/ 19 February 2010

Give it up bibliophiles, the ebook cometh

There seems to be a perception among bibliophiles (some of them, at least) that the ebook is a solution looking for a problem. That the only reason digital books are being foisted on the public is that the Silicon Valley corporates want to sell us something new. That ebooks are a stupid idea that will inevitably raise the cost of the printed word while cutting into the profits of traditional publishers and authors.

Allow me to retort.

The Guardian‘s Ian Jack wrote in his lament for the printed page, the second-hand bookshop and publishers (Mail & Guardian, February 12, “Kiss books goodbye, here’s the iPad”): “Why is the ebook coming? Because a lot of capital has been invested in it.”

First of all, the ebook has come. It’s here. It’s been here for a long time.
And not because Google or Amazon or Apple have invested in it — they invested because there’s a market. In the chicken-and-egg argument the technology companies aren’t the eggs.

Let’s take a step back — way back into the Seventies. (Cue the cheesy synth music and bell-­bottom jeans.) Project Gutenberg, the 15th server connected to the fledgling beginnings of the internet in 1971, was a book digitisation service, which still runs today, with the goal of digitising one million non-copyrighted books. That makes ebooks older than television in South Africa, Watergate, and even yours truly.

In the mid- to late-Nineties, ebooks really got going. In the latter years of the decade, Project Gutenberg was quickly digitising non-copyrighted texts and distributing them for free, software ebook readers were becoming readily available and websites dedicated to selling ebooks were starting to emerge. We’re talking 10 years ago; in technology time, that’s a epoch.

With 40 years of history behind it, one wonders why the ebook is suddenly making the news. After all, Dick Nixon hardly ever makes a headline anymore, but you’d think the ebook was the latest and greatest fad. In a way it is. Until now, ebooks have been missing one vital component to make them really competitive with their paper precursors and that’s a device that doesn’t make your eyes bleed by page 20.

Amazon’s Kindle was the first to make real headway as a dedicated ebook reader. Now we have the Apple iPad, Sony’s Reader, Barnes & Noble’s Nook and a bevy of other wannabes that make reading an ebook a pleasure. The stuff they’re made out of is called “e-ink”, which makes reading on these devices similar to reading a well-printed book.

The user experience is astounding, resulting in massive interest of the devices around the world. Forrester Research reckons device sales tripled last year and content sales rose 176%. eBook sales for 2010 are expected to top $500-million in the US alone.

But the question remains, will this be bad for authors, publishers and readers? For authors and publishers, it will be detrimental in the same way that the Industrial Revolution hurt the child-labour market.

Sure, there will be smaller margins, but that’s only if you don’t adopt the format in which readers want their books. If you’re willing to adapt and change, there’s that 176% market growth and $500-million in sales for the innovators to grow into. If you don’t want to give the readers what they want, then the laws of economics will not be forgiving.

For readers, it’s all good. Although the minority of bibliophiles justifiably still want their treeware — and they’ll still be able to get it for many years to come — the average Joe will see his ebook for what it is: a book. It’s just as valuable to him as the paper equivalent. And that’s really the nub of the matter — just what the hell is a book? If, for you, the book is a collection of ideas, metaphors and flowing prose, then the device you use to ingest it should be irrelevant. If the book is something to put on a coffee table or keep on a bookshelf, then the ebook might not be quite what you’re looking for.