Sep 172011

Seanan McGuire, author of One Salt Sea, has an excellent post about the “print is dead” handwaving. (I was initially going to use a more accurate and less polite term than “handwaving” but had a rare burst of restraint. You’re welcome.)

This isn’t a unique problem. It’s just one more of the usual ooh-shiny geek reaction too many people have when a New Thing comes out: the old thing is dead! Onward, comrades, into the glorious future where we will leave behind all those uncool, outdated people with their buggywhips! Like brick-and-mortar stores. Remember ten years or so ago, when “e-” everything was going to totally replace brick-and-mortar stores, and you’d be able use the Web to do everything from ordering groceries to having people run errands for you?

Well. You still can order groceries online, and all kinds of other good things, and some of those stores have gone away. But Safeway and Target still have physical stores, and companies that promised to run around the city for you are out of business. Just as television didn’t kill radio, online availability didn’t kill brick-and-mortar stores or real-life grocery shopping. Turns out there are things it’s not always easy to do online, and that there are people who can’t just hop on their trusty computer to have organic grass-fed steaks shipped to their door, perhaps because the entire world is not upper-middle-class and residents of hip urban neighborhoods.

And so it is with books. E-readers and electronic books are a fabulous thing. They’re especially helpful for books that need updating frequently (textbooks) or to handle accessibility issues (larger type). They are encouraging publishers to re-issue out-of-print materials, and they allow authors to release older and shorter pieces quickly.

But: they require a reader, which costs money, and has to be kept charged, and stores the books in a format selected by a vendor. The books themselves can go into the memory hole. It’s not easy to lend e-books, because they have to be controlled with DRM. They’re not “green” (perhaps the stupidest argument made in their favor), and not just because they require electricity to use; they are not spun out of recycled pop bottles and repurposed copper wire, but are manufactured under pretty crappy (and sometimes deadly) working conditions, and let’s not even get into what happens after their life cycle is over. They also, as McGuire pointed out, are largely out of the reach of anyone other than the sort of person with a spare couple of hundred bucks to spend on a new reading medium.

The sales figures waved around to suggest that e-books are “overtaking” print books are also misleading. Amazon, whose motives are not exactly pure,  reports figures for any kind of e-book sold at all, from badly-formatted copies of public-domain works to actual books that someone chose to buy instead of a print copy. Those figures don’t reflect sales from Wal-Mart, or independent bookstores, or second-hand bookstores; they tell us very little reliably that would suggest people hate paper books and are eager to entire the Glorious Kindle Future.

Print books are going nowhere except in the minds of people who have a progress fetish. And those people need to check their privilege.

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