To be honest, I don’t really have much to say about Justin Hollander’s anti-ebooks op-ed that showed up in the New York Times on Tuesday. But because its main focus was Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s recent proclamation that “over the next few years, [paper] textbooks should be obsolete,” I figured it was an essay the e-book community should probably pay attention to.

Hollander is an assistant professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, and to be fair, his piece isn’t necessarily anti-ebooks per se. Instead, he’s arguing for the superiority of paper textbooks over their digital cousins.

“Digital-learning technologies, like e-readers and multimedia Web sites … certainly have their place,” Hollander writes. “But Secretary Duncan is threatening to light a bonfire to a tried-and-true technology — good old paper — that has been the foundation for one of the great educational systems on the planet. And while e-readers and multimedia may seem appealing, the idea of replacing an effective learning platform with a widely hyped but still unproven one is extremely dangerous.”

I’d say it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that digital books are “still unproven.” But ultimately, Hollander’s essay makes a good (if cliched and overused) point: When advancements in new technologies lead us to discard the old ways of doing things, we often come to regret it. And while Hoffman probably is guilty of making way too much out of a couple sentences uttered at a press club, the point he makes may eventually lead to a conversation that’s very much worth having. As the omnipresence of e-books continues to grow and grow, for instance, perhaps we should be having more conversations about the importance of “good old paper.”

I don’t know. What do you think?

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  1. There’s really nothing wrong with paper-textbooks but eBooks actually present a good alternative for other textbooks especially for pure-text ones. I really think that we continue to produce paper-based textbooks until we finally see if we can completely let go of them in the future when all students already have accessed to ereaders and tablets.

  2. I think the textbook debate can skew the whole discussion – the quality of books per se tends to get roped together with the issue of student budgets. The greed of textbook publishers is a separate and burning issue. (Though not necessarily a book-burning one …) Alas, I’m afraid that textbook publishers who have successfully made the transition to digital will just use relationships with Amazon and the educational establishment to keep a lock on the market, and prices high, whether physical or digital. The paper-versus-screen debate just provides a tactical diversion for them.

  3. I think the danger is in continuing to perpetuate ‘paper books’ as this monolithic entity of sameness when that isn’t the case necessarily. It reminds me of those old education textbooks I have which refer to ‘Hispanic students’ when they talk about student needs. Spanish is spoken in more than 30 countries. To imply that the needs of two students from different countries are the same just because they both speak Spanish is facile.

    Similarly, some resources are very well-suited to electronic conversion. Others are not. You cannot replace a hands-on science experiment with an ebook OR a paper one, for instance. On the other hand, Bible study is fabulous on an ereader because you can jump to certain passages, make annotations and highlights, search the text concordance-style and so on. It really depends on what you’re trying to do. Paper is not better, ebooks aren’t better, they just have different ideal uses.

  4. Good comments, especially the one by Paul StJohn Mackintosh.

    As Paul points out, the bigger issue is textbook pricing. There I’m amazed the publishers aren’t moving more quickly to e-textbooks, because it would solve what has been a major problem for them: the resale of used texts. Admittedly, the used textbook trade isn’t what it used to be, because publishers have countered by increasing the speed new editions are produced and by controlling the distribution chain so that professors can no longer save students money by adopting only every other new edition of standard texts. Because there (currently?) is no used e-book market at all, publishers could return to a cheaper production schedule of new editions by moving to e-texts.

    I’m glad that hasn’t happened, because if I look strictly at learning issues, Hollander is right and paper remain the superior technology. And wherever students can easily sell their used textbooks to incoming students, paper remains unchallenged as the platform of choice.

    E-texts will become the superior learning platform when they finally are able to combine the color, video, and web access of tablets with the lack of eyestrain of e-ink (especially important in books that are studied more than read). When that happens and e-books are finally educationally superior to paper books, I am one professor who will agree with Education Secretary Duncan’s comment. But until then, even though I do my personal reading via e-ink as much as possible, my preferred platform for textbooks will remain paper.

  5. The current rush of changes in print and ebook uses is dramatic evidence of our close relationship with books. A flood of digital reading devices and hybrid software and hardware designs are emerging as the print book is augmented by screen delivery and associated cloud libraries, ebook collection building, automated index and searching, and screen learning. While all screen book simulations deviate from print conventions the hybrids that emerge reference each other and often resonate with each other. This rapidly developing book production and consumption landscape is dynamic and unique in media history, or is it?

    Its pretty amazing that little attention is paid to the emerging composite of print and screen delivery of books. I mean looking directly between them and at an emergent functionality of all books. There you can now perceive the interdependence of print and screen and the likelihood that neither will flourish without the other. That is, as suggested, a discussion that should happen here. Also involved are other forums, other than the forum of current technologies, their products and marketing. These other disciplines include academic book studies, cognitive science aspects of reading, book sustainability within libraries and many vectors of book arts.

  6. Print books are much more difficult to “pirate” (or whatever the word is) than are ebooks simply because of the tediousness involved in copying them. Granted, perhaps since the Xerox machine was invented, students have been photocopying entire textbooks at a fraction of the cost of what they would have paid for the book itself — albeit not for free. At a dime per page, a 400-page textbook works out to $40, which is maybe half or even a third of what they’d have paid at the bookstore. There’s also the time involved in flipping the book over, turning the pages, re-copying them if some end up upside down, and so forth.

    But with the rapid-fire, instant-gratification simplicity of ebooks, the same relative ease with which an author can upload his/her book to Amazon, Smashwords, etc., so too can a self-described “hacktivist” be the “martyr” for his cause and plunk down the $2-$10 s/he set the price, and upload it in seconds to Pirate’s Bay or Rapidshare.

    Ebooks take up far less disk space than do movie files or even MP3s — a high quality MP3 file in 320kb/s bit rate can be between 8 and 10 megabytes; a 128kb/s file, by contrast, somewhere between 4-6 MBs. Movie files such as .mp4 and .avi can be anywhere between 700 MB and 1 GB; full DVDs range between 4 and 9 gigabytes, while for Blu-Ray files, the sky’s practically the limit.

    Meaning? Ebooks can actually fit in an email attachment if the government ever manages to shut down Rapidshare and Pirate’s Bay. There’s no way the feds or EU will close Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail, and a .zip file of ebooks might come well under the usually 20MB/file (or total) limit for attachments. The only file types usually barred from being sent are executable files (programs or scripts) ending with extensions such as .vbs, .exe, .dmg or .run. Archive files, such as .rar, .zip and .7z are usually OK, which makes it easy to “hide” pirated ebooks in archives for easy sending of copyrighted material, practically undetected even by the email service itself (if password-protected archives are used). So an archive named “Legal” might contain John Grisham’s entire biography, even though its file name looks relatively innocuous, as though someone from a law firm were sending it to a colleague.

    The example above shows that media pirates are arguably as creative as writers/artists, but much lazier, in that they only seek to “distribute the wealth” of other people’s work rather than coming up with anything original themselves. Coelho and Doctorow are doing a disservice to content creators by blatantly sleeping with the enemy here, distributing their own works via these otherwise illicit channels as an effort to show how “legit” Pirate’s Bay and the pirate “movement” are as a whole. It may be no more than a drop in the bucket for Grisham, or even for Coelho and Doctorow, but it’s a significant loss for authors, one that I believe turns people away from, or at least ignites fear, of losing sales to the “free, libre open-source socialism” so-called “revolution.” Pirate’s Bay doesn’t want to go “legit.” It sees no problem with giving away things that people need and deserve to be paid for, and that they have NOT, in most cases, authorized permission to give away for free.

    Paper may not save trees, but it saves books and protects authors. Self-pub is not necessarily the enemy; digital documents are that contain copyrighted material. If there were viable self-pub solutions that allowed authors to choose whether or not they allowed e-books as part of their overall supply of material, then that would be mutually beneficial. Also, if there could be some solution worked out that prevented digital documents from being illegally distributed without permission from the author — not to mention if there could be some viable solution that shut down sites like Pirate’s Bay and forced it out of “business” (ironically, it is one of the most profitable websites on the Internet today, which is a real hoot considering its entire mission is to give things away for free).

    Compare the “free” cost of pirating a .pdf or .epub — not to mention the tedious effort involved in flipping paper books over on a Xerox machine — to the ~$20-$40 involved in Xeroxing a book PER COPY, and the hours spent Xeroxing it — paper is clearly the solution when it comes to curbing piracy. I wish Amazon, Smashwords, etc. enabled would-be authors to bypass e-books when submitting to their website, and that they only functioned as a POD “catalogue” of sorts — that one could still “self-pub” with Amazon and have your book available for purchase on its site but NOT as an e-book if one so chooses.

    Sorry if I would like to make a full-time living from my writing now that the agency model is closing its doors to newbies all for good, and not be forced give things away just because it’s “art” or because teenage punks bullying people on 4chan want something for nothing and don’t care who they hurt.

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