I previously wrote that it is high time for eBooks to evolve, and of course this begs the questions why, how, and by whom? I’ll answer all of these in a series of upcoming posts, but let me first address why even book lovers should not decry the inevitable ascension of the eBook.
Prologue part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5 part 6 part 7 Epilogue
I am a book-lover myself; my home office is a library with almost every square foot of wall space dedicated to bookshelves. I believe that old hardbound books are beautiful. I collect rare books on a few particularly arcane topics. And I keep literary paperbacks not because I want to hand them down to my daughter (a romantic notion that is fast fading), but because every time I look at them I recall fondly the memory of having read them.
But book-lover that I am, I see a time coming when I will clean out many of my paperbacks; that age is slowly coming to an end. Yes, book sales are still strong today, but as anyone who has worked in the news industry will tell you, change is in the wind.
Today we buy books and, like cast-off college textbooks, we sell them back on eBay and Amazon in order to fund new purchases. My daughter is already plotting how she’ll spend the money she’ll make selling back her American Girl and Magic Treehouse books (for new books and perhaps a few new games).
This sort of buying and selling of physical media is inefficient; it is simply a means to reduce the cost of new purchases, and a way to keep the Postal Service in business. The ultimate expression of what we are trying to achieve is the eBook, which wings its way silently, instantly, and digitally into our hands.
Such is the digital future of all media: news, movies, music, books, magazines. Digital media is downloaded directly into our lives and crosses easily from one device to another, always within reach.
This is not to say that the paperback book will fade away quickly, certainly not as fast as is happening with the print newspaper. I believe that certain books will always be better in print. Coffee table books belong on the coffee table, not in an eReader. I think there will be a place for both print and eBooks, just as there is a place for both electric and acoustic guitars.
Is there such a thing as a nostalgic futurist? If so, I may be one. I can see how the digital future of books will play out; there will come a day when I reminisce about the feel of a paperback, just as I still recall the satisfying heft and roundness of old vinyl records (which I still have a stash of, btw). And yes, bookstores are romantic places to sip java and perhaps meet that pretty girl in the white turtleneck. But despite such notions, we all know where the future is taking us, and even for a veteran writing teacher like myself, I have to say that the benefits will greatly outweigh what we will lose.
What is it that we love about paperback books? It certainly isn’t a natural inclination to lug around a one-pound hunk of dead tree. The paper-based book, with its table of contents, index, and chapter headings is an ingenious machine for storing written information, organized in a simple linear page-by-page fashion (unless of course you are reading Hopscotch by Cortazar).
But like LP album artwork, it is also becoming an obsolete form.
Today you can put a thousand books on an eReader, and carry those books with you as effortlessly as any single paperback. You have almost complete privacy to read whatever you like, in public. You can bookmark and annotate pages, and have infinite digital margin space with which to do it. In fact, if you leave your eReader at home, you can easily call it up on your phone, and pick up where you left off, bookmarks, annotations, and all.
eBooks are cheaper than paper books, even when you figure in the cost of the eReader, which may be zero if you use your existing phone, tablet, or laptop. And you can now check out eBooks from a public library, or rent college textbooks, without having to suffer the dog-eared pages and scribblings of a predecessor.
There are few liabilities: Some people are visually-attuned to the physical position of ideas in a paper book. For example, you may recall that a particular passage was in the top right side of the page about halfway through the third chapter. An eBook leaves such people somewhat adrift, yet the ease of organizing and searching digital bookmarks and annotations may outweigh this admittedly imperfect method of revisiting a passage.
It is true that sharing eBooks is still a problem, at least until book publishers work out a more sensible digital rights management scheme, and for the same reason it’s nigh on impossible to resell an eBook once you are finished with it. And of course, eReaders have given rise to a new worry–that someone might actually steal your book while you snooze on the subway.
The question is, is replacing paper enough? Are we just balancing the inconvenience of digital rights management against the convenience of digital ubiquity? Or is there more we can expect?
The answer is there is much more. Tomorrow’s eBook will change the way we interact with what we read. It is not a matter of convenience; the eBook is poised to spark a global renaissance. How? In my next blog entries I’ll discuss the future of eBooks from several angles, from the Triple Bottom Line to reader’s personas and social networking, the rise of eBook applications, and the long tail of self-publishing. And along the way I’ll outline a vision for a new eBook platform that will tie all of these ideas together.