Ebooks: the “paperback moment” of the 21st Century or an anathema for readers and writers?

In a couple of week’s time Waterstones will start selling the Sony eBook Readers in its UK stores. Penguin Books, the company that 73 years ago invented the paperback, and so revolutionised the publishing business, are among the voices championing the e-book as the future of publishing.

It’s worth noting the resistance to the original mass-market paperbacks is similar to that facing the ebook. George Orwell, for one, announced that the new Penguins, which sold for just sixpence, were splendid value, so much that “the other publishers hand any sense would combine against them and suppress them.”

Of course, the early ebooks are different from early paperbacks, with a few notable exceptions, Cory Doctorow and Paulo Coelho among them, the early ebooks cost just as much as printed books. But few experts think price parity will remain for long. I have mixed feelings about ebooks. While I would gladly consult a reference ebook, i have reservations about reading a novel in this way. Maybe I am just fussy, or a bit of a purist, or too vain a collector (I don’t even like borrowing books for fear that they will eventually be missed from my collection), but then again I once felt the same about my music collection and now happily listen to MP3s.

Orwell was wrong about the paperback, could all of us who resist the ebook be making a similar mistake?

Anyway, here’s a bit more of Orwell’s thoughts on the paperback (cheers Paul!)

“In my capacity as reader I applaud the Penguin Books; in my capacity as writer I pronounce them anathema. Hutchinsons are now bringing out a very similar edition, though only of their own books, and if the other publishers follow suit, the result may be a flood of cheap reprints which will cripple the lending libraries (the novelist’s foster-mother) and check the output of new novels. This would be a fine thing for literature, but it would be a very bad thing for trade, and when you have to choose between art and money—well, finish it for yourself.”

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