The internet has been abuzz lately with news proclaiming the death of ebooks as an industry. Start with a little decline in sales, mix in a bit of predatory pricing, and garnish with the lack of evolution in the medium, and you have a recipe that seems to spell disaster for ebooks. Or does it?
As with most matters on the internet, dissenting opinions abound. Indeed, the writing is on the wall, even while the future of literary consumption itself remains unwritten. So what is going on? Is this more than just a PR crisis for a burgeoning industry?
A Book By Any Other Name…
Growing up, a lot of us read voraciously. At any age, stepping into a used book store was to step into a world of possibilities. It’s a way to kill an afternoon in a socially accepted fanciful manner. There is much to be said for the experience of reading a paper book: the dog ears, the rumpled edges, the trusty weight, crinkled spines that crack as they are opened, the musty scent of the pages, the texture and taste they leave on your fingers. It is visceral, real, nostalgic, and you can trust it. But you have heard all this before, likely as part of the obituary of the eBook industry being espoused today. Is there really any place left for books in today’s tech age?
The magic in the pure physicality of paper books is something that has been opined through the ages. Alonso of Aragon, noted that there were just about 4 good things that came with old age: old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old books to read. When your eyes graze the lines of the printed crafted prose, when you turn a page, you leave behind a wisp of emotion, a hint of yourself, an experience all your own. Then, when you finally finish the book and place it on your shelf it becomes a time capsule, a piece of you preserved in time. Years later that portal is still open for a reread. To do so is to become Marty McFly in his DeLorean, to take a trip with the Doctor in the TARDIS. You meet yourself again, your old self, liberating those wisps of memory from between the pressed pages. You can see yourself from afar, and reflect upon how far you have come. But is that unique to paper books?
That is one side of the coin, from the perspective of the reader. What about the writer? Writers that have toiled with ink and pencil, still do, only they come out with a refined product that can be dispersed to audiences unimagined in times past. There is now a marketplace for independent writers to self-publish and break into a literary world that never existed before. They can write and self-publish their stories no matter the market potential, or the coldly calculated estimations of publishing companies. They have the freedom to write what they want, price it as they wish, and answer to nobody in the process, except their own creative demands. But does that just mean inundation?
The Freedom To Unplug
These days, to break away from a screen for a little while, to disconnect, and rest your eyes upon something that doesn’t glow, is a rarity. A book won’t pop up with Instagram notifications, calendar reminders, and mail inbox numbers. It won’t quietly beckon you to google a completely unrelated matter when there is a lull in thought. It just is what it is, paper and ink. No more, no less. That simplicity is refreshing to the soul, much the way a breath of fresh air and a campfire marshmallow is to weary city folk out in the woods for the weekend. But then the weekend ends. And they go back to the city and its comforts.
This is the way of eBooks. As much as there is to be said about the feel of a book, there is something to be said for reading about a book online and, in less time than it takes to brew a cup of coffee, have it downloaded on your device ready to be consumed. There is a new-to-our-generation magic in browsing from your pillow open-source sites like gutenberg.org and discovering a random literary work with the press of a button that may or may not change your life forever. It is liberating to carry your entire library in the palm of your hand as you travel, commute, and move about. But now we often face interruptions in our journey of escapism. We can easily be dragged into the material world with notifications and pings.
The Fix: It's All About The Container
There is one line from the article Craig Mod wrote that really sticks:
“Containers matter. They shape stories and the experience of stories. Choose the right binding, cloth, trim size, texture of paper, margins and ink, and you will strengthen the bond between reader and text. Choose badly and the object becomes a wedge between reader and text.”
That particular statement resonates as an answer to eBooks’ PR problem. As the future continues pouring in on us from all angles, like a leaky canoe in a downpour, technology keeps changing faster than we can keep up with, we don’t dare get attached anymore. We don’t dare fall in love with a smart phone or a particular device because in 6-8 months a new one will replace it. We live in a disposable culture of cold steel and glass where my phone looks exactly like your phone, swipe left for something new, everybody wants your attention with pushes and pokes and texts and tweets, while we’re all staring at the same retina display screen. No wonder people are feeling the craving to disconnect for a bit and enjoy the stability and mind space that paper books provide.
Something Borrowed, Something Blue...
What is most needed in this age of “what is new,” is a bit of “what is old.” By simply improving the vessel with which we consume our ebooks in, we can improve the overall reading experience. Numerous companies have caught on to this and are designing with these principals in mind. There are tablet/smartphone covers that look like books, covers that look like leather journals, and covers who fuse both modalities with the modern. And it is catching on.
As phones get slimmer, so does the imprint they leave on us as we touch them. We are all enough acquainted with the hand wringing process of the post iPhone purchase case hunt. That’s why cases are largely moving away from being just a mere protective item, and into being a statement. Cases, when done right, turn a piece of cold, albeit brilliant, product design into a personal, warm, and visceral experience. And people are paying more and more for that experience. Sure, cheap cases will always have a place, but high quality materials, like leather, wood, and cloth are being sourced more and more in iPhone cases, iPad cases, and slowly in the Android case market as well. That's a trend that will continue growing regardless of phone size or shape.
If you are, or once were, an avid eBook reader because of the convenience, but maybe you miss the feel of a book, or you just know something is off about reading an eBook, try finding a case that feels like home to you. Maybe it looks like a book or a journal. Maybe it doesn’t. But you will know when you find it. Put your phone into airplane mode when you can, and dive into that book, undiverted from the pull of the world. Then, you just may find that over time, even as phones and tablets change, your reading experience doesn’t.
Remember, it’s all about the container.