30 Sep 2009
Let's tackle another of those comments one hears over and over when discussing books, and it's to do with technology. "People like the feel of real books: they'll never abandon them for digital books."
Having been writing about technology for nearly 30 years, I get nervous when I hear people say 'never'. Generally it's the result of a lack of imagination. And it's a failure on two fronts.
First, predictions of this kind, where new technology is deemed inadequate as a replacement for old, is always based on the current standards of the new technology. But technology develops at an astonishing rate and seems to be getter faster all the time. So, don't make judgments on what's available today - the Kindle or Sony Reader: try to image what's coming down the pipeline tomorrow.
Second, and perhaps more significant, younger generations develop different habits and preferences. Just look at the iPod phenomenon and the demise of the album for an example. And we've already seen this kind of shift impact the book industry in a big way: sales of reference titles have plummeted thanks to the web. Someone seeking factual information is far more likely to run a Google search or trawl Wikipedia than buy an expensive and rapidly outdated reference book. And it doesn't end there.
While you and I might find pleasure from the feel of a hefty hardback or crisp new paperback, others may enjoy the digital book's ability to run searches, download books almost instantly, or pack a year's worth of reading into a single, pocketable device.
It's not to say that the pleasures and habits of today become in some way obsolete. They don't lose their value or attraction. But new technologies offer additional benefits that may outweigh them.
We've seen this already in photography. Digital cameras were first derided for their poor resolution. Now they out-resolve film. Digital printing was initially expensive - indeed, inkjet prints are still fairly pricey. But prints are not now the only way of enjoying your images: you can upload and share them on Flickr, or your blog, or on your iPod. This is a classic way in which a new technology not only replaces the old one but, in the process, fundamentally changes the ways in which we create, share and consume the products. The impact has been revolutionary, wonderful - and occasionally ruinous - in all areas of photography ranging from holiday snaps, through citizen journalism to the professional sphere.
Let's take a look at another example. People still say that newspapers will not disappear because they enjoy the experience of reading them and because "you can't read a web page on the train". The first point is unarguably true and always will be: but it may just lose its place in our list of priorities. And the second assertion is fast becoming untrue. The demise of the printed newspaper is accelerating in part because its chief rival, the web, is now available on portable devices - PDAs, netbooks, phones and others still appearing.
So it will be with e-books. Electronic ink devices are improving all the time, creating a visual experience indistinguishable from paper. Colour devices are on the market already, and I have seen protoypes of flexible, A4 displays that you can roll up and stick in a pocket.
Getting better all the time
Electronic books get better all the time. The technology is new, in its infancy, and it's hard to imagine - let alone predict - what advances and benefits we may see in five or ten years' time.
Traditional books are at the peak of their technological development. They have nowhere to go. So while we may still value the feel and smell of a real book - and, believe me, I do - how long will those remain persuasive reasons to cling to that format?
There will come a tipping point in which the remaining few advantages of the old technology are outnumbered by the many (and constantly increasing) benefits of the new.
The change will happen in stages. Purely text-based books, including novels, are those that can make the transition to e-books most easily.
In the case of illustrated non-fiction, we'll see a merger with the web - electronic books that contain animations, video clips, hyperlinks within the book and to external, web-based material. And all books may offer extras, in the way that movie DVDs do now - author interviews, background information, even perhaps a 'making of'.
As Trish has just pointed out to me, we grew up with a relationship with paper. Today's young people have equally strong - if not stronger - relationships with digital devices. It's easy for old fogies to characterise this as a loss of some kind (a rather patronising attitude): in fact, there's every reason to believe that today's generation is better off. And if your business model is somehow based on them being wrong or deprived, you may just find that the world has moved on without you.