An American Editor

June 2, 2010

The Death of “Personality” in the eBook Age

eBooks present some unique challenges to the “personality” of books, challenges that make me think there will yet be a very long life for pbooks, particularly hardcover pbooks.

I am a book collector. I am proud of owning, for example, an excellent first edition of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. I love my first editions of Steinbeck, Twain, and numerous other authors — some signed, most not — books that I canvassed used bookstores and online booksellers for over many years. I sometimes attend lectures by authors at the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library and purchase the authors’ books and have them sign them. I’m even on the list for one of the 1,000 autographed copies of former President George W. Bush’s forthcoming book.

As a collector, books hold special value to me. And being able to obtain a well-preserved first edition, first printing of books by well-known and well-appreciated authors is important to me. Although once I acquire a book for my collection, I do not part with it, many people view the books as investments and buy and sell them like stock. Me, I look forward to passing them down to my children and grandchildren with the hope that they will keep passing them on and never part with them.

I revere books because books are a source of knowledge, of entertainment, of civilization, of social connectedness. I value books because they can take me places I would otherwise never be able to go, see things that I would not otherwise ever see, learn things that I need to learn to be a better person. It is true that ebooks can do all these things for me, but ebooks, unlike pbooks, can’t be passed on, can’t give a sense of permanence, and literally have no value because they are infinitely reproducible and infinitely correctable (see eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite).

Collectible pbooks are collectible for many reasons, not just because of who is the author. pBooks are collectible for the quality of the artwork, the cover design, the fact that the first edition, first printing had an error in it that was corrected in subsequent printings, because the author signed it, because it is a first edition, first printing of which there were only a few hundred copies before the book took off, because collectors can literally own the pbook (a currently impossible task with ebooks), and because pbooks can have a special personality: the personalization of the book; the recording of when and why it was given/received; an author’s signing of it, making it stand out from other copies..

None of these attributes apply to ebooks. As we all know, an ebook is really a leased collection of digits. Amazon has already demonstrated how fungible ebooks are when it removed 1984 and Animal Farm, regardless of the validity of the reasons for the removal, from purchasers Kindles — something it could not have done with a pbook. And ebooks, at least in current form, are unlimited editions. Even if Apple declared that the centennial Dickens was a limited edition and therefore worth an extra $50 to lease, the limit is really unlimited because of the ease of reproduction. Plus we all know that Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble — or any other publisher or seller — will fill consumer demand for an ebook rather than cut it off, which is something that cannot be done with a pbook — there is no such thing as an unlimited print run because of the cost.

Additionally, there is literally no way to autograph an ebook that adds value to it. Even if a “real” signature could somehow be planted on a bunch of digits, the fact that the digits could be remotely taken away under the licensing terms destroys the value of the signature. Would you pay extra to have your ebook digitally signed knowing that if you change from, say, a Kindle to a Sony device that the book is no longer accessible, or that if it is subsequently discovered that buried on page 210 the author accidentally included embarrassing, highly personal information that the already-leased copies could be remotely erased without your approval.

It should also be noted that because ebooks are leased, there is probably no requirement in the lease terms that a vendor-erased book be replaced with another copy.

This brings us to the second problem, which really puts the nail in the coffin of “personality.” One of the things that makes a book special is when it is received as a gift, and when that gift is specially inscribed, such as “Happy 12th birthday, John. Love, grandma Pearl.” Or when you meet your favorite author who personalizes a copy of his or her book for you.

These inscriptions give a book a special personality. And that personality not only remains special to the initial recipient, but can have a great deal of meaning to subsequent family generations or even to collectors or historians. It is not unusual for a collector or historian to come across a special inscription from an author or gift giver that gives an insight to a major historical person’s thinking and lead to new knowledge about that historically important person.

Alas, with ebooks, that personality dies. Again, the death has many causes, not least of which are the ephemerality of the digits and the limitations imposed on ebooks by digital rights management (DRM) schemes, leasing terms, and the inability to create a single, unalterable version.

With this in mind, I think pbooks will have a long life, even if they ultimately constitute a minority share of the book market.

A Postscript: The day after I wrote this article, the value of the inscribed pbook was again demonstrated to me: My family gave me a signed first edition copy of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963-1969. Opening to the half-title page and seeing President Johnson’s signature was thrilling; I cannot imagine how that thrill could be duplicated with an ebook. LBJ’s signature adds to the “personality” of the book by making it more than just cold digits that are duplicable at will.

7 Comments »

  1. When you think about it and some of the other topics you’ve brought up here, maybe the ebook phenomenon is itself the new gatekeeper in the system. Print books will not go away for the reasons you are citing here. However what gets into print will be rarer. Most newly written books will never be printed. Only those deemed valuable will get into print. “Value” will be decided by number of ebooks sold certainly, but since ebooks don’t go out of print, they have a lot longer runtime, theoretically forever. So a book that doesn’t see print this decade may very well catch on in some grass-roots way and come out in print twenty years after it is first published.

    Comment by Sue Lange — June 2, 2010 @ 8:20 am | Reply

    • Interesting point. I hadn’t thought about the first print edition coming out 20 years after the ebook. The questions then would be: Would a print version have any value? Would collectors care? Would the author even be around to personalize the print copy? Would the print copy be essentially a low-quality print-on-demand book that no one would want? Would the print copy be priced so high that no one buys it? And the questions go on and on and on.

      Comment by americaneditor — June 2, 2010 @ 8:54 am | Reply

  2. From the viewpoint of somebody whose novel was published as an e-book:

    I was careful to retain print rights. So while my book is starting life in electronic form, accessible to an audience I otherwise would be hard pressed to reach, I also have the option of making a fine-quality paperback or hardback, whatever I choose, under my complete control. In fact, I plan to do this in the not too distant future.

    First, because I want a volume I can hold in my hand. Second, because many of my potential readers feel the same way, and haven’t switched to electronic formats (and probably never will). Third, because of the points made in the above posting — a book is a real thing in a way that an e-book is not.

    Last, pure ego gratification. A million-seller e-book still lacks the satisfaction of a printed book and always feels second best. If you want your work to endure, how can intangible content last for generations? Granted, a copy of the e-book will always be rattling around somewhere on the vast Internet long after I die. But a bound copy of the text can pass from bookshelf to bookshelf, hand to hand, available for reading or admiration, without having to boot up a computer.

    One of my favorite comments came from a hardware engineer: When asked his opinion on the best storage medium for data, he answered, “Paper.”

    Comment by Carolyn — June 2, 2010 @ 10:42 am | Reply

  3. Once again you demonstrate that you are a Luddite. The value of a pbook is due to its rarity. The fact is that e-books make knowledge, that was limited to those that had a copy of the pbook and knew of its existence, available to anyone with a computer or e-reader and internet access. The ability of those to self-publish means that information is not limited by the self-appointed elitist few that used to choose what was worthy of publishing. The concept that this some how limits “personality” is absurd. The more people who are writing and being heard expands the value and personality of the written word. This is not to say that everything written in the digital world will ever be more than a dust molecule landing in the ocean, but that doesn’t mean there is no value. Value is relative to the one doing the valuing.

    I own over 1800 books most of which I would not trade for anything. I value those books because they are physical, but it doesn’t mean that I devalue a digital copy of the book. An example would be the digital copy of Plato’s “The Republic” that I am currently reading on my iPad. I would love to own a physical copy, but am not in a position to at this time. I value my digital copy, and it was free! I value you the knowledge that I gain from the reading. This is the value of the digital book. You can not confuse the controlling tactics of the old guard, through DRM, with the potential of the digital medium.

    Those of you who devalue the e-book need to re-examine your motives. Look in the mirror and honestly answer, “Am I really a Luddite!?”

    Comment by David — June 2, 2010 @ 11:14 am | Reply

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    Pingback by Tweets that mention The Death of “Personality” in the eBook Age « An American Editor -- Topsy.com — June 2, 2010 @ 3:47 pm | Reply

  5. I’m not convinced. With only one exception, I find myself COMPLETELY unmoved, emotionally, by all of the reasons that you give for being displeased by the prospect of “loss of personality” in the transition from ebooks to pbooks. But that one exception is definitely a killer: what might be called “the unilateral revocation problem”.

    I am REALLY alarmed by the possibility that Amazon (for example) could unilaterally REVOKE all the ebooks I ever bought from it and paid for, if Amazon ever turned stupid or evil or bankrupt or insane, or even if it simply decided that it wanted to change the technical details of how it does business; there is nothing that I could physically do to PHYSICALLY stop Amazon from revoking them all. This is a very reasonable worry, because something similar has ALREADY happened on a large scale TWICE that I know of, in addition to Amazon’s annoying little small-scale Orwellian incident: once with audio (Microsoft’s badly misnamed “Plays For Sure”), and once with video (Circuit City’s “DivX”, which TODAY’S “DivX” was deliberately named after as an ironic gesture). If Amazon decides that it wants to blackmail me into ponying up additional cash on top of what I already paid the first time around, or if the major publishers successfully strong-arm a reluctant Amazon, then POOF! there goes my entire library, evaporated into the ether, unless I pay whatever ransom they choose to charge. This is a game that Amazon, or the publishers, could play again and again, every few years, forever — if they really wanted to. This is a good argument for buying ONLY ebooks that are DRM-free, or ONLY ebooks with DRM schemes that have been cracked. Copy protection was ultimately dropped for computer software; DRM for audio also turned out to be a temporary measure, that was ultimately dropped by the iTunes Music Store and by the music publishers; perhaps something similar will happen with ebooks too.

    If I could wave a magic wand and transform my hundreds and hundreds of pbooks into DRM-free ebooks in an instant,
    while reserving some to remain as pbooks, then perhaps 30 pbooks would survive AS pbooks — an emotionally significant, but tiny, percentage of the total.

    * * * * *

    I read an interesting bit of analysis about the sales of Susan Boyle’s debut album, “I Dreamed A Dream”: whereas other best-sellers frequently sell 50% as physical CD’s and 50% as electronic downloads, and occasionally with far higher percentages of electronic downloads, “I Dreamed A Dream” was selling (at that time) less than 10% as electronic downloads. The analysis suggested that in this particular case, purchasers weren’t so much interested in listening to the music, as in being somehow A PART OF Susan Boyle’s inspirational life story — and physical CD’s served as a sort of physical talisman to represent that supposed personal relationship. This suggestion flabbergasted me; I understood the “talisman” aspect of it, but for me the knowledge that Susan Boyle herself would personally receive a royalty out of my payment all the emotional “talisman” that I had any use for, i.e. not very much. I suspect that my emotional reaction on this point is the future. For all my other music purchases, past and current, physical and electronic, I have felt no “emotional talisman” effect whatsoever; I ripped all my physical LP’s and CD’s to .mp3 files long ago, and I haven’t actually listened to — or purchased — a physical CD for years (or an LP for decades). I suspect that THIS emotional reaction, too, is the future.

    * * * * *

    “ebooks, unlike pbooks, [...] literally have no value because they are infinitely reproducible”

    This is a very common misunderstanding: that things have value BECAUSE they are rare, or BECAUSE they are difficult to get or to make; and therefore, things that are common, or easy to get or easy to make, are valueless BECAUSE they are common or easy to get or easy to make. These are, of course, reasons why the PRICE may be high or low or zero; but “price” is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the same thing as “value”.

    These days, I spend vastly more time than ever before in my life, reading text. Lots and lots of text, from more widely varied sources than ever before, more hours per day than ever before. I devote more time to text, I devote more labor to text, I devote more emotion to text, I devote more of my life energy to text, than ever before. The fact that I get nearly all of that text completely free-of-charge changes none of that. Price is not the same thing as value. The price of creating all that text is paid — grossly inadequately, as it happens — by advertisers, whose ads I automatically ignore. This business model is obviously not sustainable forever; it can sustain bloggers, but not major news media; but that is not a problem of value. That is a problem of MONETIZING that value.

    If I had a simple, convenient AND UNIVERSAL way to throw a penny or a nickel into a tip jar whenever I felt enlightened or pleased by what I had read, WITHOUT having to also pay 10 or 50 or 100 times that in transaction processing fees — guess what? I actually WOULD. Just as millions of people who COULD get pirated music for free via BitTorrent, actually PAY for it through the iTunes Music Store instead, making iTunes the largest music retailer in America, representing (the last time I looked) 27% of ALL music sales in the nation — and rising. Sales of electronic music downloads from ALL vendors combined (e.g. Amazon) now represent about 40% of the total, and rising.

    I’ve gotten so much value out of YOUR blog-post, and out of writing my comment, that I would gladly throw a nickel at YOU — if I could. Exactly as I would throw a nickel — if I could — at dozens of other essays and articles that I’ll read today. This blog-post of yours, in etext form, has enough “personality” to move me to that, even in the complete absence of ANY mechanism to enforce payment of any kind. Under those circumstances, a would-be nickel is a GENUINE, and significant, achievement. It’s certainly a nickel above and beyond whatever motivated you to write, because you wrote your post — just as I’m writing this comment — with no expectation of being paid anything whatsoever.

    Yes, your etext has “personality”. That “personality” has moved me to WANT to throw that nickel at you, even though your etext has… I am using this EXACT phrase deliberately, and with malice aforethought… even though your etext has not one BIT of ptext in it.

    Comment by dteleki — June 3, 2010 @ 8:45 am | Reply

  6. [...] A book collector wonders how ebooks can compete with the wonders of a signed paper book. [...]

    Pingback by Stumbling Over Chaos :: Fit To Be Linked — June 4, 2010 @ 2:02 am | Reply


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