“It’s the smell, I’ll miss.”
“It’s the texture of the page, for me.”
“It’s that reassuring weight they’ll never replace”.
In the ongoing debates about the rise of the ebook, you generally don’t have to wait long until someone invokes the physical attributes of mouldering bookshelves as the missing ingredient from electronic texts.
Yet you don’t have to make a fetish of physicality to notice that there are several ways in which the business of owning and reading an electronic book remains inferior to doing the same with a paper copy. And, ironically enough, the most significant of these involves something at which digital media allegedly excel: sharing.
When I lend a friend one of the physical books off my shelves, I’m not just giving them access to a virgin chunk of text, as I would be if I sent them a copy of an electronic file. I’m passing on a physical object that – in my case at least – is likely to come equipped with annotations, underlinings, tea stains, and a well-thumbed sense of what caught my attention. In some cases, it will also boast several previous owners’ worth of these. And when I get it back, a little more history will come back too.
At the moment, while the internet boasts near-endless opportunities on blogs, message boards and social networks for discussing and discovering books of all kinds, there’s almost no integration between these communities and books themselves; a circumstance whose difficulties are compounded by the prevalence of so-called DRM, or Digital Rights Management, among most mainstream publishers.
To get a quick and dirty sense of Digital Rights Management, consider the difference between owning a book, and merely owning the right to read a book under certain circumstances – say on a limited number of devices or for a limited period of time. The first is what traditional print publishing offers. The second is the DRM model – one intended to protect publishers and authors against piracy. Except, as has been found time and time again, these digital locks also prevent readers from doing what they want with the books they have bought. Not to mention giving them a convenient excuse to seek out DRM-free pirated copies of books that were supposed to have been prevented by DRM in the first place.
From music to film, other industries have already passed through their own versions of the DRM dilemma when it comes to digital media – and debate and divisions continue to range, with music on iTunes DRM-free since 2009, but much online video and most video games still locked into specific rights systems.
‘Unread and unreadable’
Books are playing a rapid game of digital catch-up here – and, given the proclivities of many of DRM’s most vocal opponents, it’s perhaps no surprise that this month it was the world’s biggest science fiction publisher, Tor Books, that became the first imprint among publishing’s “big six” players to start offering all of its digital books without any rights restrictions.
It marks, as Tor author and digital campaigner Cory Doctorow put it, “a seismic event in the history of the publishing industry”. To me, though, what it also suggests is the tantalizing possibility of helping digital reading preserve all the advantages of its weightless, infinitely capacious medium while regaining some of the rich possibilities of physical books – and specifically those communities of lending, discussion, sharing and recommendation that are the traditional lifeblood of reading.