By Harry McCracken | Friday, April 17, 2009 at 1:49 pm
[NOTE: Here's a post that first appeared in our free T-Week newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.]
So help me, I’m in favor of progress. I grew up loving magazines and feel blessed to have spent a large chunk of my life to date working on them, but when they go away, I’ll be okay with it. Most of the things that magazines do well, the Web does even better, and the inherently interactive nature of the Internet lets it do an array of things that are simply impossible for paper magazines. As for newspapers–well, they’re already dead to me.
Books, however, are different. Them, I don’t want to disappear–ever. I own and like Amazon’s Kindle, but if I had to choose between it and printed books, I’d opt for the latter in a nanosecond. Even so, the Kindle is already good enough to leave me thinking that it’s pretty much inevitable that printed books will begin to look archaic within the next decade. Once something starts to look archaic, it usually becomes archaic. So I’m thinking that by the time 2019 rolls around there will be a lot fewer books and a lot fewer bookstores, and, perhaps, a lot fewer book authors.
Here’s why that leaves me in a state of anticipatory gloom:
1. One size doesn’t fit all. The novel you read at the beach needs to be portable. A collection of the works of John Singer Sargent should be big enough to display the art to good effect. A kids’ picture book probably wants to be somewhere in between. With dead-tree books, no problem–every tome has a size and shape of its own. But I don’t see any way to solve this with e-books, unless you end up buying multiple e-readers…maybe a little one for use on the go and a great big coffee-table one that’s optimized for art-intensive volumes.
2. E-paper doesn’t beat paper. I’ve been reading short snippets of info (like magazine articles) on electronic displays for decades, but with books, I want to be able to read dozens or hundreds of pages at a sitting without hurting my eyeballs. Amazon keeps saying that the Kindle’s E-Ink screen “reads like real paper”; I’m not sure what that means, but I do know that E-Ink (even in the improved version in the Kindle 2) involves grayish text on a grayish background with a maximum of of sixteen shades of grayish gray. LCD displays like the one on the iPhone provide a full spectrum of colors, but are famous for causing eyestrain. Did I mention that books give you superb color, contrast, and resolution?
3. Power is a problem. Thanks to the absurdly low power requirements of E-Ink, my Kindle can run for weeks between charges. And you know what? The darn thing still runs out of juice unless I remember to tend to it. (At one point, I misplaced my charger, rendering the Kindle useless until I ordered a replacement.) When I read Kindle books on my iPhone, I’m a total slave to the battery gauge. And then there are printed books–the most power-efficient, instant-on information technology there ever was.
4. One great mind can still trump a crowd. Marketing blogger Seth Godin has said that Amazon should give the Kindle books Digg-like voting, community highlighting, and other interactive features. Sounds cool to me–but only in certain instances. (One of which is when a book has factual errors; it would be nifty indeed if you could read corrections from other readers.) I’m not ashamed to say, however, that I don’t always want to be distracted by the thoughts of random strangers when I’m reading a really good book–sometimes I want a brilliant author to have my full attention so her or she can convey information precisely as he or she chooses. I mean, would you want members of the audience climbing onstage during a concert and critiquing the work of the orchestra?
5. Bookstores are bliss. The good ones are, anyhow–although many of the best independent ones have already been driven out of business by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders. I enjoy browsing the volumes that a smart bookseller has hand-picked; I like being able to browse through an entire book rather than a sample chapter before I buy; I worry that some out-of-print books that will never be available in digital form will be hard to find at all once all new books are available only in electronic form. Yes, I understand that electronic publishing will make it easy and cheap to procure some old books that I either can’t find in the real world or can’t afford. But it still won’t fully replace the serendipitous joy to be found in places like Powell’s, Green Apple Books, and New England Mobile Book Fair.
6. Libraries. They’re really important. Do we really want there to be a direct connection between how well-heeled you are and how well-read you can be? Have we figured out what happens to public lending libraries in the digital world?
7. I’m not sure how I feel about books getting cheap. Amazon charges $10 for e-books that might be $25 or $35 in hardcover, so I’ve snapped up a bunch of them I might not otherwise buy. But I wonder what sort of royalties the authors in question are seeing from my purchases, and whether lower prices will result in sales volumes that are higher enough to offset the reduction in per-copy royalties. I want talented authors with compelling ideas to have a financial incentive to spend months or years turning their dreams into readable realities.
8. File formats are inherently evil. By which I mean they introduce all sorts of headaches that don’t exist with printed books. The e-books I buy for my Kindle work only on the the Kindle and other devices Amazon chooses to support, like the iPhone–not on competitive devices like Sony’s Reader. That means that I probably won’t ever switch to a Sony e-reader, no matter how snazzy future models get. I also can’t lend my e-books( to friends, and if Amazon ever stops making Kindles, I might not be able to read them at all. (I’m glad I still own some books that date to my toddlerhood–not to mention ones from the collections of relatives who passed away decades ago–but if the e-books I’m buying now are usable at all in a decade, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.)
Listen, I understand that e-books are going to be neat in multiple ways, especially as the technological kinks get worked out. I could also come up with a list of at least seven reasons why I’ll be glad to see printed books disappear. (Exhibit A: the thousands of them sitting in boxes in my garage that I haven’t had time to unpack since I moved last year.) But I’m still not convinced that digital books are going to be an improvement on their wood-pulp ancestors.
If you think I’m overworrying, please leave a comment and calm me down. Until I hear from you, I think I’ll go curl up with a good book…