Books are dead.

_**Books are dead.** New books — physical paper copies — will be gone within a few decades, replaced by electronic downloads read on hand-held [readers][kindle]._

At my writer’s group this evening, we got to talking about the [Amazon Kindle][kindle], the e-book reader that uses a very-low-power, [paper-like screen][eink] to let people read books and newspapers, and have content pushed wirelessly.

I mentioned that I thought that paper books were on their way out, and some people disagreed; I’m going to explain why we won’t see bookshops on the high street in 2028.

We all know, I think, of the huge shifts in the music industry. [CD sales are falling][cdsales]; figures from earlier this year had US CD sales dropping 20%. HMV have taken a [three-year, 60% stock price plunge][hmv]. Chains like MVC and Tower Records are dead. Virgin Megastores are [gone from the high street][vm].

Why?

Two things have conspired to kill the CD, and the stores that sell them. Neither of these things would have been enough on their own, but paired together, they have sealed the fate of the CD. It may look alive still, but it is fatally wounded.

The two things, then; the [iPod][], and broadband.

First, the [iPod][]. Portable music used to mean a walkman. You carried round one hour of music, and left your CD library at home. The iPod changed that, though. A full-fat 160gb ipod will hold about 3,000 albums. You don’t carry one item from the library anymore; you carry the entire library. This is huge. Once you’ve experienced it, the idea of not having all your music with you feels prehistoric.

Second; broadband. So you’ve got an iPod, and now you need music on it. What options do you have;

1. Buy a CD and rip it.
2. Borrow a friend’s CD and rip it.
3. Download it from an on-line retailer line like [emusic][] or [itunes][iPod].
4. Download it from a site like [mininova][] using peer-to-peer software like [µTorrent](http://www.utorrent.com/).

Downloading is, again, simply better. Legit copies are cheaper, and the selection can be better than a shop. You don’t have to buy full albums, saving you more money. It’s fast, too. If you were standing in HMV’s doorway, and I was sitting in front of my PC, I bet you I could buy an album faster than you. And of course, using peer-to-peer software like [µTorrent](http://www.utorrent.com/), one could probably download it in about ten minutes, for free.

The combination is lethal; the CD is no longer the component part of a music library; the MP3 has displaced it.

So…

books.

What would it take for this to happen to books?

Well, there would have to be a reading device that was comparable to reading a book. The [kindle][] is one of the first devices, the [sony reader][] is another. It won’t be long before we see a reader with a screen that compares to paper, but which will hold your entire library. And no reason why you couldn’t make readers share documents via bluetooth or wireless. We’ll have the book equivalent of iPods. Give that a couple of years.

Then we’ll need book content, delivered over the internet. Well, that won’t be hard. The beating heart of the web is just that; a text delivery system. HTML and PDFs will be the new component part of a text library. Amazon will push publishers to produce electronic equivalents of their books, which won’t be hard because they are all typeset on computers anyway. Content will drive uptake of the readers; people with readers will demand content. The internet will deliver legitimate and illegitimate content, and readers will become standard urban gear.

Borders will go the way of HMV.

You know what I think the killer app will be here? Schoolkids. Schoolkids with one reader in their bag, with all their schoolbooks downloaded, along with a copy of wikipedia P2P-copied there just in case.

[cdsales]: http://news.digitaltrends.com/news/story/12526/us_cd_sales_down_20_percent
[eink]: http://www.eink.com/
[emusic]: http://www.emusic.com/
[hmv]: http://www.hmvgroup.com/investors/shareprice.jsp?_ryFormSubmission=true&duration=-36&fromDateDay=18&fromDateMonth=2&fromDateYear=2005&fromDate=2005%2F2%2F18+00%3A00%3A00&toDateDay=18&toDateMonth=12&toDateYear=2007&toDate=2007%2F12%2F18+0%3A0%3A00&ownDateRangeSubmit.x=13&ownDateRangeSubmit.y=8
[iPod]: http://www.apple.com/itunes
[kindle]: http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-Amazons-Wireless-Reading-Device/dp/B000FI73MA
[mininova]: http://www.mininova.org
[sony reader]: http://www.sonystyle.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?catalogId=10551&storeId=10151&langId=-1&productId=11038811
[vm]: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2007/sep/18/media.retail

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3 thoughts on “Books are dead.

  1. I can think of a couple of reasons books won’t go that way (for me at least). Firstly a book has aesthetic value – I look at my bookshelves and they’re covered in books with lovely art on the covers, and having a physical library is just so much more satisfying than a reader would ever be.
    Secondly there’s the psychological effects. I find it much more difficult to concentrate on long texts on screen than on paper, maybe technology will find something that’s more similar, but I’m not convinced it’ll do it for me in the same way 🙂
    Lastly it’s quite hard to accidentally destroy an entire collection of books. MP3 players, on the other hand, I lose/destroy at the the rate of approximately 2 a year. This is an expensive habit and means I always have to make sure I have my music backed up in several places. A book won’t run out of batteries halfway through a train journey, nor will its screen crack when I carelessly bash into a gate.
    Books for me have a sentimental value that CDs have never had – possibly because a book is a visual experience, while music is aural. It doesn’t matter what form my music comes in, as long as I can hear it, but reading a book is a less passive form of entertainment. You interact with the medium of a story far more than you ever will with a tune (in a physical manner) and therefore it’s going to be far more important how it’s contained.

  2. Virgin may be gone, but the Zavvi stores are still there in the same place – and Zavvi wouldn’t have bought the business if their model didn’t show profit it in.

    I don’t think CD stores or book stores will disappear. Become smaller perhaps, appeal to a smaller consumer market definately – much in the same way as there are still music shops selling vinyl.

    People said the same things quite some years ago about all offices becoming “paperless” due to computers. Some offices are now paperless – but I’ve never had the good fortune to work in one. Too many people like having actual paper in their hands.

    Schoolkids will be a big driver in electronic readers sales – but it won’t help the schools – struggling schools that have trouble finding money for book budgets, if they went over to readers they’d struggle even more to replace stolen/broken readers than they would to have enough textbooks for one each.

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