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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

eBooks and the Future of Books: A Question From WhoHub

Someone on WhoHub recently asked me the following and I thought I would respond here:
What is your experience with ebook readers? Are they comfortable for your eyes? Will the paper book fade away?
One thing that an old-school book lover like me has had to admit is that eReaders have gone from being clunky, annoying devices, to aesthetically pleasing monsters with a lot of potential. Personally, I don't think eReaders are quite there yet. The Apple iPad, while not strictly an eReader, has the potential to essentially destroy the entire eReader market, but the 1.0 is far from being the device it should be. Likewise, eBook-specific devices like Amazon's Kindle, the various Sony readers, and Barnes & Noble's Nook all have a lot of great features, but also a lot of bugs; all of those are heading in the right direction, but none of them have quite reached that point where I, as a potential buyer, see the benefit to me. Why is that?

First, eReaders are expensive. Almost all of them are over $200; for me, that's a lot to spend on a device that a) doesn't excel at what it does, and b) is not at the pinnacle of its device history. MP3 players, for example, have gone well past their peak, but the result is that pretty much every major MP3-specific device still being sold right now is excellent at what it does and reasonably priced. The eReader market isn't quite there yet. For example, most of the eReaders have significant problems with justified text, which is pretty much the gold standard for text formatting for any book, and part of what makes them pleasing to the eyes. When you have lines with strange caps or ragged edges, it strains the reading process (and this might also explain why professors are always quite irritated when they have to grade papers).

Second, I still love dead-tree media. Books are lovely things. They have strange smells, interesting texture, and a load of other appealing features that other forms don't have. No eReader can match this, but with a low enough price tag, features that work at a more-than-adequate level, and more attention paid to how we read books, I might be influenced to buy an eBook-specific device. Right now, the only purpose I have in purchasing an eReader is to make it easier for publishers to send me review copies of books without incurring unnecessary shipping costs (it costs basically nothing to send me an electronic file); even that, though, is not as easy as it sounds, since publishers and their friends use annoying DRM on everything they create for the electronic market. DRM, by the way, is generally despised by anyone who regularly uses the Internet, and for good reason.

Having said all of this, I think it only fair that I point out some of the things that I do like about eReaders based on personal experience with them. I've already talked about the Nook before, and eReaders in general, but one thing that I think eReaders and devices that have the capability to display eBooks have going for them is functionality. No, they are not, as I have already pointed out, perfect, nor all that wonderful at what they do, but things like the Nook, or, hell, even the iPad (which I loathe simply because it's Apple) have great interfaces and sleek design, something that, unfortunately, the Kindle and the Sony Reader currently don't have. The result is that these two devices have a lot of potential (the iPad more so than anything else, since it can do so much). But most eReaders do have weight going for them, with the exception of the iPad, and reading from them doesn't hurt the eyes, which should alleviate any concerns people may have about them--this despite the clunky design of some of the bigger eReaders out there, like the Kindle.

Really, there are a lot of great things to be said about eReaders, despite the fact that I'm not ready to throw down $200 to get one. They have come a long way, and I absolutely believe that the next ten years will bring us superior, standard-setting devices, better functionality, and a larger market. While I don't think eBooks will destroy the print market, I do think that eReaders have the potential to increase the market of readers ten fold by tapping into a demographic of non-readers or infrequent-readers that have gone relatively unscathed by the print market (with the exception of the YA market, which has exploded and sucked in a lot of young would-be readers; I'd argue, though, that you can't really count young people in the non-reading category until they become adults, but that's another discussion entirely).

The worst-case-scenario for the print market is one in which eReaders dominate the reading market, and print is relegated to special-edition/collector status. Things like signed editions of books really don't work in the eBook market simply because their value in the print market is predicated upon limited printings, which is not possible to reproduce in electronic form (and even if you can, someone will simply hack that form and distribute it online; you can certainly scan books, but an electronic scan can never reach the same value plane as the printed article).

The best-case-scenario is a larger reading public. This is the one that I both think will happen and hope will happen. Instead of taking over, eReaders simply suck in new readers, take a few readers from the printed medium who are more inclined to read on an electronic device anyway, and, overall, triple the size of the publishing industry (which means more books, more writers, and more money for publishers and writers alike). That, in my book, is a darn good thing.

But, these are all predictions that, quite honestly, will probably turn out to be wrong. I was wrong way back in the day when I said that eBooks would never catch on (I don't have a quote because I don't think I said it on this blog); a lot of people were wrong about that one, what with eBooks taking up 3-6% of the market (I could be wrong on that figure) and establishing themselves as here to stay. For all I know, everything I say here will turn out to be a load of crap and something entirely unexpected will happen. Only time will tell.

What do you all think about eBooks? Do you think they'll destroy the print book?

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  1. Anonymous5:36 PM

    I wouldn't read many books on an ebook reader, but there are a lot of stand-alone short stories for sale or for free (via Google and the like) that I would love to read on an ereader vs my laptop screen. Not going to throw down two bills for one though.

  2. Yeah, $200 is a lot of money for an eReader with limited functionality. You can basically get a computer for a couple hundred more.