The Propaganda Campaign Against Ebooks!

Portrait caricatureThis is an expanded re-post of the piece I did last week entitled “The Wall Street Journal Keeps Its Readers In the Dark!,” so if you read that piece you can skip to the end of this piece.

I read a really misleading article in January 5 issue of The Wall Street Journal about how ebooks are not going to replace regular books. It said that ebooks are mostly for fiction–WRONG. I hardly ever read fiction and I have switched almost completely to ebooks because they are: 1) less expensive than regular books, 2) take up no space, 3) far more convenient in that I can carry almost my entire library with me everywhere, 4) searchable (a tremendous boon to my research), and 5) much easier to read in bed.

There’s another advantage 6) to ebooks too. I used to have to wait a minimum of two days to get a book from Amazon (I buy most of the books I need because I like to mark them up), but now I can get them instantly. That has accelerated the speed of my research, and of the development of my thought more generally. I think ebooks are a huge boon to the brain in that sense. That is, I think they are actually going to speed up thought! Even my 83-year old father thinks his Kindle is “fantastic!”

But back to the article. It also states that the sales of tablets have probably hurt ebook sales. WRONG, what’s “hurt” ebook sales (and I put “hurt” in quotation marks because the article actually acknowledges that sales of ebooks are continuing to grow, just not at so fast a rate as earlier) is the economy, NOT tablets. People are using their tablets to read ebooks, not only through Apple’s iBooks application but through Kindle for iPad and iPod (I read books on my iPod when I don’t have my Kindle Paperwhite with me).

The byline for the article was Nicholas Carr. Could Carr be that out of touch? My guess is that the article was actually a poorly-drafted ENR (electronic news release) that originated from a PR firm hired by Bertelsmann, or some other global print-media conglomerate, to stave off the inevitable enlightenment of old-fart WSJ readers to the ascendency of ebooks. That’s not as wild a speculation as it may seem. Sheldom Rampton and John Stauber report in their book Trust Us, We’re Experts, that approximately 60% of the “news” content of The Wall Street Journal consists of ENRs that originated in PR firms.

Strangely, when I went to post all these observations to the comments section at the end of the article–I couldn’t. I kept getting an error message when I tried to log in through Facebook, and I couldn’t create an account without actually subscribing to the Wall Street Journal.

Then today I found another article bashing ebooks. This one is in The Chronicle of Higher Education (this article, unfortunately, is available only to subscribers, so check to see if your library has a subscription). Ian Desai, the author of the article, observes that “e-book sales have slowed, and e-reader sales are in an ‘alarmingly precipitous decline,’ in the words of a recent industry report from IHS iSuppli, a market-research firm, having fallen 36 percent from their 2011 highs, with further projected declines on the horizon.”

What Desai does not explain is that e-reader sales are not a direct indicator of ebook sales. First, Amazon has free Kindle applications for both Macs and PCs that are available for download from its website. That means at least some people are reading ebooks on their computers rather than on e-book readers. Why would Amazon do that? Because Amazon doesn’t make it’s money from e-readers. It makes its money from ebooks and the same is true, I believe, for Barnes and Noble. These companies want to sell e-readers only so that they can get readers to purchase their ebooks.

Another possible reason for the decline in e-reader sale is that many people have by now already bought e-readers and will probably be content with their particular e-reader for several years. That doesn’t mean they aren’t buying ebooks though. The sale of ebooks is, again, continuing to grow.

“Perhaps it is the purveyors of digital devices who should be insecure about the future,” observes Desai. “Despite their best efforts, their relatively flimsy and expensive products often fall short of the intuitive, durable, and simple interface provided by the ancient technology of ink on paper.”

“[f]limsy”?  Wrong. Both my original Kindle and my new Kindle Paperwhite are incredibly durable. I did not get my new Kindle (which I had had for three years) because my old Kindle wasn’t working properly, or even because the technology was obsolete. I liked the smaller size of the Paperwhite and the fact that the lighted screen meant that I didn’t need a book light when I read in dim lighting (e.g., in bed at night).

“[E]xpensive”? Wrong again. My new Kindle Paperwhite was just $119 dollars, so inexpensive that I could easily by a new one every year without feeling, as I almost always due when I have to buy a new computer, that I’m the victim of a planned obsolescence technology scam.

Most notably [continues Desaid] these electronic devices are failing the social test that has underscored the success of print culture. Not only have e-readers, tablets, and smartphones made it difficult for users to share content, but such devices are also cited as causal factors of stress and social isolation.

The sharing content issue has been a problem, but I believe the makers of e-readers are working on that. Nook uses, I understand, can “loan” one another books and if Nook readers can do it, my guess is that Kindle readers will soon be able to do it as well. Even if readers of ebooks cannot directly share books though, one of the best features of e-readers is that they provide easy access to free public domain content. That means one reader doesn’t have to be able to “share” his books with another reader. Both readers can get the same material for free from the same source. People can also share their own PDFs for free across e-readers. These features of ebooks would seem actually to decrease rather than increase social isolation!

Last year [observes Desai] sales at independent bookstores increased more than 15 percent from the previous year during the week of Thanksgiving, according to the American Booksellers Association. The latest figures suggest a further double-digit increase in sales at independent bookstores this year.

That brings me to another issue that I think has received insufficient attention. I think e-readers may actually be increasing the sale of conventional books. That makes sense if independent bookstores are seeing increased sales even while ebook sales are also continuing to grow. There are several reasons this could be the case. One, I think the ease of accessibility to literature that e-books provide may actually be encouraging people to read more than they had been before the advent of e-readers. Two, some books still are available only as conventional hard-copy books rather than as ebooks. Also, I sometimes buy conventional hard copies of books in which I’ve become interested as a result of having read the free sample I downloaded on my Kindle. If, for example, the book has a lot of illustrations (and I can learn that from the sample), I may decide I want a hard copy of it rather than an electronic copy.

Ebooks would seem to be the wave of the future for a variety of vary good reasons, so why have two articles bashing ebooks appeared in rapid succession? Coincidence? I think not. That’s what PR firms do. They don’t just send out one ENR to one journal or magazine. They try to flood the media with propaganda that is favorable to their client’s interests. Strangely, I was once again unable to post a comment to the article.

I’ll confess that I wasn’t too surprised to see the WSJ apparently colluding with the PR industry to mislead the public about the ascendency of ebooks. It’s pretty disturbing, though, to see The Chronicle of Higher Education doing it.