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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, April 28, 2008

book kindling

While checking Amazon.com for Art Spiegelman's book on 9/11, I came across an unusual message from Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos on the home page, announcing that more units of their Kindle e-book reader are now ready for purchase and inviting one to read his letter to Amazon shareholders on the topic. Interested in the phenomenon of e-books, I took the trouble to read Bezos's letter.

As a book lover, I have had mixed feelings about e-books and therefore about Amazon's Kindle. (While Bezos says that the name Kindle is meant to suggest that it will "start a fire" and "improve the world of reading", I have always found that the name reminded me of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451--the temperature at which paper and therefore at which a physical book combusts. It's not impossible that Amazon at some level intended this reference to the auto da fe of book-burning. On the other hand, the most powerful parapraxes--as Freud called them--are unintentional, like the original name of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003: Operation Iraqi Liberation, soon changed because of its acronym, OIL.)

In general, it seems to me normal and inevitable that technology will provide a new way to deliver and read books. My concerns with it are two:

  • that it will make the experience of reading itself less pleasant

  • that it will not be secure enough to ensure that authors receive full payment for their work

On the first point, I suppose my concern is that people in general will be willing, as often happens, to trade quality for convenience--even for someone else's convenience. In order to have such a handy and portable device, people may be willing to put up with a slightly inferior reading experience. I think about groceries: how the modern tomato has been bred to assume a more cubic shape so that it can be packed more densely and transported more cheaply, and perhaps also so that it resists bruising. What has been traded is flavor, and perhaps nutrition. In this way, maybe a second-rate reading experience will drive out a first-rate one, eroding the quality of life for us readers.

But that concern is perhaps relatively minor. After all, if people like e-books and e-book readers, whether the Kindle or some other, then they should have them. If there are still people who love paper books enough to buy them, then they will no doubt continue to be printed. New technologies seldom eliminate old entirely, after all. The movies did not eliminate theater; television did not eliminate either movies or radio. The Kindle will presumably not wipe out ("burn") books entirely.

As a content creator, more important to me is the issue of author compensation. The integrity of Kindle files is presumably protected by some form of encryption or "digital rights management" (DRM) which prevents people from distributing the content promiscuously without payment to its creators and publishers. But it seems that DRM systems all get cracked sooner or later--hackers often regard it as a point of honor to do so. And there are those who think that once a file has been acquired, it should be free to be distributed on, as over a peer-to-peer network. Preventing people from "sharing" files is an infringement of their freedom!

To such people, I can only suggest that they try writing for a living for a while. If they can't write, they might be able to get a feel for it, as an economic proposition, in the following way. Go to your regular job, full-time or part-time as the case may be. Each week or two, instead of receiving a paycheck, you will receive a ticket to a small lottery that will be drawn in, say, five years' time. After the five years are up, you'll find out whether you receive any money for your work. (The likelihood is that you will not.)

Cracking a DRM system would change this scenario by, essentially, eliminating the lottery at the end. The tickets you've received are for a lottery that has been canceled. Instead of being won by someone (usually other than yourself, true), it's won by no one.

That's my fear.

Still, there are grounds for hope. The phenomenon of iTunes shows that people are very willing to pay for downloadable content, if they want it enough and the price is right. They recognize that there is a principle of exchange, that if you receive something you value, you should pay for it, unless it's been offered for free by its actual owner.

But I think to of how writers have usually lost out, all the way back to ancient times, such as in Rome, where books were "published" (that is, copied by hand and sold) by people who had no concept of paying anything to the writer of the work being copied. Since writers at that time were usually men of leisure, it was not so important perhaps. Ever since then, writers have struggled to receive compensation for their work.

All of that being said, I applaud Bezos's vision for e-books. As an environmentalist I like the idea of publishing works without the destruction and pollution caused by felling trees, making paper, printing books, and shipping them. The costs of publication will drop dramatically, and therefore so should the cost of books. More marginal and eccentric works could be published. And e-books are seemingly ideal for the kinds of things I like to do with books: highlight the parts of interest, and search through them for what I want.

We'll see. I do like Bezos's aspiration to provide any book ever printed in any language within 60 seconds. What's not to like about that? Some books I want now I can't have due to their high price, which I believe (these are out-of-print books) is due to their physical rarity. As used books, none of the price they command will go to their authors in any case. Why should those books, with the knowledge they contain, not be available to us all?

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