A ferry crossing on a quiet Goan river is the perfect time to contemplate the advantages and disadvantages of ebooks for an Indian reader. The advantages rest in my backpack, where the 20 or so books on the week’s reading list resided in my Kindle, part of a growing portable library.
Unless I drop the Kindle into the Calvim river, I could theoretically spend the next three months in Goa and never needed to visit a bookshop. For readers like me, or for the average business traveller, the ability to carry around large libraries on a device the size of a small hardback is a significant advantage.
So far, though, the ebook market in India has been as sleepy as the placid Goan backwaters, except for a relatively tiny number of early users. This is not for lack of potential readership, or for lack of Internet access — retail giant Flipkart has proved, for instance, that a huge number of readers will buy books online if they are guaranteed safe delivery and enough choice.
Though the difference between the physical book and the ebook is often brought up as a major deterrent, this hasn’t proved to be the case in equally sophisticated markets elsewhere. As the rise of ebook sales in countries from the UK to Canada, South Korea to China, demonstrates, the initial resistance to reading on a device melts away once readers discover the ease and convenience of ebooks.
A few purists lament the loss of beautiful typography and the feel of paper, but you only have to browse the average bookstore to see how few physical books are designed and printed with love. The mass-market paperback is not a thing of beauty; it is as functional as the average ebook, and as unlovely. But with ebook sales rivalling, and sometimes exceeding, paperback sales in many cases, the ebook versus paper rivalry has had unexpected consequences.
In an effort to underline the uniqueness of the physical book, many publishing houses have begun placing more emphasis on well-designed books — at least for the most prominent literary books on their list. It’s just a matter of time before publishing houses start exploring the many – and unusual – possibilities of ebook design. There are already sites that release editions of Rushdie and Garcia Marquez novels with sound effects, and some of the indie publishing houses are focusing on creative typography, understanding instinctively that the ebook also opens up possibilities that the plain printed page can’t match.
The market for Kindles and dedicated ebook readers is tiny in India — but the market for tablets such as the iPad and the Galaxy Tab, which double as excellent reading devices, is both sizeable and growing.
The problem for the Indian reader is different: buying ebooks is an exercise in frustration, a return to the bad old days of socialism when everything you really wanted was tantalisingly displayed in the window of a shop to which you had no entry.
Most Indian publishers haven’t yet digitised their books – or haven’t digitised a significant percentage of their books, or don’t have an Amazon account – so most of the lost classics, drama, poetry, rare histories and biographies that you might want in ebook form are not available. Indian books in translation – which would make up the bulk of great Indian literature – are only sparsely available in ebook form from online retailers.
The global publishing industry’s insistence on DRM – digital rights management systems, which allow readers to access ebooks only in specific territory – has little impact on readers in the US or the UK. With large ebookstores and an ample selection, most US or UK readers have access to a far wider variety of books than do their counterparts in other territories, creating a kind of unofficial but deep-rooted system of digital inequality.
But for an Indian reader trying to buy ebooks legally, the reminder that you are part of a marketplace that carries over colonial inequalities is sharp. You will pay higher prices – given the dollar or pound exchange rate – in order to read some books. And because of DRM, even if you’re willing to pay higher prices, many ebooks will remain unavailable in India because of territorial copyright agreements.
Many of the arguments against DRM systems for ebooks have focused on the impractical nature of DRM. Because books, being essentially text files, are so much easier to pirate than other kinds of media, DRM is a barrier only for the law-abiding reader. The rest will switch to illegally downloaded books, benefitting neither authors nor publishers.
One might also argue that DRM functions as an unfair reminder of the colonial era. For readers and writers in many countries outside the US, UK and Canada, the promise of ebooks was the promise of equal access — our writers could travel elsewhere, theirs could be read across borders. Instead, DRM sets up bristling electronic fences, dividing the world into territories of more and less privileged readers. Until these fences come down, the ebook market in India will remain a shrivelled, bonsai version of what it could be.