Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ebooks: Good or bad?

So, within 24 hours, I come across these ebook articles:

Yes, it's obvious that ebooks are a big deal. Will they change the way we consume books? Are they good or bad? Will they make us smarter and juice up the educational system or be "Much Ado About Nothing"? Seems everyone has an opinion.

Including me.

Here's the thing:  I have a Kindle. I have a laptop. My wife has a smartphone. She uses an iMac both at home and at work. We are, you might say, connected. And I have a basement full of books. Oh, yeah. All kinds of books.

My family is a family of readers. My kids have all read not only Lord of the Rings but also Fahrenheit 451 and Till We Have Faces (the last is my personal all-time favorite fictional work). We are the perfect confluence of geeky and literary. So what do I think of ebooks? depends.

Cover of
Cover via Amazon

I love my Kindle. I figure it has saved me about $45.90 in library fines. Now I can load up on all the public-domain classics I never would have read in two weeks (think Les Miserables and The Brothers Karamazov). I have them, FREE, and FOREVER! Glorious! The Kindle is perfect for this type of content.

On the other hand, that's not where the big discussion lies. The issue is with textbooks, on full-color tablets (i.e., iPads). The e-textbook is the future of publishing, we're told. It'll have all these glorious multimedia links, and social networking for sharing notes, and flat-out gorgeous colors, and it can be updated as soon as a new digital edition is finished, and it will all cost less than the standard print textbook. What's not to like?

Here's my list.

  1. If it can access multimedia files, it can distract me with the temptation of other online content. Anyone who does much web surfing knows how this goes:  You check your email, there's a story someone sent you, the sidebar on that story has an interesting title, you check that out...and thirty minutes later you haven't finished your original task of checking your email. Who wants this when studying? This was the one beef I had with online testing and college email in the classes I took this last semester. For those who are easily distracted--or not really inspired with the task at hand--this is a real problem.
  2. A print book still has a better layout than a 10" tablet, or a 7" tablet, or even a 15" laptop. My opened textbooks measure 19" diagonally. I can scan 2 pages at a glance. There's plenty of room for graphics and for marginal notes, as well as highlights. The book is an amazing invention:  You turn the pages easily, you scan quickly, you find information at a glance. Simple. I can't do that with my Kindle; I've never had the chance to see whether I can with an iPad. If you own one, you can tell me. 
  3. Updatability is oversold. Why do I need to update last year's textbook on, say, the Civil War or the Patristic Fathers? In fact, the deeper you go into a subject, the more you'll tend to spend on the classics in that field. For sciences and for mathematics, of course, this won't hold true. For history, literature, theology, and philosophy, though, new content has to be truly ground-breaking to replace the works we already have; and that kind of content doesn't come on an annual schedule.
  4. Will it really be that much less expensive? That will be up to the publishers. Maybe the percentage of savings will be substantial, since costs for materials of production and for delivery will be low. But will the costs for editing and formatting digital content be less than the costs for editing print pages? For that matter, how much of the price of a paper book is due to the costs for physical production and delivery? Spending 40% less on a text would be attractive; spending 10% less--well, it would be enough of a savings to make me wonder why I'm not saving more.
So count me as a Kindle lover, voracious ebook reader--and cynic where e-textbooks are considered. this guy. I know, I know....

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