Friday, 5 November 2010

Do you like it hard or soft? Books vs Nooks

(June 2010)
Five hundred years ago the number of books in circulation exploded. Johannes Gutenberg had just invented a mechanical printing press and with it followed the Printing Revolution. Three hundred years later the Industrial Revolution gave us mass production and extrapolated the number of books further. However, it has taken just under five centuries from Gutenberg’s contraption to now for literacy to get to the level where most of the population (in the developed world, anyway) read, or have once read, books.

Cult leader Steve Jobs paints quite a different picture with his proclamation that “people don’t read anymore”, explaining Apple’s absence, hitherto, from the e-reader market.
Despite this, 130,000 new titles are published every year in the UK (190,000 in the USA), not to mention titles that already exist and have existed for hundreds of years. Apparently, people do still read. The question is how?

With the flurry of touchable touch screen gadgets released in the last year or so the big question has been whether printing will die out, usurped by digital formats. True, more people are accessing news via their mobile phones instead of getting their fingers smudged with ink (although I am not sure if this is still an issue in 2010), but how many have actually abandoned paper pages for a screen?

The latest piece of superfluous technology to hit the market is the 500 dollar iPad, which also serves as an e-reader. The battle of the e-readers now seems to be between E-Ink and iPads/iPhones. E-Ink is the provider of the screens for readers such as the Sony Reader, Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. The point of the E-Ink screen is to minimize strain on the eyes that comes from staring at a backlit screen for too long. Sony’s Reader E-Ink screen does not have a backlight and thus needs to be read in the light like any normal book we have become accustomed to.

The 200 pound Reader was the first e-reader on the market released in 2006. 4 years later and its rate of adoption has been poor compared to most high technology offerings in the 21st century. The Reader needs to have e-books uploaded to it after downloading from the 45,000 titles available at Sony’s e-book store (rather like downloading then uploading tunes from the iTunes music store to an iPod).

Amazon’s Kindle arrived later but decimated Sony’s hopes of saving face after its walkman lost out to Apple in 2001 when the iPod was released. Not only does the Kindle have wireless connection to – so you effectively have access to a bookstore whenever and wherever you are – but there are 145,000 titles to chose from. Amazon offered its Kindle at an astounding $9.99, making up its lost profits in sales of e-books from its website, so no wonder it did better. Its open source software also means you can view titles bought from a range of devices, including iPods and iPads.

Publishing giant Barnes & Noble have entered the e-reader race with their $249 Nook, which has had extremely positive reviews already. Both the Nook and Kindle weigh in at around the 300g mark which is dainty compared with the cumbersome iPad. The E-Ink screens are ideal for beach reading as they lack said backlight and are sparing on battery consumption, whereas the LED screens of Apple devices chew through power and also make reading in locations outside living rooms very tricky because of their glare-prone screens.

iBooks store on the iPad does come with the advantage that you can select font size which is ideal for the average e-reader demographic (high earning 34-55 year olds according to TechCrunchies) who are beginning to “see” their eyesight failing them.

Then there is the obvious advantage of having thousands of titles at your disposal and all packed into a few cubic inches of metal and plastic. Next is the issue of environmental impact. Printed media apparently costs us 125,000 trees per year. E-readers may save paper but because manufacturers have not revealed how resource-intensive their gadgets are to produce and ship, their environmentally friendly rating has been hard to estimate. There is also the electricity used to keep them charged which doesn’t come without its own share of CO2 emissions.

So why has adoption been so slow? Are real books simply better?
Perhaps it is because the majority of book buyers are the Baby Boomers, now all over sixty. This older age demographic is less likely to buy e-readers: with their approaching retirement it is likely that the Boomers will buy even more books with more time on their hands, thus potentially slowing the predicted demise of printing.

The hefty price tags on any of these readers (bar the Kindle) also make them a luxury afforded only by the well-off. After spending upwards of $200 in an e-reader you do not even benefit from buying books at reduced prices – you pay the same for e-books as you do paper books so there isn’t really any chance of recouping your investment.

There has been much talk and excitement over the possibilities of e-readers being used for educational purposes, but reading from a screen may even inhibit note taking and retention. Last autumn, students at Ivy League Princeton rejected a Kindle pilot program for academic titles on those grounds.
Their practicality for use by anyone under 16 or so is pretty low and I doubt any e-reader can give to a small child any of the joy that a large, brightly coloured picture book with chewable paper pages does.

Perhaps the reason why I will never be buying an e-reader is the trouble I have reading off screens which are extremely tiring on the eyes and also a lot less immersive. Somehow words on a screen seem less real, more abstract, than ink on paper. One can connect more with a book you feel the pages of in your hand. With an e-reader you do not get that feeling of accomplishment as you see the pages left to read dwindling as you approach the end. Reading real books also differentiate your reading experience from simply trawling the internet from your mobile or reading emails and texts.

Neither are books simply the sum of the information and words they contain. They can be a collector’s item, an antique. They look pleasing and satisfying on your shelf: a physical representation of your journey through literature. The feel of the actual book and how the pages turn completely affect the reading experience and nothing beats the musty smell of second hand books (a very much acquired taste).

Books don’t mind if you spill tea on them. Neither do they mind the occasional blunt burn. The blank pages at the book’s front and back do wonderfully in toilet paper emergencies.

Yes, 145,000 titles available in e-format on Amazon is staggering and probably more than any person can read in a lifetime, yet there are still many multiples more available in paper. One still sees an overwhelming majority of paper books on planes, tubes and trains. Yes, it is a nice thought that you are carrying around a small library in your pocket but books are not like music, it is not that beneficial to have more than a couple on your person at any given time: you tend to read only one book per (tube) journey whereas with songs, it is now almost crucial that we can shuffle about among thousands of tracks at a press of a button.

After we have finished reading an e-book there is no option of passing it from friend to friend or re-selling it to earn a bit of money. We can’t spend a rainy afternoon wondering between the shelves of a bookstore, reading the books for free with e-books.

Numbers of e-readers sold thus far vary hugely and are very inconsistent with one figure claiming that 22m were shipped in 2009, yet another estimating that only 6m will be sold in 2010. No doubt, technological progress (no matter how redundant) is essential but I still don’t have to like it. I feel sad when I hear that printing will one day be dead. When I am old will I have to switch to e-readers against my will? Or will I have to spend hours hunting for my choice of titles in hard to come by second hand bookshops? Let us hope not.

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