The end of the paperback?

Amazon Kindle

I’ve just taken delivery of a device, which I believe, will mark the end of the paperback book as we know it: the Amazon Kindle.

Electronic books aren’t exactly new.  E-readers of various types have been around for some time now – but never before have they had quite the flexibility & performance of the latest Kindle.

The single most important, and most striking, aspect of the Kindle is it’s fantastic eInk display.  For the presentation of text (importantly – and I’ll return to that thought later on) I can honestly say I’ve seen nothing better on any device.  It genuinely looks as if it’s a fake, a display model – where the screen has been replaced by someone pasting on a sheet of paper with some words laser printed on it!  Simply put, it is the screen that made me fall in love with the Kindle.

Now, I have to say, before we move on that I am not exactly what you’d call an avid reader – or at least, not of fiction. I very much suspect that most of the kindle sales are (still) to people with creaking bookshelves, and an appetite to devour novels on a daily basis.  That doesn’t describe me. I like to read fairly often: but not on a daily basis. I have a fairly full bookcase; but few fiction titles on it. So given this: why have I bought a Kindle?

Mostly it’s because I’m about to take two ten-hour flights in the course of a week – and I very much like to read when travelling (especially at airports!). Also, I’m fed up of either carrying a multiple books onto the plane: or running out of reading material halfway through the trip. Would I have bought the Kindle to use for general reading at home? No; but now I have one – and have used it – I expect to use it that way too…

So, given that I’m outside what I expect to be the main demographic for Kindle buyers, why do I think that it’s going to be such a fundamental change to the way that we read?

The best description that I can come up with for the Kindle is that it is the iPod of books: and I mean that in more than one way. Amazon have taken some excellent design, and cutting edge technology – and have produced a top quality product; much as Apple did with the iPod.  But as with the iPod, they’ve done more than that.  They’ve done what Apple did with the iTunes Music Store – they’ve made it possible, and easy, to buy content for and on the device.  In fact, Amazon have taken it one step further than Apple have with the iPod – in that the synchronization is wireless – and done (for free) over global 3G…  Of course, Amazon have it easy compared to Apple in that regard, because books are pretty small compared to music files & video… But this sort of wireless synchronisation of content is a great selling point. In fact Amazon even let you read their content on multiple devices – not just the Kindle. I can have a Kindle reader app for iPhone, iPad, Android devices, PC & Mac; and all of them automatically synchronise content.

So given that the device is a sure winner: is it the end of books?  Well, no.

There are a few problems with the device becoming the one and only way that one reads. The greatest of these is the fact that people (myself included) like physical books.  They like the experience of holding, and owning, books.  They like the smell and the feel of books; and they like the timeless permanence of the book.   A 500-year-old book is still every bit as readable today as it was when it was made … I fear the same will not be true for an eBook made today.

The other major problem with the Kindle is the fact that it’s screen (as great as it is), is black and white.  Now, depending on what you to do with the device, this is perfectly good.  If I’m reading a novel, or an essay, then it’s the words (and perhaps a few diagrams) that I’m interested in.  Most books to this day (especially paperbacks) are monochromatic: printed in simple black ink. For those sort of books, Kindle is ideal; but for all the other books – the kind with photographs (colour or otherwise), the kind with elaborate graphical typesetting, the kind where the use of colour is an integral part of the book … then really Kindle is not suitable.  But then those generally aren’t the sorts of books that people want to carry with them anyway…

So I fully expect (and hope!) that hardback books will be with us for a very long time to come.

But people treat hardback books, and paperbacks, very differently. Many people treat paperbacks as essentially disposable (read it, throw it away when you’ve done) – even if I find that somewhat abhorrent! Reading a paperback book isn’t about the experience – it’s about the content. The book, the physical pages and ink, is just a means to that end. Albeit that I’ve only read a few chapters with my Kindle so far, I am already convinced that the reading experience of reading with a Kindle is better than the experience of reading many paperbacks! (Especially the really cheap ones!)

There’s one other problem with the concept of eBooks in general: lending…

One cannot lend a friend an ebook (unless you lend them the whole reader) – because digital rights management (DRM) on the books prevent you from doing so.  The difficulty is that at present electronic files & DRM don’t really work quite like the real world… If I buy a physical book, and then lend it to a friend, then whilst it is in their possession I don’t have it.  That’s obvious. Of course, my friend could photocopy the book and then return it to me – and then we’d both have a copy – but that’s not really practical: and photocopies of books are of poor quality & hard to use.  The same is not true for an electronic book though.  As a mere datafile, I can copy it endlessly & perfectly.  Every copy being identical to the original. I don’t need to lend a datafile, I can copy it – that way we both have it.  DRM means that using clever encryption technologies these data files can only be opened by the person who bought it legitimately.  Preventing piracy, is important – I don’t think anyone (much) would argue against that; but DRM does mean that lending books is impossible; and that’s something which I think needs to change before the eBook will become truly ubiquitous…

For the paperback book to truly vanish, there needs to be a way to facilitate lending books (and selling second-hand books).  A way to ensure that each book sold can be read once (and only once) at any given time – but without limiting who is doing that reading…

This challenge notwithstanding, I really do think that the end is nigh for the paperback. And on the basis of my experience with the Kindle – it won’t be missed…