There is a line of thinking that says print books are headed the way of the telegraph, the buggy whip, and the 78 record*.
Now that Amazon and Macmillan have buried the hatchet, let’s take a look at one of the core issues in the recent dispute. No, not what Rupert Murdoch plans to do to Amazon. Rupert’s so obnoxious about squeezing every dime out of the consumer that I’ll probably reverse my position and paper this blog with Amazon links when he makes his move.
No, I want to talk about ebooks. And print. And whether print is a buggy whip or just another format. The reasons suggesting extinction are compelling.
- The Internet has already killed newspapers and taken a huge bite out of magazines
- Ebooks require no warehousing, just electronic storage
- Ebooks have no distribution costs
- Ebooks are easier to tote around than printed books
- Printed books kill trees and cost money to produce a physical object
- Electronic formats have already taken over music.
Some go as far as to say that ebooks are equivalent to Gutenburg’s press.
I respectfully disagree.
Let’s take that last one first. Listening to music is essentially the same whether you’re dragging a needle through a groove, a magnet over tape, laser over an etched disk, or running a computer file. It’s sound. And while there are differences between vinyl, tape, CD, and even MP3 vs. CD, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is still Dark Side of the Moon. Once the music’s queued, you’ve either popped on the headphones or cranked up the speakers and settled into the recliner.
Not so with books. Paperbacks are not hardcovers and neither is an ebook. I do think the argument that people “want the feel of a book in their hands” is lame. Honestly, it’s a pain in the ass for me to read anything other than a trade paperback (a much maligned format that deserves more respect). Reading on an ereader is certainly an appealing way to get to content, but it’s not what everyone prefers. Books require no power, no chargers, no batteries. More importantly, they don’t require an extra device to tote around. It’s actually a chore to carry anything more than a smart phone, and even more of a chore to read long work on said smart phone.
Before you point out that I’m in my forties and books are what I’ve known all my life, consider that most teenagers, habitually the earliest adopters of technology, prefer hardcovers over paperbacks or ebooks. These are people who were not alive in the pre-Internet days.
There’s one other factor folks predicting print’s demise fail to understand. Print is permanent. Electronic formats, by their very nature, are not. They can be tampered with after publication, particularly if Apple and Google manage to make cloud storage the default means of getting your content.
The printed book you bought today will be the book you read tomorrow, next month, years from now, or on your death bed. Your children and grandchildren can read unadulterated text, free of an author’s George Lucas Syndrome.**** This is not as important for newspapers or magazines, which are disposable. It is important for books, something people will want to come back to again.
But of course, we cannot ignore the argument about production and distribution. It costs money to print, bind, store, and ship physical books. This is really not that compelling argument for the death of printed books. As on-demand technologies mature and become more cost effective, it might spell the end of offset printing. I can tell you from personal experience that offset printing, how newspapers, books, and magazines are printed, is a messy, wasteful, expensive process.
What is compelling is the means by which books are distributed. Ebooks will not replace print. But they will become the dominant form of content delivery. It will even become the means by which print books are created. Assuming, of course, a universal ebook format can be found – and this is mandatory for the industry.
It also assumes a means of reading ebooks will emerge that a vast majority of people will embrace. But a substantial number of people won’t. Not a majority, but enough people who can’t afford a reader, afford wireless service, or frankly, don’t want to be plugged in. It’s a myth that someday, everyone will be plugged in. To prove my point, go look for TV antennas. I think you’ll be surprised. There are quite a few of them still around.
So no, print is not headed for extinction. However, print will find itself in a reduced role.
*For those of you too young to have seen these, back in the 1940’s and 1950’s, music came on these glass records played at 78 rpm on turntables. They were replaced by vinyl LP’s.**
**For the younger, before CD’s, music came on vinyl disks called LP’s.***
***For the REALLY young, before we downloaded music, we bought disks in record stores called CD’s, which is where most of your downloaded music has been pirated from.
****George Lucas Syndrome: In which the creator of a work can’t leave well enough alone after releasing said work to the public, often met with cries of “Han shot first, you idiot!”
***** It is a well known fact that lots of footnotes bug the hell out of Dave White. To be honest, I think they should be banned from college term papers, but no one’s going to win that battle anytime soon.