MP3s, eBooks, Digitizing and ‘The Experience’

01.27.10 | 11 Comments

So, the iPad is here – massive Dom Joly iPhone? half a laptop? eReader? The Daily Prophet for Muggles…?

I read a couple of people on Twitter making claims that it was going to ‘kill books’. In response I tweeted this quote from Douglas Adams, which I got via Neil Gaiman:

“Nothing is as good at being a book as a book is.”

And commented that eBooks ≠ MP3s for written words.

So what’s the difference? Why are book-sellers in a different position to those who were in the business of selling music-in-bits-of-plastic that are now crapping themselves that their livelihood is vanishing?

Firstly, digitally downloadable music is the most malleable, useful format ever for music, and we lose nothing in the quality of experience by going that route. Sure, the quality of files sold on iTunes is lower than CD, but don’t forget that CDs are just containers for digital music – they’re overly large computer discs – and that the audio on them is of a quality deemed acceptable to all but the most audiophile of listeners. With digital downloads, there’s nothing to stop us upping the quality to the point where the changes are undetectable – 24bit, 96k files are probably about as good as you need to go before the changes are imperceptible. We can do that, and once the headphones are on, or the speakers are playing the music, the experience is the same as any other format for listening to recorded stereo (or in the case of DVD-A, 5.1) music. Nothing is lost, portability and positively variable quality is gained. If you want the experience of popping something flat and physical in a slot while listening, you can make a piece of toast at the same time.

eBooks are a whole different proposition – the act of reading requires us to continually look at the thing we’re reading from. That’s what reading is. Otherwise, it’s memorising, and the act of memorising requires us to read – or listen to – the words before we learn them.

So books and eBooks aren’t just a delivery mechanism – they are the stereo system as well as the record. They are carried around as part of the experience.

This isn’t to say that eBooks ‘aren’t as good as books’, just that they AREN’T books. They are a wholly different way to consume the written word, with all kinds of fun multimedia potential too, but also with all kinds of issues surrounding readability, shareability, discovery, portability, flexibility, the ability to scribble notes in the margins and the format for gifting.

Comparing once again with music – if I want to give someone a CD, it’s quite possible for me to record a digital file onto any kind of transferable media I like and pass it on without losing anything. The same can be done with an eBook, but it’s much tougher to transfer from eBook to book – the cost of printing a document of book length at home is not comparitive with the cost of dubbing a CD and printing a nice picture on it.

Readability is a huge issue – the Kindle gets round it by using ‘E ink’ or ‘virtual ink’, rendering it much easier on the eyes, but making the screen much less multi-purpose. As far as I know, no-one yet has done a hybrid E-ink/normal screen. So you have the variable use of an iPad-style screen with its eye-strain issues for longer documents, or the Kindle which is a one-trick pony, all be it a fairly brilliant one trick pony.

The Kindle is utilitarian – it does its one function very well, without too many concessions to pointless stylization. The iPad may well be used by a lot of people as an eReader, but the experience won’t be the same as reading a book, it won’t be any more portable than an individual book, won’t fit in your back pocket and even if it did, would break if you sat on it.

This isn’t an anti eBook rant – I love the idea of downloadable, sharable books, I love the idea of subscribable news, of blogs and newspapers and novels living side by side in harmony, like Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, but it’s worth considering the fundamental differences and why, as I said at the top, eBooks ≠ to MP3s for the written word.

….if you don’t believe you, go and download my eBook… for free! :)

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