we don’t have the Sony store, so let’s say he’s gone the Kindle route. (After all, it’s what gets the media coverage). So let’s say he looks up how to make backups. He looks at Amazon’s help pages, and they tell him he can backup files from the Kindle using the USB cable. Other blogs reassure him that this will safeguard against Amazon unpublishing the book, in case he doesn’t trust them or worries about them being forced to do so against their will.

    Guess what, Amazon lied. That backup protects against accidental deletion (in the scenario where the book turns out to be no longer re-downloadable from Amazon). But it’s not a backup in the same sense as his PC setup, one that protects against device failure etc. The “backup” files will be encrypted with the device key of that Kindle. If he loses the Kindle, the backup is useless. [Again, the assumption would be that he’s simply not noticed any need to decrypt the books in the past].

    So I’m not going to *evangelize* to him, that he should buy a Kindle and everything will be fine. I’m not going to tell him that he should strip the DRM, even though it’s illegal, requires a substantial amount of effort to learn, and needs to be repeated immediately after every single purchase (and on his computer, nullifying the major advantage of the Kindle, making him question why he bought a device that wastes space on a keyboard). What I’ll tell him, if he asks again, is to consider ebooks he “buys” as rentals that might – _might_ – not last 5 years.

    Corporations have leeway to lie, and to assume their own immortality. I need to exercise a little more integrity. I’m committed (literally; I bought an incompatible e-reader) to the drm-free sphere and happy with it. The average person who simply saw how happy I was with my reader and my collection would get a very false impression. And I don’t even consider buying a Kindle now, because of the H&J (justification without hyphenation) _fuckup_, so I have to add the caveat that they need to check the reading experience for themselves, and at least try using the PC app.

    Cheap and free ebooks – yup, those are available. But if I pointed him at Smashwords, or the price-filter on the Kindle Store, I don’t think he’d be encouraged.

    The “saving money in no time” argument here is incredibly bogus. What it actually says is that you’re going to save money (on average) by buying ebook editions of v.s. _the same books_ that you were already going to buy in print edition. A £100+ Kindle is what, 15 Amazon paperbacks? How many more do I have to buy before I break even? And this is assuming I don’t buy any second-hand books.

    Buying an ereader can be an investment, absolutely. If the specific technology you’ve invested in survives (which is likely for the current top three DRMs), or you grab the cracks before the inevitable crackdown (which is theoretically very possible), you’ll be able to keep all that value for a long time.

    I’d suggest the concept of investment is what’s really at the core of this. Long-time readers have a substantial investment in print. [If they change their preferences, does that not devalue their collection?] Whereas ebook readers would like everyone else to hurry up and invest on their side. As well as the emotional investment, more people signing up makes it likely that ebooks will get even better (cheaper, more available, less or “lighter” DRM, etc).

    Anyway, what I was really trying to say was that the post is right; most of the points he apparently hears against ebooks are very weak. And that’s because people haven’t really had an opportunity to _try it_ yet. It’s more money/time/concentration than it’s worth to verify that it works as advertised by the people selling it. I think that’s very evident when you hear those points being repeated. When it grates, I just remind myself that it’s not a serious criticism; it’s someone who feels obliged to say _something_. It’s natural inertia, not a persistent meme that’s going to stand up against reality. It doesn’t need to be quashed; it will die naturally.

    I guess it pushes my buttons when people mow down the easy targets and declare victory. To be fair, as a blog post, it was pretty explicit about pushing buttons. Seems like I need to revisit my “troll” policy again (not in a bad way, just… to make sure I have an exit strategy before I enter a discussion :).

  6. @becca
    “…there’s something comforting about being surrounded by books, and being able to put your hand to one any time you want.”

    I can put my hand on a thousand books any time I want. They’re right there in my pocket, in the phone that I carry with me everywhere I go. If I want to read a particular book–bam! Got one! Meanwhile, the sucker who insists that he prefers the “feel and smell” of paper books is standing in the airport bookstore trying to decide between James Patternson, Dan Brown, and Nora Roberts.

    There’s something comforting about being surrounded by books? Well, I suppose there’s something comforting about living in a tree, too, but I wouldn’t really say we should go back there.

  7. Hi Chris

    I just found your post – thanks for sharing mine. I did expect my deliberately provocative post to generate a bit more debate than it did, but the comments on the original post were largely all in agreement at first. It’s good to see a bit more robust debate happening now – the comments on my original post have become more entertaining, probably thanks to people like yourself spreading the link.

    So thanks again!


  8. @Steven: Talk about what you like :). “SF fans are X” (in general) is on my flame-filter, especially when it’s contrasted with Fantasy; that may have biased my reading.

    “Stop struggling, all you ebook haters – in a few more years everyone will be doing it. You can’t stop change or hold back the future. If you’re an SF fan, why would you want to?”

    sounds more like a general argument, with SF thrown in for flavour or audience appeal (along with the colourful language etc. :). That was the approach I took.

    I may have drawn too much from the talking points, each of which started with “I”. To me, it implied personally addressing everyone who repeated that talking point, arguing against it, and (given the content), hoping to make a convert. Or perhaps taken the double negative too far. I read “get over yourselves, people that don’t like ebooks” as difficult to distinguish from “you should like ebooks”. Though I still think it’s difficult to read it as anything other than “you should like ebooks, or at least STFU “.

    My reaction is that ebooks _are_ currently shitty, in at least two different ways, and in practice at least three. And I don’t really mind which individual weak talking points people repeat, to justify why they haven’t bought into ebooks yet. Sure, in conversation it’s an invitation to provide an alternative view. At the moment, my alternative view is “actually it’s worked really well for me. But I’m seriously weird. If you’re interested, I’m happy to share what little I know”. I don’t reply “your points are wrong; allow me to disprove them, and you’ll see there’s no reason not to like ebooks”.

    As I tried to say, I don’t think of SF as telling us we need to embrace the future. I think it warns us to think critically about it.

  9. Very true: SF does require us to think critically about technology and the future. And all of us think differently.

    But what’s significant is that the same things that dictate your choice of entertainment will usually dictate your choice of other things, if they apply similar criteria. And in this case, they do… hence, Alan’s rant. Given, it’s not a 1:1 corellation… but that’s because there are indeed other factors involved, depending on the tastes and interests of individuals, so everyone’s response is going to be slightly different.

    For myself, when I think of the value of resources savings involved with switching from print to digital, the choice is clear. I happen to be a product of the “Silent Running” Generation, which explains my interest in using technology with an end to preserving the ecology and the environment wherever possible. This dovetails with my sense of scale, and the idea of replacing the output of a small forest’s production of pulp, more than I can properly store in my house, to a device that fits in my pocket and goes with me everywhere.

    Other SF fans may be more concerned with certain aspects of device use; with the politics involved in their creation; with the social implications of ebooks (like the changing atmosphere of sharing); or the robustness (or lack thereof) of the technology. These factors could certainly bring an SF fan to decide that ebooks are not ready for prime time, and shun them vehemently… or they could decide to accept them, and do what they could to minimize the adverse aspects listed above.

    Either way, it’s an individual thing… like so many other things. Even SF fans aren’t all the same… life would be so boring if we were.

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