A Short Comment About Digitizing Books

The written word is all that stands between memory and oblivion. Without books as our anchors, we are cast adrift, neither teaching nor learning. They are windows on the past, mirrors on the present, and prisms reflecting all possible futures. Books are lighthouses erected in the dark sea of time.
Jeffery Robbins in “Gargoyles”

Yesterdays posting about digitizing books triggered the question whether the author gets any money when I digitize a book.

He or she does — given that when I digitize a book, I cut off the spine and send it through a document scanner. This process digitizes a book with little effort, but the poor book is pretty much kaput afterwards.

And yes, I have the highest respect for authors and their works. I have written books myself and I know how much effort it takes to write even a bad book. So, yeah, respect is the term I use here because I know how much effort is involved.

This acknowledgement of respect to an authors work might seem strange, given that I destroy books in the process of digitizing them. But actually it makes sense. What the authors have produced are beautiful, enlightening, meaningful words — and not merely a physical representation of these words. The book is “just” the packaging, the way the words are transferred from one person to the other.

Yes, there are books which are beautifully created. Some books are works of art in themselves. And I would never digitize them this way. But let’s be honest, most books are not. They are mass-market cheaply produced run-of-the-mill products that fade with age. Mass-market paperbacks are not works of art — the beautiful, enlightening, meaningful words that makes them mass-market are. And these do get preserved.

And sure, there are other ways to get a digital book. But unfortunately, most of these ways come with DRM or with crappy formatting. Let’s talk about DRM first.

Personally, when I buy something, I want to own it. I want to be free to use the information in any way I see fit. Provided — of course — that I cite the source. I love to be creative and plagiarism is … let’s just say if it’s done knowingly, my objections to torture are tested. But I want to cut out the parts that strike a chord within me, quotations I like. Compare it to cutting out newspaper articles, or parts of them. I want to be able to do this. And personally, if someone does this with my works — I’d consider it as one of the highest compliments. But DRM frequently prevents this — or makes it inconvenient. It should not be — and it’s one reason why I offer the PDFs of the books I have written (and made public), e.g., of Organizing Creativity.

But even when the book does not come with DRM, many digital books are ePub. While it makes sense to forgo formatting, giving the wide heterogeneity of devices, it spoils the reading experiences. Yes, the design is standard in many cases, but this does not mean that design is irrelevant. Personally, I prefer to read books in a way that they still look like books. I read most books on my iPad anyway, which is larger than most books I read. I like to remember something that was written in the first or last paragraph of a the page — and that stays this way no matter on which device I read the book. Unfortunately, ePub adapts the formatting to the device, and for me, this spoils the reading experience.

So, yeah, I prefer to buy books cheap, used if possible, or paperback even if it takes longer. After all, there are so many books I want to read that I can wait until the books I am interested in come out as paperbacks or are available as used books.

And yup, for this reason, I see no problems in digitizing the books I own. But I also wonder how long I will be able to do so. Looking at the prevalence of digital books, I wonder how long it will take until no more paper books are available. After all, for the publishers, they are bad business. Printing costs money and resources and they can be resold. Digital books pretty much kill the used book market. No more antiquarian book shops in the future. Maximum profit margins all the way.

Sure, I could spend my lifetime reading used books that are sold cheap. There are just so many good books available that I haven’t read. But I like to continue to have the option — and the freedom — to read new books in the way that is most beneficial for me.

And until then, I continue to digitize what I buy.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for all your tips about digitising books!

    I’d like to add a tip of my own. I’d been pondering how to organise my digistise books until I found this site http://classify.oclc.org that allows you to find the Dewey Decimal Classification code for your books.

    Now my (digital) library is just like the real thing (though smaller and easier to use!)


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