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My thoughts about e-books and society

Today, Amazon announced that Kindle books outsold printed books in the UK. Amazon said that so far in 2012, for every 100 print books sold on the site, it has sold114 Kindle books, excluding free Kindle books. UK Kindle readers buy four times the number of books they did before owning a Kindle. Meanwhile, over the past year, the site has seen a more than 400% increase in UK authors and publishers using the self-publishing tool Kindle Direct Publishing.

I cannot decide whether e-books in general, or Kindle e-books in particular are a development that should be welcomed, or whether they are a cause for concern.So I thought I would write about some of the effects of this disruptive innovation- which, like it or not is here to stay – on society as a whole.

There’s one undisputed fact – e-book readers and e-books are what very large numbers of people want. More than three million Kindles had been sold worldwide by the end of last year. They are not going away.

On the whole, e-books are usually cheaper than their printed competitors. Superficially they’re kinder to the environment, as they don’t require forests to be felled and fuel to be used in manufacturing and distribution. However ,there may be a catch here – if the forests aren’t felled then they won’t be planted in the first place. I just don’t know what the long term impact of this will be on biodiversity. Equally, some parts of the device, just like lots of computer hardware that we use every day are made from highly toxic minerals,some of which may be sourced from countries where there is little concern for both the environmental impact of mining as well as the human rights of the mining communities.

As far as holiday reading and reading on trains and buses are concerned, e-books are of course far more convenient than their printed equivalents.Thousands of volumes can be carried around on a device that weighs just a few ounces. Some people who have disabilities find them easier to hold than large printed books, and many of us welcome the ability to enlarge the font size as our eyes feel the strain later in the evenings.

But I have a concern about the place of the book in social interaction. If you’re on a train and see someone reading a book that you’ve really enjoyed, it leaves open the possibility of starting up a dialogue with that person. The reader is unlikely to consider your opening remarks as an invasion of personal space. But if the person is just holding an e-reader; well – they’re just reading. We don’t gain any insights about this stranger. Opening up a conversation becomes that bit more difficult as we would be interrupting their privacy. Equally, if you come into my home for the first time and then take down one of  my books from the shelves and talk to me about it, then that’s fine with me, you’re welcome to do that. But if you pick up my e-reader, turn it on and start to browse its contents then it feels like an invasion of personal space – it’s like you're peeping at personal mail that I’ve left around. So I’m fearful that the replacement of the printed book by its digital cousin might limit the scope for spontaneous social interaction.

I’ve read and signed my work at Lit Fests, Rotary Clubs, Lunch clubs and other events, and I’ve bought signed books at these venues too. I’ve gone to these events with friends and family. Watching the author reading from an e-reader and then telling the public that they can buy it over the internet isn’t really the same thing; is it? There’s no signed copy, no momento of the day.

Amazon’s self publishing program has given hundreds of thousands of self-published authors a cheap and easy way to distribute their work. I’ve done it myself. Using the Kindle self-publishing program is virtually free; you only pay Amazon when you sell something. The problem is that Amazon doesn’t demand that you get somebody to copy edit or critique your work, or give any thought to book design. This means that the quality of the works on the self-publishing platform varies from excellent to dire. The benefit is that thousands and thousands of authors have been given a voice; the drawback is that some of the stuff may not be worth reading. But it’s a free society, and nobody is compelling anybody to read anything they don’t like. It’s the opposite problem to the one of the traditional publishing model, where new authors are excluded by the difficulties of persuading publishers and agents to take any notice of them at all. If – and this is a very big if – the traditional publishing business model can survive, we may actually get the best of both worlds here.

But perhaps my second greatest concern is the effect that the widespread adoption of e-reading is having on our high streets. I love browsing bookshops.I browse in independents and chains, in secondhand bookshops as well as new bookshops. I’m convinced that many of these stores won’t be there in just a few years time and I will miss them a lot. But I’m to blame as well. This year I’ve bought (or been given as presents) fifteen books. Five came from high street shops, two were bought from the author direct, two were secondhand, two were physical books bought on the internet and four were e-books. I’m obviously not doing enough myself the keep the high street alive. But every so often I have to remind myself that my next purchase must come from Waterstone’s – they’ve been so supportive of my work. I really hope that this big chain can find a way of re-inventing itself so that it is relevant to a new generation of bookbuyers.

There were just over 2,000 high street bookshops in Britain in July 2011, compared with4,000 in 2005. Over 500 towns do not have a single bookshop. Every high street business that closes down is a UK taxpayer, and the corporate behemoth that’s vacuuming up their business is Amazon, the inventor of the e-book. Amazon organises its affairs so that it pays hardly any UKtax. This is part of a general trend that worries governments; it’s the same trend that sees local newspaper advertising migrating to the internet, and once again the local newspapers that close are UK taxpayers; organisations such as Google, EBay and LinkedIn that have taken their business are not generally UK taxpayers.

But my greatest concern is this. Amazon now has over 90% of the UK e-book market and over 25% of the market for printed books. It’s moving into mainstream publishing, where I’m sure it will innovate in ways that we don’t yet understand. It is to be congratulated on the way it has not just responded to, but also anticipated consumer preferences. But Amazon is a media company. And in the past twelve months we’ve seen how one media monopolist has cynically abused its position in the UK. I’m not saying that Amazon would ever be a party to the abuses of power we’ve seen at News International, but society should be very careful about allowing another UScontrolled multinational to have such a dominant position in our cultural life.


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