First came paper...
It all began with the process of writing and putting symbols on paper. Socrates warned everyone against writing because it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls”. He thought that writing would make people “not use their memories”. He also predicted that it would never take off. Socrates ended up with a lot of egg on his face, as writing became the standard for non-verbal communication.
Then came the press...
The printing press was invented and heralded as the greatest revolution known to man. Writer and thinker Johannes Trithemius said it would make people lazy. Writing and copying builds character, he said, and that would be completely lost. He even predicted an early demise of the “infernal” printing press. Johannes, it turns out, ended up with a similar quantity of egg on his face, as the printing press changed the world.
And finally, the screen
eBooks made an appearance. Most people laughed at the dim, fuzzy eInk technology as well as the poor formatting of the book. Lots of people dismissed it as a poor substitute to reading a book. The reasons ranged from, “the experience isn’t the same”, to “there’s something about the touch and smell of paper”.
Yet, the eBook industry took off like a rocket, with people buying millions of eInk devices. They even started reading on tablets and phones. eBook sales jumped by more than 1,000 per cent, print sales started to plummet and large booksellers shut down. eBook reading apps became a hot category and literally every book had a digital version. The end of the paperback was on the horizon.
The next part of the story is getting written right now, and introduces a serious twist in the tale.
Bringing paper back
The prediction was that by 2016, digital would be far ahead of print and by 2020, printed books would be as rare as CDs. That digital obliteration of print never really happened. Instead, the sales of eBooks are slowing down. New figures collected from over 1,200 publishers worldwide seem to indicate that eBook sales fell by 10 per cent in the first half of 2015. Then there are other indicators.
While the sales of e-reader devices hit an all-time high in 2011, that number dropped by about 25 per cent in 2014. Even the number of people who only read eBooks has taken a beating. New book stores are opening, publishers are adding more printing infrastructure, storage space for printed books is being increased worldwide. The eBook terror may well have abated. And that is a huge shock to the digital system. Movies, music, newspapers, TV and in fact, all other media forms have taken a huge blow and bowed down to the digital frontier. Books may well be the only medium that has resisted the digital trend.
What killed the e-reader?
There are many reasons for the printed book being so resilient. Primarily, the price of eBooks has left most people cold. Given that there’s zero friction in publishing and buying, instant delivery, no transportation and storage charges, no manufacturing costs and easy availability, digital books should cost about one-fifth the price of a print book. That hasn’t happened. Between the greed of publishers and online sellers, egos of authors and poor strategy, the price of digital books has remained at par (and is sometimes higher) with its print counterpart.
The second reason is the myth of the digital native. Young readers were supposed to make the transition towards the digital format effortlessly. Surprisingly, they haven’t. The third is the hybrid reader who reads both, but has started to buy more print than eBooks. Most travellers like eBooks while those who read at home tend to prefer print.
Another disappointment with digital books comes from the fact that there is very little value added. Considering the technology that is in place, an eBook should be able to do far more than just look up words, take a few notes and mark something with a highlighter. To many, the turning of an eInk page is still a bother and reading on a tablet or mobile device still strains the eye.
Turning a new page
The multi-media potential of eBooks has just not been realised. But this digital v/s paper war is in no way over. While print has made a huge and surprising comeback, the eBook army has started fighting back. All-you-can-read digital library services, subscription models and lower prices may still tilt the scale. In the end, it’s going to come down to how you feel when you sit down with a book. Would you rather curl up with an actual book or hold a reader in your hand? That preference may well determine the winner in this pixel v/s print battle.
Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3
From HT Brunch, October 4
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