Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Kindle 3 – e-books vs. paper books.

After taking a look at the Kindle e-reader last week, I’m now going to take a look at e-books themselves.

Most people are familiar with a paper version of a book. It has a cover – maybe hard, maybe soft - with some cover art. Inside it has paper pages bound together (hopefully) strongly enough so you can open the book and read them and close the book again, and keep doing this as many times as you like. Books do not go off like milk. They might go yellow and smell a bit, but they can still be read many years after they have been published. You can fold down the corners of the pages (Muse: barbarians!) to keep your place, and even scribble in the margins if you haven’t borrowed it from the library. Or even if you have borrowed it, if you're a barbarian. Oh yes, and you can lend it, or pass it on to a friend after you’ve read it, or give it to a charity shop. The only thing you really need to read a paper book is eyes capable of seeing the print and hands to turn the pages. There are even special books for the blind, with the words in Braille for reading by touch.

To read an e-book, however, you first need something like a Kindle. There are other e-readers around (which the Muse has not seen), or you can download free apps to read e-books on your iphone, ipad, Blackberry, etc, or even on your computer. An e-book does not have a cover as such – your electronic device acts as the cover – though it will probably contain an image of the front cover at the start. It does not have pages, only screenfuls of words and maybe pictures, and most of them have hyperlinks you can click on, as explained in my previous Kindle post. You design your own “e-pages” by adjusting the text size and number of words on a line. You can bookmark these e-pages electronically (in the Kindle they look as if you’ve folded down the corner), and you can “scribble” on the e-pages too – your notes go into a clippings file, linked back to the place in the e-book you were reading. You can borrow e-books from your local library, and you can lend a Kindle book purchased from amazon to a friend for seven days. You can’t give it away for good after you’ve finished with it, unless you also give away your e-reader... so you can’t give it to a charity shop unless you’re giving an e-reader with its complete collection. And there are obviously no Braille e-books, though for those who have trouble seeing the words on the screen the Kindle can read the book to you.

So why, I hear you ask, would anyone want to read an e-book rather than a paper book? Not only do you need an expensive device to read it on, but you can’t give it away afterwards (Muses do not support piracy.). Charities will suffer! The second-hand book market will collapse! Your friends will hate you!

Second-hand book trade aside, creatively e-books are very exciting to an author, and I think certain types of e-books have the potential to be much more than their paper cousins.

To begin with, background material is easy to add. For example, an e-book with a historical setting could have hyperlinks in the text so the reader can click on an unfamiliar word or historical character and “flip” to a short piece about that character or period of history, which would be included helpfully with the book. The same thing would work for books set in fantasy worlds, or in space, or any novel where the background might be of interest to readers as they are reading. JRR Tolkien wrote an entire book containing background to his epic “Lord of the Rings”, which was later published as “The Silmarillion". If he were writing today, he could have put all this background material into the Lord of the Rings, hyperlinked from the original text where appropriate. You might not want to read all this extra material the first time you read the story, of course, but it would be there if you did.

Remember those choose-your-own-adventure books? (Muse: Katherine's showing her age here!), where you could read a few pages of a story and then, when you reached the place where the hero met the dragon, you could choose between “hero slays dragon” and “dragon eats hero”, flipping to a different page according to your choice to continue reading? With a printed book, this was always a bit clumsy. You had to flip through the pages manually, and on the way you might accidentally see another part of the story. If nothing else, by the time you’d finished flipping back and forth, the book looked grubby and choose-your-own-adventure books had a limited lifespan. With an e-book, however, you could have hyperlinks in the text to do the “flipping” for you, and navigate your way around the story a bit like the hero in a game.

Taking this even further, a story can have pictures and music too, becoming an “app” rather than an e-book. Eventually, taken far enough down this route, it will become a game and no longer be a book.

There are physical advantages, too. If you’re moving house, e-books are a LOT lighter to carry. And you don’t have to chop down any trees to make an e-book, so if it’s a million-copy seller then reading it in e-format might do the planet a favour… though the Muse can’t decide if using an electronic device to read it cancels this out.

Paper books, on the other hand, will always look and feel more beautiful than e-books, and in the Muse’s humble opinion highly-illustrated books do not translate well into e-format. Also, there’s something very satisfying about stroking your hoof over a nice looking cover when you close your book and put it away for the night. Old paper has a smell which makes unicorns go weak at the knees, and you can use your collection of paper books to decorate a room or to insulate your walls. You can’t do that with e-books.

So what do YOU think? Are you part of the e-book revolution? Or are you more of a “love-the-smell-of-old-books” sort of muse? Vote on the sidebar!

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