Editorial – Issue 98

Two issues beyond the 20th anniversary edition of New Zealand Books and two before our 100th  issue, we’ve reached another milestone. The determined enthusiasts who founded the journal might well have predicted the first two, and will certainly have hoped for them. But we suspect they would have had no inkling of the third: this issue carries our first review of an ebook.

This means that, within a couple of decades, the word “book” in New Zealand Books has changed its meaning forever. No longer is this a self-evident label for a paper artefact to be held in the hand and have its pages turned; now, the term refers to content, deliverable in any form.

Talking books, for those with impaired sight, have existed for some time, and our anniversary issue (Summer 2011) was the first to be made regularly accessible to them by the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind via special software. And many readers prepare for a long car journey by popping a recorded book into the player, or by downloading podcasts. The mainstreaming of digital books, though, is changing the literary landscape in ways that many readers – not to mention books editors – have still to come to terms with.

In this issue, John McCrystal points out that ebooks and the proliferation of self-publishing places us at a “Gutenberg moment”. Alison Gray reviews Michael Jackson’s e-memoir Roadmarkings (after, it must be admitted, a bit of electronic faffing about by editor and reviewer). And Chris Else looks at the future of browsing if online bookshops like Kindle don’t improve this facility. He says online “shelving” is grossly inadequate, making it almost impossible for a prospective shopper to discover what she might like to read and therefore buy.

Bookshop owners have already felt the pinch of online book buying. Yet, if we don’t support them, they will close. And if we can’t browse their shelves and tables, how exactly will we choose what books we want to order on the internet and read digitally?

A drawback of Kindle – one of the main tools for sourcing and reading ebooks – is that, although the device is sold down-under as making books “lendable”, in fact they aren’t. An attempt to “lend” brings up a message muttering vaguely about rights, and nothing more. Disappointing for the misled purchaser and their hopeful borrower.

Roadmarkings is published by Dunedin’s Rose Mira Books. Its website proclaims that “While the reader’s ideal might always be the beautifully bound book sitting warm in the hand, our world demands alternatives to the milling of trees and long-distance haulage; it’s calling for ecologically smart, discreet, and low-space.” That’s certainly an appealing idea. Although of course the virtual world doesn’t come to our door cost-free, either.

Once Roadmarkings was downloaded, Gray, a veteran traveller already well-acquainted with Kindle, didn’t turn a hair. There’s no question that e-readers come into their own on the road (especially those fitted with a nifty little lamp for use in low-lit transport and accommodation). Finished that book? Order up another in minutes, and pay one-third to half the cost of the print version.

As Else points out, you can also download your favourite Austens for next to nothing and have them always to hand.

Hugely important to the long-haul travellers New Zealanders are, three average-sized paperbacks weigh a kilogramme, a Kindle just over a quarter of that. The device is nothing less than a mobile library.

But wait! Did you know your e-reader gets heavier the more data you load onto it? Yes, we’re talking actual real-world weight. Not by an amount any airport scale will detect: 150 words amounts to 10-18 of a gram, or 0.000000000000000001g. Which does put a whole new spin on light reading.


Harry Ricketts
Jane Westaway

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