The book is dead.
Wow, what a controversial thing to say! But hear me out before falling off your chair, shaking your fist or sighing in desperation. Amazon recently announced that, for the first time ever, ‘ebook’ sales outstripped the sale of traditional books. The day? Christmas Day 2009.
So, what are ebooks? Basically, digitised versions of books that can be read on electronic devices. In terms of format, they have been around for donkeys years, but have never really taken off. As I’m sure you more than aware, reading text on a computer screen for long periods of time isn’t comfortable or particularly relaxing on the eye. Website, blog posts and short articles are fine, but after sitting at a computer desk all day, the last thing most of us want to do is spend long periods of our leisure time at one. Reading books is a relaxing leisure pursuit – we read on the sofa, in the bath, lying in bed (insert personal preference here!).
Cue: the ereader! Ereaders are small book sized electronic devices developed for the sole purpose of being ‘easy to read’ – they have no backlight like computers and mobiles (the focus on which causes the eye strain) and use black and white ‘e ink’ that looks like traditional book printing. ‘Books’ are downloaded from bookselling websites (Amazon, Waterstone’s) and then imported to the device, which can generally hold around 100,000 different tomes.
Early examples that have stolen a foothold in the market include Sony’s E-reader and Amazon’s own Kindle. Advances in ebook reader capabilities (check out this Guardian article from the recent Consumer Electronic Show), a surge in popularity, a projected drop in price (as with most new technology as it is widely adopted), the release of ‘tablet’ computers and the fact that ebooks can also be read on smartphones and what do we have?
All the ingredients of a literary revolution…
So, will we see the complete replacement of the book over the next 20 odd years? I had the temerity to suggest this at Christmas, and was met with howls of derision and threats of inter-generational violence from my book-reading loving family. Before joining the queue to beat me with a leather bound copy of the Lord of the Rings, consider a couple of the major arguments:
- Ebooks are much more environmentally and economically friendly
- They negate the need for masses of physical storage space (think bookshelves but also carrying books – as a history undergraduate, lugging the requisite 8 or so 300+ page books between home, library and bar was an unenviable task that ended in more than one broken bag and moment of book spewing public embarrassment)
- They are potentially easier to read (font sizes can be changed to fit individual preference)
- Ebooks offer the potential for much more integrated, incorporating audio and video, and interactive experiences (see Sports Illustrated’s concept for the future of magazines)
I’m playing Devil’s Advocate a little here – I like reading books and value them for being ‘physical’ rather than ‘digital’, but why is this? It’s because I have a programmed need for holding something that is tangible, implanted within in me via my upbringing and background. This need is getting significantly lessened (because I’m a complete techno bod), but it is still the case for the majority of us. This ‘need’ isn’t wrong, I just think it will be lessened for everyone, as we go further and further into an undeniably digital future. After all, look at music. When was the last time you bought a record instead of downloading one? Films are going the same way too (Sky+, downloads etc).
I think these exciting developments offer interpreters amazing potential – imagine being able to offer a layered mobile experience that seamlessly blends audio, copy and video content in a totally accessible, universally accepted, digital interface. Users could choose the interpretive medium that is most suited to them as individuals, and ‘dig’ as deep as they please (like a guidebook, the ebook could be further explored at home obviously). GPS, augmented reality and other powerful digital tools could also be one day integrated. Smartphones are the first step down this path, but the future could be even more spectacular.
So is the book dead? No. At least not yet! Ebooks are the future though. After all, will the next generation really have the ‘need of the tangible’ that we have today?
What do you think of the future of the book and of reading generally?
How can interpretation harness this fundamental shift in our habits?