"eBooks: The Ever-Evolving Face of Knowledge"

by Jamie Metrick

kindle user

Since the first drop of ink touched the first piece of parchment, writing has been a source of power. In the days of the first books, all of the knowledge that humans amassed was painstakingly recorded by a select few. Only a handful of the rich owned books; even less could actually read them. And yet for thousands of years, terrible men did dreadful things because they knew what the little squiggles on the fragile scrolls meant.

Knowledge is power. Books house knowledge. Jump forward in time to Medieval Europe when in the 1440’s Johannes Gutenberg leveled the playing field a few degrees by creating moveable type printing, the process that made it possible to publish many copies of a single work at one time. Within 200 years or so the availability of books permeated down to the social castes. And as people began to have more power, they began to write their own books, which were printed and distributed to more people, who found that they, too, had something to say.

Suddenly, knowledge was obtainable and books were plentiful. And just as modern publishing got comfortable in its new social function and writers, teachers and thinkers thought they were a clever bunch indeed, there were whispers in the streets of some newfangled contraption called a computer. Everyone said that computers and "the world-wide web" would change our lives forever, and so we welcomed the change with unquestioning optimism. Looking back, we probably should have asked for specifics.

The Internet has been called the "great equalizer," as power and knowledge continue to evolve. On one side, information is now obtained at record speeds. If only 15 years ago, I wanted to read Herman Melville's “Bartleby the Scrivener,” I could go to a bookstore -- Barnes&Nobles, Borders, or God forbid an independent seller -- and purchase an anthology of Melville's finest short stories. Better still, I could go to my local library, pick up a copy, and then borrow it for free and bring it back when I was done.

Today, I open my browser to Google, type in "Bartleby the Scrivener," hit the enter key, and a few searches down I find a website that will download a file with the story. No money is exchanged, I don't leave my bedroom, and I can do this from anywhere in the world. The online catalog site that I found "Bartleby" and other classic works on happens to be called Project Gutenberg.

nook image

The reason I bring up this very short and over-simplified version of reading history, is to place the latest literary technology into the timeline -- eBooks. It is a term so new my computer's Spell Check doesn't recognize it. The two most recognizable eBook brands at the moment are the Kindle and the Nook, put out by and Barnes & Nobles, respectively. But since we live in a world of countless choices, many other eBook brands have emerged: the BeBook, the Bookeen, the Elonlex, iRiver, Irex, Sony Reader Touch, etc. And as of the writing of this essay, Apple has just announced the launch date of their new iPad, an iPod/eBook/laptop hybrid that will allow users to download a book directly from iTunes. All have the same general setup; a lean rectangular body like an iPod smoothed out with a rolling pin, with a large screen and keypad. Some models come with a leather flap over the face to give the illusion of reading an actual binded book.

The main selling point to eBook readers is that one can download countless books, articles, and stories and save them all in one electronic device. You must pay to download copyrighted content; however, public domain works are free. Most brands weigh less than 8 oz., hold anywhere from 7,500 to 9,000 pages worth of content, and cost between $129 to $295. Most support multiple formats including PDF files, and some brands are already on their second or third generations.

The eBooks were certainly one of the hottest Christmas gifts this past season. What a fun new toy, consumers thought. I know Aunt Kathy is a bookworm so she'll just love this. It's a new gadget and tech-lovers always want to play with the latest toy. Is it any different from when books on tape were introduced? The eBook had a better holiday than most expected; during Christmas, Amazon sold more electronic copies of books through Kindles than material books. True, this is the result of everyone who got a Kindle for Christmas ordering a lot of eBooks between late December and early January. It demonstrates the powerful potential the eBook medium has and why eBooks should not be dismissed as another digital fad.

However, the Kindle is still a long ways off from the goldmine it could be for book sellers. Amazon Kindles lose money on new releases and make only a small profit on older titles, losing around $1 per Kindle book. Worse still for book sellers, major publishers are not eBook fans. The more Kindle books Amazon sells, the more leverage it will have over publishers when they try to force them to cut wholesale prices. If Amazon's Kindle success rises, publishers will have to concede sooner rather than later. Ultimately, this means publishers and writers will make less per copy.

But it is not the obvious trade implications or copyright laws that are of concern, it is about our written media in relation to creators and audiences. There are many practical reasons a modern consumer would buy an eBook. For instance, there are over two million public domain titles in digital format that cost nothing on an eBook. Forget wasting file space on my personal computer for "Bartleby the Scrivener" when I can sort free of charge on my Nook. They take up far less space than physical books – as I type I think about the boxes in my attic stuffed with old paperbacks -- and can be taken anywhere that a hefty leather-bound tome couldn't. As we currently fight for renewable resources, eBooks do not consume paper or ink. Fun fact: traditional book production uses three times more raw materials and 78 times more water than eBook production. And if you are an avid reader, you know traditional books are still pricey. Usually a new edition hardback retails for around $24.95. Suppose you only buy four new hardbacks per year; that's still almost $100 a year. eBooks may have a high initial price, but after that you pay a fraction of that cost, or nothing for as many digital copies as you want. There are even advantages for writers; compared to printed publishing, it is cheaper and easier for authors to self-publish and promote. In terms of modern living, the eBook format brings books into the current era of information on demand.

Like all new technology, there are plenty of setbacks: low screen resolution, constantly needing to be recharged, ever-improving and updating models, fragility, etc. But one of the biggest things that publishers and writers will have to deal with is sharing the power of words with readers. To write a story or book or poem is to tap into that power and use it. Words can captivate an audience and garner fame, profit, and/or respectability.

But digital technology has recently become so powerful that it doesn't just give more power to the consumer, it also drains power from the creator. Authors who publish a book often put more into the work than just words on pages. The computer-like format may cause people to scan and quick read content, leaving little time to contemplate and reflect on the author's ideas. It's a valid point that critics of eBooks often cite. There is something to be said for marching down to a bookstore or library, scrolling through the titles, picking out a book, and then sitting down to read it. One doesn't interface with a book, one interacts with a book: the physical feel of the cover, paper and binding. You turn the pages, highlight passages, put it down and come back to it. You sometimes use a book as a coaster or fly swatter. You can leave a book somewhere, forget about it for years, then gaze at the title on the spine and with a tinge of nostalgia and read it again. Books contain crafted descriptions, characterizations, opinions, and narratives. Computer screens contain data to be sifted through and absorbed.

Perhaps this mindset will change as new words continue to reach larger audiences every day. eBooks are yet to be the norm and books the rare treat. The publishing industry doesn't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. Random House and Harper Collins have sold digital copies of their English titles since 2002. Four of the largest publishing conglomerates have already signed titles over to Apple in iPad anticipation. Both established and fledgling authors are taking advantage of new media opportunities.

Way back in 2000, Stephen King -- who still sells millions of print copies -- provided his novel, Riding the Bullet, in a digital-only format. But these are strange times for the entire industry; the rumor mill claims Borders bookstores can no longer pay their smaller vendors and may be on the road to closing. And what will it mean for the future of large bookstores in general if Barnes & Noble sells 10 percent of their titles through eBooks in the next quarter? Some suggest that once the iPad is on the market it will completely bury the potential of the Kindle. If eBooks are anything like their technological predecessors, then they will create consequences we cannot even speculate about. At the very least, there will always be technophobes who still cling to their typewriters and newspapers. But if the power of knowledge is in the hands of the masses now and they will drive, consciously or not, the evolution of words and books and what it means to read.

Jamie Metrick is a recent MFA living in Rutherford, New Jersey.

Return to home page