E-book Readers: Not, in Fact, the Apocalypse
Amazon and Sony are waging war. The nascent market for hand-held e-book readers is spurring these two to a knockdown fight for the first viable technological monopoly over digital books. E-books have been around for a while, but the release of Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony Reader mark the first opportunity for consumers to actually have to make a choice between physical books and digital books. Previously digital books were limited on the supply side (primarily by such problems as the high costs of scanning or transcribing already published books and putting them on the Internet) and had low demand (because it sucks to read books on a computer screen at your desk).
Whenever I bring up the mere existence of e-book readers to fellow bibliophiles, I get an interesting response. “I’ve been reading about the Kindle,” I’ll say, and my friend will respond, “Yeah, but I like reading with real books too much. Kindle can’t replace that. There’s no way it can replace that!” And then I will listen to a long rant about the end of books as we know them. You’d think the new technology is committing genocide against the printed word. It is a bit like saying, “So did you hear about the new legal status of gay marriage in Iowa?” and hearing the reply, “Yeah, but I’m against raping animals, even in the bonds of marriage.”
I want to offer a few words of reassurance. First, who’s using e-book readers? Currently only tech nerds and people who read a lot anyway. Average folk are not choosing to shell out four hundred dollars – yet. Oh, as the price comes down it is certain that a chunk of the middle class will get one, but that’s not for a good ten years at least.
Second, why is everyone so convinced that e-book readers threaten the printed word as we know it? While the technological evolution is clearly ongoing, the direction of the readers is that of a general digital use device, with access to the Internet and in the end merely a strong emphasis on digital books. If anything Sony Reader and Kindle are the next big challenge to the iPhone and the Blackberry. Particularly the option to automatically receive newspapers and magazines makes me suspect that e-book readers will make businesspeople a key demographic.
If the opposition to e-book readers stems from a suspicion that they will cause the publishing industry to topple, the fear is unfounded. The newspaper industry has already harmed itself (almost?) beyond repair. The publishing industry should also take responsibility for its own troubles up to this point. Like giving Reagan credit for the fall of the Soviet Union, it hardly seems fair to blame new technology for what would have happened anyway. I believe that even if big publishers go out of business (and they have not yet – thanks, Stephenie Meyer!) that will signal merely a shift in direction for publishing. Small publishers previously specializing in Wicca and poetry will have the opportunity to make a profit at general books. That’s not a bad thing for consumers or the market, just current companies on the brink. (Whether or not it is good for authors depends on the specific problems of a new publishing game.) More concerning than whether publishers can tough it out is whether people read at all in the first place. Publishing companies are always on the verge of bankruptcy because the market is made up of a relatively small number of people who love to read and who buy a lot of books. Reading is not a national past time. But by making books cheaper (after the cost of the device) and access easier, maybe e-book readers will inspire people to read more.
The primary reason that people react so poorly to e-book readers, though, is the total experience of reading. The sensation of holding a book, smelling it, browsing a store or library, or striking up conversations with strangers about books are all aspects of reading that e-book readers cannot duplicate. And that is the crux of the matter: since they cannot duplicate the experience, e-book readers should therefore be no threat to real books. Consumers use them for different purposes. E-books will not pose a threat to the printed word, but merely nuance in consumption. Nor will they threaten libraries. Tacoma Public Library is one of many across the country to jump on the e-book train. Modern libraries are not just places to check out books or study. They are community resources, with classes, meeting rooms, cultural events, historical archives, DVDs and music, and much more. Libraries are more than capable of using technology to expand services.
Photo credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/robertogreco/