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?