E-book Privilege

I’ve been thinking about e-books a lot lately, for some reason.  (Amazon still hasn’t restored Macmillan titles, last I checked.)  In particular, there’s a debate in the SFWA Lounge about the shift from printed books to electronic.

I think we’re in a very dynamic time.  E-books are changing, and we’re waiting to see who’s going to be the dinosaurs and who’s going to follow the superior evolutionary path of the  platypus.  Will multipurpose devices (iPad, smartphones) do away with single-purpose readers (Kindle)?  Will Cory Doctorow single-handedly throw DRM into the abyss forever?  Will e-books approach 100% market share, doing away with all but a handful of print-on-demand artifacts?

It occurred to me that there’s an element of privileged assumption going on with some of these predictions.  I’ve had this conversation online with people who obviously have stable Internet access and a fairly high degree of tech-savviness.  I also see it at conventions, where people whip out their Kindles and iPhones to compare features.

The thing is, these are luxuries.  If you’re in a financial position to afford the latest toys, great.  But to project near-100% dominance of electronic books assumes that either the reading devices will drop to a price where all readers can afford them, or that if you’re poor, you simply won’t/don’t read.

Tobias Buckell jokingly called for a boycott of Kindles until they bring the price down below $99.  (He’s trying to break Amazon’s “monopoly” on the Kindle.)  But even $99 is a lot of money, and not everyone is in a position to invest that much extra money every few years (because the technology keeps advancing) in their reading.

I do think e-books are going to be a larger part of the market.  We’ve seen cellphone novels take off in other countries.  E-books make tremendous sense for certain markets — universities, for example.  And the technology keeps advancing.  But I don’t think you can assume everyone is going to switch to electronic books any more than you can assume everyone is going to get flat screen plasma TVs.

Printed books are relatively cheap.  $7-8 for a new mass market paperback.  A buck or less for a used one.  I don’t see that going away any time soon. What do you think?