Sunday, October 28, 2007

Is the Printed Page becoming Obsolete?

From an early age both my daughter and my son loved to read books. My daughter consistently ranked at the top of the list in her elementary school in the number of books read. She was reading at a 12th grade level when she was a fifth grader.

My son has read books that are almost as thick as they are tall. Both read more fiction while they were in school than I have read in my entire life. They are now in their early 20s and still enjoy reading a good novel more than they like watching the movie adaptation.

I do most of my reading online. And I don’t like fiction. Whereas it might take me a week to get through a novel, I can watch the movie version of it in two hours. The rest of the time I would have spent reading the same story seems like a waste to me.

Most of what I read is non-fiction. I don’t particularly enjoy the act of reading, so when I do read, I want to have learned something I didn’t know before. Otherwise, I feel cheated.

And online reading is not just what I do; apparently, a lot of readers out there have switched to reading their fiction online, too. So-called e-books have been around for more than a decade, but they didn’t really catch on until lately.

For centuries, ever since Gutenberg, books have been the de facto standard for reading anything other than news. Libraries and bookstores are chock full of hardcover editions and paperbacks. But libraries are quickly adapting to the digital revolution by offering more and more online terminals. And some bookstores are fearful for their future. They see the writing on the wall.

J.K. Rowling aside, many authors now prefer to release their books in electronic form. Author Jimmy Lee Shreeve, who also writes under the pseudonym Doktor Snake, is a big believer in the e-book revolution, as he calls it. All of his Doktor Snake books of fiction are now released exclusively online.

Jeff Gomez, an advocate of digital publishing and the director of marketing at Holtzbrinck Publishers, says that paper books are on their way out. Newspaper readership has been on the decline for decades. Magazines are losing subscribers. But most periodical titles are now available online, too.

But people like to read their novels in all kinds of places, not just parked in front of their computer screen at their desk. It’s just not the same curling up in bed with your laptop. But the Apple iPhone and dedicated e-book readers are rendering the portability problem obsolete. Book publisher HarperCollins has launched a new e-book service that is designed to work with the iPhone.

The one thing that may stand in the way of the e-book revolution is pricing. Since e-books require no paper, ink, glue, and printing presses, nor do they require a distribution network, the cost of an e-book should be substantially less than a hardcover book or even a paperback. While that is typically true, it is not always the case. Many e-books sell for the same price, or even slightly more, than their paper counterparts.

If book publishing follows the lead of the music industry, paper books may be on their way out, just as CDs are now largely obsolete. I haven’t purchased a CD in years. I, like so many others, prefer to create my own music mix by downloading it and transferring it to my mp3 player.

Those who grew up in the electronic age will have little problem giving up paper books. Most see them as a waste of resources anyway. Why flip pages when you can download works by your favorite author from the Internet and read it on your iPhone or portable reader?

Still, I don’t see an end to the printed book anytime soon. They may never disappear entirely. Star Trek fans know that Captain Picard still reads printed books, even in the 24th century. But the electronic alternative is gaining ground and may soon replace the printed page as the default medium for text-based information and entertainment.

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