Shannon Hayes  @  ChelseaGreen

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E-books, Earth and Counter Cultural Revolutions

Posted on Friday, February 10th, 2012 at 2:35 pm by Shannon Hayes

This blog piece was written for my buddy, Dave Smalley, who acted like his brain might explode when I tried to explain to him how a counter-cultural Luddite might benefit from an e-reader. He asked me to write this up so that he could read it, instead of trying to understand my babble…Here y’are Dave!

You don’t have to spend much time with me to know my type. My camera doesn’t make phone calls or play music. Emails aren’t checked more than once or twice per day. If you want to talk in person, you’ll need to call me on a land line, which only rings in my office, and not in my house. You get the idea…I’m sort of a New Age Luddite.

I’m not against all forms of technology, however. I’m all for anything that can lighten my footprint on the earth, ease my workload, reduce my expenses, and enable me to help create more social justice and feed into a counter cultural revolution. Bob tried numerous times to convince me that an e-reader would meet these criteria.

I wouldn’t believe him. I couldn’t fathom how another electronic device created from petroleum and unknown materials that will break and wind up in a recycling heap could possibly be more eco-friendly than a trusty book. Then a couple things happened.

- Bob resigned as my library book eraser. The most sustainable way to support my reading and research habit is through our public library service. I made heavy use of interlibrary loans for the books I needed, underlined passages with pencil, and lightly jotted my notes in the margins. After reading the books, I’d type up all relevant passages and margin notes, then hand the book to Bob, along with a special eraser, to thoroughly clean before returning it. Yes, he stayed married to me. But he finally put his foot down and went back to washing my dirty dishes instead. I had Saoirse willing to do it for a while, but then she got bored. Ula was my next choice, but she kept eating erasers. That left me to deal with it, and I found myself spending entire work days erasing library books.

- Our bookshelves were filling up. The cost of an e-reader was going to be less than the cost of some lumber to build more storage room.

- I discovered there were e-readers that not only allowed me to highlight passages, but came with QWERTY keyboards that let me quickly type up my margin notes, then download everything to my computer.

- And then the NY Public library AND my local library started making ebooks available. I bought an e-reader. I traveled to NYC to get a NY Public Library card so I could access their electronic book collection in addition to the local one. Suddenly, for less than $200 (plus the cost of a train ticket to the city), I had exponentially increased my access to books. The e-reader has been in my possession for only 6 months and has paid for itself twice.

But does it meet the test for stimulating social justice and counter-cultural revolutions? Locally owned bookstores are getting cut out of the loop. As a reader, I depend on their critical eye to select and suggest titles that might suit my needs. They provide a valuable service to our communities, and we must find a way to support them.

However, what most people easily overlook is that authors have been cut out of the loop since the invention of the publishing industry. It is a standard assumption that only the best (read as “best marketed”) authors deserve sufficient compensation for their labors. Niche and obscure writers are supposed to be thankful if a publisher even recognizes our hard work with a few pennies. As an example, I was just offered a deal from a major publisher for a book that would require 1 year to produce that would pay me an advance of $4750, from which all my research expenses would need to be deducted. A typical author doesn’t even make minimum wage.

Yes, I’d like to see the independent bookstore stay in business. But authors need to earn a living, too, especially if we’re going to provoke counter-cultural revolutions. And e-books are blowing the world wide open for any author who chooses to sidestep the conventional publishing industry and strike out on their own. With e-books, an author can write and eat. Through e-book publishing, independent authors don’t need to lay out the capital to cover printing and distribution costs. Websites like Smashwords.com are coming on line to help them market their work independently. Self-published authors can upload directly to the major bookseller sites, too. Out-of-print authors can reclaim rights and restore their titles to the cultural canon. Because of e-books, a self-published author can support him or herself. And then they can support independent local cafes, food co-ops, farmers, musicians, non-profit revolutionary causes, craftspeople, and bookstores.

Since joining the e-reader club, my eyes have been opened by the opportunity to support and enjoy the work of fellow self-published writers. I’m able to review and critique manuscripts easily, access inexpensive books that pay a fair wage to the writer, and avoid filling my house with endless volumes of bound, dust-collecting paper.

I’ve come to observe other advantages, too. When many of the homes in my county were flooded following two tropical storms this past fall, the amount of ruined books hauled away to the dump piles was distressing. An e-reader could have restored literary collections with the touch of a button. While on the road, I am able to take books out of my local library, even if I’m seven hours from home. But best of all, my dog likes it, because I can finally read and turn pages with one hand while continuously petting her with the other.

It is not yet a perfect technology. My understanding is that a person must be an avid book lover to offset the ecological impact of an e-reader (I’ve seen estimates of 20-40 books per year being the required e-consumption rate to be more sustainable than paper). The problem of saving the independent bookstore is not resolved, either. I still rely on them for art, craft and cooking books that need to be viewed in larger size, for reference books, children’s books, and out-of-print titles. And I want them to continue to offer the other titles, because I rely on their suggestions and knowledge of the industry, and want to be able to browse titles by flipping through them. I hope they will find a way to stay in business. Perhaps it will only be a matter of time before those crazy cameras that make phone calls will assist in the book buying process, allowing browsers to shoot images of UPC codes in the book store, instantly purchasing titles on display for their e-readers. By golly, there may be a use for that bizarre technology yet.

Reposted from Shannon’s blog, where you can chime in on the conversation. What do you think about e-readers?

rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.
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