DRM is far from the only issue here. But the potential opening up of ebook formats by mainstream publishers brings with it the possibility of a new opening up of the apparatus surrounding reading as a digital experience. From universally shared annotations and highlights to the passing on of personal reading histories and personalised editions, the opportunities for integrating everyday digital reading with genuinely open communal tools are legion. Perhaps above all, though, what such openness most tantalisingly promises is a shift in emphasis within digital books away from a handful of digital “ecosystems” and back towards readers, writers and publishers.
If this sounds slightly utopian, well, that’s because it is. It shouldn’t stretch credibility too far, though, to note that belief in the very notion of “books” enduring as a 21st Century form requires more than gathering together a certain number of words. If they are to maintain vigour and impact within the brutally Darwinian internet world, both textual aspirations of permanence and a corresponding density of cultural engagement are urgently required: the mutually invigorating embrace, in other words, of authors and audiences.
One of the adages of digital media has long been that relationships matter more than mere purchases: between creators and consumers, but also within those communities of consumers who have an increasingly vocal impact on the creative process.
In this context, it’s always been one of the stranger current features of eBooks that digital and print formats are locked in such mortal combat, given not only that the same people buy both, but that the bulk of this buying is done by self-proclaimed book lovers who would relish the opportunity to connect texts’ physical and virtual incarnations. Whether it’s discounted physical copies for owners of digital books, digital editions bundled with physical purchases, or some other arrangement, pitting old against new is a poor reflection of what readers and writers alike actually want.
As the author Charlie Stross argued earlier this year, the most dismal fate any ebook can face is to become not only unread but unreadable: to become nothing more than a chunk of locked-down data “trapped inside a rapidly ageing, obsolescent slab of plastic and glass.”
Books need readers if they are to justify their existence. If books are to do more than simply exist, though – if they are to thrive – they also need communities of readers equipped to continue doing everything that has fuelled the best of written culture throughout the history of modern publishing: sharing, preserving, curating, re-reading.
It’s a time of twisting possibilities and profound uncertainty. Yet publishers face a simple enough choice: either they commit to creating technologies within which books are able to meet their audience’s best expectations – or someone else will build the future elsewhere.