Will Ebooks Hurt the Poor?

When I think of ebooks, I marvel at the technology, and I’m thankful that I’m a writer cog in the whole process of bookmaking and selling.  Stories will always be read, and someone will always have to write them. So in that sense, writers win.

I do wonder about the future of publishing and bookselling, though.  It’ll exist in some fashion, but what shape will it take? I have a daughter interested in possibly becoming an agent or an editor someday, or she would love to own her own bookstore. But what will any of those careers look like 7 years from now? Who knows!

But writing, yes, writing will still be very much intact. Perhaps more lucrative and more accessible than ever to us all.

Another form of accessibility, however, has been preying on my mind lately. Books are the ultimate form of cheap entertainment, and culture, and knowledge.  For a few bucks, and sometimes for less than a buck, a paperback can be had, held, owned, shared. That book doesn’t discriminate against its owner. You could be a wealthy person in a penthouse, or an impoverished child sitting on a dirt floor in a makeshift Third World schoolhouse, and still have the same access to that same information wedged between those pages.

But ereaders are another story. Could that child in that Third World school ever afford such a thing? And what are the ramifications for the poor worldwide? If the model shifts to follow the money, and paper books are replaced by ebooks, then will this lead to a Dark Ages of sorts for those who can’t afford them? Think about this for just a moment. Publishers no longer print in paper because it isn’t cost-effective. Want a new book? Or new information? Look to your computer or purchase it on your ebook. Unless you don’t have one of those…

I recently posed this scenario on a Facebook thread and on Twitter, with interesting results.  There was a surprising number of “enlightened” folk who said, and I paraphrase, “Ereaders are so affordable now. I have one! I don’t see the problem.”

As Seth Meyer on SNL would say: “Really?”

I’ve traveled throughout India, and witnessed firsthand how people in countless villages don’t have what we consider the basics, such as electricity, or plumbing, or those 3-square-meals. How will they will be able to afford an ereader? Or have access to a wireless connection to download those spiffy ebooks?

Even in the city of Philadelphia, a ridiculous number of children go hungry every day. Are poor school districts going to be able to give every child an ereader and wireless access for books? Hm.

So, my worry is that if ereaders become the norm, and IF those low-tech paper volumes do disappear as a result, that we will be in effect cutting access to the written word for the poor. Limiting opportunity. Decreasing knowledge. Facing rising illiteracy.

Maybe I’m being slightly paranoid, or maybe it’s the fictional “what if” part of my brain hard at work. But still, I want to send this thought out across the airwaves, to remind the visionaries among us to keep this in their own brains. To include a model within all the innovation that remembers that books are not just entertainment, they are knowledge. Knowledge is power, and we must all strive to ensure this power is in everyone’s hands. Equally. Really.

I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this subject, so please chime in, share links to relevant topics and organizations, etc, and let’s get this discussion churning.

*Cross-posted over at the Liars Club blog

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5 thoughts on “Will Ebooks Hurt the Poor?

  1. I’ve seen this argument brought up countless tines and I think it is based on a fundamentally flawed premise, namely that ereaders will become the most common way to access ebooks. I don’t see single function devices becoming dominant. Much more likely, and much more accessible to people of lower income, are cell phones. While cell phones may be a luxury in some countries, in others they are the most affordable choice for communication. As for affordability of ebooks, if they are too expensive to buy then they will be pirated. Writers may not like it, but by definition no one asks our permission for that sort if thing.

  2. I believe the assumption that e-readers will replace printed books is misplaced just as much as the paperless office was a misplaced assumption in the 1980’s. It’s hard to predict what the future holds, but I can’t see the printed book going away anytime soon.

    What I do see is e-books causing bulk paper prices to plummet. That, in turn, will lower the price to produce paperbacks which will fuel demand.

    Furthermore, the price of an e-reader will drop, as does everything in technology. It is conceivable that at some point in the future, e-reader prices will fall so low as to become free. (Those $89.00 scientific calculators in 1978 became disposable by 1985.) So it is conceivable to me that those poor school districts you mentioned will have e-readers made available to them, simply because of market forces.

  3. Wow. Interesting idea. Apparently, unlike your other readers, I have never seen this potential problem. I think it does have some merit, however, I do not believe that printed books will ever go away completely. There are too many readers, like myself, who love to curl up with a good book (printed, not electronic), on a rainy day, in front of a fire, whenever we have the time. If the majority of books do become e-books, then I think we’ll see drives to get e-readers to the poor, just like now we see book drives. Interesting question though; thanks for posing it.

    • Wow! Everyone interested in this issue should check out this site. Here’s an organization working with groups like Random House and Amazon to put Ereaders in the hands of Third World students… The idea is that it will end up being cheaper in the long-run, than paper books.

      Cool!

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