A lot of hardcore readers were doubtful when the Kindle came out, but there’s no denying sales of e-books have skyrocketed these past few years. More and more people own e-readers, and several authors are making more money self-publishing electronically than they could ever make with a traditional publisher. Does this spell death for the printed book? The very idea has ardent readers up in arms. Reading electronically is not the same. A Kindle can never replace the feeling of holding a book in your hand. What if you want to doodle in the margins?
When I first heard about Amazon Kindle, I was horrified. I love books. I love the musty smell of libraries, even if it means I’m supposed to be studying. I love how different books all smell different, and if I had my way I would have a double-storey library in my house with little ladders going to all the different levels. How could an electronic device ever replicate that experience?
Bloggers have a field day, arguing for one side or the other – but defenders of printed books tend to be more common. For example, here’s one post that argues e-books bore him, because all the books end up looking the same on an e-reader. Author Jonathan Franzen argues e-books aren’t permanent enough. Another blog lists advantages and disadvantages and declares print books will never go extinct.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize there is a possibility e-book will win out.
After all, I only love books because I know books. What if you grew up reading all your books on the iPad or whatever your parents bought for you? Then there’s no physical reality of books to miss. If kids are far more comfortable in a digital world, which more and more they are, then an electronic book will be the thing that makes the most sense to them. Think about the advantages of CDs and records – those little liner notes that came with the album, all the artwork that indicates what the album is like, the experience of listening to an album as a cohesive whole. CDs are still considered to have superior sound quality, and everyone knows the crackle and pop of records lends a warmth to the music you just can’t get any other way. Yet none of that prevented people from switching wholesale to MP3s, iPods and the rest of it. However nostalgic people might feel for that stuff, iPods are just too practical to give up.
And if e-books are convenient, cheap (cheap is important, because no one wants to pay for an e-books that’s only a couple dollars less than the printed version), and integrated with our cellphones or something, they could easily become the dominant mode for reading.
But I still think the printed book will never die. Not just out of nostalgia, even though I will always love the ‘book experience.’ But because there will always be someone or other who just finds print more convenient, or doesn’t own an e-reader, or loves real books too much. Going back to the CD and record example, you can still buy both of those technologies. Bands even release new music on records, from time to time. So no matter how obsolete printed books become, there will always be a niche market for them. And, after all, with print-on-demand and other new publishing technologies, you can always set up a book to be printed on the off-chance someone comes along who would prefer to read it that way.
Worst case scenario: You cannot buy printed books except from speciality publishers who produce high-quality hardcover books for library enthusiasts to purchase. They’d be more expensive, of course, and there wouldn’t be much point in paperbacks if you can pick up a cheap electronic version for a dollar or something. But they would exist, because enough people love books.
But I don’t truly think it’ll be that bad. It’s more likely both print and e-books will co-exist side-by-side, and people will buy whatever version they want. They may even test out multiple e-books, before deciding which ones to purchase in the printed version. And while publishers and bookstores will move more and more towards printing-on-demand – a move I would support, since it’s ridiculous to print thousands of copies of something and then trash them all when they don’t sell – they would still be printing things.
And that’s a world that most of us book-lovers could live in.
What are your predictions for the future of books?