Other ebook readers have come and gone, but so far none has threatened the dominance of the printed book.
In the days preceding Apple’s iPad unveiling, the world was abuzz with speculation.
Now that the speculation is over, the world still seems to be talking about it. Depending on who you listen to, the iPad is either nothing more than an oversized iPhone or something that entirely changes the game when it comes to portable computing.
One of the aspects I am most intrigued about is how the iPad might affect the book and publishing industry.
I have long been a physical book lover. As I type this, bookshelves stuffed to capacity occupy three of the four walls around me, and there are more shelves in the other rooms of my home. I like this physical product, basically unchanged since its invention over 500 years ago.
And then came the ebook.
A couple of years ago, Sony released their PRS-505 portable reader system with an electronic ink display (as opposed to the typical backlit computer screens we’re all used to). I was delighted with the concept of being able to carry hundreds of books around with me in an easy to use portable device. I’m one of those book lovers who wants it both ways – to own the physical product and have it portable enough to read it anywhere.
I read a few books on my Sony reader and enjoyed the experience. The e-ink display was as easy on the eyes as reading words off a printed page. The ability to flip pages with a single click of the thumb was simple and intuitive. Fully absorbed in the content, I forgot I was reading on a device.
There were problems though. The first stumbling block was with the limited selection of titles available. The second was that, to get a book, I needed to first download it to my computer, then transfer it to my reader. The third was the battery – the reader’s battery life was good while using it, but if it sat unused for any period of time, it would die. It has now been over nine months since I’ve read more than a few pages on my Sony PRS-505.
When Amazon’s Kindle came out, it was revolutionary in that you could download a book instantly, anywhere you could get a cell phone signal. Except the Kindle wasn’t initially available in Canada.
Almost a year ago, Indigo, Canada’s largest bookseller, launched Shortcovers, which recently changed its name to Kobo. Their premise was focused on content rather than a device – Kobo allows you to read the digital book on whatever platform you choose, be it online on their website, or using an app on your computer or smart phone. More books became available digitally and you didn’t need to invest hundreds of dollars in a device to read them. Instead, you could use the device you likely already carried around with you in your pocket or purse.
A few months ago, when I purchased an iPhone, I instantly fell in love with reading books on it. While the experience of reading on a portable e-ink reader like the Sony device was pleasant, I found reading on my iPhone to be just as nice – only, now, I pretty much always have at least one book on my hip, so I can easily pull it out and start reading almost anywhere I am. And if I finish it, I can instantly access and purchase another one on the go.
Sure, the Kindle is now available in Canada, but there’s also a Kindle app for my iPhone. So, rather than purchase a unique device for hundreds of dollars, why not just install the free app so I can get the ebook on my cell phone via Kindle or Kobo?
So even when I saw that the iPad was pretty much an oversized iPhone, I was still impressed. But I was more impressed with a Tweet sent by Kobo the same day that read: “Read on your #iPad when at home, pick up exactly where you left off on any #smartphone on your commute … free #Kobo apps have you covered!”
For me, one of the problems with the huge price of dedicated ebook readers is that it immediately limits the potential readership. And, after spending hundreds of dollars on the device, the idea of still having to pay more for each book becomes an additional challenge. It’s a pretty significant up-front investment that a lot of people still balk at.
This is another reason why I’m happy reading ebooks on a device I already own and carry with me at all times. But I do believe that the iPad will open up reading digital books to a whole new segment of the population (mostly those who don’t want to read a book on a screen no more than two inches across and three inches high).
And I’m continually fascinated by the discussion about the iPad, particularly what it might mean to the book industry. The iPod revolutionized the way people consume music – so, will the iPad revolutionize the way people consume books?
This analogy between music and books is something that keeps popping up. Many people are saying that digital file sharing “killed” the music industry and that if the book industry isn’t careful, the same thing will happen to publishing.
But the book industry is not the music industry. One very interesting contrarian commentary I came across was an article entitled “iPad iWash” in which a bookseller talks about the difference between music and books. He states that, unless it’s a live show, enjoying music has always involved another device or gadget. Books, on the other hand, are already their own device with no need for any sort of player.
He has a good point. Printed books are certainly superior in so many ways to the current entity we know as ebooks. They have dominated for over half a century, unlike the music industry which has gone through significant format changes in a short time-period: from sheet music to vinyl recordings to eight tracks to cassette tapes to CDs to MP3s.
As exciting and attractive as digital books are, the physical book is still the simplest and most efficient way to reach the broadest possible audience. That being said, this die-hard book nerd still anxiously awaits being able to buy an iPad and experience reading a book on it, all the while recognizing that while ebook reading devices come and go, books abide.