Thursday, September 6, 2012


It's been a couple of years since I last ranted about the evils of Kindle (ebooks and ebook readers in general) and predicted the end of civilization. Since then, nothing that has happened in the publishing world at large has changed my mind. If anything, the facts and figures streaming from the experts arouse my Inner Luddite to new wrath.

From 2010 to 2011, the number of ebook titles published increased 202%; for just the first six months of 2012, the increase from 2011 is 177%. At the same time, while hardcovers have managed to maintain their usual moribund sales rate (in dollars, but not units), sales of all paperback books fell more than 30%. As for the publishers' bottom lines, ebooks are becoming ever more important. Hatchette now counts on ebooks for 21% of its income, while Simon & Schuster rely on them for 17% of revenue and Penguin Books 14%; Chicago-based independent publisher Sourcebooks gets 28% of its annual sales from ebooks, British publisher Bloomsbury gets 38% of its income from electronic books, and even staid and conservative academic publisher John Wiley & Sons (founded 1807) relies on ebooks for 11% of its sales.

While I view this flight from the printed page with a mixture of alarm, disgust, terror and dismay, seeing within this trend the death of literacy, the end of libraries (public & private) and the rise of a new Dark Age, my sometimes writing partner for this blog, Arimintha, who lives and writes in Los Angeles, claims I am totally overreacting. She explains to me (as one might to a child afraid of the darkness, I suppose) that reading is not dying, but evolving, much as books themselves are evolving. Just as books replaced papyrus scrolls and clay tablets because they were a better medium for the information, so printed books are giving way to their electronic scions. She assures me people will not read less because of the change to electronic format, but will read more due to the huge number of free and low-cost ebooks, the ease of downloading files, and attraction of carrying a library in the palm of one's hand.

Loath as I am to admit it, she may have something there. According to Amazon, which dominates ebook retail sales in a way no other distributor can, their average customer buys "books" 3.3 times more often after buying a Kindle than before purchasing the infernal device. More than half (53%) of ebook buyers claim they read more often because of the ease and low cost of the new format.

Arimintha also informs me that many new books, especially textbooks she needs for her studies, are only available in non-print editions. And the Wife tells me that her Romance books are moving toward electronic predominance, especially in the reissue of older titles. As I mentioned earlier, thousands of ebooks are free to download through Many Books, Amazon, The Gutenberg Project, and Google Books, many of them facsimiles or new editions of rare books that would cost you thousands of dollars...if you could find them. However, we should be clear here: neither the ease nor the economy nor the ubiquitousness of electronic books lessen their danger to civilization. Like every technological wonder that was supposed to make life easier and bring the jubilee, electronic books carry with them the seeds of cultural calamity, the end of books as an art form, and a cheapening of the written word.

Perhaps the reason I harbor such resentment to the electronic form (yes, I realize and appreciate the irony of lamenting the end of civilization while writing on a laptop and posting to the Internet) is the comfort I've received over the decades from holding a book in my hand, in curling up with a book on a rainy day or in a silent house, in being surrounded by stacks of books, in having well-filled bookcases in every room, in the acquisition of a rare book or a book that represents the apex of the bookmaker's craft. Can you get all that from a reader?

Consider also the dependency represented by electronic books. "No, I can't show you my book collection because my Kindle is recharging," says a character in a cartoon I saw a year or so ago. Batteries and plugs. And, beyond that, oil, coal, natural gas, light-reactive chemicals, atomic-powered steam turbines, and bird-chopping wind farms. Today's batteries may be light-years beyond Count Alessandro Volta's first galvanic cell, but after 30 hours you're looking for the nearest wall outlet. According to a report by Pricewaterhouse Cooper, by 2016 more than 50% of books purchased worldwide will be ebooks, and that figure will be even higher in North America. Currently about 30% of the population owns some kind of ebook device, but even now that number is increasingly as the number of electronic devices capable of displaying ebooks (from dedicated readers to pads to phones) proliferate exponentially.

One day, the lights will go out, one by one, all over the world, and long before that the cost of electrical energy will skyrocket, either by design or through the natural depletion of resources. Not today. Not tomorrow. Probably not even the day after tomorrow. But someday. And then you can use your Kindle as a paperweight...while I light a candle.

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