There are very few battles in the technology space that actually make sense. The Plasma vs. LCD display was a good one till it lasted; the HD-DVD Vs BluRay was plain stupid; the three-way skirmish between gaming consoles Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 is exhausting and the all new smartphone OS war is actually moving from dull to a pretty good slugfest. But rarely does technology wage a war against the old guard – truly established old school vs. the all new wiz bang of gadgetry. Yet, a classic battle of epic proportions is taking place right now – Ebooks vs. paper books!
We’ve had paper book fans talk about how they’ll never switch and there have been reams of columns on why Ebooks can be a better experience if only you would give them a shot. Fortunately this little war will be played on many fronts – consumer preference being just one of them.
Those who swear by paper books usually move into emotional and nostalgia mode. They seem to be incapable of reading without the heady smell of paper, the melodious rustle of turning a page, the olfactory experience of fresh ink, the eureka fact that their paper book will never suddenly run out of battery, that they can read while their aircraft is taking off or touching down, that they can hand them down to their friends and family and mostly that there is no strain of looking at a screen for a long period of time.
On the other hand, Ebook warriors seem to be getting a new arsenal everyday. Ebook prices are lower, they are a much greener option with no paper, no distribution, no warehousing, no retail space being used. Paper books are heavy and bulky and you can’t carry too many, while you can store thousands of books on one device, search, mark, look up definitions, make notes and share book passages on Twitter and Facebook in a second. Most importantly, you can set up font size and readability levels that are perfect for you.
Things seemed fairly well balanced when suddenly, Amazon announced that Ebooks now out-sell hardcover books by a factor of 1:2. All hell broke loose with typical hogwash headlines like ‘the beginning of the end’ and ‘it’s all over’ appearing across world media. Is it true then? Are the days for paper books truly numbered?
It has been about three years since the first real Ebook readers appeared. Prices since have fallen by almost 80 per cent, it’s the largest selling device on Amazon, almost every major book seller and consumer electronic maker has a model or two available, authors now release books directly to the public, bypassing the publisher and distributor, the iPad and other devices are pretty good Ebook readers on their own, thus creating some incredible momentum. It would seem that paper books are truly on their way to being dead and buried, right? Wrong! Sales of paper books have actually increased by quite a bit in the last three years. Some say by more than 40 per cent.
It seems that reading itself is staging a huge comeback and it’s now being fuelled on both sides by this very war. You try a Ebook on your phone and suddenly rediscover your passion for reading. Rather than watch a movie on a flight, you now read a book. You curl up with a book instead of sitting up at night watching television. Reading is going through a rediscovery revolution like never before.
Unfortunately it may not be all that balanced in the future! Here are a few controversial predictions. First, in about a year or so, Ebook readers will be given away free. Price are already at the sub $49-100 mark and it is not difficult for retailers to give them away with a contract where you promise to buy 12 Ebooks over a six month period. Second, prices of Ebooks will fall dramatically. This will put a lot of pressure on paper book prices and will make entire industries like paper and publishing go into a tailspin. Libraries will close and second-hand bookshops will be more like antique stores. None of this sounds good for an industry that has been there for literally thousands of years and is an invaluable resource.
There’s a lot to preserve here, a lot to cherish and not give up on. For a gadgety column, this may be a oxymoronic wish – but I really do hope that this time, technology will not triumph in this battle of the heart and mind. Otherwise, as a friend of mine once joked, in the near future we may all be reading an Ebook while keeping a piece of paper alongside. To crush at regular intervals and nostalgically relive the feel and smell of reading a real paper book!
Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3.0.
Follow Rajiv on Twitter at twitter.com/RajivMakhni