Books, e-readers, Libraries and the Cost of Books

In our house we have a library, one room that is mainly devoted to books and reading and writing.

wall of books

We were very excited that we could do this – there are six floor to ceiling book shelves, a desk, filing cabinet and stationary cupboard with printers and scanners and shredders on top and finally the nursing chair (initially for breast feeding but now just for reading – my teenage cousins call it the BOOOOBY chair). There is also the guitars, ukes and music box.

nursing reading chair

On the window sill are some salad and chilli plants growing in containers and a few ripening tomatoes. Above them are some lovely sun catchers and photon pump windmill things.

sun catchers in the bookery

They are not the only book cases in our house – we have another covered with old books on tech and science and comic books and a shelf of my display cabinet with signed copies on and a half height one full of photo albums, cookery, wine making, gardening, first aid, bush craft, comedy and how to look after kids. The girls also have two book cases in their room – one covered in ceramic teddy’s and christening gifts with one shelf for the books series Jeany (almost 9) is currently working her way through. The other is almost floor to celling with large bedtime books and small picture books and easy first chapter books through to my collection of Redwall, Phillip Pullman and finally on the top shelf the point horrors and terror accademies etc… The hardness of books increases with the height of the shelf it is on.

We love our library and we love our books – then some one came round the other day and took one look at the library and said, ‘what a lot of clutter, you should get a kindle or something then you can get rid of all this and get the space back.’

I tried to explain that we had a kindle and a tablet computer (which was got for me doing my uni course) and that we read stuff on them but that the book collection was still important. They didn’t get it – they just saw a waste of space and they are not the first person. Of course it is supposed to be a dinning room and it would be a fab one but we have a “breakfast” room off of the kitchen which mainly fits us – true when my parents visit getting all six of us round the table is interesting but it is doable and in the summer I make us all eat outside anyway and Christmas dinner we set the table up in the living room which is huge (did I mention how we still can’t believe we have this house!).

But more over we can not simply replace our book collection with e-readers, about 20% of the books are not in an electronic format, and then some of them are signed copies which have special attachments as I or Alaric or Jean or Mary… have spoken to the author to get the signatures or they are dedicated presents or even dedicated to us (well Alaric anyway), some of them are hand made and are beautiful objects, and some of the books are ours – that we have written, that have been given to us by the publishing companies.

Also one of the shelving units in the library is actually full of workbooks and colouring for the girls, or educational kits people have gotten them or the books they have created in school and pre-school which they like to show relatives (that is the one with everything spilling out on it as Jean has free reign). There are old art mags, National Geographics and New Scientists which I use for collage, decoupage, ideas for stories and for various workshops I run – they can’t really go either.

Now when we moved two and a half years we did cull our book collection, a lot of the old computing books and the scifi, fantasy collection – ie out of date tech books or ones where all the info was more upto date on a website and books we had both read and had no want to read again – we had book sales and stuff to raise money for Shelter and we will have others as time goes on (especially as there are still a couple of boxes of left over books in the attic!).

In short we would be perfectly happy to have ebooks of most of the fiction books unless they were really old with 50’s covers etc… or signed.

But in truth we could not digitize as much as we actually want. I have a huge range of text books ranging from geology to history to my craft and art books and the ones that you can get electronic – all want the same sort of price I paid for the hard back physical copy that I OWN. On top of that a lot of e-books are only “loaned” to your device due to DRM – the anti-piracy/copying thing. The upshot of this is that to replace those books in ebook format would cost THOUSANDS of pounds and again due to DRM we wouldn’t be able to keep back up copies, I find books also corrupt on the e-readers and some times they are actually MORE EXPENSIVE in electronic format than as a physical object.

Also small e-readers are still not really that good for text books with large and complex diagrams as you just can’t get enough on the image in a readable manner on the screen. With the larger tablets pictures books are starting to be ok but they still aren’t brilliant in electronic format and the danger is the kids will just be sucked into the gaming bit that comes with it. (We like games but I think the looking at the story bit outside of the game is initially important – games are good if it is a complex story that needs a bit more explanation or the kids already know the story really well.)

Recently there has been a big thing between Amazon and Hatchet about this and yes Amazon are a big company trying to make money but so are Hatchet – there are two bad guys in this tail. And though Amazons were acting out of non-alteristic motives they do actually have a point.

e-books really should not be as expensive as physical books. Now the standard cry is that you are buying the content so the format doesn’t matter but it very much it does. You die, you get to leave your books to someone – currently you can’t do this with electronic format, as I said earlier it is loaned – you do NOT own it.

And the thing is that though the pre-production costs and the marketing costs are the same with both – the writing, editing, type-setting, cover design etc… once in production that changes. With a physical book you have paper and printing costs, transport, checking up on the shops the books are in to make sure they are getting shelf/promotion time, possibly P&P including returns, warehouse storage, often a second lot of transport, risks of water, fire, customer browsing damage – rendering copies not fit for sale. Then if they don’t sell you have pulping and shredding and/or more transport with sale or return or putting them in auction for the pound shops.

Of course physical books make books signings easier and get the author out there at book stores and conventions – something that is incredibly important for the no-list and mid-list authors but something that should make the physical book copy the special luxary item.

The post-production costs of e-books on the other hand just kind of aren’t – even if you are getting enough downloads to need your own peer to peer connection and dedicated server the costs would still be drastically lower (even with books being printed whole sale and cheap in China – in which case there is the environmental balance of electricity burned by servers and ereaders verses multiple transports and paper and inks and so on).

I know many avid readers who see the cheap 99p ebooks as a cheap sustainable way for them to read and they simply do not buy the more expensive books, there are also whole swaths of free ebooks. Authors like Cory Doctorow give ebooks away and it boosts their sales of their physical books. I myself have found this with The Little Book of Spoogy Poetry. Most of the people who bought a copy of the book had been people who had downloaded it for free the previous year. They knew what was in it, they felt they wanted to invest in getting a physical copy of it.

I have however seen people saying they don’t think this works or isn’t as effective as people believe, I personally have not been impressed with their reasoning but that doesn’t mean they are wrong – this is still a really new area of consumer consumption and none of us really knows what we are doing. And of course then there are people who only produce ebooks and eskew the physical print copies all together – this has grown the erotic fiction writing market drastically as people don’t have to worry about those pesky covers giving them away on the train or at lunch time at the office.

But I note that most of them do not charge huge amounts for their ebooks – they are markedly less than physical paper backs.

Of course one of the reasons behind ebooks being able to be cheaper is that more people would be inclined to buy them – this does not always equate with them actually reading the work though and I have seen reports suggesting that more highly priced books are more likely to be read. But for a low end author if only one in say five of the people actually get around to reading you books and only two like it and only one of those tells their friends about you… you are still looking at a good growth potential making the ebooks something that both author and reader can experiment with to see what works/suites them – if they are cheap.

However this model of more sales of ebooks and less over heads making the lower price pay more…. only really works with fiction or high demand books. For specialist publications such as crystallography of man made drain pipes or something where there is not going to be vast numbers of potential readers… it doesn’t. These books tend to be heavy on images and often actual images under microscopes and things, all of which cost money. They are often £110 in hard back and large. There are also shipping industry mags and the like that would have similar issues. These types of publications struggle to break even on physical copies and library loans and are often subsidised by other publications done by the same group. I don’t know what the answer is for them as students kind of need their text books – maybe libraries? But the loan rates wont pay for the work either.

These books are the outliers though and not the big bulk of books – but the fact that they exist means that though I think ebooks in general should be cheaper than the physical copy, there are exceptions and as such companies like amazon really should not try to dictate what publishers charge for the books – the publishers then being greedy is another issue and one I think that will ultimately cause them problems.

I mentioned libraries in the above – now I don’t mean our little one room library but Uni libraries which are epic though have been hit somewhat by various issues meaning that the journal you need isn’t getable though of course that is another story.

But what of public libraries?

I hear it said quiet often that libraries are obsolete – that public money shouldn’t be poured into them as books are so cheap now and there is the internet. For a start text books or factual books still aren’t that cheap and many people still do not have ereaders or smart phones – they are becoming more common but there are still a lot of people without them and that is without taking into account those who will never get to grips with the tech.

Not everybody has a spare 5 or 10 pounds or more to spend on a book, and children can get through a hell of a lot of picture books which if you are in a small house or flat can be come an issue fast. Yes you can pick them up in charity shops but even the charity shops have gotten a bit pricey of late – some want up to up to a fiver for a dog eared picture book which in the cheap shops you can often get for new for the same or slightly below.

Also the internet can be a confusing place – what is correct? Which websites can you trust for information – critical thinking and biases analysis is not a major part of our main stream education. Most people lack the skills to filter the information themselves – most of the people being verbal about this stuff have a good education due to money or the area they were born into and do not see the need for the libraries.

But I have spent a hell of a lot of time in the libraries around Gloucester and Cheltenham now and the libraries are essential. They are places where school kids can go and do homework – and no they can’t all do it at home even if there is a computer there. Some of the more well of kids go to the library on the home from school because they’re parents govern exactly what information they have access to at home, that doesn’t sound to bad until you realise they are not being allowed to look things up for their home work, that they have no privacy and that they can not electronically connect with their peer group at home. This is really a very un good situation and the library offers a safety valve for society in giving these children the chance to still learn. Now obviously they could still use their school library to do this but unless they go to a funky school, the schools resources are likely to be more limited than the large inner city libraries. Also the librarians are a huge help in finding the information you need, weather that be from the internet or from physical books.

Libraries also tend to have all the local history stuff in it, they are warm desk space for students and people who are freelancing and can’t yet afford an office space. They have workshops and outreach programmes which have the knock on effect of showing people they can improve themselves and their lot and that is 60% of the battle won.

In my time using the library as warm office space/free child entertainment I have seen illiterate mothers come in and their children learn to read, people who have learnt to read in prison come in and shyly set up their account and then go off to the books that show them how to make things, cook things, create things – this reduces the chances of re-offending drastically and you know if they could have read in the first place, if they hadn’t fallen through our societal educational crack, the crimes may never have been committed in the first place.

I’ve observed those who no longer have care centres to be in sitting in the library all day, drawing child like pictures which takes all their concentration – what would happen to them without the libraries?

The libraries I’ve been in have been pretty busy most of the time, they are information hubs for local events, groups and businesses, they do tend to have security guards which is sad but needs must and I’d rather that than they just closed down and I certainly don’t want groups not let in for dress code or anything.

Of course the ones outside of the city centres have stupid opening times due to cost cutting measures which means they are less used and I am as guilty of this as many – this summer I taking the girls to Gloucester library rather than our nearest as I’m in Glos twice a week anyway and the nearer one is closed so many afternoons a week and that is my preferred library time, it only has one late evening and a half day (morning again) on Saturdays. This is a horrible viscous circle and I can’t really see a way out of it for the libraries with all the cuts etc :(

Library funding not withstanding I personally think the day of the book is not over, that the electronic revolution will work out as an over all good thing and that will not make libraries obsolete. We love our library and our books and are quite happy with it, we are aware that a lot of people do not read beyond the more dubious parts of the press (pretty much all of it!) and have no critical thinking skills – these can be obtained from reading… oh look cheap e-books… oh look you no longer have to worry about looking nerdy in front of your friends as they think you’re just on facebook…

As for our books and library, it is staying and ebook prices need to come down but amazon has no right to dictate the prices companies and/or authors choose and the writers are going to have to be careful not to get caught in the cross fire. Some writing collectives are bypassing publishers and amazon a like – I am watching their progress with interest.

The book market is kind of shrinking and kind of growing at the moment ie it is in flux. Comic books is the only strong growth area for physical hard copy books at the moment – I think the e-zines have helped drastically with this and this is a brilliant thing to happen.

a) comic books are a gateway to chapter book reading

b) many of them are complex, clever stories in their own right and make the reader think

So to sum it all up… long live the book.

p.s. being able to read does not make you intelligent nor wise, it is what you read that is important however not everyone who can not read is stupid or thick or unworldly wise, there are other sources of information imput – reading just helps and is needed to develop certain skills in the majority of people but individuals are individuals and as some one who came late to reading themselves I feel this needs pointing out.

Posted: Monday, August 18th, 2014 @ 12:46 am
Categories: About Poetry.
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