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Real books Aren't Dead Yet


Jeromy Henry

We've all heard the buzz about e-readers and e-books.  Some people predict real books will go away in ten years or less, and publishing houses will all fold.  Authors will cast their works into a stream of electric anarchy and let readers fish for books and decide which bits and bytes taste best.

Not so fast.

First, consider the Cult of Books.  Seriously, people love their paper, and books have acquired a mystique and an aura of reverent awe in the minds of many.  Maybe it's because some of us had transformational experiences with books that we grew so attached to them.  People with this attitude will fight any move to digitization.

Second, as a race we've accumulated an unimaginable number of books over the last few centuries.  I don't know how many times we could pile up our books and climb to Mars, but it's probably a lot.  Those books will not all go into digital formats tomorrow.  Yes, the efforts of Project Gutenberg and Google Books are amazing.  But they can't digitize everything immediately.  And just look at the copyright tangle Google ran into that changed their initial game plan.  The entrenched collections of libraries and individuals around the world will not leap into the ether without help, just because the technological priests speak their prophecies.

I like old and obscure stuff.  Sure, some of it I can download from Gutenberg and read for free, rather than paying the price of a new hardcover book (or more!) for a rare copy.  I appreciate that, because there's no way in heck I can afford to pay that much for every book I read.  But slightly more recent books whose copyrights have not run out are not available that way.  Usually, if can't find something locally, I buy it on Amazon, e-bay, oldsfbooks, biblio, or some other source.  Buying digital isn't an option most of the time.  To get what I want, I need to buy it on paper.  Even e-reader enthusiasts will still purchase a real book now and then if it isn't available digitally or is, say, a larger book that does not display well on an e-screen.

Third, let's talk economics.  Imagine that a big group of people buy e-readers at once and donate their collections of printed books to the library or sell them in big lots on ebay.  That floods the market with printed books.  So printed books get cheap.  In fact, used books are already cheap.  Go to a library book sale sometime, or other kinds of sales.  In St. Louis, there's some kind of yearly event that fills up a good part of a parking garage.  If you know where to look, you can pick up stuff for .25, .50, or $1.00.

Yes, you can read a lot of free or cheap stuff online.  Take Quantum Muse as an example.  I read a number of things online, and sometimes take a chance and download a PDF book by an unknown author trying to self publish.  But who wants to read text on a screen all day?  I have to do that at work until my eyes cross.  Picking up a real book is a break.  I live with an eyeball in both worlds, so to speak, and I imagine a lot of others do as well.

Last, e-readers just aren't there yet technologically.  I've looked at a Kindle and a Nook. I've seen an iPad.  They're neat, but I can't imagine wanting to sit down and stare at one for hours.  A real book looks and feels better to me.

Think of the scene in Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, when Lucy enters a wizard's house and finds a magic book.  Words form on the page in front of her eyes, written in real ink on real paper.  When we have magic books like that and I can get anything ever written in digital form, I'd switch in half a second and start unloading my bookshelves.  E-readers are good, but they aren't magic.

In the future, we'll see e-reader prices drop even more.  The devices will get better.  Maybe they'll start handing them out along with book-buying contracts, similar to the way companies give out phones.  Who knows?

Until the price drops a whole lot more and quality improves, I won't rush out and buy a Kindle.  Maybe I'm just cheap.  I'd sure take one if I got it for free, if for no other reason that I don't turn down free stuff.  But since many Kindle books still cost nearly what a real paper book costs, if I bought one it would take me a long time to make up the current e-reader purchase price by buying digital books.  And by the time I saved anything I'd need a new model.

We're headed for a digital book future.  Everyone can see that.  But it will take longer than just ten or even twenty years to switch over.  Too many people like paper books, too many titles are not digital yet, and e-readers cost money that some of us skinflints don't want to pay.  Even when the switch gains steam, the dumping of paper books on the market will cause some of us to enjoy the bonanza of reading material and wait just a little while longer.

I imagine a market for paper books will persist, at least for a couple of generations.  Maybe new paper books will grow more expensive and more rare.  But if people demand something, companies will produce it if they can turn a profit.

The digital book future will arrive eventually.  But super e-readers with screens that look like real paper and ink, that hold all the books ever printed in their silicon memories-- that's still science fiction.  Or fantasy
2012-09-02 09:19:20
Paper books will never die away. Too many of us love them, & they're much easier to read than straining our eyes staring at a screen. And with the plethroa of used books shops (my idea of heaven) & libraries out there, the printed page isn't going to be driven into extinction. Ever. If it is, I hope it's long after I'm gone so I don't have to weep over it.

2011-03-29 18:35:56
toginnh - I believe that printed books will be aroud for a long time to come. We'll see.

2011-03-04 20:02:20
While I agree with this editorial, as a used bookstore owner, several points were overlooked. For instance, several of my best costomers frequently buy from me and pass the book from individual to individual until it comes back to me as trade. This practice ends when your favorite novel is downloaded into a fairly expensive piece of hardware along with the rest of your library. How then do you turn friends on to Heinlein, or Asimov. Or other's like myself that are looking for certain volumes for a collection. The feel of them was mentioned, but not that faint musty smell that can only come from a large collection of well loved books. No thank you. I'll read online, but for me it lacks a certain tangible quality that would be a shame to let fade into history.

2011-03-02 08:22:29
I'm a hardcopy fan myself, even if it means my desks and shelves overflow with untidy piles of the stuff. Used to be I typed everything and avoided computers as long as possible and haunted the libraries and bookstores like a wraith with no place else to go and nothing else to do. But as you see, here I am, reading and writing on a screen. What I find best about keyboarding is that editing and rewriting are a lot easier than with a typewriter or pen and paper. But it tires you out quickly as you say. But here's the big thing--there's personality in penmanship, a world of sensory involvement in a paper book that the digital format simply cannot provide. The size, shape, style, and format of a paper book all impact what it means to the reader. But there again, I think back to my childhood and mimeographed tests and information sheets were the norm in the classroom, notebooks and heavy bookbags wore you out trudging the halls and going to and from your locker, things when they are smudged or torn are a different matter from blips on the screen, and I conclude there is room for both formats in this world. Had I had an iPad or it's equivalent in college, with a digital recorder and webcam built-in for notetaking and keeping texts, tests and notes all organized and accessible, I would have embraced that technology in a heartbeat most likely. Still there is nothing like the hand-written word to convey emotion, attention to detail and non-verbal input. So, I am not giving up on Barnes and Noble outlets just yet. I suspect used book outlets will still be here a century from now. But I do think that at some point in time the hardcopy, hardcover version will be priced out of the ordinary readers pocketbook entirely. New boks are an expensive luxury even now. Which is how this reading and printing and distribution of books started out, and we'll have come full circle.

2011-03-01 13:49:01
Consider too - (heaven forbid) - in the event of an EMP, the loss would be permanent but a book would be untouched.

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