30 mostly spurious benefits of ebooks

Thanks to lifehacker I discovered that Read an Ebook Week is in early March. The Epublishers Weekly blog has a post which covers “30 Benefits of Ebooks,” which while containing some bits of truth, if you will, is mostly IMHO made of up bad logic and spurious reasoning.

I will not waste my time deconstructing all 30 reasons but will comment on a few of them.

1. Ebooks promote reading. People are spending more time in front of screens and less time in front of printed books.

Uh, how does this follow? We (even I) may be spending more time in front of our screens but we might just be looking at photos on Flickr, watching YouTube videos, surfing for porn or any of 1000s of possible activities which have absolutely nothing to do with reading an ebook. And while much of our online activity does involve reading it may not include reading books.

2. Ebooks are good for the environment. Ebooks save trees. Ebooks eliminate the need for filling up landfills with old books. Ebooks save transportation costs and the pollution associated with shipping books across the country and the world.

And the manufacture of all these electronic devices and the electricity to power them, including all of the many highly toxic components and manufacturing processes do no damage to the environment at all?

3. Ebooks preserve books. … Ebooks are ageless: they do not burn, mildew, crumble, rot, or fall apart. Ebooks ensure that literature will endure.

Ha ha ha ha ha. This is one of the funniest, utterly stupid comments I have ever heard. Digital preservation issues anymore? Format migration?

7. Ebooks are portable. You can carry an entire library on one DVD.

So those books I carry with me pretty much everywhere are not portable? Certainly ebooks are more portable in quantity is the point but make it more clearly then!

14. Ebooks are free. The magnificent work of Project Gutenberg, and other online public libraries, allow readers to read the classics at no cost.

“Right!” said with a proper Bill Cosby accent cause my public library charges me $5 just to walk in the door. Not!

21. Ebooks, with their capacity for storage, encourage the publishing of books with many pages, books that might be too expensive to produce (and purchase) in paperback.

Perhaps true, but it goes against any and all conventional wisdom that I’ve heard or read about the length of electronic materials read by people. I guess one could make a 2500-page PDF but who the hell is going to read it?

27. Ebooks defeat attempts at censorship. All these works were banned: Analects by Confucius. Lysistrata by Aristophanes. Ars Amorata by Ovid. Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio by John Milton. The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne. Wonder Stories by H.C. Andersen. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Ulysses by James Joyce. … Many of these books were confiscated, burned, or denied availability in libraries, bookstores and schools. Ebooks guarantee that readers maintain their right to read.

All I can say to this one is “Seriously WTF are you on about?” I bet I can find everyone of those at both my public and academic library. And censorship certainly exists on the Internet.

Now clearly there is some value in this list. Some of the author’s points seem perfectly valid, although there are more I could pick on. But the ones I did highlight seem egregiously spurious to me.

I would like to see the proliferation of more widely available ebooks that are cross-platform, free of DRM, and in formats that are easily migratable to new formats when required. I would also like to see some of the possibilities that the author says may come to pass do so.

Nonetheless, this silly list will do nothing to change my reading habits. I read both online and in print and I print a lot of stuff that came to me electronically. Both have various affordances even now, but many of the affordances that the author claims for ebooks are nonexistent for most ebook formats at the moment.

I despise most marketing and spurious marketing really gets my goat!

So read ebooks if they work for you. If they don’t then don’t worry so much about some of these reasons.

33 thoughts on “30 mostly spurious benefits of ebooks

  1. I am particularly appalled at the statement that “Ebooks are free.” While Project Gutenberg and a few other sites do offer free ebooks, their holdings are entirely limited to books in the public domain. Many of those books are excellent, but with copyright getting longer and longer, they may be the only ones in the public domain for a while!

    Also, I just had to explain not moments ago to a former student over the phone why ebrary isn’t free to her anymore. It is a common misconception amongst many library patrons that ebooks are free because we make the process seamless. They’re a little less thrilled when they realize that it is their tuition or tax dollars that pay for it, and you can’t take it with you.

    I love ebooks, I read them all the time, I’m just saying that this particular statement is indicative of a deceptively general tone that much of the list takes.

  2. You can carry an entire library on one DVD, but you can’t read a single book from that library unless you are carrying a laptop. Not so portable after all. I suppose if you buy a Kindle, you can carry many books and read any one of them on the bus, but then so much for the free thing.

    I try to be open-minded about eBooks; it’s just hard at times.

  3. Not only do we spend more time in front of the computer screen, we also actually read less of what’s in front of us on the screen. (There was a study on this not too long ago; I don’t remember where I saw it. Probably CNN.) People scan things; rarely do they read them in-depth. I know I don’t, if only because concentrating on the screen for “real” reading hurts my eyes terribly. I always printed out the PDFs for the articles we were assigned at GSLIS.

  4. I would love to love ebooks (cue a library themed remake of the Cheap Trick song “I Want You to Want Me.”

    Now if we were talking eaudiobooks I think #1 WOULD be true.

  5. They are totally off their rockers… um, have they heard of DRM? In fact, some downloadable copies of things *clearly* in public domain have DRM *anyway* and you can’t read after your checkout period is up. DRM allows possibly greater censorship because the book could be redacted even after you brought it home – the Kindle books are able to receive “updates”

  6. Excellent points, all. Thanks!

    Again, I’m not against ebooks. I read a lot more on my little Mac than many people do. Sometimes I even read lengthy pdfs, but not book length.

    Honestly, though, I have cut back on my lengthy on-screen reading. I did much more as a MS student than I have as a CAS student. I never had to give any $$ to GSLIS above my print quota as a MS student, but I think I’m up to about $120 of my own on top of my print quota as a CAS student.

    What I really like having is both so I can take advantage of the affordances each offers. I can treat my eyes properly, highlight, annotate and so on on the print copies and I can have copies of everything (electronic) with me for whenever the need strikes, I can do full-text searches, I can easily share, etc.

    I really, really wish I had full-text copies of all my Harris books and articles! I t would greatly simplify my research being able to look for things I need and to collocate across his large body of work. But I wouldn’t give up the printed copies for anything either.

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  8. Here’s something to think about:
    It takes 24 trees to produce a ton of printing paper, the type normally used for books, 12 trees are harvested for a ton of newsprint. Up to 35% of books printed for consumers are never read. They are eventually returned to the publisher for disposal. Given that a mature tree can produce as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year, a serious alternative to paper books, magazines and newspapers needs to be considered. That alternative is e-books.

    That doesn’t mean that print and e-books can’t co-exist. But before purchasing your next paper book, magazine or newspaper, consider your carbon footprint commitment. Read electronically.

    Read An E-Book Week, March 9-15, 2008. For more information please visit http://www.domokos.com/readebookweek.html

  9. Hi Rita and thanks. And I am going to take issue with this point just as I did above, as it was pointed out with slightly less numerical data than you did.

    Oh, and also as I said above, I do read electronically.

    First off, how am I supposed to trust these figures? Just because someone made the claim doesn’t make them accurate.

    But far more importantly, what is on the other side of the equation? What is the carbon footprint of all those computers, CDs, e-book readers, etc.? How much of these electronic devices and carriers of electronic data end up in landfills or shipped to 3rd world countries for poor peoples to strip toxic–but valuable to developed nations as long as they don’t have to do the salvage work–materials from?

    Fossil fuels are used to distribute all of the hardware required and some of the e-books themselves. They are not all delivered by the internet. Perhaps not even a majority, yet. Storage facilities are built and heated to store the electronics. These electronics end up in landfills, ….

    I am most certainly not trying to shill for the paper industry. They certainly have some problems that need to be tended to. But I am also not going to be a shill for the electronics industry either. Nor will I allow others to be so on my blog.

    You are welcome to your comments and while I say that there may even be some truth in it, it is only half (at best) of the truth, and thus an intentional mis-framing of the situation. Perhaps not a lie, as such, but certainly the next best thing to one!

    Hell, if you want to take on carbon footprint issues go after the Second Lifers for Christ’s sake! I’ve read that Second Life avatars and in world activity takes more energy to maintain than a real life life does.

    E-books do have benefits and/or affordances! So do paper books. Some of these are vastly different, some are shades or degrees of the same thing. If someone wants to promote e-books that is fine with me, but I’d certainly appreciate seeing even one of them think about telling the entire complex story. Or at a minimum, have a passing reference to something (and a cite to get it) that they don’t have time to focus on in their (perhaps short) piece.

    But I refuse to simply accept statements such as this (or any of the others on that page):
    “E-books are created electronically. No trees are cut to produce them. No ink is used to put the words on the page. No fossil fuel is used to run presses or power trucks to move them around the country. No storage facilities need to be heated to store boxes of books until they are shipped to bookstores. ”

    Perhaps not directly a lie; but it is certainly intended to deceive by leaving out much of the truth of the situation.

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  11. Rita and Mark, thanks for this dialog. It is time to compare facts on this question: what is the carbon footprint of books vs. eBooks? I found a statistic from Penguin that says that a 500-page paperback will typically account for around 2.5 kg of carbon dioxide emissions per copy. But I have not yet found any figures for eBooks. There is lots of rhetoric on the subject (myself not excluded) but it is time for some harder figures. I will keep an eye out, and appreciate any leads.

  12. Okay – let’s give it some thought and we’ll dialogue. 🙂 There is certainly no intent to deceive on my part.

    People who read e-books are typically electronics junkies. E-books can be read on whatever the reader has on hand. That can be a computer, a PDA, a Blackberry or Palm Pilot – even a phone. My point is – they ALREADY have the device and it’s doing double or even triple duty already.

    Here’s an interesting tidbit. In Japan, where people commute for long periods each day, sales of mobile-phone novels—books that you download and read in instalments on the screen of your cell phone—have jumped from nothing five years ago to over ¥10 billion ($82m) a year today (The Economist)

    Now, imagine if each of those pieces of reading material was a paper book? It would mean a forest was cut down. They are reading by using something they ALREADY have – a phone. A paper book is created to be disposable.

    Here’s another interesting thought. The last Harry Potter book sold 6.9 million copies in the first 24 hours in the U.S. alone – another 2 million in the UK.

    If it takes 24 trees to make a ton of paper for books (Conservatree.com) and if few assume the average weight of a book to be 1.5 pounds, then we can say a ton of paper makes 1,333 books. Just the U.S. sales of that one book amounts to 10,350,000 pounds of books which translates into 124,200 trees – in the first 24 hours! Plus the books had to be produced and shipped to book stores.

    Remember that other little tidbit? – a mature tree can produce as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year.

    I’m not against paper books either. Hey – I’m an author and I’ve been published in paper (www.domokos.com) but I also have my books in electronic format. Somhow, the notion that the publishing industry is (or was at the time of the study done by the Energy Information Administration) the 4th largest emitter of carbon dioxide among manufacturers is a hard figure to forget.

    The answer to e-book vs. print book is balance. They each have their place and I’m sure they can co-exist. All I’m asking by promoting Read An E-Book Week is that when you consider your next book why not consider an e-book? You almost certainly already have the equipment that it takes to read it, and it produces few pollutants to create it or destroy it.

  13. Rita, you are excluding the environmental impact of digital technology. You say things like “they ALREADY have the device”. Getting that device had a cost on the environment, like ground-based transportation as Mark mentioned earlier. If they like reading eBooks that way, they will consume more of these digital products, and send the old ones to the landfill, often with toxins like mercury. These costs have to be added in. That’s what I’m looking to find out.

  14. Thanks for the update, Rita. And I certainly do not mean to say that you intend to deceive.

    Many of these points are very fine points, indeed. But they must be balanced against other things. Just as John and I point out, it is completely unfair to include any of the details involved in the production and consumption of the devices to read e-books.

    And while many forests are being cut down for lots of wrong reasons, I have no truck with the O2 producing argument. We are polluting much of our world by many means–but is the under-production of oxygen one of them?

    I think much better (rhetorically) arguments about the loss of forests could be used although all of them will still be impacted by the technology industry.

    Where does all the cardboard, plastics, foams, etc. come from to package all these devices we own?

    Again, I do not mean to disparage e-books or their fans and marketeers. But IMHO they need some better arguments. Then again, the whole we must argue for e-books vs. paper books tone infuriates me. Argue for what they can do, for what affordances they provide, for what real benefits (once properly sussed out) they provide, and so on.

  15. John, when you get those figures I’d be interested in them as well.

    To address your statement that “If they like reading eBooks that way, they will consume more of these digital products, and send the old ones to the landfill…” People don’t toss a digital product after each use. Books are read once then discarded or loaned, etc. They are produced to be disposable – digital products are not. Hundreds of books can be read on a device the person already has.

    Better arguments about the loss of our forests? How about esthetics. Loss of animal habitat. A quiet place to retreat to. Recreational opportunities. Filter for the water table. But someone can make an argument about each of them.

    Real benefits of e-books? Other than those provided in other posts – here’s a few:
    – Drs. can carry an entire pharmacopeia on their PDA. Instant reference to drugs when a patient is in distress.
    – entire vacation worth of reading on your Blackberry.
    – several pounds of reduced weight in a student’s backpack.
    – something readily at hand to read while you are waiting for Granny at the Dr. office, or making a quick stop for a soothing coffee on a hectic day.
    – cheaper to purchase (or should be)
    – free access to the classics through Project Gutenberg

    But, read as you will. Digital or electronic, there’s a place for both. Again, back to my previous statement — just consider your commitment to reduce your carbon footprint. Maybe reading an e-book will help you meet it.

  16. I agree that reducing our carbon footprint (whatever that might actually mean–sorry, my scientific skepticism coming through, along with my skepticism of public adoption of scientific terms) is a good thing. Of course, that alone will not save our planet.

    I also agree that all the the reasons given by Rita for saving forests are good ones, as are the ones for using e-books.

    Although, I’d honestly like to see more pulling apart of the vast differences (in terms of reading) of reference books and regular (non-reference) books. E-book types love to reach for the “entire pharmacopeia on their PDA” argument which is extremely spurious, at best. Yes, that is a valuable argument for certain e-books, but what the heck does it have to do with the vast amount of other kinds of books that are read. Probably a much vaster amount is meant for sustained reading vs. the pop in and out type of reading encouraged by reference works.

    There are different kinds of books and some of them are much better suited to the e-book format. That must be acknowledged.

    As for reducing your carbon footprint I wish you well. But if all of your attempts to do so involve as much thought (or lack thereof) as this one of “e-books are better for the environment than regular books” without even beginning to consider some of the true costs of e-books then I fear we are doomed as a species [Of course, that is true anyway, but moreso in the decline of Western civ sense is what I mean here].

    So, are e-books healthier for the environment than paper books? I don’t know and, it seems, neither do you.

    People, read e-books if they work for you for whatever reasons. As I said in my post, I’d love to have e-book versions of much of the stuff I am currently working with, along with the paper versions. This would clearly afford me some things I do not have with the paper books alone.

    But do not come up with “feel good’ arguments that you cannot begin to support and then try and tell the rest of us that this is a good reason.

    I am pro-tree and pro-forest.
    I am pro-clean Earth.
    I am pro-reading, in whatever format works for you.
    I read an immense amount electronically.

    I am against spurious arguments that are only slightly supported and which ignore whole other realms of evidence that must be included in the analysis.

    Currently, I have no evidence whatsoever that e-books are “greener” than paper books. I am certainly willing to accept good, thorough evidence if and when it is forthcoming. Certainly the argument sounds like a no-brainer. But I am old enough to fully realize how these kinds of no-brainer arguments are fundamentally flawed, especially in a complex situation such as this.

    Please all feel free to continue the discussion here. I am kind of tiring of it because it is becoming sort of a “he said, she said” thing and I don’t like those. I am not invested enough in it to try and track down any of the relevant data needed to answer the question, which is quite complex. I also have much more important (to me) questions I should be attending to.

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  18. Fair enough. Some of the benefits are silly.

    On the other hand, there are real benefits.

    Sure, my Palm III xe took some plastic and metal to build, but it’s still ticking years later and I can read books with it. I can read books with no external lighting (reducing electrical costs). And if you don’t think paper is an ecological problem, visit either a US pulp mill or parts of Indonesia or China where forests have been eliminated for paper.

    I think you minimize the portability issue. Sure you can carry a paper book–you can even carry a paper encyclopedia if you want to. But I’m a lot more likely to have my Palm in my pocket when I’m waiting at the doctor’s office or for my wife to check out the shoes at the mall. And if you’re traveling, it’s great to carry multiple books in a small form factor.

    And the issue of needing a laptop to read is wrong. There are lots of ways to read eBooks. Computers are one. PDAs and cellphones are another. Dedicated eBook readers are a third.

    The point of Read an eBook Week (I think–I’m not its originator) is that many people who would benefit from eBooks haven’t given them a try yet. So, give them a try. I think you’ll find that eBooks will grow on you. They certainly have for me–so much that I started an eBook company.

    Rob Preece
    Publisher, http://www.BooksForABuck.com

  19. See this is why I am already tiring of this discussion; Rob has perfectly valid points. Importantly, though, I do not think I was arguing counter to any of them. I certainly was not arguing one needs a laptop, nor was I arguing that paper manufacture (and use) is not harmful to the environment.

    My point on this head is only that e-book proponents that I have read have all glossed over the equally important ecological costs of the electronics–whatever they are.

    Cell phones, my friends, are made to be thrown away. As is your iPod and pretty much every other consumer electronic device you could possibly buy today. You want to talk ecological destruction and the toxic impact on real lives? Sure, we can include paper mills, but also look at poor people in India, some African nations, and elsewhere that strip apart (“recycle”) the castoff electronics of the Western world for their valuable, but highly toxic, constituents.

    I am also not trying to minimize the portability or any other issue. My point, though, is only to question some of the purported benefits–some globally, some only in certain contexts. I am not trying to make a balanced argument. I am primarily pointing out the current imbalances on the pro side.

    I would like to see a balanced position, certainly. At the moment, I am doing all I can to help move towards that by pointing out some of the issues with much of the pro side.

    Again, everyone, please do try an e-book (or 2) to see if they are for you.

    I am not arguing against them; I wish people would see that.

  20. I read ebooks, among other things, because that’s the only way to get the books I want. I like to read Victorian authors like Charlotte Yonge; she’s out of print and out of most libraries; Gutenberg and Manybooks give me most of her novels free.

    Ditto for many other authors. Ebooks are the antiquarians’ delight.

  21. Sadly I am still stuck in the print mode myself. There is a comfort factor in a book that a cheap download from a web site does not accomplish. I live in a tiny apartment in the Lakeview area of Chicago and have close to a thousand books. I have favorite books, and to have them around me is like having members of my family around. I cannot explain the sensation. It is profound. Books have a tactile quality to them that e-books will never have. E books seem fake. My copy of the Golden Bough that I picked up in a yard sale sits open on a plant stand near my desk. I use it more than the Bible and only second to my compact OED. The OED I keep on a makeshift dictionary stand that I made from an old plant stand. Getting up to search for the magnifying glass is like a ritual. There is nothing in the world of Berners-Gates that matches it yet.

  22. Zora, thank you for one of the 1st solidly good reasons to care about e-books!

    If I wanted to try and argue both sides of this, tohse are the sorts of things I would bring up. UIUC–and I imagine most of the bigger (and many smaller) book scanning projects –has a Digitized Book of the Week used to highlight some of the various treasures (to someone) being digitized: http://www.library.uiuc.edu/blog/digitizedbotw/

    I have heard and read that we are beginning to get some decent usage statistics, too. Books that have been rarely if ever circulated now have 100s of views. Of course, we get back to the same old questions involving anything that can be downloaded … was it actually read, …?

    David, thank you and welcome! I wish more people would realize that David’s is a legitimate perspective in this area. I, too, much prefer the print mode for any sustained reading.

    I read an awful lot on screen; quite possibly a greater amount of words are read online than in print. But if I need to read anything past about 20 pages it is going to be printed out if at all possible.

    Still. I would love to have useful electronic copies–too–of the main books I am currently working with IF they allowed good searching capabilities, highlighting and annotation, and copying and pasting of text for quotation purposes. If any of those features were missing then forget it. Considering many (most currently) of these are still in print, and certainly under copyright, I doubt that even if they were available would they be actually usable how I need them to be as a scholar attempting to build from someone else’s work. Instead, somewhere the system would be so laden with DRM that it would prohibit all copying of text as an assumed violation of copyright ignoring that fair use actually exists.

    Again. These sorts of issues are complex and evolving. But these are the sorts of things I would like to see honestly addressed in any plea for people to try and/or use e-books.

  23. I appreciate Mark’s even-handed view on the issue. Personally, one of the best advantages I see for ebooks is that it is one cheap way for new authors to get exposure. My view is that digital and print technologies represent two ends of a spectrum. Digital publishing is suited to high changeable content and works in progress, and for light reading. Print publishing is suited for well-developed ideas and complex ideas that require sustained reading, and rich materials that should be savoured slowly. As a spectrum, both mediums are useful. That seems to be a common point.

  24. Great post, Mark! I just want to add one thing– E-books are different from real books in a very important way: They require you to have special equipment to use them, and you have to buy this equipment from the industrial producers. This has environmental costs, as you have pointed out, but it has social costs as well. When you have to buy special equipment to use books, some people will inevitably be excluded from their use.

  25. Very good point, Bo!

    Being a different kind(s) of technology they also have other individual and social costs than do books, which have their own.

    I should have thought of this but since I’m not really trying to build that balanced list–that I’d love to see–by myself I gave it little thought.

    Thanks for reminding us of it, Bo!

  26. Quite interesting! Thank you, Paul.

    While this will not directly answer our questions it is helpful.

    By the way, if you do think that there is an answer then I’d be happy to suggest some things to read to disavow you of that notion. There is, nor cannot be, a single answer to this issue.

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  29. i have over 13,000 ebooks, please tell me, without a house (im a student), i could store that amount of intellectual material in books without needing several removal vans. also, what good is a book, when you CANT BREATHE AIR. sure, ebooks require that you have manufactured for you, a computer, but at least the materials used don’t prevent AIR PRODUCTION, and seeing as your already ‘using a screen for flickr, youtube, etc’, not really wasted material is it? the electricity and manufacturing processes used CAN come from clean sources. books are inherently dated and destructive of the environment. also, im lazy and forget to bring books back to the library, i no longer have that problem. i can also share books with people AND STILL BE ABLE TO READ THEM AFTERWARDS, forget about “can i have my book back please?”, forget about it being ‘my’ book…..

    to the author of this article, stop being an antique. THANK you. i have a laptop and im staying in this year. the benefits of books are now only subjective (portability withstanding) and, if a screen ‘hurts your eyes’, theres this clever function labeled BRIGHTNESS and CONTRAST, which you can dull. the text size and colour can also be modified for those with reading struggles, WITHOUT NEEDING A REPRINT….

    bring on the resource based economy. future by design, Jacque Fresco. http://www.thevenusproject.com/

    o and cencorship IS more avoidable on the internet, just to finish you off.

  30. Mark, you lose, lay down your antiqued books, and accept it! im not saying burn them, im just saying, you lose this arguement/discussion/debate/comparison, stop buying books if you want to be ethical. how many figures do you need before you start trusting what you see? or do you need those figures printed on a bit of dead tree?

  31. Ebooks require less hardware and software for conversion to audio than paper books which makes them a great convenience for those with limited vision.

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