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The year of “e”

January 10, 2010

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.

© Copyright kim traynor and licensed for
reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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.

Speaking of eBooks, Paul happens to have a very good one available for sale right now. Chinese Whisperings: The Red Book is an anthology of ten interconnected stories from ten emerging writers, available in eBook format, and soon to be available in paperback.
6 Comments
  1. January 10, 2010 6:03 am

    I noticed in the lead up to Christmas Penguin released sumptuous hardback versions of a number of classics, priced at $19.95 – as an example of what you mentioned – more personalised purchases.

    Here in Australia we’ve only had the Kindle since October last year and the prices for books are up to 40% more expensive here than in the US – with Amazon refusing to make a comment last year on this very issue. As a consequence the uptake here in Australia is going to be slow. At the moment, while I wish I could justify an eReader – they are still way beyond my price range as is an iTouch – so I go for the simulated desk top versions.

    I wont ever want to swap an eReader for a real book in the long term – like you say they have lasted the test of time. For convience sakes an eReader wins out in the situations you mentioned (travel, storage space) but there is something about the asthetics of holding a book in your hands, smelling the pages, feeling the paper between your fingers which simply can’t be replicated on screen.

    If this means I’m a Luddite – I’ll wear the name proudly.

  2. January 10, 2010 9:52 am

    One of the advantages of eReaders is for reading while on the move. I think it could be very useful for magazines, webzines etc. As for books I agree with the others, I much prefer having a book in my hand. But I do know someone who has bought an eReader just for reading classic books now in the public domain. He says, as he pays nothing for these books, it works out cheaper. Maybe that’s so, and if he likes reading that way, that’s fine. But it doesn’t tempt me. Besdies, we have an excellent library here.

  3. January 10, 2010 2:01 pm

    The strides that ebooks have made over the last few years blows my mind. A few years ago I remember saying ebooks will never replace good old paper books but this year I’m not so sure.

    While independent book stores have had it rough over the last decade or so because of large book chains I actually think they will have a comeback of sorts in the next twenty years for the die-hard book readers who insist on paper first.

    I’m thrilled that the Kindle is finally available in Canada but with the ever changing technology I’m still not ready to fork out the $260+ if the following year the upgrades are better suited to my needs.

  4. January 10, 2010 2:23 pm

    I still prefer reading books to reading anything electronic. I like the comfort of sitting and being able to turn the page manually. Silly, I know, but it’s me.

    Besides, if I look at a computer screen for too long, my eyes start to feel dry and I get a headache.

  5. January 10, 2010 6:32 pm

    Great article Paul. Ebooks could be the death knell for both mass market and trade paperbacks but where I think they will come into their own is in the text book market. One reader could carry a student through college. Amazon hinted at this idea with the Kindle DX. This year’s Consumer Electronics Show is all about the ereader. Many are waiting to see what Apple brings forth this year at Mac World Expo.

    My concern is compatibility down the road. Try getting data off a 5.25 inch floppy disk nowadays. I fear the same principle may apply to digital books down the road.

  6. January 10, 2010 7:56 pm

    I’m just repeating other people’s comments, but what I fear about the eBook “revolution” is compatibility. As a long-time computer software developer, I see the technology changes that seem to happen faster and faster each day, rendering software that was written just a few years ago useless e-Trash. This is not because the products themselves don’t work, but because the media on which they are stored is not compatible with the new hardware or because operating systems and software upgrades have made the data inaccessible. An example of this is my resume which was written long-enough ago that it is stored on a floppy disk. It took me some time to find a drive to read this disk and then when I did, I found that the file was saved in an old version of MS Word (for DOS) which no modern versions can open. Whatever this might say about the state of my resume, I think it is a key factor with any technological “advancements” — for better or for worse, the old ways are left behind because it is not cost-effective to continue supporting them. Even “universal” formats, like pdf, are not fully backwards-compatible meaning that consumers who get a current-version pdf file cannot open it with an old version of the Reader.

    So while I hold no emotional attachment to paper books and honestly do not mind the thought that fewer trees would be cut down to make copies of the next Twilight book (for example), I would hate the thought that in 10 years we could be in a situation where books converted to or written for an electronic format today might be completely inaccessible. The hardware for these eReaders is meant to be disposable and to be replaced every couple of years, which guarantees turnover to newer hardware. Will there be guarantees that the books will be supported or converted with each technological advancement? Will we, the consumers, have to buy new versions for our futuristic “version 13 Kindle” or will the eBooks that work on the current Kindle continue to work on Kindle 13? I would not like to see any books, even Twilight (for example), become inaccessible due to this type of change.

    I think eBooks are fantastic for constantly-changing things such as text books and periodicals. They take up less space for sure. They are slightly more conenient when travelling, so long as you remember to charge them up ahead of time. But any other exclusive use of the format without a stable, perpetually-sustainable standard for hardware, software and storage, is something uncomfortable for me.

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