E-books: the sf/f panel

This past weekend, I attended CONvergence 2011, one of our local science fiction/fantasy conventions, and the largest. What they say about e-readers being well-suited for travel is right: it was so much easier to load a couple of books onto the Kindle and slip it into my bag rather than haul the equivalent in print volumes along with me. Between the books I was bringing along to release for BookCrossing and the books I was bringing to have autographed and to refer to for a book discussion, my luggage was taking on the qualities of a small ship’s anchor. Paper in any quantity isn’t light.

It is probably not surprising that a science fiction/fantasy convention would have a panel on e-books. It should not be surprising that I would attend such a panel, especially as I am still caught up in the newness of the Kindle and the whole e-book phenomenon. The panelists were mostly writers who now publish their works in the e-book format, but there was also a librarian from Hennepin County Library who was getting a lot of experience helping patrons manage e-books.

I continue to be fascinated by how unsettled this whole field is. I’m sure there have been periods like this in the past (competing VCR formats come to mind, as does the Blu-ray/HD DVD format war). Perhaps these other periods were filled with energetic debate and I just missed out because I wasn’t paying attention. Or is it that the discussion of e-books vs. print editions is especially charged because print books have been a fundamental part of our culture for centuries?

It was clear that as a reader, I don’t always share the writerly perspective. Piracy? I don’t commit it myself, so I completely space that it would be of vital interest to someone trying to earn a living through works that can be so easily pirated now that they’re in a digital format. Even so, the level of concern varied from one writer to the next. Some writers in the audience were worried even about the legitimate distribution of their works. At the other extreme, one of the panelists talked about how she’d abandoned her efforts to stop piracy of her works because it took too much time away from her writing. Another difference in perspectives: the writers were basically in agreement that Google Books uses too much of their works in its previews. Really? It never seems like these previews show me enough!

After the writers on the panel had talked for a while, the discussion shifted over to the librarian. I was astonished to learn that even some of these published writers weren’t aware that e-books can be checked out from libraries. The whole controversy about HarperCollins’ 26-checkouts limit that is rocking so much of the library world may be essentially unknown outside of it (and incidentally, HCL figures that they get 35 checkouts of a hardcover book before it wears out). Impressive factoid: in July 2010, HCL had about 700 e-book titles available for checkout. Now they have over 10,000 titles. Wow. (Those of us with Kindles are still waiting to be able to access this bounty.)

Naturally, there was speculation about the future. Someone suggested that while hardcovers would continue for those who preferred print editions, e-books would replace paperback editions. (What about those books that never come out in hardcover?) One audience member stated that he thought that people who read books could be divided into two types: readers and book-lovers. He figured that the former would readily shift over to e-books while the latter would be the market for collectible print editions. I don’t think it’s quite that clear-cut. I’ve become fond of e-books, mostly for the reasons I already talked about here, but I also appreciate the tactile sensations of a physical book. Is there some economically sensible way I can have dual editions of much of my library?

There was a second panel at CONvergence on e-books, although this was a bit inadvertent, since the panel was supposed to be about the future of bookstores. Everyone ended up talking about e-books anyway, which says something about how fascinating this crowd finds them. Of course, bookstores were endangered well before e-books became an issue—just ask any independent bookseller who went out of business after the large chains became dominant. And while those large chains are really having problems now that e-books are hot, those problems began as a bricks-and-mortar vs. online stores issue. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come that no one in this panel was able to articulate a way that bookstores could survive beyond a general we like them and they’ve always been around. And is there still a Borders anywhere near you?


4 thoughts on “E-books: the sf/f panel

  1. Roberta Branca

    Enlightening and entertaining . . . on the scope of the controversy, I’d say (living with a techie) that the BluRay format wars were hot among the technical crowd that understood it, and the back and forth was picked up by the media only from a consumer’s point of view . . . the book format controversy is different because people can relate to the technical differences more easily. And, yes, I think the fact that the print technology has been with us for centuries plays a part too.


    1. Silvernfire Post author

      Yeah, I was barely aware of the Blu-ray format wars, except that I’d pick up occasional mentions of it through Mashable and other techie sources. Actually, it took me the longest time to figure out even what this war was about, since I don’t have anything that can take advantage of these formats. I dimly remember VHS vs. Betamax, but that was all pre-Internet of course, so the debate, no matter how fervid, was muted compared to that sort of thing today.


  2. Laurie

    I don’t understand what you mean about Kindle owners not being able to use the HCL e-books. Are those not for the Kindle? Is it the e-reader format problem?

    I know that the Borders out at Ridge Square (next to Ridgedale, in Minnetonka) has closed. I think the large one on Radio Drive in Woodbury is still open. Maybe I can swing by there on Friday and check.


    1. Silvernfire Post author

      To skip to the last part first, the question about Borders was rhetorical (and you can find Borders stores through their web site, saving yourself a drive). It was mainly directed at those generic masses who were basically assuming that bookstores would be around simply because they’ve always been around (like my various investments always warn me: “past performance is not indicative of future results”). Even though I’d watched Borders make mistake after mistake, part of me was shocked when they filed for bankruptcy. And while I’m not surprised that I myself am not coming up with ways for bookstores—or libraries—to survive for years to come, I’m increasingly worried that I’m not really hearing great ideas from anyone else.

      Kindles can’t read library e-books. As I understand how this came about, Amazon figured that if they made the Kindle only be able to read their proprietary format, Kindle owners would have to buy Kindle e-books rather than borrow them. What happened, though, was that the other e-readers, including the Nook and Kobo, could read library e-books, and Amazon realized that they were losing sales. I hear that public libraries are always having to answer the question, “I want to buy an e-reader. What kind should I get so that I can read your books?”.

      I did go back and forth about this when I was considering whether or not to buy an e-reader. Kindles are consistently rated the highest, but it couldn’t read library e-books. But then, at the time I was looking, St. Paul Public didn’t have any e-books anyway, so maybe it didn’t matter. And then on April 19, SPPL announced that it was getting e-books, and on April 20, Amazon announced that by the end of the year, Kindles would be able to check out library e-books. But we’re still waiting. It sounds like they’ll be going all out: library patrons will be able to make notes in e-books as they do with their own. The notes will not be visible to other patrons. But not only will these notes be available the next time they check out those books, but if they decide to purchase their own copies, the notes will transfer over. (If I acknowledge that there are privacy concerns galore with that scenario, can I say that it also sounds really cool?)



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