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.


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