Monday, January 16, 2006

Gloom and doom for paper books?

I've never quite decided whether to call myself an early-adopter or not. Currently, I am not remotely interested in e-books, but when the perfect e-book reader is finally rolled out, I may well be the first kid on my block to get one. So I found this article in yesterday's Guardian a very interesting read. I'd like to comment on several of the opinions expressed in the article, but it's Monday and I'm too busy even to be posting this much. So I'll just do a bit of my signature hit-and-run blogging:
Almost every IT expert in the world is agreed that the book faces a revolutionary challenge from e-books and e-paper. [The Friday Project Editor Paul] Carr says: 'In the next five to 10 years, maybe much sooner, we'll see a decent, ultra-lightweight, portable e-paper device that allows book lovers to download titles straight from the internet, either legally or illegally.' Dick Brass, a retired Microsoft vice-president with wide experience of e-readers, agrees: 'Tablet devices are getting lighter and cheaper. Eventually, and I'm betting it will be before 2020, one of these devices, like the iPod in music, will offer an experience close enough to paper to shift the paradigm to digital distribution. That will mark the beginning of the end of the age of paper books.'

So "almost every IT expert in the world is agreed" that this is the beginning of the end of paper books, huh? Big, hairy deal. Aren't these the same folks who told us we'd all be using PDAs by this time? I don't have one, do you? (Okay, my husband has one. But he's always yelling bad words at it, so I'm guessing he doesn't see it as a tool that has simplified his life.) And do you remember when desktop computers were heralded as "the end of paper" in the office environment? The filing cabinet in my office is full. How about yours?

"Simplicity" books, magazines, TV shows, and websites abound. How do people like Mr. Brass account for this widespread resistance to technology that appears to have little or nothing to do with its affordability?

Paper books aren't going anywhere, although sales will undoubtedly drop as e-book sales pick up. But Mr. Brass' assertion that the perfect e-book reader will "shift the paradigm to digital distribution" and "mark the beginning of the end of the age of paper books" is ludicrous.
It's no surprise to find one of Google's most outspoken critics, Nigel Newton, chairman of Bloomsbury, coyly hinting at 'a very big announcement' in the course of 2006. Newton is certain that 'within seven to 10 years, 50 per cent of all book sales will be downloads. When the e-reader emerges as a mass-market item, the shift will be very rapid indeed. It will soon be a dual-format market.'

Sorry, I'm just not buying that within seven to ten years, 50 per cent of all book sales will be downloads. I know people who haven't even gotten around to buying DVD players yet--surely it's going to take a while for "everyone" to make the jump to e-books, even if the new readers are as cheap as DVD players. And they won't be.


Laura in Denver said...

e-books are an answer to a problem that doesn't exist. Want portability? Want something easy to hold and use? Something with tactile pleasure? If you drop a book or bang it against something, will it break? The only advantage e-books have is you can carry multiple books in one "package," but unless you're a student, that might not be a big selling point.

Brenda Coulter said...

Laura, we could continue in this vein all day: When you leave a paperback book on your beach towel, you don't worry about it being stolen. When you drop a paperback book in your Jacuzzi, it's only a minor annoyance. If you leave a paperback book on an airplane, you can buy another one just like it while you await your connecting flight....

It's just impossible for me to understand how anyone thinks they'll be able to convince us to give up our "real" books.

Anonymous said...

Never, never, never. True bibliophiles will not give up their print books. I love getting a new book. I love the way it feels in my hands. I love the smell of a new book. I love perusing my bookshelf for the next great book to read. I love persuing the shelves of my local bookstore, looking for new books to buy. I love looking at the cover of a new book and imagining what's inside.
Sorry about the soapbox, but books are my passion! I agree with you--I don't think anyone will ever convince us give up our "real" books.

Dennie McDonald said...

I am published in e-book but I will never forsake a paperback!

I think these folks that are saying 50/50 in the next 7-10 years haven't picked up a book since college - don't know why they strike me as non-readers but...

I collect books - it's tactile as much as anything else. I hear what they are saying but will belive it *after* I see it =)

Chris said...

A screen that doesn't promote eyestrain is just one of the challenges e-book makers face. Battery-life, when coupled with a backlit screen poses, I think, an even bigger challenge.

50/50, though, is just silly. iTunes is responsible for only a small percent of the music market (while a huge percent of the overall downloaded music scene) and people really like iTunes. Michael Hyatt (pres/ceo of Thomas Nelson), however, blogged recently on the impact even a small shift in distribution can have on the publishing industry.

BTW, have you seen this novelty item? (product site here)

If the e-book came with a bunch of extras (author interviews, annotations, first-draft to published version analysis, alternate endings) like a DVD does (you'll have to ask someone about those, Brenda) and had the ability to search back in the text to find out who character-X is/why they matter, then maybe I'd go for it. But if it's just replicating the words-on-the-page experience I'll pass.


Susan Kaye said...

Nikon just announced it will be going to the digital format for all their camera models, save one, high end SLR. Until all paper publishers do this, forcing us to a high-tech format, books as we know them will continue.

As long as there is a choice, I think most will stick with low tech.

1 L Loyd said...

There are two things that an ebook cannot duplicate.

The portability and durability of a book. You ever try to stuff a reader in your back pocket so you can read during break? Especially if you are driving a tractor in the field?

The feel of paper in your fingers and the weight in your hand.

I put the prediction in with Ted Danson's. He said if we didn't drasticly change how we treated the oceans, life would start dieing in 10 years. That was 15-20 years ago. 50%of sale downloads. You wish.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I love the feel of books too much to give them up. I look around my library at shelves of books covering the walls, and then I look at my laptop...not the same feeling.

I have five e-books waiting to be read and nine real book qued up to be read. The paper will probably win, because I can see the covers beckoning me!

pacatrue said...

I think Chris is on target here. For an e-Book to replace books, it will have to offer something new. If there is a chance to search the text for every appearance of character X, to link to artwork easily and quickly, etc., then they will pick up some sales. If they are simply trying to out-book the book, then it won't work.

There is a potential with Readers in the ability to have a lot of information in one place. The whole reason I wanted an iPod was because of all that space. To think that I could have all my music on one little device while I go on vacation, instead of lugging 200 CDs around, sounded great. (Don't have one yet, though; too expensive.) Similarly, a lot of my co-workers go do field work in remote locations (seriously remote, like remote islands covered in jungle in the Phillipines) and they spend hours and hours scanning reference works into their laptop to take with them, since they can't carry more than a book or two.

Finally, there might be a niche market possibility with this. Random House isn't interested if it's only going to sell 500 copies, but perhaps an eBook publisher might be.

Robert Nagle said...

There are two reasons (and maybe only two reasons) for ebook readers:

1)free access to public domain novels. I've downloaded and/or read hundreds (if not thousands) of novels which would never be available through traditional printing.

2) cheap way to produce/distribute/sell your own ebooks.

If you're only interested in obtaining commercial titles, ebooks are definitely NOT the way to go. Face it: most p-books (physical books) sell for less than $2 on or Why would you want to buy a retail ebook version for $10?

I'm always amused when people talk about the "aesthetics" of reading a p-book. Hey, it's just words. You'll be amazed at how quickly you adapt. I have a lowtech ebook reader with awful font. It looked fine for me. Sony and other 2006 devices are several orders of magnitude better. As far as eyestrain, this hasn't been an issue for me (I'm 40), and in fact I enjoy reading an ebook in bed with the lights turned off.

The Sony looks nice, but there are two other ebook readers coming out this summer, probably better than Sony's. Of course, because it's Sony, that's the model you'll hear the biggest buzz about.

BTW, I write for, a site devoted to ebook industry developments.

Brenda Coulter said...

I write for, a site devoted to ebook industry developments.

Robert, if you stop back by here, I'd love to know your thoughts on Nigel Newton's prediction that "within seven to 10 years, 50 per cent of all book sales will be downloads."

Robert Nagle said...

Who knows really? In that time, maybe people won't be reading novels anymore :)

I think novelists/fiction writers will think of themselves in broader terms as storytellers, rather than as people who writes novels.

Book publishing will be leaner and meaner, and authors will never need to sell their copyright to anyone.

"Micromarketing" (such as what you are doing with your books/blogs) will become more the norm than the exception. I've just poked my head around, but it looks like you have good ideas about building your audience.

Brenda Coulter said...

Micromarketing? Is that what I'm doing? Gee, I'm trendy and I didn't even know it.