The Ongoing Debate on the Value of Ebooks

Ai carumba, I am so tired of the debate on either side of how ebooks are good/bad, creating jobs/killing bookstores, good/bad for the environment. As a publisher of primarily digital books, my time, effort and soul is poured into creating books, most of which come out as digital only formats. I have been looked down upon by the literati – those who ‘love the smell of the paper and glue’ and shunned by local bookstores who think of them as cheap and ugly.

Now the latest argument is that ebooks erode our values – as touted by the talented Jonathan Franzen. He – along with others – state that the lack of permanence of ebooks represents societal demise, where nothing we own can be trusted. True, much of what we used to consider our own is now ‘licensed’ – music, movies, now books. Many lament that their art doesn’t sit upon the wall or a shelf, ready to be gazed upon and pulled out to view when we want to – like 50 years from now.

My problem with this permanence sentiment is that it is a very narrow, mostly western view of recent history only. For the majority of history, most of our art and stories have never had permanence. It has been played out and told as stories passed down by generations in the form of words and hand gestures, both of which lack the ‘permanence’ that printed matter has. I’m not saying that art shouldn’t have permanence, without it we wouldn’t know about Shakespeare’s talents or Dante’s story. But this view that the sky is falling because we have ebooks is a narrow one and one that lacks the full vision of what ebooks are doing for many people.

First and foremost, ebooks have opened up the door for many authors to publish their books. Sure some of them aren’t so good, but many are, and it’s a wonderful thing that they are getting read, even if by just a few people. Almost equally important is what technology has enabled for readers. No longer are books relegated to those who can afford them, but can be shared among friends for almost next to nothing. Case in point is a $24.95 print book which can be shared by many for $4.99. In a world where we are titillated by apps, movies, television, isn’t it nice that we might be reading more – regardless of what we’re reading it on?

When I first got started in this business, I had a lot of preset notions to overcome and a lot of ignorance on what ebooks were. I was kind of hoping we were past all that? I guess not. But the latest argument in the anti-ebook debate about the lack of permanence of our societal e-stories is just wrong. The stories told by countless generations of first nations peoples and tribal cultures around the world are not any less relevant and meaningful than the stories we write on paper. According to those mentioned above, these stories are less valuable than our paper ones because the words might change from generation to generation.

I don’t know what your answers are, but I believe that we can’t really own anything, permanence doesn’t exist and the desire to keep things such is a fruitless venture. Live in the now, that’s all we have. The words we read in this now, no matter what they’re printed on remain imprinted in our memories and on our hearts. That’s what important. That we had the experience of those stories. And thanks to ebooks, we have more of those experiences and those stories.