You can’t be a fan of SF and lament the rise of ebooks

The title says it all. You just can’t. I won’t allow it. I hear it so often and I find it baffling. I know what it means to love books. I love books to a degree most would consider unhealthy. I’m a bibliophile of the highest order. The feel, the weight, the smell, the sound of a page turning. Awesome. And there will always be books. But they will be less and less common, as I’ve said here so many times before, and ebooks will be the mainstream before much longer. And that’s okay.

You know what I like more than books? Stories. I love stories. I love to read the tales of others, to marvel at a great writer’s turn of phrase, to be transported by a great author’s incredible ideas. Rarely do I ever find that sense of wonder so much as I find it in science fiction and fantasy.

Now, I know there are fantasy fans out there who don’t really like sci-fi. They’re the kind of people who wish we all lived in castles and rode horses and wore sack-cloth vests and said things like verily and thou art. I get that, I really do. Those people lamenting the slow demise of books as a mainstream delivery system for stories is fairly understandable. The hardcore fantasy fans lament all technology and yearn for an older, more agrarian society. Of course, they also yearn for magic and dragons, which is fine, but unlikely. About as unlikely as them surviving in a truly medieval world. Even the most hardcore fantasy fans would be chafing at the bit for some modern technology when they badly needed a bath to wash off the flea bites and smallpox.

But I digress. On the whole, most fantasy fans are sci-fi fans too. You don’t have to be into hard sci-fi to qualify. That really scientifically accurate stuff you need degrees in maths and physics to really understand is very cool, but there’s other sci-fi out there too. The softer, more accessible stuff, like Star Wars or Serenity to offer some mainstream examples. There are equally un-dense sci-fi books and short stories out there too – all the sci-fi I write is very light on the sci and heavy on the fi. But regardless of your particular flavour preferences, you can’t be a fan of science fiction and then sit there all miffed and put out at the rise of ebooks.

It happens so often, people that are such big reading fans saying, “Gods, no, I’ll never read an ebook! You can’t curl up with a good ebook!” Bollocks, of course you can. Curling up with a Kindle or Nook is easier than reading an actual book, in fact.

“I like the feel and smell of a real book.” Yeah, so do I, as I said before, and an ereader doesn’t have those attributes. But not everything we read has to be a tactile, olfactory delight.

Let’s be honest about this. Why is an avid reader really an avid reader? Do they like to go and buy a new book every week and run their fingers over it, sniffing deeply? Maybe. But is that the primary reason for buying it? No, of course it’s not. You’d have to be pretty fucked up to prefer the smell of a book over its contents. People buy books because they love stories. The delivery system is hardly relevant – it’s the content we want. We want that transportative magic of well-crafted fiction.

And in science-fiction we’ve been reading about technological advancements since… well, since there’s been science fiction. When I read a book on my iPhone, which I regularly do, I’m living something that just ten years or so ago was still science fiction. The phone in my pocket does more than most of the gadgets on Star Trek – even Star Trek: The Next Generation, and that’s only twenty five years old.

Only? Merlin’s Cock, that makes me feel old! Star Trek: TNG ran from 1987 to 1994. If you watch repeats of it now you see how far we’ve come in that time, not only in television and production, but in ideas too. Though some of those shows had awesome ideas that are still fresh now. Even Classic Star Trek had ideas like that.

But I digress again. I do that.

My point is this: If you’re a fan of science fiction, you have to be a fan of ebooks. Because a pocket- or handbag-sized electronic device that stores thousands of stories, that you can wirelessly connect to other devices or locations to get more stories, IS science fiction.

Get over yourselves, people that don’t like ebooks. It’s all about the story, the wonderment, not the delivery system. Also, if you’re sitting there saying, “But, but, but!” and you have all these reasons why ebooks are shit, let me see if I can address them first:

I don’t like reading off a screen – Then buy a Kindle or Sony Reader or equivalent that uses e-ink and is essentially just the same as reading off a printed page. And before you crap on about it, have you actually tried a Kindle? They’re amazing.

I don’t want to spend money on a reading device – What, like you spend money on books? With the cost of ebooks being lower than most print editions, you’ll get your money back and then start making savings in no time.

I like the smell and feel of real books – So do I. See above. Buy a special edition hardback once in a while and get your touchy, sniffy fix. Then carry on reading on your chosen e device.

I don’t want to see real books disappear – They won’t. There will always be real books. Just fewer of them and mostly in special editions or collector’s editions. But I bet most books will be available POD as well as ebook, just for folks like you.

You have to remember to charge up a reading device – You have to remember to pick up a book. What’s your point? The Kindle, even under heavy use, has a battery life of at least two weeks. You can cope with that, surely?

Ereaders are heavy and cumbersome – No, they’re not. They used to be, but the Kindle, Kobo or Sony Reader, among others, are lighter than most paperbacks. Sure, iPads and stuff like that are heavier, but they’re electronic devices that also have the ability to deliver stories, so it’s a different situation. My iPhone is like that as well and is far lighter and smaller than any paperback. There’s lots of choice.

I like to read in the bath – Good, so do I. Go for it. You’re really careful not to drop your precious book in the water, right? Just do the same with your ereader. And if you’re worried about being electrocuted, I suggest some basic science lessons to ease your fears.

Did I miss anything? If you have some other reason to stand against ebooks, put in a comment below and I’ll address it.

I understand that some people are complete paper book purists, and I get that, I really do. Although it’s an anachronistic and soon to be redundant position. But if you’re an SF fan, I don’t get it at all. Get over your elite self and embrace the future, or forever hang up your SF fandom.

Stop struggling, all you ebook haters – in a few more years everyone will be doing it. You can’t stop change or hold back the future. If you’re an SF fan, why would you want to?


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34 thoughts on “You can’t be a fan of SF and lament the rise of ebooks

  1. I was on the “I’ll never buy an e-reader train” until this fall, when my eye doctor told me I was well on my way to needing bifocals. My excuse for getting the e-reader was the ability to adjust the font, but now that I’m accustomed to it, I actually prefer the e-reader. Last week, my wife was raving about a book she was reading. I started it and liked it, so I bought the e-version rather than keep reading the print book. (It was .99- probably wouldn’t have done that at a higher price, but that’s one of the beautiful things about ebooks. Sometimes, the price is very, very right.)

  2. How about, you don’t own an ebook in the same way you own a real book.

    You can’t lend it to friends, for example.

    And some ebook formats are locked down to certain devices.

  3. This post says what I’ve been thinking so much better than I could. Personally, I love my Nook … Not color (no e-ink so I really don’t see the advantage). It’s just so cool to be able to download your scifi fix, and the books are generally cheaper. I’m reading Death World 2 by Harry Harrison now. See? Tha’s cool… πŸ˜€

  4. Dave – I’ve heard similar conversion stories from many others!

    Gary – Granted. There are still real problems, but lending is being addressed. DRM and device-lock is something that people are complaining about a lot and it’s changing. Given that this is a relatively new technology there are going to be many teething problems that will be ironed out by consumer demand.

    ganymeder – Yep, that is cool.

  5. I agree on the lending and formatting problems (imagine the first time someone gave you back your e-reader with a coffee stain on it and the buttons dog-eared). I’m slowly getting into ebooks via my iPhone, but I’m a bit reluctant to buy a proper reader until there’s some sort of universal format. I don’t know if there are specific publishers signing on with specific formats at the moment.

    Having said that, I can’t see anyone propping up the wobbly chair with an e-reader. plus I’m still yet to see a scratch-and-sniff ebook.

  6. Interestingly, while the severity of DRM is decreasing for individual readers of ebooks, it is getting worse for those of us in the library world. HarperCollins is actively restricting the amount of times that a library can use its ebooks before they have to buy another copy.

  7. Simon – I’ve been reading about this. And it’s ridiculous as the number of lends is far less than a print book, carefully repaired by library staff, as I understand it. It’s another aspect of the technology finding its way.

  8. What really does keep me from reading ebooks is the lack of a reader. Of course I could order the kindle and have it shipped to Germany. Once it arrives, I could buy ebooks. But why, oh why can’t I buy an ebook reader that comes WITH books? I know, it’s like asking to buy a stocked shelf. But come on, the only thing needed to tip me over the edge is a nifty “PKD Kindle” or “Philip Kindle Dick” or whatever.

    And the thing about lending: I don’t know anyone who would want to borrow a book from me. So no trouble there. I would “take out” e-books from the library however.

    A note regarding publishers & DRM & proprietary file formats: Just find an appropriate and contemporary method of making money and then cut the crap.

  9. Tommi,
    Don’t let the ereader device stop you. Before I bought a Nook, I read tons of ebooks on my phone, and there are TONS of ebooks free. My favorite site for free ebooks is but there are many more. I resorted to buying a Nook only after many years because it was easier on my eyes.And even the Nook has free titles available to download. So that’s not a deterrent. Also, even though I prefer the Nook format, I have a Nook app, Kindle app, and PDF readers on my phone – all the apps were except I think I might have paid for the PDF reader (it’s a couple years old). So you can have all those things you want for no cost (or close to no cost if you have a cell phone with internet, etc.

  10. I know you wanted a rantier response, Alan, but you’re hitting the nail on the head at every turn, so all you’re getting from me is firm and supportive agreement. πŸ˜‰

  11. With regard to a dedicated reader, most people already have something they can read ebooks on, be it a phone, iPod, iPad, laptop, etc. The need for a dedicated reader, as ganymeder said, is not an issue. I’ve been reading ebooks in the Stanza and Kindle app on my iPhone for two years. I’m getting a Kindle in a couple of weeks, but that will be my first dedicated reader, even though I’ve been reading ebooks for years.

    Having said that, it won’t be long before readers are offered for free. Tommi’s example is a good one – buy a back catalogue of ebooks for $X and get them delivered on a Kindle, so you buy the books but the device is free. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the swiftly reducing price of the Kindle and how a free Kindle can’t be far away.

    Also, indie book stores are looking into retailing readers (some already are) and ebooks and you can bet they’ll be doing all kinds of promotion using ereaders as bait.

    The lending issue is already being explored. Libraries have got specific DRM that allows lending of ebooks, but, as Simon mentioned above, it’s not ideal. Also, the Kindle store allows you to lend an ebook to a friend for 14 days – in that period it’s available to them, but not available to you. After 14 days the DRM reverts – better than print, as you don’t need to keep reminding your friend to return your book!

    I’m actually a fan of a complete DRM-free system, but at least thngs like this are addressing DRM and looking to make it more user friendly.

  12. Tom – you’re right! This was a deliberately provocative post, and I expected some rather heated discourse, but people seem to largely agree. Colour me amused!

  13. +1 on the lack of lending / sharing, but I agree with Alan that these are kinks that will get worked out in time. Heck, after the Wright Brothers invented the airplane the first thing they did was to lock down their patents so tight that they ended up retarding the progress of aviation for close to a decade. Things like device lock and lending limits are the same short-sighted mistakes that will fall once everyone realizes how much more money they’re going to make by letting everyone in on the deal.

    As for all the things that you can’t do with an e-book that you can with a paper book, it’s important to recognize that the opposite is very true too. Using the Kindle app on my iPod touch, I can go straight from any word to a dictionary or to WIkipedia. I can highlight (and UN-highlight) text. I can make notes that aren’t limited to the available margins. In other reader apps, I can copy and e-mail a favorite passage without having to transcribe it by hand (I’m betting the Kindle app will be able to do that soon too).

    And I have a library with printed books that date back to the 19th century, which I treasure too. They’re special because *they were there.* They’re time travelers. There’s room for both.

  14. Call me fucked up then, because there ARE a lot of books in my collection that I’ve purchased for the look, feel and smell and will never, ever read.

    Am I daft? NO. They’re called ‘collectibles’ and ‘antiques’ for a reason. Reading them, Mr. E-Messiah, is blasphemy. TOUCHING them is blasphemy.

    I just bet you’ve got no objection to the word ‘scifi’ either. It’s pretty clear to see where you are coming from, you willing slave of the robot overlords. When they move on to wire-in-the-brain books you’ll be one of the first to get hooked up, won’t you?

    What? Just because e-books and readers sound like some scifi idea from the 50s we’re supposed to love this spawn of satan?

    Buddy – when the ice storm comes and the world freezes, good luck with burning those e-books to stay alive!

  15. Steve – That’s more like it!

    Although you do seem to have missed a couple of things. From the very first paragraph of my post:

    “I know what it means to love books. I love books to a degree most would consider unhealthy. I’m a bibliophile of the highest order. The feel, the weight, the smell, the sound of a page turning. Awesome.”

    I get the whole collectible book thing. I don’t know if you’ve read much of this blog or just stumbled across this post, but I’ve talked a lot about beautiful, collectible books. I collect fantastic antique books as well, and I love new edition, collectible hardbacks like the recent Sourdough & Other Stories from Tartarus Press. Although I do read them. Books are supposed to be read. Of course, I’m incredibly careful with them, but buying a book and not reading it is like paying for a prostitute and having a cup of tea with her.

    There will always be books and there will always be people like us that love and covet them. But the vast majority of books will be digital before long and the vast majority of reading for pleasure will be done electronically.

    I don’t actually think scifi is a word, though sci-fi isn’t really any better. But we all know what it means. And at least it’s not SyFy. I also don’t know exactly what a “wire-in-the-brain book” is, but if you mean wirelessly connecting to the internet directly from wetware embedded in the brain, then yeah, sign me up.

    Ebooks and readers don’t “sound like some scifi idea from the 50s” – they are an actualisation of several scifi ideas from several generations of futurists. And when the ice storm comes (whatever that is exactly) and the world freezes over, I’ll come to your place and burn all those books you didn’t read for fear of blasphemy. While we’re keeping warm that way, I’ll use the wire in my brain to connect with an off-world colony and arrange a rescue.

  16. The title of this post is a near-perfect case of why SF fans are often perceived as escapist dorks. Fiction reality. Not all of us enjoy SF as wish fulfillment.

    By the *exact* same logic, I could say “You can’t be a fan of murder mystery fiction and lament the rise of homicide rates.”

    Which is ridiculous. Obviously.

  17. Here is something to consider: I realize you get some form of cover art on an Ereader, but does anyone else get to see it? I like to see what other people are reading. I’ll investigate the titles and find them at the library. It’s a good way to add to your reading list. Also, Ereaders are going to hurt authors and artist, the same way Itunes and Mp3’s have hurt the music industry. People will illegally download books all day. Great for the consumer, bad for the industry. E

  18. Steve- don’t mention the robot overlords. Alan was molested by them, and then they went back to Alpha Centauri and broke his heart. He still pines for them whenever he gets hemorrhoids.

  19. euphrosyne – “By the *exact* same logic, I could say β€œYou can’t be a fan of murder mystery fiction and lament the rise of homicide rates.”

    Which is ridiculous. Obviously.”

    Actually, no, you couldn’t. The comparison itself is ridiculous.

    Roardawg – You’re right that you don’t get to see the covers of books people are reading, but I don’t think a great many people pay too close attention to that anyway. It is a shame for those that do.

    You also said: “Ereaders are going to hurt authors and artist, the same way Itunes and Mp3β€²s have hurt the music industry. People will illegally download books all day.”

    True, but how often do you lend a book to friends, borrow from the library, buy from a secondhand book store? All those things are good for the consumer and bad for the author too. Of course, digitally there’s likely to be far more of that, but there’s also the potential to reach far more people with an ebook for sale and make more sales that way too.

    I’m an author myself, so it pisses me off when I see my books on pirate sites, which I have a number of times. I don’t like piracy because it directly affects my income, but it’s a pitfall of the modern world. I still think that the advantages of ebooks far outweigh the negatives.

    Dave – you promised you’d never mention that.

  20. FWIW, I own and love a Kindle, and use it daily. I wasn’t debating the spirit of your message, but rather your ill rhetorical treatment of it. I’m always amazed at authors who seem to believe that style and content are somehow separate and independent.

    You claim quite clearly that SF fans have a particular obligation to accept e-readers because of SF’s themes (“…embrace the future, or forever hang up your SF fandom”). Then you try, poorly, to dodge that claim when called on it. Quoting my comment and saying “that’s ridiculous” (and nothing more) makes you look more foolish than if you had just ignored me. It’s the equivalent of “I know you are but what am I?” You’ve done precisely nothing to rebut my very straightforward comparison.

    But I learned long ago not to waste time debating on the interwebs with people who have no grasp of the basic rules of debate. Adieu, and rest assured that I won’t bother you again, nor will I pick up one of your books the next time I’m browsing the stacks.

  21. euphrosyne – You didn’t call me on anything. You made a ridiculous comparison. You talk about debate skills, yet you’re trying to argue using a logical fallacy. I know not all SF fans are in it for wish fulfillment, but there’s a huge difference between complaining about technology while enjoying a genre based largely on technological advancement and murder!

    But by all means take your ball and go home and punish me by never buying a book of mine. Yet you accuse me of, β€œI know you are but what am I?”

  22. I own a Kindle and love it. I previously owned a SOny Reader and had no choice but to learn how to strip DRM from previously purchased books in order to transfer from one machine to another. That part sucks, and is still a major barrier to people’s ability to truly enjoy the e-reading experience. Apart from that, it’s glorious.

    Note: when you smell a book, particularly an old one, you’re smelling industrial chemicals and the scent of paper in the long, slow process of rotting. It’s the smell of decay. Give me an ereader any time.

    You might be interested to know you can, in fact, get waterproof cases for Kindles and the like. So yes, you can read them in the bath.

  23. You’re right – DRM is a real problem. The main issue that I have with it is exactly what you raise. When I buy an ebook, I own that ebook and I want to have the option to juggle it between devices and so on. DRM is basically accusing everyone of being a pirate from the outset.

    As I mentioned earlier, as an author I should be for DRM because I know I’m losing income on pirate copies of my books. But I don’t think it’s a big enough issue – I’d prefer to put up with the piracy, which will happen with or without DRM – and have DRM free books for the vast majority of honest people out there.

    I can’t remember who said it, but the old quote springs to mind: Obscurity is worse than piracy.

  24. No pass for you Alan; just because you have some collectibles – nope.

    See, what you do is buy TWO copies – read one and don’t touch the other.

    Yes, wet-ware, but the interfaces you’d need to call the space colony are no longer powered, so that solution won’t cut it.

    I won’t be burning my books to keep from freezing, and neither will you. I’m burning people; that doesn’t offend my sense of morality and I can collect the fat to make candles so as to keep right on reading BOOKS.

  25. Yes I can. E-books are going to do to print books what MP3s did to the CD. I have a Nook and it’s gathering dust on a shelf; it is NOT the same experience as reading a print book, not to these eyes and hands, sorry.

  26. Am I the only person in the history of ebooks to have figured out that you can read ebooks in the bath with a ziploc to protect your ereader? More safely, I might add, than you can read hardcovers or paperbacks; no steam to damage the pages.

  27. Steve – there won’t be interfaces any more. Direct uplink, powered by the body!

    sidp – What did MP3s do to the CD? Just about everyone I know listens to an iPod or similar now. People still buy CDs, sure. I do as well. I rip them into iTunes, put them on my phone and the CD itself is rarely, if ever, played again. Ebooks might not have stuck with you now, but there are still people that play vinyl records too. Just like MP3s, ebooks will become ubiquitous.

    Elf – Ziplock is a great idea. Good for the beach too, with sand and salt, etc. Although I’m reliably informed that you can get waterproof covers anyway. Certainly a ziplock is cheaper!

  28. Alan: with regard to piracy and author revenue, I’d like to throw out an analogy for your consideration. Not sure how well it works, but bear with me at least through my attempt at an explanation.

    The analogy is: in terms of author revenue, piracy : DRM’ed e-books :: used books : paper books.

    As in, both piracy and used book sales are ways to spread a book outside of the original distribution channels and also without providing revenue to the author.

    I hasten to add that I am neither advocating piracy nor equating it with the legal and widely accepted practice of selling used books. What I’m trying to suggest is that with used books we already have a long and established tradition of not compensating creators for sales of their work (beyond the initial purchase), and yet to most people the argument that “used book sales are depriving authors of income” would, while accurate, sound strange because of all the other benefits used books offer for readers, authors, and publishers alike.

    My speculation (and feel free to poke holes in it, albeit gently please) is that DRM-cracking and piracy could end up becoming the digital realm’s equivalent of the used book market, and that it will play a roughly similar role. Authors, publishers, and distributors will reluctantly but ultimately realize that the gains outweigh the losses — if not financially, then in terms of audience building and publicity.

    Whaddya think?

  29. Paul – your comment is largely right, in my opinion. For example, Peter Watts, Hugo-winning SF writer, credits giving his books away for free as ebooks with saving his writing career, so there’s a lot to be said for massive exposure, even if the author is not getting paid right away. For example, if the books I have published now get to 50,000 readers through piracy and I only get the money for a handful of those, it’ll be worth it if those 50,000 all buy any new book that comes out; or even 5,000 or 10,000 of them. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily work like that.

    The other thing is the sheer volume. For every print book that’s bought, it might change hands a dozen times. The original purchaser buys the book, reads it and then lends it to a few mates. It then goes to a second-hand bookstore and sells to someone else, etc. An ebook, purchased by one person, could easily go to a dozen other readers within minutes, all at the same time. They could easily send it to a dozen more and so on. Someone could put it up on a file-sharing site and then it goes (potentially) to thousands. Therein lies the fundamental difference and it is significant.

    Then again, I reiterate: Obscurity is worse than piracy.

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