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Thursday, October 11, 2007

The End of Books?

According to The Guardian, ye olde brick-and-mortar bookstore is not long for this world. According to a survey at the Frankfurt Book fair [from SF Signal]:

Almost a quarter of the 1,324 industry professionals who took part in the survey predicted that the high street bookseller would no longer exist in 2057 while only 11% thought that the printed book would be obsolete.

Just a cursory reading of that stat sort of invalidates the scare headline "Short shelflife for booksellers, industry figures claim" , i.e. something less than 25% of industry figures claim. And that 11%? Yep, that's overwhelming. . .

I have a problem with printed book obsolescence. Information delivery technologies are only made obsolete by technologies that do exactly the same thing. Illuminated hand-written manuscripts were made obsolete by the printing press, but hand-drawn illustration was not made obsolete by photography. Not the same thing. CDs made LPs obsolete, but didn't kill cassette tapes. It took CDRs and MP3s to do that.

eBooks will not kill printing because
  1. books are cheap
  2. books do not require software maintenance
  3. books are permanent and stable storage devices that will be readable indefinitely
  4. books have no power requirements
  5. books can be transferred without concerns for hardware platforms or DRMS
  6. books are simple and straightforward to use without any training beyond basic literacy
  7. books do not require another, more expensive, device to read them
An eBook technology would have to overcome all these advantages of the printed book in order to make the printed book obsolete. IMO, some of these may never be overcome by the current model of eBooks, i.e. a device that plays something from storage media. That model works for music and movies, because that's the model that existed before. (i.e. I have some film, or a recording, and I stick it in some sort of player.) But books were never like that, they've always been a unitary device, self-playing. Adding a machine to "read" a book for you imposes a level of complexity that is not worth the trouble either economically or practically.

In order for eBooks to make the printed book obsolete, they would have to be comparably priced, self-reading (i.e. you purchase one object, you have the book) and free of most of the issues of obsolescence and power requirements of "traditional" eBooks.

Frankly, that might have to wait until after the singularity. . .


aeros51 said...

I agree that paper books will never be "obsolete" but then again, there are still people who buy and play LPs. The shift probably will not come until schools go all electronic for their textbooks and assignments. That will be the generation that will look upon paper books as we now view LPs. But, as you state, unlike LPs, the books still have utility just because it takes no other technology to use.

Sony has solved the power consumption problem, but their reader costs $300. It would be great for me, who likes to lounge around for hours at a time reading, but it's not worth $300 to me.

We would get rid of paper books if everyone was implanted with a Tetsami-like bio-electronic interface. I just don't see that happening all that soon.

Steve Buchheit said...

Yes. The death of printing has been coming for nealry two decades now. While printing and design have certainly undergone much upheaval and change, we're still putting ink on paper.

There's so much about the printed page that is ignored by those who talk about it's demise. The interface for one thing. There was a video circulating about tech support for books. This isn't all that far fetched or jokey as it sounded. Bound books are very technical, and how we interface with them is exceptionally well integrated into our brains. These things are not by chance, just examine different cultures and their experience with printed material and you can see just how unique the printed page is. Okay, so I'm a graphic designer by training, but that allows me to see these things. It's my stock and trade.

Printed pages are viewed by the brain very differently than on-screen images. I don't think even when kids are brought up on electronic texts that it'll really interfer with printed books, because the processing is different. e-ink has the best chance of supplanting ink on paper because of how it mimics the various affects ink on paper has, but it ignores the human-interface issues that books have.

My last point here will be that as a designer I have done many catalogs for highly technical subjects. Every one of these catalogs has had an online companion, and everytime were would produce a new print catalog I would hear the cannard that this would be the last one because the online version would supplant the printed piece. Well, I would work through with their website people the various interface issues of how people use their catalog. They never got what I was talking about. I would explain that if you knew what you were looking for, say to re-order a specific product, an online catalog was the perfect thing. However, if what you're doing is a first order, or trying to find a product that matches to several data points and then working through the options for other data points that aren't as critical, but could be important to the final decision, nothing works better than a printed book.

It's how our minds work. It's part genetics, part learned behavior, and partly how our enviroment contributes to how our brains get wired.