Friday, December 9, 2011

That's Not a Real Book and in a Few Years You Won't Be Able to Read It Anyway

Ray Bradbury finally in ebook?  Well, not all of Bradbury, unfortunately, but at least a major title as opposed to a couple of short stories.  Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury's classic of a society in which firemen burn books, has finally been made available for the Kindle.  It's welcome news for those who, like me, saw his comment at the end of his Paris Review interview a while back -- as I recall, he said that he'd answered offers regarding ebook releases with an emphatic "Go to hell." -- and assumed that his major work would never be made available in digital editions.

Naturally, there have been disapproving comments in some circles, suggesting that the release of Fahrenheit 451 in ebook form is somehow a betrayal of the book.  It isn't, of course; there isn't a reason in the world why there can't be both print and digital editions of Bradbury's work.  Or anyone else's for that matter.

But one of the objections occasionally brought up regarding ebooks is that literary treasures would vanish if they exist only in digital format, that books cannot be entrusted to the computer.

Well, yes and no.

If an ebook never appears in a printed edition, is published only in digital form and then only in one or two formats, and is never migrated to new formats as new formats are developed, then that title runs the risk of being lost.  But exactly how does that differ from the case of a print title released by its publisher to little fanfare and never reissued after the original printing is sold out or remaindered?  Eventually the supply of used copies runs out, the libraries withdraw their copies if they aren't circulating quickly enough, and finally that title is facing oblivion just as surely as its digital counterpart.

There are the inevitable you-don't-need-to-recharge-a-real-book comments, the laments over the weight and feel and even the smell of the physical object.  And no question, a well-designed and printed physical book is a delight.  But not an unalloyed delight.  Take Stephen King's 11/22/63; that's one good-sized item, and these days I find it difficult to hold a book that size, and I doubt I'm alone -- the Kindle edition is a godsend.

The notion that's inevitably raised, though, and in tones that suggest that THIS is the unanswerable argument, is the fact that so many old computer files are no longer readable.  And for some files created in early operating systems, before there were computers on nearly every desktop in the known universe, that's true.  But, for instance, on my desktop PC in my home I have files created 15 or 20 years ago on other machines, files that I moved with no difficulty as I upgraded, files created in software programs that I no longer use or own, files that I can now open in other programs if need be.  I don't believe I'm unique this way, but I'm small-time, and not looking at trying to make sure my files survive for a century or more.  Does anyone seriously think that as publishers go digital they won't consider storage of their titles in formats that can be easily migrated?  That there will be no libraries or other archives working on automated migration procedures?  (I'm assuming here that publishers are rational beings wishing to preserve valuable assets for the future, though a number of them still don't seem at all comfortable with digital material yet.)  Or that writers won't do the same with their own work?

Take a look at Smashwords.  Every ebook published there can be made available in multiple formats as specified by the author; those formats include plain text and rich text format, both of which can be read by any word processor, and HTML which can be read with any web browser.  The ebooks created there can be run through conversion programs like Calibre and saved in other ebook formats as well.  Unless the EMP attack happens (in which case we'll have more pressing problems anyway), there shouldn't be any reason to worry about those files.  Copies should be available for as long as anyone cares to maintain them.

Now, that's Smashwords, where the authors publish their own titles, and no DRM is used.  Most commercial publishers still insist on DRM, which is meant to make sure that you can't move your ebook to any but approved devices, to make sure that you don't take your copy of the file and run it through a conversion program to create a copy for your Kindle if you change from a B&N Nook or vice versa.  The ebooks crippled with DRM are the ones you may not be able to read later if the seller goes out of business or you switch from one ebook reader to another -- that's not some unavoidable limitation of a computer-generated file, rather it's a deliberate attempt by the publisher to make certain the file can't be read elsewhere easily.

DRM strikes me as something that would increase the risk of digital extinction for the ebooks so burdened, most of which are from the same publishers who are happy to discontinue print versions that don't sell enough to justify keeping them available.  But that's a subject for another time.


Elsewhere on the backlist scene:

While Fahrenheit 451 is the big news backlist ebook title recently, there are other publishers busily reissuing older titles as ebooks

Bloomsbury Reader has recently issued more than a dozen titles by V. S. Pritchett.  Pritchett was probably best known for his short stories and reviews, but he also wrote biographies of Balzac, Turgenev, and Chekhov, travel books, novels, and two autobiographical works.  Much of his work is out of print in the US and his reappearance in ebook formats here is good news.  If you've not read Pritchett, you can get a nice sampling of his work in the Bloomsbury Reader edition of The Other Side of a Frontier or in Modern Library's The Pritchett Century (the latter a bit more pricey than the Bloomsbury title, though with some different selections -- this one is available both in print and ebook form).  Bloomsbury is also reissuing titles by Ronald Clark, Storm Jameson, Alec Waugh, and others. is working with Open Road to reissue backlist titles by a number of mystery writers, among them James Ellroy, Donald Westlake, and soon, Brian Garfield.  Garfield is probably best known for Death Wish; that title will be forthcoming along with other excellent thrillers like Hopscotch, Recoil, and Fear in a Handful of Dust.  It'll be nice to see them back.  Open Road has been very active on backlist over the past year, releasing titles by Stanley Elkin, Andre Dubus, Natalie Goldberg,  Lawrence Block, and more.

Good stuff coming, but there's a lot more good material waiting for revival.  Faster, please.

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