Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ebooks Will Kill Print...Don't Make Me Laugh

There is a lot of debate about ebooks killing off the printed word and several people have already predicted its end date.  They are wrong.

I was initially responding to a post at the Literary Lab when I got to thinking about how unlikely this death is to happen.

The three reasons I gave were that Hardbacks weren't killed off by paperbacks, home taping didn't kill music and the internet didn't kill off the postal service.  There are, naturally, many more examples that I, and you, can think of.

The problem, as I see it, is that printed books are just too useful.  Forget the feeling of holding a book and the smell of the paper.  That's just for anoraks/nerds/geeks/freaks (delete as appropriate) like me.  For the vast majority of people, a book is a simple piece of technology that can be taken anywhere.

- Ereaders need power to function, usually in the form of batteries.  A book doesn't.
- Ereaders need to boot up before they can be used.  A book doesn't.
- Ereaders give too much choice of reading material.  A book doesn't.

The question is not whether ereaders will replace books, but whether ereaders will last at all.

Other technology could give us a clue:  DVDs and mp3s.  Despite Apple's best efforts, they haven't got a monopoly on downloaded music and now that Amazon are selling unrestricted mp3s, that market may well dry up completely.  Mp3s can be played on any compatible player, a number of which can be bought cheaply.  You can play mp3s on your phone or your computer too.  With a little wizadry, you can get them to play via your stereo system.

DVDs are region restricted, but you can play them on any DVD player in that region.  You can get regionless DVD players as well, not forgetting that BluRay players can play DVDs as can computers.

Both mp3s and DVDS are portable and so are printed books.  The books for ereaders aren't.

The music industry and games industry have found out the hard way that using Digital Rights Software is only going to cause trouble for the honest and be cracked by the dishonest.  Microsoft, meanwhile, are learning that proprietary software is going by the wayside, as their office software and internet explorer are being used less frequently by individuals and businesses, whilst Windows is being replaced in some areas by Linux.

The other problem with ereaders is economics.  A lost or broken book can be replaced relatively cheaply.  What happens to your library if your ereader breaks?  Are Sony and Amazon going to replace it all free of charge? When technology passes your current ereader by, will you be able to transfer your digital library to something else?

A cautionary tale comes from the 1980s.  The British historian Michael Wood was at the head of a research project to compile a modern Doomsday Book.  They decided to use a computer and the System they chose was the BBC Micro as it was widely used in schools and universities.  Ten years later they started a campaign to save this data as the BBC Micro had been usurped by Windows and the project was in danger of being lost.

Could the same thing happen to the software on the Kindle and Sony products?

The way forward for Electronic Publishing could be something as simple as the humble PDF.  The PDF is a file format designed by Adobe and made freely available for anyone to use.  It is second only to Word in its ubiquitousness on our computers and in the number of documents sent via email.  In many ways it is the document equivalent of the mp3. 

If you download a PDF book you can take it anywhere and put it on as many devices as you like as well as have a backup up copy. 

There will be the inevitable cries from the publishing industry that they will lose money as people will just email them around the world.  Aside from slandering the entirety of humanity, it also fails to account for second hand bookstores.  Charity shops sell plenty of books, with not a penny going to the author or the publisher.  Some of these books are sold several times before being finally binned.  The difference between this and passing round a PDF is...?

The vast bulk of humanity are honest enough to want to pay someone properly for a job well done, that's why they leave tips.  Ereaders are not the way forward or as pliant as the publishers (and the manufacturers) would have us believe, but are an expensive way to build a llibrary and read books.

All these reasons, in my opinion, are why ereaders will never replace the printed word.


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