Adventures In E-reading

Novelist Garbhan Downey has some teething problems with his new Sony Reader

Back when PCs were still in their infancy, the Irish News installed a new-fangled device called a 'modem' into my Derry home, to allow me to transmit news copy 'up the wire' to Belfast at the end of the working day.

The modem was a very slow and very noisy device, which required a ridiculous amount of maintenance. I had to phone the engineer in Belfast every evening before I could send my pieces, so he could stick the receiver on. And even then, the dial-up connection would only kick in after about six or seven failed attempts.

Even so, it was a huge improvement on the fax machine, which I had been using to service the paper for the 18 months prior to then. This, of course, necessitated a typist in Belfast resetting my copy – and me not running out of paper or expensive printer-toner at my end.

The fax, in turn, was a whole lot better than the system which existed when I started with the Irish News, which amounted to ringing the Belfast switchboard, queuing for a typist, and dictating my copy word for arduous word.

No. I would never go back. And I’m fully confident that, in ten years time, we’ll be saying exactly the same about e-readers.

On virtually every level they make sense. They’re environmentally friendly, wasting no paper at all and so little power it’s almost negligible (my Sony gives 7,000 page-turns on a single charging). Also, they’re a far cheaper means of distribution for publishers, which means, theoretically at least, authors should earn more.

E-readers are so convenient and web-compatible you can buy books at midnight from an isolated beach, if you’re so inclined and have nothing else to do. They’re simple-to-handle, robust, compact and are becoming more and more affordable (Sony Reader - £199, Kindle 2 - $299). And the manufacturers have finally sorted out, to my satisfaction at least, the 'glare' issue, which makes prolonged e-notebook reading so sore on the eye.

And that’s all before you talk about the one great thing that sets e-readers apart from the 20th century alternative: you can now carry 2,000 different books – an entire library – in your jacket pocket and not even stretch it out of shape.

The days of little Quasimodo struggling off to school, under a ton-and-a-half of text books, are almost over. (You could say the bell is tolling...) And you will never have to dump your entire holiday reading at the Ryanair weigh-in again.

Just like my 1993 modem, however, e-reading is still far from being an exact science.

On Sunday night past, I tried to buy a bestselling book online. Sure enough, Amazon had it ... but not in the correct format for my reader. Waterstones, which has a special e-partnership with Sony, didn’t have it at all, despite the fact it was first published two years ago. And Sony.com, which had a link to the book, wouldn’t let me access it in the format I needed, because I live outside the US.

Two other e-stores also rejected my Northern Irish address, before I eventually scored a hit with an American seller who was only too delighted to give me the book, as long as I gave him the fillings from my teeth in exchange.

In between times, I was offered a free pirate version of the book (no strings, no membership fees, just a simple Limewire download), which I resisted, as ultimately, as an author myself, I’d be cutting my own throat.

Then at last, on Monday morning, I found another US e-shop which sold me the book at what I thought was a reasonable price ($10.49). But even as I bought it, I felt uneasy. Have I breached any international trade laws?, I wondered. Is it legal to buy an e-book from the States, which clearly isn’t available in e-form this side of the Atlantic? And finally, having bought the e-version, am I now entitled to swap it with an e-reading buddy when I’m done with it, as I would with the paperback version?

This attempt to obtain a single, solitary potboiler has raised issues of electronic-compatibility, copyright and ethics. But as a writer, it’s the 'file-sharing' that concerns me most. My pal, who’s a professional musician, tells me that piracy has all but put an end to him making money from selling singles or albums. Bands who don’t tour all the time are going out of business.

And while it’s relatively simple to copy music, it’s 50 times easier to duplicate books. Literally. The file-size of a 20-song album is anywhere between 60 and 100 megabytes. The size of a 300-page novel, depending on format, is only about a megabyte. In real terms, that’s an attachment smaller than a photograph – and a thousandth the size of a pirate video.

This more than anything explains the reluctance of publishers to release books on e-format. And while, as a writer, my sympathies are completely with my paymasters, as a reader, I’m not sure that’s the practical response. While I hope and pray that 'physical' books will always be with us, the march towards e-reading is inexorable.

It is essential that all those in the industry get involved now so the process can be managed properly. This includes writers, publishers, distributors, lawyers, educators, libraries and of course conscientious readers. Clear industry protocols are needed on everything from text format, to pricing, to cross-border purchasing, to e-swapping.

The e-reading boom cannot be ignored and left to the opportunists as it is at present. The Canute approach is simply not going to cut it.

Garbhan Downey’s novel War of the Blue Roses, published by Guildhall Press, is the Hughes & Hughes Irish Book of the Month for August 2009.