E-Books – The Death Knell for Young Readers?

Children reading a book, already a thing of the past?
Children reading a book, already a thing of the past?

Contrary to Michael Stern Hart’s vision of e-books being able to give young readers almost limitless access to books and information, has the e-book sounded the death knell to a golden period of reading amongst the young?

We all remember those days in our youth when we visited a grandparent or other relative, and perused their bookshelves; a library it had taken them a lifetime to attain. In my case, I often broke the cardinal rule of not judging a book by its cover, habitually choosing a book that looked scary from its cover picture, especially one involving werewolves or ghosts. I’d then read my new find at home under the bedclothes, by torchlight.

No E-Book Libraries

Sadly, it won’t be possible to do the same in the future with an e-book library. E-book libraries are tied to the device and the account of the device owner. It is not possible, and it is unlikely to ever be if the publishers have their way, to share the books you’ve purchased, with another person. The youngsters of the future won’t be able to borrow a book from their grandparents library, without borrowing the physical device itself, and thus depriving the poor grandparent of their entire library.

“Access to eBooks can thus provide opportunity for increased literacy. Literacy, and the ideas contained in literature, creates opportunity.”

This opportunity looks lost on the younger generation, who not only cannot afford an expensive device like an e-reader, but also cannot afford to build up their own library. Of course, the next generation of children could simply borrow e-books from the library rather than purchase them, as other generations have done with paper copies, except that could get expensive.

I am not sure about other areas, but in my county, the libraries charge £1 per e-book for three weeks. Furthermore, this is the same price, regardless of the age and size of the book. Therefore even free and out of copyright classics, such as Treasure Island, cost a £1 a time. Even though they can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg by anyone, and kept forever – for free! So in essence, the libraries are even charging for free books, and they cannot blame that on the publishers. Sure it isn’t expensive, but £1 a time isn’t free either, and one has to wonder, would I have borrowed so many books from the library when I was young, had I had to pay for them? I doubt it.

A library of half empty shelves, something that will become more and more common.
A library of half empty shelves, something that will become more and more common.

These days, when children have so many other things to spend their money on, will they spend their money on books? Of course children of the next generation could just use their local libraries for paperbacks and hardbacks for free, as we all can at the moment. But this is assuming that libraries will still exist in this form in the future. After all, why have dozens of large, manned buildings with all the associated costs, when the same service can be offered online via a simple website and e-books? How many physical libraries will exist for the next generation?

We are already seeing large cut backs in local libraries, they seem to hold fewer and fewer books these days, instead transporting them in to your local library (for a small fee) when you ask for them. Local councils probably see e-books as a god send, a way of dramatically cutting costs and overheads. Unfortunately, the publishers see them in the opposite way, and a way of dramatically increasing profits.

Many publishers are withholding their books from libraries as e-books meaning that most library e-book selections are somewhat lacking. Those that are allowing them, are making it extremely difficult for the libraries and their customers. The publishing industry still appears to view e-books in the same way as paper books. Libraries are only allowed to lend one copy of an e-book out at a time, even though this is senseless waste of resources and is needlessly stifling access to literature. Moreover, as e-books do not degrade, publishers have imposed a 26 lend limit, i.e. if an e-book is leant out 26 times, it expires, and another copy must be purchased from the publisher. This equates to e-books only lasting about one year, whereas paper books can often last a decade or more. Hardly good value for money for cash strapped libraries.

Rather than create the unlimited access to literature that Michael Hart wanted, has his invention done the opposite and made literature a luxury that children can no longer afford?

“One thing about eBooks that most people haven’t thought much is that eBooks are the very first thing that we’re all able to have as much as we want other than air.”
Michael Stern Hart

E-Book Piracy

What of the future then? If physical libraries and books are virtually none existent and e-book selections by local libraries are practically devoid of any decent titles, or over stuffed with various license agreements and restrictions, not to mention expensive, where will the youth of tomorrow get their books? Of course there is a simple and easy way for the technologically advanced youth of tomorrow to get access to millions of books, and all for free – piracy.

The publishing industry has already begun to complain about piracy being a problem, and yet is falling into the same pitfalls as the music and film industry with its pricing structure and content restrictions.

Most e-books, at least those from the major publishers, contain DRM and require activation and additional downloading of software to read your book. DRM is designed to prevent piracy, the music industry dabbled with it in the early days, before noting its unpopularity and realising it was pointless and useless. DRM just doesn’t work, it is easily circumvented by those who wish to and just ends up as an inconvenience to the honest law abiding citizen.

The film and video game industry still use DRM, however they have an advantage over the publishing industry, films, especially high definition ones, and video games tend to be very large in terms of file sizes and would take a while for a would-be pirate to download. Not so with books; e-books are tiny. Hundreds of thousands of e-books can fit on DVDs. Huge e-book collections are sold on places like eBay in their droves.

Now those e-books may very well be legitimate legal copies, but bearing in mind that it has taken 40 years for Project Gutenberg to amass its collection of 36,000 books, it seems a little unlikely that those collections of 200,000+ e-books are all free, public domain and bona fide.

Clearly piracy is a problem, but who is to blame? The consumer?

On the eBay link above, the average price of the collections of 1000s of e-books was about £3.99. Just 1000 books, reading one book a week, would give the consumer almost two decades of reading material.

Compare that to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; this classic book was first published in 1937 and is priced at £4.49 on Amazon (and everywhere else – for reasons I shall come to). The lendable, resellable, unrescindable paperback copy is just 20 pence more expensive.

Consumers therefore have a stark choice, buy the paperback to get more for their money; if they have already purchased an e-reader they have the choice of buying over priced e-books or paying virtually nothing for thousands upon thousands of pirate copies. You can understand why many choose piracy after all consumers not only gravitate towards what is cheaper, but also what is easier.

This price of e-books is of course compounded by the way that those prices are set. In 1900 an agreement was made between publishers and book sellers, and the Net Book Agreement came into being. This agreement meant that the publishers could set the price that a book was sold to the public. Meaning that for almost 100 years, no matter which book shop you went into, the same book, would always be the same price – everywhere. In 1997 the Restrictive Practices Court ruled that the Net Book Agreement was against the public interest and therefore illegal. Publishers were no longer able to price fix their books.

That was, until the e-book came along, and then the Net Book Agreement was reborn under the guise of the ‘agency pricing’ model in which the publishers once again fix the price of their products across all stores, i.e. no special offers, no give-aways and no difference in pricing. Amazon notes this by stating clearly under the book ‘This price was set by the publisher’.

Not all publishers set their prices this way, just the major ones.

It seems that a lack of competition in the e-book market, added to unjustifiable pricing and restrictions are what are driving consumers towards piracy, and as always the biggest loser will always be the content creators and their fans.

Authors, most of whom struggle to make a living from writing anyway (aside from the likes of J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer), will find it harder and harder to make money from writing and perhaps decide that they can no longer afford to write the books that you so enjoy.

The irony is that the publishing industry seems to be using their greatest asset, the e-book, as a stick to beat their customers with. Not realising that by doing so not only will they lose business, but in the long run and in their attempt to squeeze as much profit from everyone at every stage possible with e-books, they are in reality committing seppuku and killing their product at its roots.

Without ready access to literature, the next generation of people who actually give the publishers any worth, the authors, will be stifled, perhaps even snubbed out totally.

In the future there is likely to be many more authors writing for niche markets of far fewer readers, rather than the current model of very few authors writing for the masses, leaving little or no room for the publishers.

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