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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

The Death of the Book has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Why are tech pundits so eager to announce that the Ebook is taking over?

  • September 21, 2010

Tech pundits recently moved up the date for the death of the book, to sometime around 2015, inspired largely by the rapid adoption of the iPad and the success of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader. But in their rush to christen a new era of media consumption, have the pundits overreached?

I’m calling the peak of inflated expectations now. Get ready for the next phase of the hype cycle - the trough of disillusionment.

The signs of a hype bubble are all around us. Mostly in the form of irrational exuberance.

In Clearwater, Florida, the principle of the local high school recently replaced all his students’ textbooks with latest-gen Kindles - without, apparently, any awareness that formal trials of the Kindle as a textbook replacement led universities like Princeton and Arizona State University to reject it as inadequate.

Then you have pundits like Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s Media Lab, making statements to the effect that the physical book is dead in 5 years. This is the kind of statement that, to be fair, has either been taken out of context or is demonstrably untrue, in as much as any prediction can be proved false before the future arrives.

Here’s the reality this kind of hype is up against: back of the envelope calculations suggest that ebooks are only six pecent of the total market for new books.

How can that be possible, when Amazon recently said that ebooks are outselling hard-cover books at Amazon.com? Easy: Amazon is only 19 percent of the total book market. Also, Amazon has something like 90 percent of the world’s ebook market.

It’s facts like these that led one blogger to ask whether or not Amazon is “lying” about eBooks outselling printed books. Amazon isn’t lying, of course, but its announcement that ebooks are outselling hard cover tomes was just the flashpoint pundits needed to trot out their own bottled-up desires.

Many tech pundit wants books to die. Really. Here’s Bill Hill, who led the team that developed ClearType at Microsoft, a technology for rendering text as smoothly as possible on LCD screens:

The iPad, with a crisp, bright high-resolution screen capable of handling color and video, yet with acceptable battery life, has moved us out of the Dark Ages. It’s the first eBook device I’ve seen that really feels like it’s changed the world. I vastly prefer it to paper.

Hill is a former journalist, so you’d think he’d have a certain fondness for physical books, but no.

I’ve reached the point where I’d be glad to ditch thousands of paper- and hard-backed books from my bookshelves. I’d rather have them all on an iPad.

The backlash against ebooks by those who aren’t so in love with technology for its own sake has yet to begin, but it’s coming. Ebooks are adequate for reading novels, but the makers of the Kno, (in)famous for being the world’s most gigantic ebook, believe that their technology is the only way to replace the specialized class of books we rely on for our education – textbooks. If they’re right, the experiment in Clearwater, Florida is bound to run into problems.

And as for the death-by-2015 predictions of Negroponte, it’s just as likely that as the ranks of the early adopters get saturated, adoption of ebooks will slow. The reason is simple: unlike the move from CDs to MP3s, there is no easy way to convert our existing stock of books to e-readers. And unlike the move from records and tapes to CDs, it’s not immediately clear that an ebook is in all respects better than what it succeeds.

So the world is left with an unconvertible stock of used books that is vast. If the bustling, recession-inspired trade in used books tells us anything, it’s that old books hold value for readers in a way that not even movies and music do. That’s value that no ebook reader can unlock.

In fact, it remains to be seen whether legions of readers raised on 99c titles at their local used bookstore (or $4.00-$5.00 titles delivered via Amazon.com) will be so eager to start buying brand new books at $10 a pop. And then there’s libraries–who gets left behind when owning an ebook reader, and not merely literacy, is a requirement to borrow a book.

What’s more, having learned their lessons from other industries a little too well, publishers have largely made it impossible, or at least difficult, to loan, trade or re-sell ebooks, for fear of piracy. Paradoxically, this could have the eventual effect of lowering customers’ willingness to buy new books - because there’s no chance they’ll ever recoup a portion of the cost by selling or sharing the book.

Finally, and most importantly, as a delivery mechanism, Ebooks are nothing like music or even movies and television, and the transitions seen in those media simply don’t apply to the transition to electronic books.

Books have a kind of usability that, for most people, isn’t about to be trumped by bourgeois concerns about portability: They are the only auto-playing, backwards-compatible to the dawn of the English language, entirely self-contained medium we have left.

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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