I used to be a purist. And by that, I mean that when it came to reading, I only believed in paper and cardboard. It was tangible. I could feel it in my hands. I could smell the paper. I could touch the ink. That meant a lot to me. And then, a few things in my life changed.
Reading and Accessibility
A couple years back, I developed a medical issue; a pain issue that sometimes severely limits my mobility. Suddenly, I was off work, bed-ridden, and I couldn’t even hold up a book. This meant, I couldn’t even lose myself in a good story. It was just me, and my TV.
But, needing to get away from screens for a decent part of every day had recently become important to me. So, I turned to podcasts. It was incredible. I could lie there, learning things and listening to stories. If I was lucky, I could even manage to position myself just right so that I could crochet too. Before this, I had been a knitter, but that was now out of the question. Still is. Manipulating the needles is too difficult.
And then, I discovered audiobooks. I have to admit, I didn’t think I would like them. But, eager to consume books again, I gave it a shot. I’m glad I did.
I’m still really picky about what I’ll listen to vs read. First, the narrator has to be a good voice actor. Someone who can make me forget I’m listening. That said, I don’t like when the voices are too animated – it makes me feel like a child being read to. And on that note, first-person narratives are a major preference of mine, as well. I want to feel as though someone is telling me their story. The more monologues, the better. For this reason, my first two audiobooks were both Atwood novels. The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace.
After dealing with pain issues for so long, when I can move, I want to. I really want to. So audiobooks continue to be a way for me to consume books while I get in some exercise or housework. And, when I can’t move, I can still listen (and hopefully crochet!).
My Kindle purchase came next. I had already had the app for a while at that point, but I only downloaded it because some of my stories had been getting published and were only available as e-books. Other than that, I only used the app to read graphic novels, which I came to prefer in digital (being able to zoom in on panels and not have images broken up by spines were deciding factors). But, now that holding up books is a problem, I need something lighter. I was amazed when I looked up the specs of the Kindle Paperweight, and it did not disappoint. It’s not as easy as an audiobook, but once in a while, I just need that quiet book time. The Kindle gives me that, and I am so grateful.
Environmental Sustainability, Labour Practices and Economics
Recently, I also started thinking more about ethical living and responsibly sourcing products. Books, like any other product we buy, have an environmental impact and rely on human labour. This means that there is potential for unethical practices. But, that doesn’t mean alt reading will save the world.
Audiobooks provide the added benefit of having a much smaller environmental impact than books, or even e-books. But, at what cost?
It’s probably safe to assume that voice actors are not being held in sweatshops, where they are forced to read books all day. That said, my own experience with indie publishing is that money is not usually guaranteed. A lot of publishers prefer to offer royalty deals, rather than up front payment. From a business perspective, this makes sense, but it makes it tough to be in the business at all.
How narrators work out their contracts is one thing, but what about the authors and publishers? According to Deborah L. Jacobs’s article: “The Dollars and Sense of Audiobooks: What Indie Publishers Need to Know,” this is still a sensitive issue. Her article claims that Amazon (Audible) recently cut royalties in half. Not to mention, a lot of publishers are paying out of pocket for the production of audiobooks that may not end up turning a profit.
To be fair, writing has never been considered an “easy living” gig. There are definitely superstar authors with bank accounts to prove it, but I think a more common tale is that of the struggling author. Or, even the one-time-success author. So, maybe it’s a good thing to have more avenues for royalties. Or, maybe it’s a sign that even in an age of progress, as much as we value books, we still don’t value writers.
E-books may save trees, but they aren’t perfect. In 2017, Huffpost published an article claiming that “the energy, water, and raw materials needed to make a single e-reader is equal to that of 40 to 50 books.” The article goes on to explain that regularly upgrading your e-reader device can actually add to your carbon footprint. But, it’s also noted that if you read 200 books on your device, you have halved your environmental impact. So, no – it’s not perfect, but it can be beneficial. Especially if you’re a big reader and not a tech junkie always looking for your next fix.
So, what about the “who” and the “how” when it comes to making the devices?
No, really, who is making my Kindle and are there fair practices in place? My gut tells me no, but I haven’t had much luck finding valuable resources on the topic (if anyone knows of any, please share in the comments!!). I think this topic requires serious research, but that’s unsettling. That I can’t quickly find information on the manufacturing/labour practices is a red flag.
At the end of the day, there are a lot of pros and cons to books, audiobooks and e-books. How you decide what works for you is going to be based on your own experiences and preferences. And let’s not forget privilege, because, as easy as it is to find used, cheap or free books, this isn’t the case for alt reading. Audible requires a $14.99 CAD monthly subscription which will get you one credit, valid for one book; however, you can exchange a book at anytime, recovering that credit. So, you can treat your subscription as a library card and if you’re a fast reader, this can really work for you (though, it may impact author royalties). Otherwise, it can add up. And an e-reader will run you $80 CAD to upwards of $500 – and that’s before you buy any books.
Ultimately, how you choose to read is up to you and what your lifestyle allows. For me, alt reading is essential, and luckily, I can afford it. But, I do miss books, and I understand people’s emotional attachment to the “real thing.” The way I see it, as long as we’re consuming books, we’re doing okay. Find what works for you, and read, read, read. Read any way you can.