Books are Dead 2.

I’ve got a couple of thoughtful responses to my last post, [books are dead](http://www.stevecooper.org/2007/12/19/books-are-dead/).

_psammead_ wrote about three things he suspects will stop the shift, for him.

> Firstly, a book has aesthetic value.

Yeah, it does. There are some books, like the [book of kells](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Kells), whose covers are fantastic pieces of art, and some where the binding is more important than the content — a great example is the [human-skin bound book](http://www.stevecooper.org/2007/11/29/human-skin-book-for-sale-this-sunday-in-doncaster/) I mentioned a short time ago. But they tend to be exceptions. I look up at the covers of the books here on my bookshelf, and few of them are much more than a nice photo with a little typography.

So I wonder; what do I really want when I buy a book? I want a stream of words. I want the words and (sometimes) pictures inside the book, the book itself, the intellectual content. If I buy a cookery book, I want delicious recipes, not a printed picture of a celebrity chef. If I buy a technical book, I want explanations and code samples and commentary; I don’t need a [pencil sketch of a whelk](http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/aspnetckbk2/). Nice as those are, they’re not what I’m buying. They are secondary, maybe even just advertising material. What I really need is a word stream.

I think CDs show something similar. CDs have inlays and cover art and such; it’s a small artwork, usually more accomplished than most books. Album art is often real art. But people are choosing to not buy CDs and instead get the raw content, as MP3 files, from the intertubes. Given a choice between inconvenient and aesthetic, and convenient and essential, people will choose the latter. MP3 over CD. Email over handwritten letter. [Give me convenience or give me death](http://www.amazon.co.uk/Give-Me-Convenience-Death/dp/B00005A9YS/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1198075771&sr=8-1). Yessiree.

That said, the paper medium is bedded down deep in our culture. Books in the past have always come on paper. That means that if you’ve ever enjoyed reading, you’ve enjoyed paper. You’ll have made that connection that paper products bring joy and wisdom and skill and news. Newspapers, comics, novels, textbooks — everything has been on paper. I know that in my head, there’s still this confusion about paper and it’s relationship to knowledge; that somehow, if it’s on paper it’s more real, more true. Printed text just has more authority to it, somehow, than electronic text. _It’s all there in black and white_, you see.

But I think we’re mistaking the form (paper) for the essence (word streams)

But a new generation is growing up without that. A generation that knows that it’s much easier to find information on the internet than in the library. More importantly, that the encyclopedia britannica costs $1395.00 plus shipping, and that wikipedia is free. And instantly searchable. And it has video. And is more up to date.

So there’s a generation who are going to be soul-deep annoyed that their textbook has a printed index rather than full-text search, or that the book isn’t hyperlinked. Or that they actually have to go to a shop just to read the first ten pages of a novel. This is already annoying the crap out of me, to be honest.

> Secondly […] I find it much more difficult to concentrate on long texts on screen than on paper

This is something that is either solved, or being solved, right now. Depends on how tolerant you are. Apparently the Kindle’s screen is almost like paper. There is no eye-strain because it’s not backlit like a screen, but plain non-illuminated black and white, like paper.

Other things that affect legibility include whitespace (more is better), font size (larger is better), and words per line (optimum is about 10-12 words per line). While whitespace costs paper publishers, it’s free to digital publishers. Font size and flow is dynamic digitally, allowing readers to scale and flow appropriately to your eyesight. I think, pretty soon, readers will be as good, if not better, than paper.

> Lastly it’s quite hard to accidentally destroy an entire collection of books.

Yep. And it depends on where, or even whether, you store your book collection. Once you’ve bought a book, there’s no reason why there even has to be a master copy. All you need is a record of your right to download it again next time you get a new reader or log in to a new PC.

Also, it’s hard to destroy because it’s hidden away, where you can’t read it. It’s safe at home, but you’re on the train wondering why the hell you can’t read that novel that you forgot to pack. It’s indestructibility comes from it’s inaccessibility.

> Virgin may be gone, but the Zavvi stores are still there in the same place.

Something I really don’t get. I presume there is a business plan there, but it wasn’t one that convinced Richard Branson to hold on to his first ever Virgin company. He’s sold out of the industry. As I say, HMV is down 60% of it’s feb 2005 stock price. Something is broken.

I wonder if there is some sort of wind-down program going on here, some dismantling that’ll happen as the CD industry collapses. Or maybe they’ll switch to more DVDs and such, which are a little bit harder to copy. (Not a lot harder, mind you; an album will generally be about ten times smaller than a film, but is available from the same places.)

> I don’t think CD stores or book stores will disappear. Become smaller perhaps […]

A decreasing demand for CDs doesn’t lead to smaller shops. It leads to no shops. Let’s say that right now, a CD generates 10% of it’s cover price in profit. If we get another 20% drop in CD sales next year, selling a CD will cost you money. So you won’t do it, unless you can either lower your costs or up your prices. Upping your prices will push people out of your shops and onto the internet. So you can’t make money with a record shop any more.

At heart, the problem for the record companies is this; if you want music, you can always choose to get it free on the internet. just type the album name and the word ‘torrent’ into a search engine, and download it. So the record companies are competing with ‘shops’ where all their products are free. How do you compete with free on the same product? You can’t. The more people who choose free, the more the record companies will have to charge legitimate buyers, and the more people will choose free. Vicious circle.

Bringing it back to books; Borders and Waterstones get a certain profit back on stock they sell. When ereaders and ebooks take off, that profit will drop, the same way it’s flooring right now for CDs. When it becomes economically unviable to sell paper books, those companies die. I don’t think it’ll be for a while, but it’s coming.

> People said the same things quite some years ago about all offices becoming “paperless” due to computers.

I’m not sure it’s quite the same thing. The Paperless Office is about offices generating formal paperwork, and trying to avoid printing out that paperwork and keeping it big archive boxes. And that’s been relatively successful, actually; many paper forms have been replaced by databases. Hell, you can get 25 million forms on a couple of CDs now. Try losing 50,000 reams of paper in the post…

Problem is, thanks to database technology, offices can not handle a shitload more cases and complexity. And thanks to word processing and printers, it’s a lot easier to generate much more documentation, marketing letters, and such. We haven’t decreased the amount of paper, just the type.

Books, I think, are a different proposition. We’re talking about the distribution of the latest John Grisham novel. John emails it to his agent as a Word document. My reader can read word documents. Somewhere along the line, there has to be a compelling reason to print this thing onto paper, trucking it to a shop, and making me walk to that shop to buy it, rather than just giving me the file. I just don’t see that compelling reason yet.

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5 thoughts on “Books are Dead 2.

  1. I have yet to see a book reader that is as simple, portable and easy to use as a book.
    All book reader gadgets that I have seen lacked the basic ease of use of a printed book.

    Furthermore, books are engrained in most civilisation as things that hold knowledge. There is a prestige associated with having a book. There is something wrong with people destroying books.

    “When people will burn books, they will burn people” as quoted by Goethe.

    BTW, do NOT trust anything on wikipedia. It is not and never can be an authoritative source by its very nature.

  2. I have yet to see a book reader that is as simple, portable and easy to use as a book

    I agree; it’s not there yet. But it’s not far off, I think. Things like hyperlinking and full-text search will push the readers towards being more useful than a book, I think. Plus, if you’re just carrying the one object, it’s a comparison between a single paper book, and every electronic book you’ve ever bought.

    Furthermore, books are engrained in most civilisation as things that hold knowledge.

    Yeah, that’s true. That’s because, I think, the book was the only practical way to store wisdom. It’s not the object which should be respected, but the knowledge. If that knowledge is transmitted another way, so be it.

    “When people will burn books, they will burn people”

    If my theory is right, this isn’t so much “people who will have no respect for printed paper …,” but “people who try to control information will kill to control people.”

    do NOT trust anything on wikipedia

    For the sorts of things I use it for, it’s often a good-enough definition or a starting point for further research. My real point was that almost every paper format has a comparable digital format that challenges it; encyclopedia britannica vs wikipedia, newspapers vs blogs, print magazines vs pdf downloads, novels vs podiobooks.

  3. According to store staff in York, Virgin Stores had a management buy-out, leading to ‘Zavvi’. Which, as a name, sucks. So many jokes that can’t be made any more… sigh

    For books – I’ll take both, thank you. I’ll take the reader with me because I have so much to read that I’ve not got through, and books get banged up in my bag day after day. And at home, I’ll read the paper copy.

    Unless I can get the reader to magically turn the books into audio… Handy for when I’m busy with something requiring my hands and eyes but not so much my brain.

  4. Whether the days of the book are numbered will depend a lot on how stupid the publishing industry at large is: the digital music revolution was greatly facilitated (if not made possible) by the ubiquity of the CD, which is trivial to rip. Digital ‘piracy’ became commonplace and this is at least partly responsible for the death of record shops and the downturn in the record companies’ profits. If the publishing industry learns from the mistakes of the music and film industries they will avoid electronic book formats like the plague, and keep selling their lumps of dead tree. If it’s digital media and you can use it for the purpose for which it was intended, then you can copy it and file-share it to your friends.

    If the big publishing houses have any sense at all, they will see that the humble book already has one of the best anti-copy systems built in – far better than any forseeable digital format.

  5. you’re probably right about paper being the best defence.

    Question is, is there some way for it to creep in? For book piracy to take off, all you need is a guy and a scanner — someone, somewhere, has the patience to photocopy the top ten bestsellers and put them on bittorrent.

    Also, Amazon have 90,000 books available for the kindle already, gutenberg has loads, wikipedia is freely available, and there are blogs and online papers and such. So there’s a lot out there to tip the balance towards the electronic side.

    But I think you may be right.

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