The iPad, the Kindle, and the Future of Books

The New Yorker published a fascinating article about the publishing industry and eBooks: “The iPad, the Kindle, and the Future of Books.” I have been hesitant to go digital with my reading, but I’m not naive enough to feel confident in the future of the physical book. The decisions that are being made about how digital media will be priced and sold are changing the landscape of publishing, and I think everyone is walking blindly into an unknowable horizon.

My first memory of reading: I was in Kindergarten, only a few years old. I spent an entire Sunday curled up in bed reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda. I can imagine myself turning the pages, relating to a character similarly enthralled by the magic of books, turning pages faster and faster to find out how it ends, but not wanting it to end. This scene would probably look so different now: a child holding on to an eReader, clicking buttons to turn the pages, wondering what sort of arcane materials Matilda was looking at, stopping to view some embedded videos along the way.

Which of these is better? It’s hard to say. At this point, I’m an advocate of any reading. Americans are reading fewer books each year, and the loss of cultural literacy and collective knowledge of human stories is horrifying to me. So, if you want to read a book, any book, by all means, please do! However, I cannot yet persuade myself to switch over to the eBook in any of its forms. I love the look of a library, the feel of pages against my fingertips, and the smell of a used book with a mysterious history behind it. The physical entity of the book is almost as exciting to me as the story itself, and I’m not ready to let go.

I admit that there are times when I wish I had a Kindle or Nook or iPad. When I travel, half my suitcase filled with books borrowed and bought, I think about how handy it would be to keep them all in one thin, little device. The way the airline industry is going, it might start costing me a fortune to travel with books. When I move across the country, packing all my books into heavy boxes, I wonder if this is all a good idea. In these instances, an eReader would be useful. However, I hate the idea of having only the electronic copy. Perhaps if buying a physical book gave you simultaneous rights to the eBook, and I could switch off between them, I would be more willing to go digital. For now, native of the digital generation though I am, I cannot make the transition.

I do, of course, see some other benefits of eBooks. For example, of all the groups of people I have seen using Kindles, the seniors comprise the largest percentage. At first, I found that a little odd, since people so often assume that the older generation is resistant to new technologies. The eReader, though, allows older people to read books in larger print, which might otherwise cost more or be hard to find. It also saves them from having to hold up heavy books, which can be difficult for those with arthritis. (I’m young and sometimes have trouble holding up a hardcover for a few hours!) I imagine that if I lived in a city with a greater dependence on public transit, I would probably see a broader population reading eBooks on their commute. (An interesting issue for another time: many articles recently have discussed how book sales will be impacted by the inability to see what other people are reading.) As far as these other populations go, I can see eReaders being of value for those in businesses that require frequent travel, and also for children who are growing up with a perception of reading as a multimedia sort of affair, who are drawn more to books with embedded pictures and videos than to the regular page.

One of the other benefits of the eBook, so far, has been the pricing. Amazon set the price of eBooks at $9.99, which has become a rather contentious issue. Are books worth less if they are digital? Publishers and authors already make so little, I can understand why they are fighting for higher pricing points. Personally, I would rather go to the library than pay even $10.00 for most books, simply because I do not have the money to keep up with the pacing of my reading, but libraries may not be around much longer with the way cuts in government spending are going. Amazon is like the Walmart of books, and as guilty as I feel, I will usually succumb to their cheaper prices, figuring that purchasing the book at all is better than not purchasing it. There aren’t any used or Indie bookstores in my area, and the brick-and-mortar chain stores simply can’t compete with Amazon’s prices, given all of their overhead. If the rates for eBooks are driven up to $14.99, I will have an even harder time justifying that switch, as much as I want to help out the authors and publishers who work so hard.

If eBook prices do increase, I hope that publishers will do away with the model of not releasing eBook versions until several month after the release of the hardcover. I understand that they want to get as much money from the new book as possible, but I don’t think that most people with eBook readers will go out and buy the printed book. I think they will wait until their version is released, angry that they are being punished for adopting the new media. Obviously I cannot speak for everyone, but I know that if I were using an eReader, I would rather have to pay more for a new release of an eBook than have to wait for four months to get the book.

All of this is uncharted territory. I imagine that I’ll be revisiting these issues frequently, because things are changing so quickly. I can see on publishing blogs how much effort is being put into revising contracts to allow for unforeseeable changes in digital rights. New technologies are being unveiled more regularly as the market does what it does best and competition grows. There’s a lot to consider here, and the issues themselves are changing day by day.


One Response to "The iPad, the Kindle, and the Future of Books"

  • Melanie – I haven’t purchased a kindle because I like holding a physical book – With all the books I read I can only imagine that I’ll go through a fortune in batteries for a Kindle, equating the cost of a paper book! 🙂
    Seriously, I see that E-books are the changing way of the world. In fact, I even had my book “Ghosts and Spirits: Insights From a Medium,” made into an E-Book. I’m trying to get it put on Kindle now, too, because the demand is there.
    Meanwhile, it’s $3 less as an E-book than it is as a paperback, but you can’t get an autographed/personalized E-copy. 🙂
    Here’s the link to my E-book for some shameless self-promotion:

    1 Rob Gutro said this (April 20, 2010 at 5:16 AM)