There's an interesting quirk of language: e+lite=elite. e-books are both books 'lite' and books for the elite. Is the God of language laughing at us?
So the Kindle was the 'most gifted' Amazon item at Christmas. 'Most gifted'? Huh? Sales of e-books outstripped sales of paper books on Christmas Day. Well, durrr. They would. Normal people are not off buying things on Christmas Day (except those who do their sales shopping without getting crushed), because those things are not going to be delivered any more quickly than if you bought them on Boxing Day - unless they are music or e-books. If I were being uncharitable, I would say that the Kindle is targeting illiterate people who don't want to spend time with their friends and families. But that is not my point. My point is the hype. And Amazon has to fall over itself to talk up the Kindle as it has a matter of weeks in which to sell this dinosaur of a product before Apple launches something much cooler that will make the Kindle look like a cassette player.
We are being encouraged to believe that e-books will soon replace paper books in most forms, that they are cool and everyone wants them. (Encouraged by the producers of e-book readers and e-books, notice. Hardly an unbiased group.) Writers, publishers and booksellers are warned that crisis looms because the predicted dominance of e-books spells a rise in free or cheap content that will not sustain the publishing industry. I am not going to challenge or support this view today, but step out of the stream for a moment to look around.
It's all very well for we middle-class bloggers and consumers and techno-tarts (yes, Cory, I'm looking at you) to say this is the 'way forward' [groan] for text. Not for books, note, which don't need a way forward - they are paper and ink objects that are quite happy keeping still - but for text, which is part of the content of books.
If I were a person living on a run-down council estate in Glasgow or Exeter or Liverpool, or if I were even more unlucky and were poor in a country with no social housing and no free healthcare, I dont' think I'd be jumping up and down at the prospect of getting an e-book reader of any kind. I don't think I'd be excited that the next blockbuster (pretend I want to read a blockbuster, all right?) would be cheaper on my iPhone than on paper (but not as cheap as in the library, where it's free). If I lived in a slum in Sao Paulo, or Delhi, or Ulan Bator, or herded goats in Afghanistan, would I give a damn if you told me I could read Dan Brown's latest in transient electrons? Or would I cherish my comic or my copy of the Koran printed on hard-wearing paper, still mostly readable even if one page was spoilt or fell out? E-book readers and e-books are - whatever else they may be - an indulgence for wealthy westerners. They have their uses in some areas - I don't deny that (hey, I published a ground-breaking e-book in 1992). But they currenntly exclude more people from reading than they include. In a lower-income household, if there is one e-book reader, who will get to use it? Possibly not the five-year-old who really needs to read.
Other technological advances began with the elite and spread to everyone - television, radio, telephones. But there are still more people in the world without telephones than with (there are about one billion phones), and phones provide something that is not available without technology - the ability to speak to someone far away. Bringing phones to the poor in LED countries improves lives. I'm not convinced bringing e-book readers to them would - not yet. There is a non-technological solution to reading,which there isn't to long-distance chat. First you need to teach people to read. Once they can read, then decide whether they are better off with one fragile object that can hold lots of texts until trodden on by a goat, or a few key books that can be read again when you have wiped the goat shit off the cover. First, slates and chalk; then paper books; maybe then electronic books, or maybe not.
The much-vaunted rise of the e-book would not matter if it were not for the predicted crisis in publishing. We might not like it that some people can afford cool stuff and others can't, but it's the way of our world and unless we (the 'haves') are prepared to change it we have to live with it. But when cool stuff pushes out essential stuff, there will be many, many victims who fall into the gap between having and having-not. Neither is this an example of another industry bleating that progress is killing its income. Publishing is an essential industry - we can't afford to lose it, just as we can't afford to lose the fire service or farming. People - especially children - need books, like they need polio vaccines and they need milk and vegetables.
Publishers are not philanthropic organisations. If they can't make money from paper books, they won't make them. If they don't make them, there will be a generation in which a large percentage of children (and so inevitably adults) will be denied reading. We will have a new illiterate poor, in developed and developing countries. School libraries are throwing out paper books and installing computer terminals in their place - but in a library with 4 million e-books and only 10 e-book readers/computers, only 10 pupils can read a book at the same time. In a library with 20 paper books, 20 pupils can read at the same time. In a house without an e-book reader (because the parents don't reador can't afford one), a child can't read either if there are no paper books. I can give a book to a child who can't afford one, or whose parents don't see the value of buying one. There's no point in me giving an e-book to a child who doesn't have an e-book reader or an iPhone.
Literacy has been hard won (and not won by enough, yet) - it is too precious to throw away because we privileged people think e-books are cool. There is a social responsibility to sustain paper-based publishing until e-format reading is properly accessible to all. And all includes those who don't live in our gadget-rich culture, but who still benefit from our publishing industry. When a street-child in Mexico can read an e-book, and a nomad in the Gobi can get access to an e-book, and a child-prostitute in Moscow can use an e-book, then we can afford to let paper publishing die and surrender it to market forces. But not until then.
I am aware that e-books allow people who have access to technology to read books they coudn't afford (see my earlier conversation with an e-book pirate in Pakistan), and I am not anti-e-book - but I am very much pro-paper book. If you are pro-paper-book too, join Alan Gibbons' Campaign for the Book.