Monday, February 08, 2010

You Can Pry My Paper Books From My Cold, Dead Fingers

People have an emotional attachment to printed books. So much so, that the most repeated argument against the universal adoption of ebooks is "I love print, and no ebook will ever be able to take its place."

Let's analyze this position. At its heart, the argument is emotional, not logical, for reasons this essay will explain. But an emotional response is still a very effective one. We're an emotional species, and the history of mankind shows that emotion often dictates our actions.

Looking at the history of technology, it isn't too often that a new tech completely replaces the tech that existed previously. The automobile became the preferred method of personal transportation, but many people still own horses, and every big city offers the expensive horse and buggy ride around town.

Consider the bow and arrow. When gunpowder was invented, a natural assumption could have been that there would never again be any use for arrows. Yet archery is still a thriving business, and you can go into any sporting goods store and buy a crossbow.

People used horses to get from point A to point B. People used bow and arrows to hit a target from a distance. When cars and guns came, it was easier to get to point B and hit targets using these new techs. As a result, they became the widely adopted methods to complete these tasks.

Let's say that a technology used to complete a task has "destination value." The goal is getting the task done, and if one tech is advantageous over another tech, it often becomes the preferred method.

But there are still archery ranges and horse riders. That's because these offer an experience as well as a destination value. It's fun to get to point B on a horse, and ask any Ted Nugent fan about his affinity for the compound bow.

Sometimes it isn't just about the destination value. Sometimes the journey is also important.

Let's call this experience "journey value." It's a large part of the reason the horse and bow never went away.

These techs, however, aren't media.

Media, by definition, is a delivery system.

But is the end result the destination? Or does the journey also have value?

Let's use the music industry as an example yet again, because I believe there are parallels to the publishing industry.

The LP was the dominant music format for years. 8 track tapes were invented as an alternative, and though they had some advantages (you could now play music in your car) they didn't replace LPs.

But in the case of both the LP and the 8-track, they had similar destination value. They both allowed you to listen to a song. Their comparable journey value was negligible. How you listened to the song really didn't add much to the experience. The point was being able to listen to a song, not the format the song was in.

Along come cassette tapes. These had an advantage over 8-tracks and LPs, because they could record music. But they didn't replace LPs. Music stores sold LPs and cassettes side by side, and different consumers had different preferences.

Again, the experience is the song itself, not the delivery method. High destination value. Low journey value.

Then CDs came on the scene. It was originally thought by the industry that cassettes would be the death of LPs, because cassettes allowed for piracy. But the two mediums co-existed peacefully for years.

With the advent of CDs, the quality of music went up. Digital allowed for a lossless version of the musical artist's master tapes, with a delivery system superior to both LPs and cassettes.

Digital also allowed those original masters to be digitally remastered, to make the quality better than ever.

But consumers didn't warm up to CDs right away. First of all, the device to play CDs on was very expensive (I recall it being the most expensive part of a stereo system for several years after it was introduced.)

Music publishers, however, wanted people to adopt this new format. I'm not sure why. Maybe deals with CD player manufacturers. Maybe CDs had a higher profit margin than LPs and cassettes, or were easier to ship or mass produce. Whatever the reason, they wanted to push this new technology. And one of the ways they did this was to stop making as many LPs.

At one point, you would walk into a music store and it was all LPs, and some 8 tracks. Years later, it was about half LPs and half cassettes. Years later it was a few LPs, cassettes, and a growing CD selection. Then it was no LPs, a few cassettes, and mostly CDs. And eventually, it was all CDs.

CDs did provide a better way to experience a song. They sounded better (though a few diehard LP audiophiles may argue against the point.)

But a CD was just a vehicle for the thing that hadn't changed: the song.

The destination value of a CD was equal to the destination value of a cassette. They both played a song that you could listen to. And the journey value to each was negligible. They could both be played on portable Walkmans, and in cars. CD had better sound quality. Cassettes could record music.

The ability to record music adds an interesting dynamic. One of the things I find interesting is that cassettes weren't fully replaced by CDs until another invention came out: the CD burner.

Like the CD player, the burner started out as very expensive. And it actually wasn't invented as a way to copy music. It was invented as a way to store data on a personal computer. But computer users soon realized that this new technology could be used for piracy.

A CD is digital. This digitized information could be copied onto a computer, and then that could be copied onto a blank disk.

Piracy then evolved. A CD of 12 songs takes up a lot of megabytes. So users began to play with ways to compress this information, so more songs could take up less space. The MP3 was born.

With the advent of the MP3, something interesting and unexpected happened. Consumers of music, used to having a physical, tangible product that was the delivery system for their music (the LP, cassette, or CD) realized they didn't need the tangible product. Music could exist solely as digital binary code on a computer.

Apple looked at this user trend, and created a user-friendly device that played MP3s. Today, a computer company is the biggest retailer of music players (iPod and iPhones) and music itself (on iTunes) in the world.

You'd think that maybe Columbia Records, or some other big record company, would have been the leader in this industry and spearheaded the MP3 movement. But they didn't. They tried to block it, and hired lots of lawyers and sued a lot of people and invested a ton of money in copy protection that didn't work.

Or perhaps a major retailer, like Sam Goody or Musicland, would have realized they were losing CD sales, and taken a good look at where there customers were now getting music. Surely they could have found a way to make money off of this trend.

But they didn't. They went out of business.

So a computer company now rules the music industry.

Now let's go back to destination value and journey value. While Apple changed the way the world listened to music, the destination value was still the same thing it has always been: the song.

While listening to a song on an iPod is easier and has many advantages to listening to an LP, the song is still the important thing. How you listen to a song has continually evolved since Edison. But this experience can't be logically compared to shooting a bow or riding a horse.

When you close your eyes and listen to a song, it's for the song. It's not for the experience of using a record player, cassette player, CD player, Zune, iPod, or computer. The joy is not sticking the tape in, or putting the headphones on.

I'd say that the delivery system for music is not nearly as important as the music itself. Which is why we've had so many delivery systems, and will no doubt have many more in our lifetimes.

The song remains the same. Technology will always march on. And neither the big record companies, nor the big record stores, ever figured that out.

So let's bring ebooks into this discussion.

By stating they won't ever give up print books, print aficionados are giving value to the journey. The act of turning pages, the smell of paper, the feel of a book in their hands--to print fans, this seems to be just as enjoyable as the story itself.

I don't buy it.

The joy of riding a horse, while destination can be important, is also closely tied in with with the experience. You can ride a horse with no destination at all and still have a great time.

You don't need to hunt with a bow and shoot an animal to enjoy the feeling of pulling back the bow string and letting an arrow fly, no matter the target. Using a arrow is fun just shooting it into the air (make sure no one is around first.)

Can you picture yourself popping a CD into the stereo without music coming out? Can you imagine going for a walk with your iPod, putting in your ear buds, and selecting a song on iTunes with the sound on mute? That's journey value, and the journey value is zero.

Now picture being curled up on a couch with a book. Smell it. Feel it. Stick out your tongue and taste it if you so desire.

How often would you repeat that experience if the book had no words on any of its pages?

In fact, the journey experience with media is imagined. Or it's tied into nostalgia, pleasant memories, and previous pleasurable experiences. People love paper books because it was the only way they've had, in the hundreds of years the medium has exited, to experience a story.

But a story is not print on a page. It never has been.

A story is the writer's words in your head.

And guess what, print book aficionados? You can get the story into your head without dead trees.

(This is the first part of a two part essay about changing media technology, the role of piracy in adopting new media technology, and why an online bookseller is now feared as having a stranglehold on the future of publishing. Part 2 is HERE.)


David said...

And yet, have you seen those people with houses full of collectibles, beanie babies, cabbage patch kids, model cars, whatever? Don't you want a piece of that? Wouldn't you like a specially printed and illustrated (and priced) hardcover mystery about Jackie Daniels next to some rich person's bottle of Jack Daniels, with Whisky Sour next to the whisky?

Jude Hardin said...

Most people listen to music. Most people watch movies.

Most people don't read books.

If a large enough demographic read multiple titles/year, then digital would eventually replace print. Sadly, that's just not the case.

Ebooks will eventually be the dominant format for hardcore readers like you and me, Joe, but unfortunately there's not enough of us to make it the dominant format overall. Why would someone who reads one or two (or fewer) books/year jump on the digital bandwagon?

The publishing industry survives because a lot of people buy a few books/year, not because a few people buy a lot of books/year.

Digital will take over when a lot of people buy a lot of books/year. In other words, when Hell freezes over.

Anonymous said...

maybe i'm just one of the few who reads many books per year, but i agree with joe, it's the story not the medium that is the core of the experience at issue.

see how quickly folks adapt. apple's ipad will be a success with the two book per year crowd. dedicated ereaders will prevail with the rest of us.

Dave Zeltserman said...

your music analogy is a poor one. regardless of what medium the music is imprinted on, you need an electronic device to play it. if I have an eReader and it breaks or I lose it or it becomes obsolete, I lose not only an expensive device, but my library. If I have a book and I bend a page or get it wet or even lose it, eh, it's only one book and if I didn't lose it I might very still be able to read it. And when reading a book, I don't have to worry about having its battery draining on me or the company that sold it to me deciding that they want to change it or even take it back from me.

On another note--and this might sound more of a reach, but for me it's every bit as important, for the most part we've used society as guinea pigs for cell phones, and are now finding more and more studies showing long term usage can cause brain tumors. Who knows what the long term effects of eReaders and the radiation it gives off. When reading a book, I'd just as soon unplug and hold something that's not giving off anything.

Anonymous said...

IMO you've got it mostly right although I think there is some journey value in music and can't dismiss out of hand those who think they'll find the same thing in books. This also ties into Jude's point, a very good one, most people listen to music, watch movies, but few read much.

I think those who are avid music fans (I fit in both camps) are more likely to have journey rewards. Some are the audiophiles you mention who I'll admit sometimes seem over the top. But there are a growing number of music labels releasing music on vinyl because apparently some find the sound "warmer" and digital music (even CDs) too sterile. Based on the increase there is apparently a significant market for this.

My own personal journey value that has been changed since the demise of the LP is reading the record jacket and inserts and comparing credits from record to record. The artwork and creativity in the jackets isn't the same with CDs and was maybe worse with cassettes not to mention these old eyes need a magnifying glass to read them. And yes, I do read these without listening to the music although now I'll often use another source to get this information. That seems to fit in with your riding a horse with no desination comparison.

Perrin Rynning said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linda said...

I understand the environmental advantages to e-media. Despite using trees for print media, I am not ready to jump totally to the e-book bandwagon. To me, much of the enjoyment of a book does come from the heft of the book and the turning of the pages, especially if it is a book I re-read periodically (and there are quite a few in that category).

I read in the bathtub--probably not the best place for an e-reader. I travel on public transportation and have inadvertently left a book on the train--losing a $8.99 paperback is bad but losing a $200+ e-reader would be disastrous.

As a writer, I welcome e-publishing and realize it has many benefits (some of which I learned from your prior well-thought-out posts here). I just don't yet foresee a world where all publishing will be digital, and frankly, I would not want to live that long.

People still enjoy LPs as much for the experience and sentimental value, and I truly believe print media will remain viable for the same reason.

Connecting music and books, there once was a thought that audiobooks would replace printed ones. Even though audios started in the cassette era and have evolved through CDs and now to DVDs, they did not replace books--they simply complimented them. Some of my reading friends keep both hardcover copies of their favorites and audio versions as well (preferably unabridged).

Once again--you are providing a well-written and thought-provoking post; thank you.

Perrin Rynning said...

I'm with Mr. Zeltserman on this one. E-books may be a marvelous way to "decrease the demand for paper", but there are other concerns. Aside from the legitimate concern of what happens to the electronic library that fits in your pocket if that library is broken or stolen, what are we to make of the fact that "stolen" in this context can (and, sadly, has) meant that the organization from which the purchaser obtained the book revoked the reader's right to read the book? Where is the justification for "purchasing" the same book over and over?
I have several shelf-fuls of dead-tree format books that could very well be read by archivists in a millennium or two, using nothing more than careful illumination and turning the pages. In contrast, there are electronic media formats younger than I am that are barely accessible to anyone except for groups of "eccentrics" who maintain the "archaic" technologies necessary to do so (BetaMax? Amiga program code? Sony MiniDiscs? The list goes on). More importantly, I can hit paper books with hammers or wave powerful magnets over them and still read them quite nicely; not so with e-books. Finally, neither e-books nor paper books handle high temperatures well; if paper spontaneously combusts at 451 degrees Farenheit, what is the "spark point" for most e-book readers's casings, or even the critical maximum temperature at which e-book readers' memory units become unstable?
My own "soundbite-sized" response to the essay's title might be: "I'll buy an e-book reader when e-book readers last as long as paper books."

Spy Scribbler said...

I used to say that. (Your title.) My ebook reader is the best thing I ever bought.

Perrin, it's just like a computer. Back up your ebooks, just like you back up the documents you want to keep. I guarantee you that if, say, the Kindle up and disappeared tomorrow, there would be plenty of scripts and programs and tutorials out there showing you how to convert your old ebooks to the snazzy new Future E-Reader's format. (Actually, the tutorials and scripts are already out there.)

Alastair Mayer said...

For the folks touting "environmental advantages" to e-books, bear in mind that growing trees to make book paper sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere and locks it up in said book paper. Moving electrons around takes energy, which has to come from somewhere.

Just sayin'.

MikeH said...

I agree with most of your argument, and the technology is, indeed changing. But I don't think it necessarily has to follow the path music or films did. The computer industry and produce all the e-books and e-book readers it wants but if no one buys them, the print technology will remain in books.

Remember Beta Max? Better system, no one bought it (except me) and it disappeared.

Sofie Bird said...

I think you're missing a crucial difference between the book industry and the rest of the entertainment sector, which is that unlike music/DVDs/Games which are chiefly purchased for personal enjoyment, the majority of books are bought as gifts.

There's still a big psychological difference between giving someone a physical present all nicely wrapped, and giving them a piece of paper that says "Hey, I bought you this for your [insert eReader of choice]."

Giving an ebook as a present feels cheap. You have nothing physical to show them and they have nothing 'substantial' they can remember your gift by. There's also the added consideration that there was probably a physical copy available, and the ebook would have been cheaper - so it may feel like they just bought the cheapest version available - hardly a warm and fuzzy thought for a gift.

Until we manage a mental shift towards a book being an experience rather than an object, paper books won't be going anywhere.

g d townshende said...

I'm not opposed to e-book readers — I can see myself owning one eventually — but the tactile and sensory experience of a book can't be replicated electronically. The pops, clicks, and warmth of a vinyl album can be replicated — kinda sorta — but it doesn't compare to the real thing. I've tried audio books, and I can't stand 'em. Listening while driving? Uh, no thanks. I've friends who are avid audio book listeners (which strikes me as odd; books should be read, not listened to) and have found themselves roadside with a cop writing them up a ticket. They might as well have been talking on a cell phone. With audio books, I find myself wondering what the hell to do with my hands. An e-book does offer the solution of having something to hold, and while it may be emotional, there really is nothing quite like the spell and smell of a freshly printed book in hand. Perhaps e-books will eventually become the dominant means of delivery in the future, and books a rarity and seen as the choice of a collector. That's really no different than audiophiles who still prefer the savor of the analog musical experience, which does have 'journey value' in the same way that a book does. You can enjoy the experience of lifting the tone arm onto your LP and hearing the needle pop into the groove just as much as you can enjoy flipping pages through your hands.

One downside I see to the march of technology is that there is a trend toward divorcing us from the world about us while paradoxically trying to convince us that we're doing ourselves good, headphones on ears as we walk down the street, instead of listening to the music of birds, plastic (oil-based!) electronic device in hand, reading our e-book, instead of the satisfying feel of pages between our fingers (from a renewable resource). We're traveling inward instead of outward, and I'm currently loathe to jump on that insular bandwagon.

Marie Simas said...

I agree with Zelterman. Books have a high collectibility value that CDs never really seem to have. Plus, I really hate brain tumors.

I don't mean shit paperbacks, though. I'm thinking of all the graphic novels that I open up once a year with gloves when I need to my Frank Miller fix. I just can't imagine anything as lovely as Bill Sienkiewicz's Elektra:Assassin. I'm not a lesbian, but I used to masturbate with that comic open on my nightstand. In fact, the original series is sitting behind me, and I could quote it, line by line. But I digress.

I like e-books, and I think that eventually they will take over say, 90% of the market. That, I could see. Who the fuck wants to collect Michael Chriton?

But I'd like to look at paper books more like baseball cards. The shitty ones get thrown away, but everyone holds onto their copy of Mickey Mantle.

Anonymous said...

A lot of the criticism above isn't that e-book readers are bad, it's that they're too expensive. Time will sort that out. Eventually printing a book will seem like a herculean task compared to the simple process of delivering e-books to whatever ubiquitous screen we have with us all the time. Probably a phone with a pull out display.

Why did the music companies want to push the CD? Sarcasm? The same reason they keep pushing new technologies - so you'll buy the same song multiple times. The CD was a bonanza because people WANTED to re-buy their old records.

And obviously Apple didn't remotely invent the mp3 player they just popularised it. Makes no difference to the excellent article but I'm OCD so I have to mention it.

JA Konrath said...

@David - Vinyl still exists, but it's niche. It doesn't matter what I want. What matters is what I believe the future to be.

@Jude - Most people don't read books, and yet JK Rowling is richer than the Queen. I'm confidant enough people read books, and that the number won't shrink, but rather expand, as time progresses. Harry Potter and Twilight and a plethora of other YA are grooming a whole generation of readers for my novels.

@Dave - In your analogy, no one would ever buy a computer, because once the computer breaks they lose all the content on it. Ebooks can be backed up. As for brain tumors and cell phones, the research has been sketchy at best. I'm not convinced the ereader will be held back by a fear of radiation poisoning.

@Anon 10:16 - Many audiophiles get lyrics, liner notes, high resolution cover art, and many other bells and whistles on iTunes.

@Linda - Many Kindlers put their device in Ziploc back to read at the beach or in the tub. On a long ago blog post, I said ereaders will someday be waterproof. :)

@Perrin - If you buy media based on permanence, what are your criteria to judge permanence? Became media is constantly getting new delivery systems. I've bought Evil Dead six times. RCA Disc, VHS, VHS letterbox, DVD, DVD special edition, DVD ultimate edition. If people want something, they'll buy it regardless of permanence.

@MikeH - But people are buying ebooks. My numbers prove it.

@Sofie - Gift certificates for ebooks are nice.

@gd - Preference is subjective. But the history of media shows that it does change, and when it does very few look back.

Brad R. Torgersen said...

I'm not an e-book hater, I just don't see a pressing need to get one. It's not like I am fantastically annoyed by my print library. And I happen to think that, yes, the physical experience of book reading is one of the things an e-reader cannot replicate. Yes, the story matters. But the tangible aspects of the story reading experience are valid too.

The one time I could see myself possibly using an e-reader would be on deployment -- a time when economy of luggage becomes supreme. But even then, are there any milspec e-readers? How 'bout e-readers that can charge via solar and go weeks or months at a time without needing to be plugged into another electronic item?

Right now it's the gadgeteers and the geeks -- not the book buying public et al -- which is driving the e-reader micro-explosion. These are the same class of folk who were the first to buy personal computers in the early 80's, the first to buy CD players in the late 80's, the first to get cell phones, wi-fi, blu-ray, etc, etc. Not saying that's a bad thing. I like toys too. But unless a toy can be hugely more convenient for me -- and the MP3 player has proven to be hugely more convenient -- I don't necessarily feel compelled to jump on the bandwagon.

Ultimately, for my wife and I, were like our library. Our front room is one giant book shelf, interspersed with art and pottery and candles. The books are part of our decor, and we love them. I know many other people who are the same way. Especially since no e-reader has yet managed to tackle things like glossy picture books or other mixed-media books, where the reading experience is complimented by photos, art, etc.

Consider our two atlases: the World Atlas and the Solar System Atlas. Stripped of photos and reduced to text on a Kindle screen, they're unremarkable. But in print, at their size, they're gorgeous, and some of our most treasured books in the home.

I am sure the e-book market will eventually take its place alongside print, as an option. But it won't get rid of print -- not unless the government bans paper use in fiction publishing -- and I am not even convinced it will take over print, as the majority market occupant.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Joe, not at all. Computers perform functions that I can't get elsewhere. eReaders attempt to replicate the experience of reading a physical book--they're not needed outside of the cheaper delivery costs. Think of it sort of as what the drug companies do in trying to replicate the properties of a plant or herb because they can't patent the natural substance, so they produce harsher versions because the goal is to make money.

If I were to make an analogy with computers, it would be what happened when I upgraded to a new system and found all this expensive software that I had bought wasn't compatible with the new version of my Windows XP operating system, so I had to spend a lot of money to replace it. There's no guarantees the eReaders of the future will be compatible with the eBook formats of today, and/or conversion tools will be available.

Cell phones/brain tumors reports are not that sketchy. I saw one the other day that looked at the high incidence of brain tumors among stockbrokers who use their cell phones at a high rate. None of us yet have any idea what health damages could be caused by holding an eReaders and it's ambient radiation for hours close to our faces, but we'll be finding out eventually.

Bob Fleck said...

To me, the one difficulty of your music analogy is that LPs are more like the Model T, versus the CDs being a modern sedan. The true experience of music is live, and concert venues and live music clubs still flourish.

Now, I believe that in time, most reading will shift to modern electronic devices, but sand and sea water are much less damaging to a paperback (and much less cost lost if they are damaged) than to a Kindle. And when the flight attendant tells you to turn off all electronic devices, your book will still be readable. There are times and places where each is preferable, and so they will continue to exist side-by-side for a long time.

Anonymous said...

Bow delivers a missile to, presumably the body of an enemy. Arquebus then musket then rifles replaced it as more efficient (initially ammunition and lack of real skill to use.
car: delivers people and goods somewhere else. And cars are often used when they need not be and you Americans are very prone to do that..
Armies abandoned horses because the supply for motor transportation is far easier and it can carry a lot more further (and it has no psychology!)
Just being wee bit nasty. Need a little dose every day.
Otherwise well one can put a paperback in a pocket and subsequently sit on it in the subway without loosing $300.
One can have 120 books in that thin little macchine in your pocket.
Theoretically? my ongoing opposition, so far, to ebooks is that short of ereader and PDf, you don't seem to actually own them, just kind of rent them, but that is another story.

ssas said...

Sophie, I don't believe the majority of books are bought as gifts. Stats to back that up? But even if they were, it's pretty comparable to the Itunes gift card, of which we received many this Christmas, and used! I've gotten gift cards from Amazon too.

I think the only flaw in this conversation is that it's missing a couple of things.

One is another advance in technology: POD. Very soon we won't require an either/or scenario at all, and even major publishers will be able to offer their midlist POD or electronically rather than in print runs. Technology can print books right in the store. (Not that I think this is a smart use of technology, but it exists.)

The other issue is the absurdly massive amount of free content on the Internet. Don't underestimate Facebook's impact on book sales. Seriously, some people would rather spend their reading time (say a 1/2 hour) reading what other people had for dinner than to read a book, mostly because it's convenient, brainless, and free. (Similar to TV, though I think TV will eventually become the next big obsolete tech - a different conversation).

My point? It doesn't have to be an either/or proposition, not for a long time yet. I do agree publishers need to refocus, hire tech experts, and do their best to shape the future of publishing rather than get drowned in its wake.

ssas said...

Oh, and guys, you just put your kindle in a zippy bag and it'll be fine from sand and bathwater. Pretty annoying to do that with a paper back, though. Makes it tough to turn the pages. :)

Anonymous said...

As you point out in your response to my original post art and liner notes are available for download from iTunes. That ties you into a single vendor if you want that service. E-readers also at least partially tie you to a specific vendor.

That said I ordered my first e-reader yesterday prior to reading your post. For me the decision was based on several factors. The main ones are convience and space. (I devote a full room in my house as a library. Evenually it's going to fill up.) Cost is a minor additional reason.

MCM said...

Arguing that print will never be replaced is very much a "damn kids, get off my lawn" viewpoint: the world of print is coming to an end, no matter how much you want it to stay. I don't say that as someone who hates print. I like print. But you need to appreciate the print fiends are going to lose the battle.

I have two kids, and together they go through several hundred books a year. They LOVE reading. My younger daughter, having seen the iPad, is saving her pennies to buy one. Why? "It does everything I like!" Music, movies, books. That's her world right there, and it's ALL right there. She reads paper books because that's where the content is, but she spends the ENTIRETY of the rest of her media-consuming time in front of a screen. She doesn't understand CDs, she thinks DVD cases are just for show (the movies are on the media centre, silly!) She has no loyalty to physical media. If anything, it's an inconvenience.

The iPad will arrive and parents will give their kids Store allowances like they do with music, and the kids will see the latest Wimpy Kid is out as an iBook, and they'll buy it en masse. They'll PREFER it as an iBook, because they won't have to go get it. It'll be right there. The publishing industry will realize they have a way straight into the brains of kids, and they'll rush to exploit it. It doesn't matter what the adults are doing... those kids will be adults in 10-15 years, and they'll have grown up reading off a screen. Paper will be one thing too many to carry. Who would cart around a 700-page novel when you can fit all the same words next to Taylor Swift's new album and Zac Efron's new movie?

Today, you can still buy vinyl if you want it, but it's not the main engine of the music industry. In 20 years, you'll still be able to buy print, but it'll be POD and it'll be limited to specialty shops. The change is coming, and I think the naysayers will be surprised at how fast it happens.

(BTW, under this scenario, the Kindle has an extremely limited lifespan. Dedicated eReaders are stopgap at best. They're a very expensive kind of physical media.)

Chris said...

Honestly, there are a few reasons I like regular books over ebooks:

First, there's a visible sense of accomplishment with regular books. You can look at a couple of bookshelves full of books and say "wow, I read all of those?" (Not even counting the boxes of books not on the shelves or donated to libraries)

The second is that it reigns in my buying. I currently have about 70 books on my TBR shelf (a number that doesn't seem to be going down) -- books I've purchased but either haven't read, or haven't completed. I read regularly, but these books constitute years of buying.

In contrast, I recently got a Motorola Droid (not because I'm a "new technology geek", despite what certain posters think of anyone who buys something new, but because my old phone was literally falling apart)... With free books alone, I've gotten 30 books. In a month.

Likewise, I assume there are people who have thousands upon thousands upon thousands of songs they never listen to on their iPods due to iTunes (I'm not talking about music aficionados here -- I'm talking about normal people) -- something they would likely not have if they had the CDs sitting in front of them.

I also love boardgames (but am not a collector). I have some really unique ones that I play all the time. I now have about 50 games with half as many expansions. Having the physical games that I see taking up shelf space makes me reign in my buying. I couldn't imagine how many I would buy "on a whim" if I didn't need to worry about limitations.

So, yeah, physical items tend to give you an "enough is enough" limit that having a bunch of ones and zeroes taking up a tiny amount of space on a hard drive could never do.

Finally, and the one thing I fear about the loss of physical books if the loss of book stores. I LOVE going into a book store, touching, reading all of the books. Though the Nook has an amazing concept with it's in-store book reading, it just won't feel the same.

However, I'm not a techo-hater, either. After I pare down my list, I will be buying a Kindle or a Nook (I'm guessing by Christmas). Because of the Droid, I've found out a few things about ebooks that I really like:

First, the portability is amazing. Being able to choose what I want to read when I want to read it is a great feeling.

Being able to buy the next book in a series, or from an author, the instant you want it is also great.

Finally, I'm a software engineer. On my phone, I currently have a number of programming language/tech references. A half dozen books that would normally make me sore carrying now fit in my pocket (and are searchable for EXACTLY what I want). And this is from someone who abhors reading on the computer.

So yeah, I see both sides. But I don't fear brain tumors from ebook readers. (Seriously. How close do you get to the page when you read a book? ESPECIALLY one where you can dynamically resize the text.)

Chris said...

"Consider our two atlases: the World Atlas and the Solar System Atlas. Stripped of photos and reduced to text on a Kindle screen, they're unremarkable. But in print, at their size, they're gorgeous, and some of our most treasured books in the home."

Yes, but when you look for directions, where do you look?

I'm guessing Google Maps or Mapquest.

When you need information on a subject, what's your first choice? Look in that beautiful set of encyclopedias, or search the web? (Looking in the encyclopedia only if the web doesn't provide the right information)?

I'm not saying that physical books as art won't be around for a long, long time. I have a small number of signed FOs that I plan to keep forever. But books as the popular publishing media? Probably not.

"The true experience of music is live, and concert venues and live music clubs still flourish."

Yes, they do. And I love a good concert. Now if only there was a way to carry that music around when I can't see the performer live (which, I believe, is pretty much most of the time)...

You know, someone should invent something like that. I'm tired of following my favorite bands around the country. And Freddy Mercury's family is really getting pissed at me for constantly exhuming his body and telling him to play Bohemian Rhapsody.

Chris said...

Dang it, my Freddy Mercury joke was a lot funnier until I learned he was cremated (I learned it on Wikipedia, no less).

Ah, well, change "exhumed the body" to "scraped together the ashes", and it's still just as tasteless.

The Modern Publisher said...

Hmm. There's a lot of strange people out there smelling tree-books.

There's very little in all of the comments that refute's Joe's assertions. Some people have a link with the physical book, and that's all well and good. If I had a first edition of something ("Whiskey Sour"?), I would also treat it with kid gloves. Read it? Nah. I'd buy the ebook.

What no one has mentioned thus far is the Jobs Effect. Although much of the iPad commentary is in the "what do I need one for?" camp, that is to ignore the awfully good marketing machine that is Apple. If Stevie J has (finally) put his weight behind it, you can bet we're all going to be assualted by iPad sales media in a month or two. It's going to be the 'must-have' product. Technophiles who analyse the specs and tut-tut over the lack of this or that are completely missing the point. People will [i]want[/i] to buy the thing. It's sexy, It's different. It's made by Apple. Steve says I need it. The thing will fly off the shelves.

And don't underestimate the iBooks store either. Apple clearly think that ebook reading is an important enough market to be worth creating a new store (or perhaps a new interface to the old store). Ms's Rowling and Meyer and Mr Brown may not be the greatest novelists in the world, but they sure as hell know how to write stuff that people want to read.

The Sony Reader looks slim and cool and stylish. The Kindle looks like something that the tech lab boys designed. The iPad - it's going to be jewellery, and its seams are going to be bursting with product. I'm not so sure about the $14.99 price point, mind you, and the fact that here in the UK iPad pricing isn't set yet and that the iBook store won't be available to us for a while. All of these things will change.

Kids, youths, young adults spend hours and hours staring at computer screens. They'll think nothing of staring at a screen reading a book.

Anyway, my two halfp'orth from Blighty.

Boyd Morrison said...


Maybe this is in your follow-up post, but you completely ignore the usability differences in media delivery methods. I would argue that one of the reasons that CDs replaced LPs was not because the music quality was better, but because CDs are smaller, less fragile, you don't have to turn them over to hear the entire album, they're harder to scratch, you can replay them over and over automatically, and you can skip tracks you don't like. Those are all obvious advantages over LPs, and LPs offered no usability advantages to CDs.

With ebooks, the usability advantage is not as clear cut. You can carry far more ebooks with you than print books, and you can do other fancy things like search, bookmark, and look up dictionary definitions of words. But ebooks are also dependent on electricity to read them, whereas print books never run out of juice. Also, for me it's far easier to flip through a paper book when I know about where I need to go if I lose my bookmark (yes, I've lost my bookmark place on a Kindle). For now, it is not as easy to flip through an ebook--you either have to go page by page or you have to remember the sector where your place was. In addition, when I'm reading I like to know how many pages there are until the end of the chapter so I can decide whether I want to keep reading or turn the light off and go to sleep. On the Kindle, that's a tedious process, but with a print book it's easy to flip a few pages and find the chapter end.

Now some of these usability issues may be worked out in the future, but the battery issue never will be unless we get a substantial change in battery technology. So I believe ebooks won't really take off until they have all of the usability advantages of print books plus other advantages.

The Modern Publisher said...

Oops - didn't refresh the page since I opened it an hour or so ago. MCM says pretty much the same thing as I. Only way better.

Anonymous said...

Print will be around forever, but it won't be the way most people consume books.

Watch an episode of Mary Tyler Moore. The office she works in has no computers. Not a single one (obviously). There were two typewriters on the set however.

I'm sure there are people who absolutely love typewriters. Typewriters produce something tangible. You don't need electricity to run them.

Today, if you watch The Office, every single employee is sitting near a computer. They're more expensive than a typewriter. They require electricity. They require cat-5 cable and an internet connection to be truly useful, but they're everywhere. We're all communicating on them. My parents didn't have one until I was six years old.

There are too many advantages to e-readers for this to be a fad that simply disappears. Not to mention, once someone buys an e-reader, they will not buy many physical books in the future. They may buy a few, but not many. This is the kind of technology that changes buying habits permanently. I personally won't buy a physical book again except for as a collector's item. Just like my wife and I haven't purchased a CD in six years.

The iPad will be great because it does everything, but it's an LCD screen. It's backlit. That's not a huge problem, but it is one. I think the real game changing device will be when we have a full color, fast refresh rate e-Ink display that can be lit automatically by the device on an as need to basis. Maybe I'm wrong and the iPad will already be the device, but either way, it's just a matter of time.

Also, if you turn off the wireless chip in your kindle/nook, it puts out no more radiation than an electric wrist watch. Drop the tin-foil hat, e-Readers aren't going to kill you.

Jim said...

In today's age, not to mention tomorrow's, any physical product that can be reduced to a digital product will take on a greater and greater digital presence until the old physical product becomes nothing more than the nitch market.

Paper will never disappear but it will dwindle and dwindle and dwindle.

ms said...

...This whole debate increasingly depresses me. It's become like a giant false dichotomy. Print "versus" e doesn't have to be an either or thing. There are middle future possibilities. Both publishing types can coexist; they do now, they have for a while. The two main sides make good arguments. Must a "winner" be declared?

How much share of the whole reading market each will have in future is the more important issue, in my opinion at least. And I don't think anyone can know this with high accuracy. That script for the reading future hasn't been written yet.

But I also think the debate often shows what I've been saying (and hating) for years: many people judge book contents by everything BUT the actual contents. The covers, the blurbs, the publishers, the authors' photos, how the text is presented, the medium it's presented in--all these things should be largely irrelevant. And yet it seems they've been a centerpiece of many people's reading habits. This is illogical, yet this illogic still persists in human reading society.

Eugene said...

I'm always amused at the "durability" criticism of digital content. I'm old enough to have proudly purchased an electric typewriter my freshman year in college. By my junior year, my brother had an Apple II and I never looked back. Everything I've written--from Apple II to Kaypro CP/M to PC DOS and Windows--is archived in multiple locations. Almost all of the stuff I originally produced on paper is moldering in a landfill somewhere.

As for the "people don't read" argument, thanks to the Internet, people are reading like crazy these days. The problem is that book economics are so screwed up. Hardcovers are sold as luxury items, like it’s the Middle Ages. The cost-per-entertainment-hour of a hardcover is outrageous compared to music and movies. I can spend $8.00 (national average) to see a two-hour movie at a theater, or can wait and watch it for less than $2.00 through Netflix.

This cost curve is highly predictable. The fixed costs of movie making are higher than publishing books, but purely in supply/demand terms, movies achieve much wider distribution by finding a price point that is agreeable to practically every consumer, ending with advertising-supported "free." I think a similar "windowing" model would work for books if publishers consistently applied it so that readers could make informed purchasing decisions.

Japanese read more than Americans. In a country where everything costs more--CDs and DVDs cost up to twice as much as in the U.S.--paperbacks are the same price or cheaper. Japanese publishers tend not to pay advances, but pay authors based on the number of books manufactured each print run, not sold. Think about how that would affect the economic equation all the way down the line.

Author Scott Nicholson said...

PC, almost all Mickey Mantle cards DID get thrown away...that's most of their value today.

I also don't see a "versus" here, just choice. I consume via digital, paper, and audiobooks--each has its place for me. I'm not going to read an ebook while I'm driving, I won't do an ebook lounging in the tub.

But I do think a lot of the attachment to print books is nostalgia. I can still remember as a kid opening those books with their explosions of color, the word trips of Dr. Seuss, and even the smell of fresh paper and ink. The thrill of clean paper was awe-inspiring--a whole bunch of space to fill in with crayons!

But all it is is MY nostalgia. And emotional attachments change. Never had this struck me as much as a thread I read on the Amazon forums today--many people give pet names to their Kindles. Like family members. They have transferred their emotional attachment to the experience of stories onto this pleasurable new device.

Are those people going to go back to paper books, or read to their kids from paper books, or widely give paper books as gifts?

Scott Nicholson
Haunted Computer Books

Mary Stella said...

Decades ago, before PCs, some record stores had a machine in house on which you could custom make a cassette by picking different songs from the catalog. It was like playing a jukebox and taking home a cassette as a souvenir. (A souvenir that probably cost $15.) It was the forerunner of iTunes in the pre-digital age.

I bet nobody ever said, "You'll have to pry my cold dead ass out of my outhouse."

Now that I'm a new Kindle convert, I can't for the life of me figure out why I resisted buying an e-reader for so long. I think some of it stems from the previous quality of e-books, or lack thereof. About ten years ago, many e-books were lousy. A lot of people who couldn't sell their manuscripts to any legitimate publisher sold to e-pubs who sprang up like flowers after a hard spring rain.

Please not that I did not say that ALL e-books were lousy, just many.

These days, everything has changed. Electronic publishing is a new option, not solely a replacement. This is not only for books but also for magazines, newspapers, and so on. So many big market newspapers are losing readers advertisers and have had to lay off writers because of news delivery over the Internet. Kindle subscriptions of these publications may save the industry.

John Dishon said...

Print won't be around forever. Eventually, it will be replaced by a digital medium (or perhaps something else yet to be invented).

Those who say otherwise are people who grew up with printed books, but they will die. And each subsequent generation will be further removed from print books. At some point kids are going to be born into a world where ebooks are very popular. They won't have the nostalgia for print books that you and I do.

It's just a matter of time. Probably not in our lifetime, but it'll happen.

Jude Hardin said...

Forty years ago we all assumed we'd have flying cars by the 21st century.

We have ebook readers. :(

I want my flying car!

Also, LPs will always be the superior recording medium, because you can play them backwards and hear things like, "Turn me on dead man...turn me on dead man...turn me on dead man..."

Theresa Milstein said...

Your post examples promote and work against your argument.

LP, 8-track, tape, CD, MP3 player.
Video, DVD, Blue Ray.
floppy disc, hard disk, cd.

Each time technology moves on, what we have no longer works. What happens when there's a fifth-generation Kindle that's no longer compatible with your original books? The nice thing about physical books is I can own one from hundreds of years ago, and when I open it - it works. I don't need to buy an old player on Ebay for the privilege of reading it.

I heard about a private school library that was switching to electronic books. Microfilm, microfiche...

Susan said...

You'll pry my e-reader out of my cold, dead hands!

I grew up with dial-phones, manual typewriters, and books, love books, own several 1000s of books, but man that e-reader has become indespensible to me.

A paperback book is not a sacred object to me, it's just a way to get where I'm going, rooted into the story.

I think print will go two ways, cheap and disposable on-demand and specialty printed books which are tarted up to be collector's items.

And my e-reader didn't cost THAT much more than my iPod - which will be clutched in my cold, dead OTHER hand...

Todd Thorne said...

Theresa said: "The nice thing about physical books is I can own one from hundreds of years ago, and when I open it - it works."


Print books have their failings, like susceptibility to accidents, theft, disasters, ravages of time (especially if poorly manufactured). Try keeping a print book in your attic for 200 years and see if it can give you the same enjoyment as when it was new.

I tend to agree with MCM and The Modern Publisher. It's about instant gratification. Lightning quick time-to-value. (Perceived) endless breadth-of-value access. All facilitated through a single pane of glass that, itself, has some kind of hip, sheik, gotta-have-it cache. When you raise a generation on this premise, what would you expect to happen to so-called legacy approaches?

Brings to mind a classic line from Scotty: "Keyboard. How quaint." Right after he tried speaking into the mouse.

One day, print books will be very quaint.

paris parfait said...

I own many, many, many books from which I will not be parted, at least not voluntarily. However, I also own a Kindle and appreciate its merits, particularly when traveling. I enthusastically embrace any technology that will get more people reading.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as someone who was just burgled. I have just lost all of my ebooks, some I have not read yet, and my music collection. I think I stick with books until forced otherwise.

Mike Dennis said...

Joe, you neglected to mention that CDs overtook all other media at exactly the point where the price of a CD was reduced dramatically. This encouraged the purchase of the necessary hardware, whose prices were similarly plunging.

Chris said...

This is pretty funny. Google Books has a LOT of interesting old magazines (ones I would have never seen without technology), and this ad made me laugh:

I've gotta give Case a nod for actually seeing the future in 1986. Although it's a lot less blocky than they thought it would be (and I still don't see Jupiter outside my window).

Gordon Jerome said...

Very good. Very well thought out.

I look forward to part two.

Unknown said...

I am a converted paper book lover. My ereader-Nook-is fantastic AND I can lend the ebook to someone else.

Both of my kids have iPod Touch, and they downloaded the B&N erader program for free, and downloaded LOTS of free books. Most of the classics are free or under the price of a cheap paper back.

I read many books, and in the two months I've had my Nook, I've saved at least twice the cost of the device by buying e books instead of paper books, mainly on the free books and the price difference of electronic vs new hardcover books.

I'll still buy special books in paper--first edition hardcovers by favorite authors, and books I can get signed by the author, but most of my future book buying will be electronic.

Sophie Playle said...

I just love the title of this post!

You make some very interesting points. I've often discussed with people the parallels between the music and the publish industries.

I'll come back later and read some of the comments.

Anonymous said...

On another note--. . . for the most part we've used society as guinea pigs for cell phones, and are now finding more and more studies showing long term usage can cause brain tumors. Who knows what the long term effects of eReaders and the radiation it gives off. When reading a book, I'd just as soon unplug and hold something that's not giving off anything.

I'm not worried about long term effects of ereaders. Nor for that matter from wireless phones, WANs or iPods. In fact, is you are a genetically engineered mouse with Alzheimer's like symptoms, it might help you.


Of course that it a bit of a kick for those people who think cell phone radiation has no affect on the brain at all.

Of course there is a potential problem with mildew on books that can cause significant respiratory issues for some people. Some of my nostalgic memories of books involve taking a big whiff of an old book and enjoying the smell. The smell was probably mildew that would have sent a sensitive asthmatic or person with allergies into pulmonary distress.

I guess you get a choice of which risks you want to take.


D W Dorow said...

Joe, looking forward to reading your comments on today's NY Times article on ebook pricing and impact on authors/sales. Fits into your recent insight.

Galadriel said...

One point no one has brought up is the sheer number of older books that are not avaliable through e-readers. For example, I like Tolkien's History of Middle-Earth books, but they are only avaible in physical form.

ArenqueRojo said...

I am an avid reader of eBooks and have been for some years but what distresses me is that I can't lend or swap eBooks.
That destroys one of the major pleasures in my life. Being able to say to a friend "Hey I just read this book,. Borrow it and tell me what you think."
The other is taking a bunch of books to somebody and saying "See if there are any books you would like to swap with me."
I have no doubt that in the fulness of time we will be able to do these things but, for the moment, I do resent the fact that I buy an eBook for much the same price as I pay for a paperback but am denied the right to swap or even lend it. The discussion with others about books is severely curtailed and I miss it.

Vincent Zandri said...

As if to add some fuel to this argument, I did a TV spot for Moonlight Falls this morning...While the paperback hardly budged on Amazon, the Kindle ranking SHOT up to the 8,000 mark, one of its best rankings yet. People who saw the show, or who read Thursday's interview about the noir novel in Blog Critics (which was syndicated), ran out not to buy the paper, but they downloaded the E-Book....:)

Luke said...

The technology would have to improve before ebooks replace paper. There are a lot of great things about the kindle, but I hate that you can't easily flip back through the pages to remind yourself what happened earlier, or to look up a specific scene. And the % tracker instead of page numbers is horrible. Right now, all ereaders are good for is reading books you just want to tear through and be done with. If it's a book I love, I want to read it on paper.

It also looks like the trend in ereaders is heading toward LCD screens and away from eink. If this is the case, I'll never buy ebooks, and stick with paper. eink is the technology that first attracted me to ebooks and the only reason I gave them a chance. If they toss it aside for LCD screens, all ebooks will be is a passing fad.

Thomas Brookside said...

Every time I post here the book gods get angry and I don't sell squat for 12 hours, but I'm gonna risk it and comment anyway:

The publishing industry survives because a lot of people buy a few books/year, not because a few people buy a lot of books/year.

This really isn't true.

If print loses the people who buy a lot of books every year - if it loses the top 20% of purchasers - the print publishers would be in very hot water.

Michael LaMere said...

Comparing Music to Comic Books is fine with me. It's the same thing really. People collect CD's/Tapes/LP's and they store them in the proper places, they get them signed by the artists that made them. It's very similar. However the argument that if you lose your device with all your comic books on it, you lose your whole collection, well that's not true either. If you don't back that stuff up, then it's really your fault. With todays technology, you can back it up online, you can back it up on your computer, on multiple computers and possibly flash drives. Yes you need a digital device to play your CD's and your DVD's, but if it breaks you just go out and get another one, well that's the same with the readers. If you think the readers are going to stay at the price they are, then you're mistaken. CD players were $600 when they came out, and now you can get one for like $50 easily. Same with VHS players, DVD players and so on. Soon enough the readers will be under $100 and easily backed up to other devices and you will also have a signature at your "itunes type store" where you can go and get your collection re-downloaded by providing information about what you've purchased, it'll be simple.

Jake said...

That's an amazing argument. Simple, logical, effective. I love it.

Anna Wells said...

I have a ten year old and a 14 year old who are both avid readers. They have no attachment to a printed book. They do their reading on e-readers, computers and iphones. There is your future-end of story.

Unknown said...

An important consideration that I don’t think has been mentioned here:
We read text more slowly when it’s presented in electronic format, and we do not retain information we read in electronic format as thoroughly as we retain information read in print. There’s an excellent and evidence-backed article on this posted to here:

Another pretty good Time Magazine article here:

Another article here that links to some pretty good research:

For trade publishing, I don’t think that matters. Personally, I do all of my fluff and pleasure reading on an iPad, but when it comes to my textbooks or lab manuals, I and a majority of my classmates refuse to buy the ebooks. I cannot learn, retain, or reference the material for my college courses as well from an ebook , and in the laboratory, I can’t work from an electronic lab manual. Lab manuals are spiral bound to lie flat on a workbench, and often they are laminated as well, because they’re probably going to get wet. The last thing I want to worry about in the lab is ruining my iPad with a little spill. Isn’t this the case with children’s books as well? I’m not letting a 4-year-old near the electronic devices. They need hardback covers and thick waxy paper because their books are going to get thrashed with sticky hands and mouths.

My point is that while moving to 100% electronic may be possible in the future for trade books, I don’t see it happening for text/reference books, lab manuals, and children’s books. Paper serves another purpose for those markets.

Anna said...

I agree that, with fiction, most of the difference between an ereader and a book is nostalgia. I now read most of my fiction on the former.

On the other hand, I vastly prefer reading nonfiction in book form. I suspect that's because I read nonficton a bit less linearly and then want to be able to quickly flip back through it to reference certain points. Both the kindle and nook I've used haven't made that flipping as fast as a paper book.

Plus, I prefer a black-and-white ereader for eye strain purposes, so I miss the color photos in nonfiction. Which doesn't negate your point --- more just says that I don't think the ereader technology has necessarily caught up with the value of paper in certain categories.

I also sometimes buy fiction on paper if I know someone I want to pass it on to. Sure, you can loan kindle ebooks, but only once for a two-week period. Plus, I like to be able to donate good titles to the library, and there's no way to do that now with ebooks, as far as I can tell.

Once the technology catches up so that it meets all those criteria, though, I'll gladly buy everything digitally.