Rocketing eBooks

I recently got rather excited about the release of the Amazon Kindle (in the US) and the Sony Reader (over here). I couldn't afford either at the time, but it occurred to me how useful they would be for reading submissions. That reminded me that I still had my Rocket eBook, almost ten years of age now, in a box with all my other decrepit bits and bobs of technology, so I dug it out.

What a revelation! Instantly I resolved to end the requirement for paper submissions to Dark Horizons, and asked everyone who had sent in paper already to send an electronic copy of their work… And reading the submissions became an absolute pleasure. Having a few dozen files to read feels much less oppressive than a foot-high stack of paper on the desk! I’m kicking myself for not having realised the possibilities when reading for the BFS short story competition. Instead, I took my laptop to bed with me for a fortnight, balancing it on an ironing board while I read! (Typically, I also forgot about the folding table that would have been rather more appropriate for that job.)

Submissions readers may find the Sony Reader very useful, faute de mieux, but my impression from a quick play with it in Waterstone’s is that while reading on it is delightful, note-taking isn’t possible (there’s no keyboard or touch screen), the device is rather sluggish, and the black flash between pages is rather annoying. A new version, the PRS700, is now available in the US, but it has its own problems: to allow a touchscreen and backlight Sony had to add a sheet of plastic over the e-ink screen, which has apparently made glare and mirroring a big problem (as has always been the case with LCD readers like my Rocket).

The Kindle has built-in access to Wikipedia, plus a keyboard for adding notes to books, both of which are of obvious use to editors and slush pile readers. Unfortunately, many of its features depend upon a mobile phone network that isn’t available in the UK. There are rumours that the Kindle 2, with built-in text-to-audio (a very useful feature), may make it to Britain by Christmas.

These readers will be a big hit with people who have lots of electronic documents to read. But as long as the range of ebooks is limited, and the prices remain high (e.g. a common complaint is that ebooks on the Waterstone’s site are more expensive than the in-store paper equivalents), the readers will struggle to reach a wider audience.

In the UK most people can get all the books they need for a year for twenty quid at The Works. And how many BFS members don’t have at least a hundred unread books on their shelves? Though I love my Rocket eBook to bits, the last time I’d used it in earnest was back when the BBC made Lungbarrow available to download from the Doctor Who website.

I just didn’t need it to read books – and that’s the problem these new devices face. The iPod succeeded because people needed a convenient way to listen to music on the move, but books don’t have that problem. If anything, they’re much more portable than ebook readers, since you don’t have to worry about them being nicked on the bus! For people who don’t have a pile of submissions to read, devices like the Kindle and the Sony Reader may well seem like solutions to a problem they just don’t have.

On the other hand, going back to paper after a long period of reading on the Rocket eBook, I was struck by how slow and cumbersome ordinary books are. What a chore to turn the pages, hold the book open, keep track of your place – so many interruptions and obstacles to reading! Future generations may well find our bulky paper books as comical as we find scrolls and stone tablets.

This article originally appeared in Dark Horizons 54 (March 2009). The writer bought a Sony Reader within a week or two of the issue going to press, and wrote about it in his next editorial, over at TQF.