Future of the Book: Is the e-book the new scroll?

Another wonderful image that came up in conversation with a friend last week. We were talking, of course, of books and e-books.

Read the comments on LinkedIn groups and it’s easy to think the only options are mutually exclusive:

– physical books are dead tree technology and will soon disappear (or will disappear within a generation) and open up possibilities for writers to circumvent outmoded Big Six publisher/gatekeepers. Bookstores deserve to go out of business.

– physical books are increasingly important as permanent, tangible cultural artifacts connecting readers and communities.  Indie-published (formerly known as self-published) books lack quality control; how can the consumer know whether they’re buying something worth reading without publisher or bookstore gatekeepers?  Bookstores are community connectors and incubators of culture on a personal, local scale and need our support.

Statistics are often unreliable.  Assertions like “ebooks have a 20% share of sales” often raise more questions than they answer.  What does that 20% share represent?   Number of titles sold?  Net billing for the publisher?  How much of that percent is the low-priced promotional area that Amazon does such a good job handling?  What categories?

The truth is that there are many different kinds of books and many different kinds of readers.  For some people, it is a very different experience to read digitally than to hold a physical book, turn its pages, and flip back and forth to find a favorite passage.  Other readers do not distinguish much in terms of the actual reading experience; they’re focussed on the words and content, not the vehicle.  There are factors of convenience, price (price!), privacy, connection, the comfort of the tangible, and more.  There are books that lend themselves to reading straight through and those that demand more back-and-forth interaction.  And current e-book technology still fails to do justice to illustrated or heavily designed books.

E-books, with lower (sometimes very low) price points and ease of reading straight through are particularly suited for commercial, plot-driven fiction and popular non-fiction.  The limitations of e-book technology often makes reading literary fiction, art books and illustrated books and serious non-fiction more challenging.  A reader wanting to revisit a certain passage for context (what was it about that character?  Where was that passage?  Top half of the page, left side, about a third of the way in?) often has a harder time of it in digital versions, given the differences in pages and the lack of visual cues in e-books.  The “delivery vehicle” matters.

For those “flip the pages” readers, e-book technology right now is not a step forward beyond the obvious convenience and price factors.  Like the scroll, ebooks are most easily read straight through.  For other books or readers, the ingenious simplicity of physical books is still hard to surpass.

The first flush of adoption of e-technology has leveled off, and it’s maturing as a format, allowing consumers to make clearer decisions based on experience rather than the lure of the new or the romance of the old.  E-books will continue to grow in total share of reading, but not at previous exponential rates.  The growth will be concentrated in indie-published titles, commercial vs literary fiction and non-fiction, and educational/professional/reference areas (though those latter areas have their own technological and structural problems to solve).

New disruptive technology not yet on the horizon may well change all that.  But for the actionable future, we will live with both options, and have the privilege of choice.

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