This past summer Amazon made a shocking announcement: for the first time (and ever since), it sold more electronic books than hardcover ones.
Now, that headline should have had half a page of footnotes. Amazon provided only the relative proportions of sales, not the actual quantities. It didn’t mention that its e-books of most best sellers cost a flat $10, compared with, for example, $25 for the same book in hardback. And it didn’t say anything at all about paperback sales (which sell the most of all).
Otherwise, though, the news sure sounded as though printed books are dying, right along with a slice of our cultural souls. We would lose the satisfaction of holding a sturdy bound volume, the pleasure of turning physical pages, even the beautiful covers that let us see what someone else on the subway is reading. But a funeral for the printed book is premature, for three reasons.
First, it’s human to underestimate the time it takes for fanciful technologies to arrive. We’re way past the 2001 of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, but we’re still not bopping nonchalantly among the stars. According to The Terminator, the government’s Skynet computer should have had control over our nukes for 13 years by now. And if the dark 2019 dystopia of Blade Runner is really going to happen, it had better hurry up.
Second, when these tech changes do occur, they tend not to wipe out the existing technologies; instead they just add on. Television didn’t kill radio as everyone expected. E-mail didn’t wipe out paper mail, either; the paperless office may never arrive. For the same reason, e-books won’t kill paper books.
For the moment, there’s a third problem: the crudeness of e-book technology itself.
Today you can buy e-book readers from more than a dozen companies: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Sony, and so on. The prices have plummeted—a 2007 Kindle would have cost you $400; today an improved model goes for as low as $140.
But they’re still pricey enough that you’ll kick yourself if yours is lost or stolen. They’re much more fragile than books. They run out of power, leaving you with nothing to read.
Furthermore, most are built around e-ink screens. E-ink looks like black ink on light gray paper. There’s no backlight, no glare—and no need ever to turn it off, because e-ink draws power only when you actually turn a page. At that point, a brief electronic charge draws millions of particles into a pattern of letters. There they remain forever, even if you remove the battery.
But e-ink is also slow. With each page turn, there’s a distracting black-white-black flashing as the screen obliterates one page to prepare for the next. On some readers, that interruption takes a full second. That’s maddening when your current page ends with “He ripped the detonator from the flaming wreckage. Only one thing could save mankind now: a”
The biggest problem of all, though, is the e-books themselves. The publishers insist that e-books must be copy-protected. Predictably, each company uses a different protection scheme. You can’t read a Kindle book on a Barnes & Noble Nook or a Sony Reader book on an iPad.
You can still read a 200-year-old printed book. But the odds of being able to read one of today’s e-books in 200 years, or even 20, is practically zero.
No, you won’t be giving a well-worn e-book to your children. But you won’t be giving one to your friend, either; you can’t resell or even give away an e-book. It doesn’t seem right. Why shouldn’t you be able to pass along an e-book just the way you’d pass on a physical one? You paid for it, haven’t you?
Make no mistake: e-book sales will continue to climb. Screen technology will improve, and prices will fall. It’s theoretically possible, in fact, that the publishers’ Luddite lawyers will even relax a little bit about the copy protection.