Don’t just worry about ‘books,’ Jack—worry about libraries, indie stores, e-formats and DRM

image Jack Shafer, the Slate “Press Box” columnist, is mourning the “fallen status” of the traditional paper book, which he thinks technology has devalued.

As a contributor to the troubled medium—Scandals is available as a trade paperback, not just as an e-book—I have an obvious stake in this. Shafer may be thinking especially of hardcovers, but at least we’re talking about something more tangible than electrons.

Scandals is about the newspaper world of several decades ago, and some of its gray-haired readers might prefer to read it the old-fashioned way. Then again, maybe not; as one librarian put it, Kindles could be the new large print. I just want to make certain those paperbacks are around, too.

At least, unlike many other worrywarts, Shafer distinguishes between books and reading. I simply wish he’d think of e-books as books, too. If anything the technology has made my reading more old-fashioned, through the public domain collections of Project Gutenberg, Feedbooks, the Internet Archive and elsewhere. How many neighborhood public libraries carry all the major novels of George Gissing, for example?

Rather than worrying so much about paper books, here’s what I’d recommend some good, healthy fretting over—following up on Shafer’s wise distinction between books and reading.

–Public libraries. Will they be around fifty years from now to encourage reading of books—whatever the format, print or electronic? Some ideologues want to do away with them, and even so-called mainstream politicians aren’t as zealous as they should be in funding them. Books encourage sustained thoughts; banks of computers, ready to be used for Web surfing, are no substitute. In the end, I hope that we can revamp our library and educational systems to encourage more book-reading, not just reading in general. Alas, many educators don’t understand the difference. One partial solution, as I see it, might be a well-stocked national digital library system so that Americans could read copyrighted books for free without depriving the authors and publishers of revenue. Individual library systems carry e-books, but the collections are just a fraction of the size they should be.

–Indie bookstores. Check out a New York Times piece on some ingenious little guys who are making it, even as some of the giants of the trade falter. But indies are still a long way from the position they once occupied. I have a very selfish interest here; indies are a natural place for a small-press novel like The Solomon Scandals.

–E-book formats. When, oh when, will all Kindle-format books be readable on all Nooks and all Sony Readers—and vice versa—for enjoyment by even the nontechnical?

–Digital Rights Management, aka copy protection. Like proprietary e-book formats, DRM is a threat to the seriousness of books as a medium. I don’t want to lose access to a book just because the company that “protected” it went out of business. Among serious e-bibliophiles, DRM is a joke. They can strip it away. What’s more, keep in mind that pirates generally won’t mess with obscure books. And popular ones? They can just scan in the paper editions, as they did the Harry Potter series. In the end, DRM may actually encourage piracy by penalizing owners of legal books, who cannot enjoy them on all the e-book readers and other devices they own—just on the “authorized” gadgets that are compatible with DRM schemes.

To address another of Jack Shafer’s concerns, yes, it is possible for publishers and writers to arrange for an autograph of an e-book. Just scan in the author’s scrawl, and include this as an image in the book. With the right software in place, customized inscriptions would be possible. As a last resort, well, you could even show up at a book party or other event with a Kindle or iPad and have the writer write on the case. That’s what Jenny Levine, a librarian in Chicago, had novelist Cory Doctorow do to her Kindle. Hey, Jack, with the right plastic bag in place, you can even read E in the tub or shower.

For D.C. area readers: Buy a copy of my book in electronic form and I’ll “Scandalize” your gizmo at a library branch or other public place close to me. Along the way, perhaps we can both make small donations to the library system.

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David Rothman

2 thoughts on “Don’t just worry about ‘books,’ Jack—worry about libraries, indie stores, e-formats and DRM

  1. David,

    Once again you’re right on with your reaction to Shafer’s column. As I read your column, I thought about our discussions over the years and somehow figure that most readers will get over this transition that I think you and I made probably ten years ago. I still buy paper books, but most are copies published years ago. Now if the current pbook Luddite wants to really smell and feel their books, join me in searching Alibris, Amazon and other sites on the Internet where I can now find and purchase those old copies that searching thousands of used bookstores might have revealed.

  2. If p-book lovers can speak with their wallets, that’ll be great, Don. I’d love to see the used book business stay alive, especially since it’s a source of books that are not yet digitized. Thanks. David

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