What the Tea Leaves Say About Ebooks

Recently Dan Cohen from the Digital Public Library of America wrote an interesting piece on the future of ebooks – http://www.dancohen.org/2015/03/24/whats-the-matter-with-ebooks/. Bewildering to many is the fact that the surge in ebook adoption has plateaued for the past year or so, and many analysts are huddling together to figure out why. As a writer with 9 different published scifi and fantasy works in ebook format, this is more than just an academic question for me. Also as someone who loves to read, this is something I often think about.

Dan seems to be of the school of thought which says, as one ebook advocate notably put it, “no one thinks there will be a lot of print around in 40 years.” And there are many ebook boosters who see ebooks as the future and print as the moldering past, a simple and straightforward black and white distinction.

And yet…something about this doesn’t sit right with me, and it has nothing to do with whether or not I reject ebooks. I wholeheartedly embraced ebooks when I first entered my publishing journey about 2 years ago. Ebooks have their place, and it’s a growing role as readers avidly adopt it for its convenience factors – easy storage, customizable features, and so on.

But I think it’s a mistake to see print simply as “the past” and ebooks as “the future.” Ebooks have, and always will have, some troubling deficiencies. As an author it matters to me that my readers can get access to my books without censorship. As an author I care about the integrity of the content in the books people are reading. Ditto when it comes to being a reader. Is anyone really happy with the idea that a company, some ebook distributor or publisher, can easily tweak or edit the content of the ebooks in your library? Especially when more and more readers seem to keep more and more content in the cloud?

In contrast to ebooks, print books are extremely difficult to censor. Short of physically tearing out the pages or blacking out the offensive passages or destroying the book outright, you can’t censor a print book – and when you do, it becomes patently obvious to the reader. She or he immediately knows the crime you committed. Not so with ebooks. Censorship and manipulation can be done with a subtle and sneakier approach. Even well-intentioned companies like Amazon have in the past unilaterally, without consulting readers, changed the content of purchased ebooks.

Whether you’re a government, a publisher, or a distributor, censorship becomes that much easier and more convenient when you can modify a digital object where your clientele can’t easily detect what you are doing.

There is a strength in print – in the integrity of content – that ebooks simply lack. There is a universal practicality in print that I find myself, because I love technology and not in spite of my love for technology, still revering the printed word. I hope Dan is wrong, quite frankly. A future world in which print is marginalized and enhanced ebooks are completely dominant is not a richer world – it’s a poorer one. It’s a world in which we as readers and consumers, and even authors, can be easily manipulated and controlled by publishers and others who want to make decisions about censorship or what people *should* read.

Long live print. Long live ebooks. Long live a diverse ecosystem for readers and writers, where print serves as a bulwark against the kind of under-the-radar censorship that ebooks currently don’t have any good answer for…and probably won’t within the foreseeable future.

If we’re asking ebooks vs. print books, we’re asking the wrong question. Both need to have a strong place in the marketplace to spread ideas. Both have values. Both have strengths which the other lacks.

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