(or electronic publishing – challenges and limits; guest post by Sonja Ocic)
If you answered the question at the end of the last article, you chose to become a digital optimist, skeptic or agnostic. And whatever group you belong to, in the electronic publishing debate, many believe that if it is accepted that the book is only one medium, whether electronic or printed, the main issue is the difference between reading printed or electronic books. In any case, most agree that electronic publishing has several advantages over printed. If it would be necessary to allocate most of them, reasons would be economic, hyper-textual, interactive and, as a result of all this, democratic.
Electronic publishing saves time and money – both producers and consumers. Electronic publications quickly appear and spread rapidly; unlike them, it takes more time for paper books to be produced and distributed. As there is no cost of printing, e-publishing brings lower book prices to the readers while higher royalties are paid to the authors. For example. Amazon sells Steve Jobs biography for nearly $ 20 for a hard copy, while the price of the electronic version is 9 dollars.
Another thing is that the electronic text can be instantly updated and corrected, if necessary, while the printed book has to wait for the second edition. Also, electronic publications can be distributed around the world without the cost of distribution and reprinting and without the need for copyright negotiation.
Hypertext means interconnected narrative or information. Unlike printed books which is determined by the physical limitations of the three dimensions, in the digital world, networks of multidimensional characters that further elaborates or arguments can be inserted into a single idea or train of thoughts, and there is also the ability to search large amounts of data.
An important result of the transition to digital publishing is the addition of graphics, audio and video elements to the written word. Therefore digital products are called multimedia. Electronic publishing thus opens up new possibilities for users as well as for authors and publishers. Many sites with e-books allow free access and encourage readers to send feedback, often directly to the author and not the publisher. Recommending content includes assessments, marking parts of the text, information on the number of readers of a certain book, while additional content can be found in the form of reviews and discussions – book assessment, page marking multiplied by a large number of readers, peer reviews, as well as discussions on an unlimited virtual space of blogs and forums that represent more of the technological innovations that open new horizons for readers.
Interactivity as hypertext, provides another advantage of electronic publishing and that is the more democratic nature. From the increased democracy benefit not only readers who can express their opinion on the work and share it with other readers, but also writers themselves.
Electronic publishing has created an opportunity for writers who otherwise might not have been able to present their work to the general public, or who do not get a chance to publish their work through traditional channels managed by the main stream of print publishing. For example, Amazon offers possibility for anyone to appear in the largest bookstore in the world as an independent author; the only thing necessary is to send a book, put on a desired price, and Amazon will take care of everything else. However, despite many independent authors who offer their work through Amazon and hope for money and fame, there are only few of those who have managed to sell million copies of electronic books.
Now, let’s look at the arguments of those who prefer printed book.
There are various reasons why most readers remain deeply tied to the physical book, not only because they are hampered by the technical characteristics of electronic reading devices, but because they prefer a book as a physical and cultural artifact, and believe that for certain readers, experience of reading a printed book has the value that electronic reading devices, no matter how developed they are, can never have.
Many authors distinguish traditional reading from e-reading – they believe that there was an element of comfort in the traditional reading, a retreat into the blessed solitude; with e-reading this is lost and there is less of what used to be called bibliotherapy.
As an advantage of printed books over electronic many often cite its familiarity. The intimacy of the classic book is a very important component in its relationship with a human-reader. As we read the book we are in the direct contact with the writer, while characters on the screen seem somehow beyond us. Traditionalists warn about the technical and emotional deficiencies of an e-reader: you do not have a sense of how far you have come with reading, there is no smell nor touch of the book, there are no traces of the earlier reading, when you read to children their attention is drawn more to the buttons and keyboard than the content of the story and even the founder of Amazon said that the Kindle is more a service than an artifact.
However, enthusiasts point out to the benefits of new technologies, with the belief that digital literacy is a new chance for mankind and that the young generation does not have the emotional difficulties in accepting the new media. According to some authors, the book loses its monopoly in the field of education as the monopoly when it comes to younger generation is taken over by the Internet.
Others, however, emphasize the educational function of the book. For example, it is considered that it is better for a child to grow up with a large home library, and thus to create a visual image of vast world that lies behind the colorful covers. In doing so, child needs only a look to see them all at once and form an idea of the integrity of the world. All of this is difficult to achieve by just looking at a screen and one page displayed, because an e-book may have a million pages but only one of them will appear.
Therefore, it seems that the book retains a certain kind of elitism in the sense of an intimate moment. It may be that a book in its old form (on paper), in 30 years, will enter into the elite culture and that an Internet e-book becomes a part of the mass culture, in a same way printed book did 30 years ago. In todays world, part of an elite culture are graphic prints that are printed in a limited number of copies and signed by graphic-authors.
Some of the problems related to electronic publishing are also connected to fast-paced information technology obsolescence because new inventions appear and disappear and there is a risk of deterioration of a large number of data. One of negative aspects of electronic publishing that is pointed out is that it is difficult for something intangible to seem valuable, unlike a printed manual; also, because of the cheaper access to electronic form, there is a danger that some publications ceased to exist in printed form.
Despite its flaws, electronic publications have numerous advantages over print versions. For example, printed edition can be read only by one user while the electronic version grants access to more readers at the same time. Also, there is a problem in the storage of paper-based books, for example when storing a large number of copies of the same book.
When we look at all stated points and arguments, plus for electronic publishing is the economy (many information in as little time and money as possible) and certain democracy; while classic publishing has aesthetic, psychological and social moment. An electronic book has all the advantages of high technology, but printed book is a cultural object that can add an aesthetic and emotional value to readers, and can have the same value as all other works of art.
However, each of these advantages and the majority of arguments that are listed can be put into question. For example, it’s nice that electronic publishing allows plenty of additional information in the text, but which information do we really need when we read poetry? Or, interactivity is a good thing, but does this mean that we will not read Dostoevsky because we cannot express our opinion or ask a question.
The same goes for the other side. It is true that a book as a physical object has a visible value, but also as physical objects books take up space and collect dust. After all, designers have kicked out books from modern interior long ago, or possibly left one or two on the shelf. Argument that a look on the book shelves has an educational impact on children does not have to mean anything if the parents put those same kids in front of the TV and they thus become proper little addicts, similar to a three year old Doppler’s son (*The hero of the phenomenal novel Doppler by Erlend Loe).
Maybe all of those who advocated the following paragraph will be proved to be right: printed book is a tool like any other, a tool that has its advantages and its disadvantages. In general, it is a good tool, does not require batteries, it is easy to use, but as soon as we find a better tool, book will disappear.
However, the prediction that a classic book will disappear with the emergence of electronic book, mainly caused concern. But there are also those who look at the transition from classical to electronic book as just another in a series of changes that have always happened and that are usually not looked upon with approval.
Actually, it’s not about any new phenomena. People have always been worried about the disappearance of a well-known. All communication paradigm shifts are accompanied by sharp polemics of supporters of old and new technologies. In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, written nearly 2,500 years ago, Socrates criticizes the finding of letters, considering that it carries only apparent and not a real wisdom. Also, the invention of the press was proclaimed as unnecessary and demonic invention. Today we are in the middle of a similar controversy between proponents of Gutenberg’s civilization of books and fans of the Internet and digital communication.
On the other hand, some authors believe that the dilemma of classical or electronic book is false and the result of our tendency to constantly define and discuss the system “either-or”. They believe that there should be both options and that both types have their advantages and disadvantages. Regardless of whether a book appears in classical or electronic form, its essence is in the power of words and the message it carries. A good book is always a dialogue, permanent and unrestricted interpersonal communication. Instead of any selected type of books, it is sufficient for it to be read, regardless of whether the content is on a paper or on screen.
However, if electronic book manages to push out the printed version, there is no basis for believing that it will be removed from our homes and our habits. Occurrence of Gutenberg and his ingenious invention did not abolish codex reading or papyrus trade as of today. Different technologies and habits continue to coexist, because we prefer nothing better than widening the scope of opportunities. Even the most ardent proponents of e-book do not claim that books will cease to be printed.
An electronic book will not kill a printed book. Just as the invention of television did not kill radio or as DVD did not kill television. There are books that are works of art, and that you will always want to print. But what about popular romance? Would you really want to kill a tree because of it?
This is the third in a series of posts written by wonderful Sonja Ocic – if you are interested in the beginning of the series, click here for the introduction, or here for the second part of the text. How the publishing industry in digital age develops, find out in the forth part of the guest post series Digital Gutenberg. The author, Sonja Ocic who works at Clio publishing company as a rights manager, holds a master degree in General Literature and theory of literature, master degree in Cultural Studies, currently finishes PHD at the Faculty of Political Sciences and besides all of her obligations, is incredibly pleasant to work with. You can expect the next post Digital Gutenberg in 4 weeks time but in the meantime, feel free to share or like this text, see other interesting posts on my blog or buy an amazing book of short stories “Stories. For reading. And retelling.“