The future of e-books: E vs. P—or BOTH?
December 17, 2009 | 4:33 am
By Joanna Cabot
"Paper is here to stay, but in different ways than before,” Dan Bloom recently wrote in a TeleRead comment, “and e-books and e-news and e-readers will change life on Earth."
I am a devout e-book fan, but agree with him. Certain media types are better suited to paper, no matter now technology may evolve. And other media types, I think, will migrate to only e-versions. If you are a paper newspaper and you have not yet hit the Web, innovate now!
So how will E and P co-exist in the future? Here’s my take on things. Do you agree?
Things that’ll stay paper-based
1. Children’s picture books. Even if they get the color and page layout options these sorts of books need, I still do not see books for young children being viable as an e-book. First of all, children that age learn to read with their fingers. I shared my Sony Reader with some five-year-olds one day and they had no trouble grasping the concept of it and the potential benefits and uses, but they had to point at and touch every word they read.
This would pose a real usability problem on anything touchscreen-based. And even a non-touchscreen would become horribly smudged and unreadable fairly quickly. There are also some important concepts of literacy that can’t be taught with a screen.
As a teacher, I have done assessments on three-year-olds where their readiness to learn to read is rated by their understanding of concepts such as understanding what a book is and which way the pages turn. You can’t teach or assess those on a machine. Once they are old enough to read chapter books, I would have no issues loading up an e-book reader for them, but for very early readers, I think the physical book object is here to stay.
2. Cookbooks, coffee table books and other books which rely on photographs and fancy layouts. Appearances count, for one thing. I have seen people write negative reviews of a cookbook because it’s arranged in columns and they prefer standard paragraphs, or vice versa. These are visual media. The other issue is screen size. I need to see the whole page at once when I cook, and if I had an e-book reader big enough to handle this, it would be too large to carry around for my pocket fiction reading. Also, these are the types of books people are very likely to give as gifts, and you can’t wrap up an e-book and put it under the tree.
Things that’ll migrate to all or mostly E
1. Newspapers. News just changes too quickly for print news to remain viable in these days of instant internet updates. Why would I pay money for paper I have to wrestle into the recycle bin when the news it contains is already out of date by the time it hits my door?
Right now, I get all of my news on the net, and I don’t pay for it. I think newspaper websites will have trouble getting people to pay after letting them have it for free. But I think the iPhone/smartphone market will save them and we will see a surge of e-subscriptions. I would be happy to pay a subscription fee for my local paper to deliver an e-version to me every morning, but right now, the only way to do that is to get a Kindle. Somebody needs to get on the smartphone train ASAP and develop an app where one can browse newspapers and subscribe for auto-delivery to their phone every morning.
2. Mass-market fiction. E-book readers are perfect for quick fiction reads. In days past, I would buy a ton of this stuff and then have to get rid of it due to storage issues. There are no storage issues with e-books! And they’re just words, so there is no reason why there has to be a piece of paper I can see. I have not bought a paper fiction book in years.
There is the gift market, I suppose, and perhaps we’ll see small hardback runs for those sorts of buys. Or perhaps the future bookstore will rely more heavily on some sort of wireless/print on demand kiosk where one can browse and buy, either in E or P or both, in one transaction. But I suspect most people who choose to read fiction will be reading it on screens.
3. Anthologies. I think it will become standard practice, if it isn’t already, to bundle books with trailers or teasers for other books. Cross-promotion is everybody’s friend, and I have bought at least one book already on the strength of a sample chapter at the end of another book. To that end, I see the anthology making a big comeback. If you have several authors who all have novel excerpts which can perhaps stand alone as a mini-story, why not bundle them into a collection? The reader could walk away with a book they enjoy in its own right, plus five or six titles to add to their wish list. Everyone wins.
Things which will be a mixture
1. Magazines. I was waffling on whether I thought this would go all-e like the newspapers, but I think it will stay mixed because people like to buy a magazine before they get on the airplane. Part of me thinks that airport wi-fi will let them make these impulse buys straight to their phones, but I wonder how many people want to read People Magazine on a tiny phone screen, or even on a paperback-sized e-book reader. Maybe this is like the cookbooks where you need to see the whole page at once. But any magazine which is more text-based, I definitely see it going e-book. I already get three such magazines electronically through Fictionwise, and I am very happy to have issues of Ellery Queen that I can keep forever and not have to worry about storing.
2. Textbooks. They weigh a ton, so there is definite incentive to move them to e-book-based versions. But some subjects like art history, where visuals are important, may stay print-based. And we are not there yet. The only e-book texts I have tried thus far have been so laden down with DRM and usage ‘rules’ that they were total wastes of money. Why should I spent $40 for a ‘book’ I cannot use past the course end date, can’t cut and paste from to cite in coursework, can’t even search because my computer sees it as a set of images and not a set of words, when for $20 more, I can have the paper version and keep it forever? Right now, the only real winners in the e-book courseware game are the literature majors. I got my degree before the e-book revolution, and the single most expensive book I bought for it was the Norton Shakespeare, which was $80 and weighed about six pounds. I could get all of that on-line for free these days.
3. Manuals. PDF can be a little clunky, but as the e-book formats gradually standardize, I think we’ll see the problem lessen. Already, I have instruction manuals for some products I own downloaded to the computer. Most electronics don’t even come with print copies anymore. But I would like to see this area of bookdom expand. I have lengthy teaching guides for a program I use with my students, and I am in the process of converting them to e-books myself. The advantages are numerous. The primary benefit for me will be that I can clone a copy for each class I teach. So if both of my Grade 1 classes are doing the same story, I can have my own teaching guide, with my own annotations and bookmarks, for each of them. I’ve started with typing notes from the guides by hand, but I am seriously contemplating getting a cheap scanner and running them all through it over the Christmas break.