The year of “e”
This is not the article I intended to write today.
But it is, nonetheless, appropriate. It was written on a computer. It was inspired by a news story on a website. It was uploaded to the internet via a blog, and distributed round the world via RSS, email and web searches.
This article never existed physically, and I doubt it ever will. It is electronic, and it is very much of the age. According to some, 2010 will be the year of “e” – when eBooks and eReaders fulfil the promise of the last five years, and come to the fore.
Lisa Jardine of the BBC feels as I do; that whatever prominence eBooks gain this year, they will never replace physical copies of books. But we are not Luddites who dismiss eBooks and eBook Readers as a mere flash in the pan, doomed to failure. I see value in the eBook, and the eReader. I see a way to revitalise a flagging industry and change the game. But I see it as a supplement to, not a replacement for, the book.
Worryingly, this is a view not shared by one of the major players in the book market. For better or worse, Amazon has come to be one of the dominant names in the book market, a position it is seeking to consolidate with the eBook and eReader market. Amazon’s enthusiasm for the technology veers dangerously close to eclipsing any interest they may have in physical books.
Ian Freed, the Amazon Kindle vice-president, believes that the success of Kindle heralds the end for printed books, and has been quoted as saying “The only question is does it take three years, five years or 20 years?”
I can see the attraction for a business like Amazon. With only eBooks, their business overheads reduce drastically, which will increase their profits exponentially. No stock to purchase, no warehouse storage, no postage costs, every sale close to being pure profit.
But in 20 years, I’d be greatly surprised if the format of eBooks we have now are still readable, whilst in 20 years books printed today will still be just as accessible and readable. This is a point I’ve addressed before, that texts hundreds of years old are still perfectly useable, but many computer formats a fraction of the age are obsolete and inaccessible.
I believe in 2010 the eBook will have its “iPod moment”, when the means of purchase and the tools to use them will coalesce in the public mind. It will be the year of e, but it will signal the success of the format, not the end of another.
Books will continue to be. You cannot replicate the tactile pleasure of a book on an eReader. I would not swap my leather-bound collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories for a digital edition. I would not enjoy the Winnie the Pooh stories if the illustrations were replicated on a small screen.
I think as the eReader grows in popularity, we will see a decline in the purchase of paperback editions. For many people, a paperback is an inexpensive investment in an unknown quantity. Once read, it is seldom returned to. Do you let it take up space on your bookshelf, or give it away? With a digital book, the cost will be slightly less than the paperback, and once finished, it takes up nothing more than a few hundred kilobytes of computer memory, rather than inches of shelving. For one time reads, or for travel reading, I think the eBook will come to outstrip the paperback. This may actually see publishers gaining more money, as production costs fall, but sales remain the same, or even grow.
But for more personal purchases, for books that mean something more than just the desire for a quick read, I think the book will remain irreplaceable, indeed I think we will see people turning more and more to hardback editions, sumptuous covers, ornate designs. The book as an investment, an investment in yourself and the meaning behind the book, an investment in your feelings towards the person you buy it for.
2010 may well be the year of the e. But let us not forget that after the e, always and forever, comes the book.