Gutenberg to Kindle: The Elitism of Books

The other day I read a fabulous blog post by Jennie Coughlin in which she interviewed author Robert Bidinotto on the stellar success of his indie published novel Hunter.  The article was an inspiration, but it also niggled me with some questions.

One of the ideas Bidinotto hypothesizes in his look at eBooks and the future of both traditional and self-publishing is that within a few years mass market paperbacks will disappear to be replaced by eBooks.  My instant reaction was “Cool!  That’ll be great for indie authors like me!”.

Then I started to think about it ….

In the Middle Ages, my era of deepest affection, books were hand-made.  They were copied by hand onto parchment and vellum, painstakingly illuminated by master artists over the course of a lifetime, in some cases, and bound with leather and sinew.  Books were a delicacy.  Only the Church and the very wealthiest of nobles could afford them.  Sure, books were being written, but they were luxury goods.  The vast majority of the population was illiterate and didn’t care.

Then came a visionary by the name of Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg and his revolutionary invention around 1439 of the movable type printing press.  The printing press really is one of the most civilization-changing devices ever invented.  Books no longer needed to be copied and constructed by hand.  Many copies could be mechanically printed in a relatively short amount of time.  The number of books in circulation rose dramatically.  With the new availability of books came new authors and larger numbers of readers.

Fast-forward to the dawn of the 21st century.  Literacy is a big deal.  Former First Lady Laura Bush made it a huge part of her mission while her husband was in office.  The vast majority of the population of developed nations reads something every day.  Giants of industry, like Amazon.com, are built on books.  Libraries abound and bookstores are easy to get to.  Not just new bookstores either, but second-hand book stores too.  There is a fantastic used book store, The Original Book Swap in Horsham, PA, right around the corner from my apartment.  You have to try really hard not to be exposed to books.

Now here comes the eBook revolution.  I’m happy as a lark because I can publish my novels without the hassle and interference that has always turned me off of the traditional publishing industry.  Bully for me.

And if I had a dime for every time someone has asked me “can I buy your book at the bookstore?” I could buy a Big Mac.  That conversation usually goes like this:

“Can I buy your book at the bookstore?” “No, it’s exclusively an eBook.” “So where can I buy it?” “If you have a Kindle you can get it at Amazon.com, if you have a Nook you can get it at Barnes & Noble.com, and if you have an iPad or an iPhone you can get it on iBooks.” “Oh, but what if I don’t have any of those?”

What if indeed!

Here’s the teensy problem I see with the eBook revolution.  To read an eBook you have to have an eReader.  To have an eReader you have to have money.  More money than a library card costs, for example.  Yes, the price of eReaders is coming down.  Once upon a time CD players cost hundreds of dollars and now I think you could probably pick one up at Wal-Mart for $5.  Will the cost of eReaders go this way?

I firmly believe that eBooks will become as prevalent and even more so than paper books within my lifetime.  eBooks are cheaper to produce by far.  Publishing companies are already having a hard time making ends meet right now.  What will the publishing industry look like in ten years?  The question is on everyone’s mind.  But if eBooks become the dominant means of distributing literature and the number of paper books diminishes, what will that mean for readers and potential readers out there?

What if we find ourselves reverting to a society in which the amount of money you have and your social standing effects whether you are able to read or not?  In a world where eBooks rule and paper books are an afterthought, what if only those who can afford to shell out for an eReader are able to buy books?  Might we not end up in some sort of Neo-Medieval society where reading is reserved for the elite?

Okay, maybe I’ve just crossed over into some sort of YA dystopian future.  But it does have me scratching my head and wondering.  Until the cost of eReaders comes down to the point where your Average Joe could pick one up at Wal-Mart for the cost of a Big Mac, eBooks will be second-place.  But if companies like Amazon, B&N, and Apple figure out a way to price eReaders super low … well, then I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near the traditional publishing industry when it comes crumbling down!

So who is going to be the Gutenberg of the 21st century?  Who is going to irreversibly change the way your average person reads forever?

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20 thoughts on “Gutenberg to Kindle: The Elitism of Books

  1. Interesting thought, and one I hadn’t considered. It is a great analogy, though. It does take money to buy an e-reader for sure. I saved up my egg money (literally) for quite a while before I could afford to get one.

    But, I wonder if the people that consider reading a priority will make the sacrifices necessary to buy an e-reader, and for the rest it won’t make much difference because they weren’t reading anyway?

    Great food for thought.

    • That’s sort of what concerns me. Every once in a while you can convince the people who don’t usually read to read something (especially if your name happens to be J.K. Rowling). But would that still happen if you had to buy a pricey device first?

  2. I read my ebooks on my laptop. I know, laptops aren’t free, either. But a lot of people already own one, or trhey own a PC. You can then download free apps for the PC or laptop from Kindle, Nook, and Adobe Digital Reader (reads epub docs). So in some ways, ebooks are available to more people than just those with ereaders. Not a great improvement, I admit, but it at least stretches the potential ability to access ebooks a little,

    • Yeah, I think that’s part of the key right there. That’s why I think Smashwords might ultimately have the right idea. On that one website you can buy an eBook and download it in many, many forms. I know lots of people who read on their laptop.

  3. I just got the Kindle app for my smart phone, its free and I’m reading your book on it! For some reason, even the poorest person seems to have a smart phone these days! Books are not cheap, yes, you can borrow at the library, but I find that sometimes they don’t even have the book you need! eBooks are good for the trees. My husband was given a Kindle for Christmas, he had cataract surgery lately and was using a magnifying glass to read, very awkward. The Kindle is perfect, he’s hooked already, he can make the font bigger if he needs to. So, he sits in one chair with his Kindle and I sit in the other with my HTC Wildfire!
    I know there are still some environmental issues with electronic devices, but I’m sure it can be figured out! The pluses are high! Even my smart phone can probably hold as many books as our tiny library branch has! And our library’s have started to carry electronic books as well!

    • Yay! Thanks! I hope you like it.

      Yeah, I think that iPhones are pretty amazing. I just told a friend the other day how to download the Kindle ap for iPhone, so really you’re right, people can read on what they’ve got already. Technology is amazing!

  4. One neat thing about my local library system is that, not only can you borrow ebooks on your own ereader from them, but they also have a Kindle (and a Nook, I think) that you can actually borrow. So if there’s a book available on an ereader that you want to read, you can request it from the library even if you don’t have an ereader. I know our library is very good about listening to book requests, in print anyway, so I can see the same being true for ebooks. A small license can’t be too expensive and I would think that it would be cheaper than

    • Now that’s something I hadn’t even thought of. If libraries can loan out Kindles that opens up a whole new world of accessibility. I wonder how many libraries have figured that out.

  5. It is not the ereader, it it the quality control on the book. The publisher, artist, binder were filters to select things that were good and they would put their name on.

    Ebooks do not have qualty controls yet to weed out the badd from the good. That is the problem, not the cost of readers.

    • Hmm. Well, while I won’t deny that the new wave of self-publishing has produced a lot of seriously disappointing material, that doesn’t really effect the accessibility of books in general. Just about all books come out in electronic format these days, even ones that are also published traditionally. But I wonder how much longer it will be before even the NYC big 6 publishers switch to entire lines that are only eBooks. You’d still have to purchase a reading device to buy even the traditionally published books.

  6. Kindle’s etc, do cost money, but you can save vast amounts of money purchasing an e-book as opposed to print. I honestly think people who make the effort to both join and visit a library, will be thrilled at the new way to read books. They will put a reading device firmly on or near the top of their wish list. People will also be able to read a lot of new material. They may have been too embarrassed to ask for certain titles, or be seen reading them. All of those worries have now been dispensed with. In my case I will now be able to read a mushy love story while sat among my hells angel friends. So for me it is ‘Viva Revolution’.

    • That’s a good point! You CAN read secret sneaky things without people knowing what you’re reading! I remember way, way back in high school I would devour cheesy romance novels like candy, but I was always super embarrassed if my mom caught me with a book that had half-naked people on the cover in passionate embraces. I guess with an eReader there’s no telling what someone is reading! Viva la Revolution indeed!

      (of course nowadays I WRITE the cheesy romance novels with half-naked people on the cover…. 😉 )

  7. I bet many people who balk at the cost of an e-reader own at least one TV. I could be wrong, but I bet many people in poor households across the US have a decent TV or DVD player, and don’t TVs and players cost at least as much as your cheapest e-reader model these days? But I doubt many people would take the money they would spend on a TV and get an e-reader instead.

    I have an iPad (got thru work, would probably never have purchased one), but hate reading on it b/c my eyes are already about to fall out from looking at screens for work all day – why do I want to read books on a glowing screen as well? What I really want is a Kindle or something with that nice newsprint-type screen. I could scrimp a bit and buy one. But I love real books so much. I know their time is limited, and that makes we want to enjoy them now all the more…

    • Good point about TVs. I remember when I lived in Alabama driving through serious back-woods areas where people lived in dinged-up old trailers … but they had satelite dishes out in their yards. Which actually sort of depresses me if you consider what people’s priorities are in this country. 😛

  8. The battle between ebooks and print books has always been a struggle for me. I have a passion for hard bound books. The weight, the smell, the noise of turning pages is all a part of reading for me. Right now, however, I have the Kindle app on my phone. I love being able to carry something that is lighter than a paperback with me everywhere. I’ve always carried books with me, but it’s nice to have access to books in such a small, light format. I’m one who really wants a Kindle as well. There is a lot to be said about a screen without a backlight.

    Now, as for accessibility, it’s something I have thought about, especially in regards to my children. We read a lot together. My oldest two read a lot on their own as well. What do we read? Certainly not ebooks. We love to go to the library and pick out books. It is both a visual and tactile experience. It would be heartbreaking if there were no libraries, no books to see and touch. I think there is more to the accessibility question than just the cost of an ereader.

    • We used to read books together as a family when I was a kid too. (The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White every summer, for one) I can see that translating to a Kindle experience. But yeah, there is something tactile about actual books. I’m curious to see where technology goes with children’s books in the future too!

  9. E-readers are essentially tools for selling product, ie, you buy a Kindle and it locks you into buying ebooks from Amazon; you buy an iPad and ditto Apple. I suspect that before long the prices will drop considerably. My concern is that ebooks, both general reading and academic, will be in the control of a couple of companies which provide the access – rather than in the control of a number of publishing companies. Self-publishing is great but self-marketing is tough. Lastly, where will libraries end up in all of this? What about people who can’t afford an e-reader, or can’t buy the books they need to study?

  10. I’m so not political, and as a writer, I should have been giving this issue more attention that I have, but your theory may not be so YA fiction, Merry. I live outside of Toronto, a fabulous city, but a city with a mayor who came under much scrutiny for wanting to cut budgets to public libraries.

    As e-savvy as we may become, reading must remain accessible to all, no matter the medium.

  11. You have an interesting point, but we should add that there ARE alternatives to buying an e-reader. Some people don’t know that with a free app they can read an e-book on their phone or laptop. I’ve gotten feedback from a number of people who have read my book that way..
    Then there’s Amazon’s CreateSpace. With less time than you invested to format for Kindle, and no upfront costs, you can make your ebook available on Amazon as a paperback. I put Iona Portal on CreateSpace two weeks ago. It’s priced at $12, and in two weeks has sold 60 copies., That’s paltry compared to e-book sales, but it was definitely worth the effort to make it available.
    So those who lack an e-reader are not cut off from buying books.
    We should also consider the economic advantage of buying an e-reader. Before I bought my Kindle, I often paid $20 for a book at the dead tree store.
    After getting my Kindle, my average price per book has dropped to $2.99. So if I’m saving more than $15 on every book I read, my Kindle has paid for itself many times over.
    So while e-readers may be bad news for used books stores, they are definitely good news for the average reader. I gladly support the ebook revolution!

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