Hidden Costs, Not Haterade

So of course someone had to ask Jonathan Franzen what he thinks about ebooks, since he’s the critical darling of the moment. And of course the Internet exploded when he said ebooks are damaging society. Ink, both actual and virtual, was spilled. Haterade was prepared in copious amounts. It was like the hate that started swilling when Sherman Alexie called the Kindle “elitist.” Of course, I am much more likely to think deeply about anything Alexie says than Franzen, for a variety of reasons.

When Alexie “clarified” his stance, this caught my eye:

Having grown up poor, I’m also highly aware that there’s always a massive technology gap between rich and poor kids. I haven’t yet heard what Amazon plans to do about this potential technology gap. And that’s a vital question considering that Bezos wants to change the way we read books. How does he plan to change the way that poor kids read books? How does he plan to make sure that poor kids have access to the technology? Poor kids all over the country don’t have access to current textbooks, so will they have access to Kindle? (Sherman Alexie)

Right there, in a nutshell, is a point that gets lost when people on the Internet talk about ebooks. The hidden costs of buying that cheap digital edition–why aren’t more people talking about this rather than hating on Franzen for having an opinion? (Admittedly he comes off as somewhat of a pretentious knob in that Telegraph piece, but still.)

It sent me off on a (quelle ironic) Twitter rampage.

Why doesn’t anyone factor in platform and obsolescence costs for ebooks? I.e., the ebook reader and its updates.

Frex, the laptop or ereader you’re using, and the cost to charge it and replace it for wear and tear, not to mention updates.

Until we get wetware that can jack the book right into our brains, there are still going to be platform costs.

A paperback’s cover price takes into account production and platform costs; an ebook’s price does not.

These are the discussions we should be having, not hating on writers who have Opinions About Publishing.

And certainly not stroking the turgid egos of highly-paid anomalies on the Internet, either. (My Twitter feed)

After having a great deal of fun with the phrase “turgid egos” I really warmed to my theme.

Ebooks are not “cheap” or “free”. They are *convenient* for certain socioeconomic strata.

There is not nearly enough attention paid to the hidden costs, like hardware, platform, obsolescence (planned or otherwise) of hardware–

–replacement costs, access to electricity, etc., etc.

This is the kind of conversation I wish we were having about ebooks, not “So and So is elitist because they have Opinions about Self-Pub.”

Or “So and So gives their books away so piracy is always OK.” (Hint: this one REALLY irks me.)

Or, “Big Name Author has enough money/brand recognition not to worry about lost sales, so they say piracy isn’t a problem.” (My Twitter feed)

At that point I started getting a lot of “But I LIKE my Kindle/Nook!” And I’m happy that they do, but that was not the point I was making OR the conversation I was inviting.

There is a narrative out there saying “digital=free.” I’d like to see discussion that doesn’t use that equation, because it’s untrue.

Most of the human species can’t afford a desktop/laptop/Kindle/Nook/monthly smartphone bill/startup smartphone investment.

Those that can tend to think their experience is ubiquitous, because it FEELS ubiquitous. The curse of the Internet, you could say.

An examination of the underpinnings and the hidden costs is more productive than hating on ebooks or Authors With Opinions. (My Twitter feed)

At that point Stephen Blackmoore made the great observation: “Not to mention there are still places in the world that don’t even have electricity.”

Discussing the real costs could help us bend our considerable energies to raising literacy, not getting all hatey on the Internet.

Why is this not a blog post? Because I don’t think I can refrain myself from ranting without Twitter’s character limit. *sigh* (My Twitter feed)

I’m glad I waited, but so many people asked me to collect those tweets I decided to put them all here.

There were a number of responses that I should probably answer right now:

* “But I LIKE my Kindle/Nook/ebook reader!” Well, see above. That’s GREAT. It’s WONDERFUL that you like it. I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t. I’m saying that when we talk about publishing and ebooks, we should be talking as well about the hidden costs of the platform used to decode/store/show the digital “book.” Because those costs are more than you think–not just electricity, and the initial investment in the platform (desktop computer, laptop, ereader, smartphone, tablet) but also things like the monthly cost of an Internet connection or the cell phone bill, the cost of upgrading the hardware every few years (because of the pace of technology and obsolescence both planned and unplanned) not to mention the social costs of slave labor to make it, pollution from the making of it, pollution from the electricity used to power it—the list goes on and on.

* “I’m disabled and the ebook reader makes it easier for me to read!” Often accompanied by “Alexie is ableist!” (I shit you not.) It’s great that this technology is helping you, I am very happy for you. But I am mystified at how this was even a response. I don’t think it’s “ableist” of Alexie to point out that poor kids and their families can’t invest in this kind of technology as easily as others can, or of me to say that talking about the hidden costs might help us find a solution.

* “But I have a computer/laptop anyway, adding the ebook-reading function is free.” It’s not “free.” Adding that functionality presupposes the investment in the platform; it is convenient, certainly, but you pay the hidden costs for that convenience whether or not you engage it. It is the fact of the hidden cost we’re talking about, not whether or not you feel like added functionality is something you want to use.

* “Paper books have hidden costs too!” Well, those are rather elegantly included in the cover price, so they’re not so “hidden.” The cover price of a paper book takes into account the price of the paper and distribution, and has for a long time because of the built-up infrastructure. You could argue that bookstores are the purview of a higher socioeconomic stratum too, and that there’s invisible privilege there, but I don’t think it’s quite as germane. For one thing, there’s the used books factor; for another, there’s few upgrade costs with paper books–if you read them to pieces and get another one, that’s an upgrade cost, but it’s not nearly as huge as upgrading an ereader every couple years or a laptop every four-five years. There’s also the marvelousness of libraries, which even the field a bit for some poorer strata of society.

Of course, it’s incredibly hard not to snark observations such as:

Franzen said he took comfort from knowing he will not be here in 50 years’ time to find out if books have become obsolete.

“I’m amused by how intent people are on making human beings immortal or at least extremely long-lived,” he joked.

“One of the consolations of dying is that [you think], ‘Well, that won’t have to be my problem’. Seriously, the world is changing so quickly that if you had any more than 80 years of change I don’t see how you could stand it psychologically.” (Telegraph)

Somehow I think the world will carry on, Jonathan dear.

But I would really like to see more discussion of hidden costs, platform costs, access differences between socioeconomic strata, etc., instead of hating on an author for having a goddamn opinion about developments in the industry they’re working in. Doctors have opinions about developments in their field; bricklayers and pizza delivery people, retail workers and scientists have opinions about their chosen (or just career) field. People have goddamn opinions about everything, as evidenced by the jackasses who know nothing about publishing but try to school me about the industry.

But that’s another rant, and this is already long enough. Let’s talk about the hidden costs of ebooks and eplatforms instead.

Over and out.

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