At the Technomy conference last week, Nicholas Negroponte made the prediction that the physical book would be dead in five years. It is a pretty bold prediction and even though Negroponte may be a very smart guy, his prediction is off base. I think the problem with his prediction is, he isn’t taking everything in to consideration. When I first started reading books electronically, I felt about the same way, and that was much more than five years ago. After seeing ebooks just weren’t taking off in quite the way I thought they should be, I took a look at what I thought the hurdles to the ebook killing the physical book were.
Here was what I came up with… way back when.
When I originally considered this issue, devices for reading ebooks were still prohibitively expensive. Dedicated book devices were hundreds and hundreds of dollars and even the most basic of devices were in multiple hundreds of dollars. Prices of such devices in the past year have plummeted and they are fast approaching the point where cost won’t really be an issue compared to buying an actual physical book. Hardcovers, for example, are expensive, and it won’t be long before the cost of an ebook reader and the cost of a few hard cover books will become similar. Therefore, this first issue that I saw at the time is one that will definitely be gone in five years. In fact it is pretty much gone already, but will be even more irrelevant moving forward.
At the time I wrote that, there was no Kindle, there was no Nook, and often when people would discover I read books using an electronic device, the idea just seemed so foreign to them. It wasn’t something that had even really occurred to them. Now, with the Nook and the Kindle and the iPad, the idea of reading books in an electronic format is getting a lot more publicity. The last time I walked into a Barnes & Noble they even had a kiosk set up with people demoing the Nook for customers as they came through the doors. It wasn’t just some device sitting on a shelf somewhere. It was, “Hello, come take a look at this device we would like to show you.” This means if people are not reading their books electronically, it won’t be because they don’t know it is possible.
I have no qualms about reading on a digital device, but a lot of people I talked to about it were not real enthusiastic about the idea. They like the weight of the book in their hands, the feel of the pages as they turn each one.
I don’t think this issue is something that is going to just go away. Some people are never going to take to reading books electronically unless they are forced to. The only way this is going to happen is if the market for physical books becomes small enough that publishers decide not to publish physical version of books along with electronic versions. If the market were to reach that point, it would basically mean bookstores would cease to exist. If no physical books are being published there will be no need for a store that sells them. Since a publisher’s job is to produce physical books and get them onto the shelves of bookstores, what would the purpose of publishers even be at that time.
Back in the time I looked at this, there many competing formats. If you bought one device, then you had to buy books that it could read. If you bought device A, it couldn’t read books bought for device B, etc., etc. That was actually why this site was created in the first place, to help people figure out what format they needed on their device, and how to get from one format to another. Then, once you figured that out, you had to figure out how to get it to your device. This was where the Kindle really changed things. Since you bought books using the Kindle itself, you were definitely going to get the right ones, and since you could do it without needing a computer to convert or transfer the files to the device, it made it easy enough that anyone could do it. There are still different formats though, but with the newer devices, if you just stick to what they have at their electronic bookstore, as many users probably would, you don’t need to worry about it too much. Therefore I think this will be less of an issue going forward.
#5 Copy Protection
For me, this is the big one. I think this is why the physical book will still be alive and well in five years. For people to give up their physical books, the ebook needs to give them a big enough improvement to make it worth their while. To say electronic books will kill physical books in five years, you have to ask yourself, why does anyone buy books now anyway? Companies use DRM, to keep people from “stealing” books, but books are available for free at any local library, so why do people still buy them? They buy them because they enjoy them. Go into the home of pretty much anyone in my family, and there will be all sorts of books around. Walls of books, boxes of books. I come from a family of readers. They get them from all sorts of places. Regular bookstores, used bookstores, book sales at the library or local schools and from other family members. DRM hopes to eliminate all of that. The only way you will be able to read a book if they have their way is to buy your own personal copy. This is such a bad idea. You know why I am a reader. Because my mom was a reader and my uncle was a reader and my grandmother was a reader and after they read books, they would get passed along. When they turned you on to a good book, then you would go out and buy more books by that author, or the rest of the books in the series, but if they hadn’t been able to pass that book on to you in the first place, you never would have got hooked. I can’t even begin to guess how many great authors or series I have discovered on my own, but it isn’t very many. Invariable I am introduced to them for the first time by a used book that someone handed off to me. On to the next generation, why are my kids readers? They read because I am a reader. We enjoy going to the library or the bookstore and browsing the shelves and flipping through the pages. It is something we do together. Sitting in front of computer screen browsing Amazon.com just isn’t the same as an afternoon excursion to the bookstore or the library.
Books are not like music. You can’t hear a book on the radio and say, wow that is a really cool song, I think I will go buy it, or I really like this band’s sound, I wonder what other songs they have. Reading a book takes more commitment and dedication than listening to a song for three minutes on the radio. Also, once you buy them, you don’t listen to them over and over and over again. You might read a great book more than once, but how many more times? If you buy an mp3, you might listen to it a hundred times. You might listen to it a thousand times. You might still be listening to it 20 years from now. It also isn’t like a movie. The way movies are delivered has changed over the years from laserdisc to beta to VHS to DVD to Blue ray and now to digital. No matter how they were delivered, you still needed some way to play them back. Books have no such need. The play back device is the user themselves.
I don’t see physical books being dead in five years. I think from an environmental standpoint it might make sense. From a convenience standpoint, it might make sense. From a profit standpoint for publishers, it might seem to make sense at first. I think there is more to it than that though. For myself, personally, if I could buy an electronic book for the same price as a physical book and have the exact same legal rights to it as I do a physical book, the ability to give it away, or sell it, or donate it, I probably would be converted. I wouldn’t bother with physical books anymore. I just don’t see that happening and that is why, for me, the physical book will still be alive and well in five years, even though I have already been reading books electronically for a lot longer than that. For many people though, I don’t think that would be enough to convince them. Even if they could buy an electronic book and have the same rights and privileges with it as a physical book, they would probably still go for the physical book. Why get a book that you need a device to read, when you can buy the exact same thing that doesn’t need a device to be read?
I think the idea that the physical book will be dead in five years is a little bit short sighted.