In the last year, e-books have spiked in use. With cheaply-available e-readers and a good supply of the books themselves, they are slowly chipping away at the traditional book market. Amazon already reports e-book sales overtaking paper book sales.
At the same time, there is a recurring discussion among book enthusiasts and technophiles. While some people herald e-books as the biggest invention since Gutenberg’s movable types, others put a lot of work into trying to “prove” that e-books are strictly inferior to paper books. Ignoring the clearly neophobic arguments, let’s take a look at some of the interesting differences and phenomena related to e-books and paper books.
Size and Weight
The clearest benefit of the e-book for me is the simple fact that I can easily carry around a bunch of books with me. I can carry an 800 page historical novel in my pocket and read it on the subway. And when I go on vacation, I bring a spare book or three with me in case I run out of my current one, without wasting any luggage space. This is simply liberating.
The same holds true for shelf space, the reason I got an e-reader in the first place. If you are an avid reader, sooner or later you realize that storage space is finite and you have to figure out some solution for the books you read once and will in all likelihood not read again. There are some great ideas for that, like BookCrossing, bookboxing or normal giveaways, but they all end up in requiring some effort. E-books solve the problem by simply not taking up physical space. An option you’ll appreciate the latest during your next move.
On the other hand, books are decorative. A shelf or ten full of books in a flat or house creates a specific setting that many people like. E-books by design can not compete here. You simply can not have both decoration and low space consumption.
Speaking of physical space. The announcement of TEDbooks made an interesting point about the requirements created by the physical format of paper books. To be printed, a given text has to have a certain minimum size. Below that size, it’s simply not cost-effective to print it. This has the strange effect that authors are encouraged to artificially inflate their texts for them to be printed, leading to a whole industry centered around explaining simple concepts in elaborate ways to make them printable. E-books do away with this artificial limitation. For them, content length simply does not matter much. So we might see an influx of highly condensed, educational literature previously made impossible by the restrictions of the format.
Despite this, not all is well in the land of nonfiction. For e-books, the size of the viewing area is prescribed by the reader, not the book. Content has to adapt to that size, not the other way around. And e-readers currently are tailored towards fiction and novels. Nonfiction works often have quite different requirements. They utilize diagrams, formulas and pictures much more extensively. It’s also much more useful to be able to easily “bookmark” pages by putting your finger there and quickly checking another page, or to compare multiple books with each other. Current e-readers do not cope with this usage pattern well at all, and while tablet PCs are trying, they are not even close. Because the use cases for textbooks are so different from fiction books, and a lot of the technological possibilities have already been taken up by normal PCs, it’s not even clear if the remaining ones will ever really be replaced in the general case. But even if, we are not even close to that point.
Let’s turn back to the more traditional use case of e-books, fiction. I’ve seen people predict the end of the world because e-books will make us all worse readers. The truth seems to be that e-book readers read more than others. And I can most certainly confirm that. The Kindle and Amazon make buying books so easy that I have spent more money on books than ever before, and the ease of carrying it around sure makes me read more, too. Paper books and bookstores simply can’t compete with that convenience.
A bookstore is not simply a place you go to to buy a specific book, though. It’s a place to browse and discover new books and authors. It’s a place with specialists you can ask questions. A place that gives a good and well-prepared selection of books from the vast ocean of new publications. And finally, it’s also a place to meet people who share your interests. Current online platforms have serious problems imitating all of this, and they have a lot of unused possibilities still.
Here, smaller stores can also actively compete with market dominant forces.
Finally, e-books make it easier for authors to self-publish, and thus break the dependency on publishers and retailers to “discover” the author. E-books allow for a much more grassroots-like approach. Publishers are worried that this will replace the established publishing industry, and they are right. What is coming to replace them, though, is a more communal, egalitarian, even democratic approach.
Then again, the technology here is barely developed. Internet platforms will have to replace the selection and editing process provided by publishers. With the increase in publication amount, the ability for consumers to find the books they are interested in is decreased, and without editors, the general quality of books will decrease. The internet will need to develop services offering to edit books for authors as well as selecting books for readers. Sites like Goodreads are going into the right direction, but the interface and features leave a lot to be desired. All of this creates opportunities to make money for publishers who embrace the new technology instead of being afraid of it.
With the notes above in mind, I think the future of the book is more in line with the idea of the “paperless office.” We still use paper in our daily work, even though the use is greatly reduced. We still send out paper letters all the time, even though most correspondence is done by e-mail. That’s how I see the future of paper books, too. While most reading will be done on e-books, important books will still be on paper, and we will still own a lot of them at home.
Compare this to video cassettes or audio tapes. Kids today can look at one and ask “what’s that?” I’m quite sure it will take a long, long time for paper books to suffer a similar fate.
Additionally, the e-book industry has a long way to go. Paper books are first selected and edited by publishers, and then selected from again by bookstores. This selection and editing process will become more and more important with the increasing amount of e-books, and appropriate sites will need to establish themselves over time. Furthermore, textbook interaction differs greatly from fiction novel interaction so that there is a lot of research and development to do.
The advent of e-books is not about replacing paper books. It’s about changing the way authors, publishers, bookstores and readers interact. We have only started on that journey, but if publishers and bookstores do not embrace the change, they will simply be left behind. In any case, authors and readers will be the winners of this change.