Technology 1: The End Of The Printed Word


Reports from the Frankfurt Book Fair say that e-book rights sales are rising fast, driven by America. Europe is horrified by the idea of hard-copy books vanishing, publishers are in turmoil, profits are plunging. Except that no-one can see any evidence. The rare early adopter, usually male, well-off and young, can be seen toting an electronic device, but most of us are reading books.

It would probably stay that way if it wasn’t for the involvement of four major companies: Amazon, Sony, Apple and Google, who are driving the new model. In the US, 35% of the sales of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel are electronic. Now something in the delivery chain has to go; will it be the publisher, the bookseller or the agent? Who will combine to bring books direct to the reader?

Amazon prices are low because you can only read them on the ugly old button-smothered Kindle. There’s no aesthetic appeal. But is there any more appeal in a nasty WH Smith edition of an airport bonkbuster?

There’s a war coming: publishers against retailers. The problem is that companies like Apple and Amazon are so huge, they don’t need to sell books at all. They’d sell them for 20p a copy because they make their money from selling hardware. This is just the start.

10 comments on “Technology 1: The End Of The Printed Word”

  1. Lou Morgan says:

    As someone who’s just starting out, this idea scares me quite a lot. And as someone who loves books, it worries me too. I can’t help but wonder what the publishing industry is going to look like in 5 or 10 years’ time – or even if there’ll still be one left?

  2. noonski says:

    I must admit to being an early adopter of an Amazon Kindle. My motives for buying a Kindle were not all about the gadget and the technology. I am a book geek from way back. I’ve been reading books since…well, since back in the early 70s. I remember more about the books I read as a kid than I do about other things that happened to me as a kid. I always had my nose in a book, as the saying goes. As I got older, it seemed only natural that I went to work for a bookstore chain (if I’d lived in NY, perhaps I’d have gone to work for a publisher — but, in Colorado, bookstores are about it.)

    I have always had an obsession with books — not just the book and it’s contents, but, with books, physical aspect of. I love the feel of a book in my hands, the way the pages turn, and don’t even get me started on the scent of a brand new book. I’ll admit also to being one of those weird folk who loves to read the covers of the books and all the ‘blurbs’. I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in the pure soul-searing joy of holding a brand new hardcover book. Ok, so it doesn’t always have to be a new book: put a copy of “Pillars of the Earth” in my hands, and, though I’ve read it 4 times, it still fills me with pure joy to hold it.

    E-books hold none of the same joy, the same spirituality. They’re cold, emotionless, carry none of the same sense pleasures that paper books convey. I miss the touch, the smell, the page turning, the pure bliss of holding a book. Yet, I love my Kindle. Even love the Kindle app for my Droid phone. It’s a different love though. Gone is the multi-sense pleasure, but it’s replaced by other things: a sense of being responsible for the planet– how many trees die to make all the pages of books (and, working in a bookstore, I learned just how many books end up in a landfill); there’s the cost factor, as e-books cost less (though, publishers are playing with that, and, I for one, who’ve not ever quibbled much about book prices, refuse to pay $20 for an ebook); and, as someone who spent a good part of his almost 45 years buying books (and rarely getting rid of any of them) an e-reader is a perfect solution to storage. I can store more books on my Kindle than I can in my entire house. Then, of course, there’s the whole travelling saga: before the Kindle, I was known (not in a good way) as the person who travelled with an entire suitcase of books. How people can travel with just one or two books, I’ll never understand. I need to have options. I don’t know from day to day what I’m going to be in the mood to read. I may think I’m in the mood to read some history when I’m finished with what I’m reading now, but, in reality, once I finish what I’m currently reading, and, taking into account the state of mind I’m in when I’m starting a new book, well, maybe history requires too much brain power, maybe I’ll just need something light and fluffy, or maybe I’ll need a good mystery, or maybe I’ll need to reread an old favorite. With a Kindle, I can take an unlimited amount of books with me.

    So, yes, I love Real Books. But, I must admit, that the satisfaction of an e-reader makes up for it. I don’t think I could switch back to real books, except for rereading the real books I own. I mourn the dwindling of bookstores, of paper pages and book glue. Yet, I rejoice in the incredible new access to books. What booklover can hate the fact that with an e-reader, one can buy a book at 2 in the morning and have it on their device in less than a minute?

    I feel fortunate that I grew up in a time of Real Books, Real Pages. It’s an experience that molded me, that taught me to love books. Yet, as much as I mourn the decline and fall of the print on paper, I rejoice in the potential of the print on an e-reader.

    And, having to carry one suitcase less, in this age of fees, makes it all worth it.

    Add to that the fact that all the bookshelves I own are stuffed to overflowing already, and, with a Kindle, I don’t have to get rid of anything in order to buy new things… well, I think the technology wins out.

  3. Steve says:

    I could easily have written what noonski’s said, point by point…except that I started reading voraciously in the 1950’s, not the 1970’s.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I thought one of the answers to overstuffed shelves was BookCrossing, where you’re encouraged to “set free” books you aren’t likely to read again and track their travels. Unfortunately, I now have more books than ever, although part of it is my husband who gathers up books wherever he goes.
    Frankfurt is showing a new book two metres high by – whatever. I can’t remember the width even though I just saw it in the paper. It’s an atlas from Australia and I’d sure like to see the suitcase that that fits into.

  5. I.A.M. says:

    The Atlas is six feet tall by eight feet wide when opened, and the publisher is winded after turning a page for the people viewing it. It’s the biggest book ever made, and larger than the previous record holder (one made in the mid-1600s, I think) by a foot in both dimensions.

    Now… about this “end of the printed word” notion: BALLOCKS! The only thing that the electronic book will ever replace is the MMP, as the low price and compact size of an e-book reader is nearly identical in market appeal and dimension to the old Penguin/Pan/Corgi editions.

    Last week-end I bought the latest two novels by Cherie Priest in trade paperback instead of e-book format because she was there at the event I was attending and would sign them for me. While I could have had her sign the back of my e-reader, it’s cool to have her sign the paper of her book specifically. There are things the printed book does that cannot be done by the electronic book, such as this. Printed books will not go away merely because electronic books simply exist. It’s not a case of “one or the other” when a publisher approaches published formats, but “which format would the customer like to buy; what about both?” and thus you have a new additional option to £25 hardback and £12 trade paper (that whacks Admin in the nose when he’s reading in bed).

    Fear not the alternative, merely because it exists.

  6. Lou Morgan says:

    Ian – on the subject of signing books, have you read Mike Shevdon’s post about signing e-books –
    How long before (to quote the incredibly irritating iphone ads) there’s an app for that? (Or is there one already?)

  7. JudyQ says:

    I have to admit that Yes I do infact own a Kobo e-reader. Having said that I also have to admit that I bought it out of convience. I wanted a book and I wanted it right then and I was able to down load it and place it on the Kobo. I love paper back books and e-readers do not give the same tactile experience of touching the pages and smelling the paper. Nothing beats a brand new paper back book. There is not a better feeling than the excitment of going to a book store and standing amongst the shelves of novels and knowing that you are about to embark on a journey with a writer. I enjoy my e-reader but yes when i have found a book that was a good read, i have still gone out and bought the paper back. Yes i know it sounds bonkers but its true.There really is nothing like owning the book and then looking back at that book that now has a coffee stain on it or its creased where you fell asleep on it one night while reading and remembering how it fit into your life. I read Moby Dick at my grandmothers bed side in the hospital while she slept and to this day when I look at that book I remember reading one night and looking up and she was watching me and she was smiling.When I think of that book I think of her smile.
    I Love Real Books.

    Besides once you have a book you have it, drop your e-reader once and everything can be lost in the blink of an eye.
    I am Canadian and we love your books!

  8. Ken says:

    The tipping point for me was finding that there are books only available in e-book versions. John Biggins’ latest was available on Kindle six months before paper (unless Amazon are playing games with their index).

  9. gnf says:

    e-book sales in Europe (including the UK) account for less than 5% of revenues. So it will be a while before hard copy is even augmented by soft. What is planned, however, and that was the drive behind pulling together multimedia companies at Frankfurt, is the concept of an e-book becoming an m-book, ie media-book. Features of an m-book are anticipated to include listening to an author interview, being able to connect live for author chats, play a game related to the book, look at pictures etc. Frankfurt was all about the enhanced e-book, or m-book. Which means, ultimately, more choice for the consumer, not the end of hard copy publishing.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    I have found that maps and such that are quite legible and helpful in hardcover books are often reduced in soft cover versions to the point where you (or at least I) need a magnifying glass. In the electronic version which size rules?

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