how to destroy the book

I’m still sort of annoyed at Amazon’s self-serving press release about more ebooks being sold for the Kindle on Christmas Day than “real” books. I feel a few things

1. they’re creating a distinction that isn’t necessary, between ebooks and paper books
2. at the same time they’re obscuring the very very real distinction that exists and is terribly important: you do not own an ebook, you license or lease it

Plus I just plain old don’t believe it. I mean maybe it’s true for the narrowly sliced timeframe they’ve outlined but really? This isn’t a trend, it’s a blip. Want me to think otherwise? Release some actual numbers. Amazon makes more money off of ebooks than paper books. They’d like to keep doing that. So.

I’ve been meaning to link to this talk for a while, a transcribed talk that Cory Doctorow gave at the National Reading Summit in November. The title of his talk was How to Destroy the Book. I think you’ll enjoy it.

[T]he most important part of the experience of a book is knowing that it can be owned. That it can be inherited by your children, that it can come from your parents. That libraries can archive it, they can lend it, that patrons can borrow it. That the magazines that you subscribe to can remain in a mouldering pile of National Geographics in someone’s attic so you can discover it on a rainy day—and that they don’t disappear the minute you stop subscribing to it. It’s a very odd kind of subscription that takes your magazines away when you’re done [as is the case with most institutional subscriptions with Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of medical and scientific journals].

Having your books there like an old friend, following you from house to house for all the days and long nights of your life: this is the invaluable asset that is in publishing’s hands today. But for some reason publishing has set out to convince readers that they have no business reading their books as property—that they shouldn’t get attached to them. The worst part of this is that they may in fact succeed.

17 thoughts on “how to destroy the book

  1. Wonderful speech by Doctorow. Thanks for the link!

  2. “Amazon makes more money off of ebooks than paper books.”

    Given the fact that they’re selling ebooks at $9.99 and paying the publishers more than that, ie, the print price, how can this be true?

  3. Last night I toyed with the idea of buying a Kindle–until my husband asked if I could bring it into the bathtub…

    Thanks for drawing our attention to the fact that e-books and articles get sucked back into the ether when subscriptions end.

  4. I think they may be calculating in the “free” ebooks. On their website they list their best selling ebooks and the majority of them are free. If I had a new Kindle on Xmas, I’d fill it with the free stuff first too!

  5. Aren’t most stores closed on Christmas? So people get a Kindle for Christmas, buy a book, and then try it out. But of course the numbers for anything sold on Christmas are extremly low, everything is closed! Yes, people can shop online, but they usually are with family and have had enough of shopping. Stats are just lies, you can make them say what you want.
    I love your point that you don’t own the book, you lease it. It’s not the same thing.

  6. I think that a lot of the cynicism surrounding the Kindle is misplaced. Jeff Bezos is deeply in love with his company’s invention and is genuinely excited about the prospect of using it to convert millions of casual readers into legions of voracious readers. Yes, he stands to make a lot of money if it succeeds, but in his mind that’s a happy coincidence and not the device’s raison d’être.

    I will be the first to admit that Amazon’s handling of the Kindle, its restrictions and long-term implications leave much to be desired, but the dire predictions about Amazon as a nefarious, all-controlling entity are misguided and alarmist.

    This press release was written because Amazon’s CEO is excited that his favorite product reached a symbolic (but in the short term, probably meaningless) milestone. That’s all.

  7. “you do not own an ebook, you license or lease it”

    While true with DRMed ebooks (like those sold by Amazon), that statement isn’t true for all ebooks. Check out Project Gutenberg,,, or any of the other ebook sites that aren’t Amazon. Ebooks aren’t taking anything away: they’re making many books long since fallen into disuse available again. What good is a book if no one can find it to read it? Just knowing that a book is out there somewhere in print means nothing. The DRM issue with ebooks will pass, as it did with mp3s.

  8. Part of me frets because we’ve allowed the two issues to become so muddled in the first place.

    Our culture’s love affair with the book is so often centered on the format as opposed to the words held on the pages. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if the ‘next generation’ would quibble at all with e-book readers when they will be the dominant medium as opposed to the printed page. Our focus needs to be on ownership v. access. Like Kevin Wadlow mentioned, there are many non-DRM’ed e-books to be found for e-readers, and hopefully we’ll gain traction on the DRM debate, if not win it altogether. But in the mean time we need to make sure that we don’t accidentally damn the e-book reader because of DRM.

    And now a digression – a real concern that isn’t addressed enough with e-books is the cost of the e-book reader. The book may be only $9.99, but the reader’s price is still prohibitive for many people. The price point will drop in time, I know, but I think the costs associated with the entire technology is still at a point where it discourages adoption and use by many people in our communities. (i.e. it prevents reading. Going to a second-hand bookstore, let alone the library, is still cheaper than logging in to Amazon.)

  9. Good to have the link to Doctorow’s speech transcript, and to see an educated discussion on these matters. Thanks, Jessamyn, and Happy New Year:-)

  10. Being an ebook publisher, and an avid reader of ebooks, I do love the availability, but I agree that there is something special about having a book in your hands. I love being able to skim an ebook, but sitting back with a real book has a certain charm that can’t be matched with even the kindle.

  11. A thought (quote) from Erica Jong (or one of her characters) comes to mind…
    something along the lines of who owns words? don’t we all?

    I like to think I’m for fair use…but where is the line between one’s right to earn a livelihood by words (either as author or publisher or….) and, well, the sharing and preservation of knowledge by those outside of the “publishing world”…..

    this definitely needs some clarification…but you are really on to something Jessamyn…a civilization based entirely on capitalism, I believe, is ripe for implosion (not that I expect you to agree with me!!)

  12. I don’t see this as an “either/or” issue. My husband and I have always been avid readers (explains us both being librarians and it taking a U-haul to move just our books)and we both own Kindles. We still own and buy physical books like addicts but we’re just more selective now. Paperback novels are not something we need to keep. Hence, the purchase of the e-readers.

  13. It’s not about the format, as somone has already noted. Novels, plays, poetry, non-fiction texts, art, literature, knowledge, knowing, thinking, understanding, freedom.
    It’s about money. Corporate ownership can be as exclusive as private ownership, but with money many things are more accessible.
    Farenheit 451 isn’t about books; it’s about freedom of thought and access to knowledge.
    It’s the conflagration of the mind, real or virtual.
    It’s like worrying literacy as the ability to read instead of as the ability to think, analyze and know.

  14. I have own a few e-books, they have their place. However an e-book is a printout or a page on a screen, it is not a real book and never will be.

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