Put it in writing!

Charles Stross, author of numerous sci-fi and other novels, recently mused online about why the commercial ebook market is broken. Much of his post (which is focused on the ebook novel market) revolves around the issues of piracy, DRM, short-sighted publishers, etc. Insightful stuff.

I have often wondered why digital versions of novels haven’t seemed to catch on; in theory, making available digital versions of clunky print books seems like a no-brainer. I have no doubt that publisher overreaction to the piracy issue has done a great deal to hobble the ebook market. But as for myself, I just don’t enjoy reading novels in electronic format as much as I enjoy reading them in print format. I regularly use and purchase ebooks (in PDF format, generally), but the ones I use the most are invariably some form of reference work. I skim through them looking for specific pieces of information; I don’t read them from start to finish.

I don’t know if it’s a hard-wired mental association that makes me prefer print novels; but put a lengthy story on any size screen (computer monitor, PDA, whatever) and it becomes a struggle for me to read it. I just can’t read any form of narrative onscreen for more than a few pages (see, I can’t even break out of archaic pre-digital metrics!) before I start getting antsy. Lengthy blog posts and online articles in the New York Times are about all I can handle before I start wishing for a print version. If I want to read something by Jane Austen, I’d sooner shell out for the paperback than read the freely-available online text.

Maybe I’m just a dinosaur when it comes to this issue. My wife, for one, seems fairly comfortable reading longer pieces of literature on a computer screen. But I suspect, given the failure of ebooks compared to the popularity of digital music, that I’m not alone in just not finding ebooks as they exist today to be an attractive medium for lengthy, involved stories. While I certainly agree in principle that cumbersome DRM and other reader-hostile practices are a terrible idea, the real reason I’m not buying ebooks is that I just don’t find them very usable to me. Maybe somebody will come along in the next few years and make the medium more attractive to aging Gen Xers like myself, but until then I’ll stick with my beat-up, cracked-binding, age-yellowed print library.

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