Rekindling Reading

Amazon's incarnation of the electronic book reader has made reading de rigueur again. Enthusiasts have long bemoaned the fact that reading would become the inevitable casualty of the turf wars waged by the movie and gaming industries, both of which were determined to conquer the limited leisure that society allows a full-time worker today. The decline in circulation of newspapers and magazines, budget cuts for public libraries and closures of mom-and-pop bookstores seemed to support the conclusion that readership in America is on a downward spiral.

Into such a bearish market had entered the electronic book reader, spearheaded by Amazon (with their global domination of titles) and Sony (with their unparalleled prowess in electronics design). And lo-and-behold, despite prohibitive prices and economic uncertainty, buyers have come streaming in to buy these plastic and metal wonders, attracted by their capability to store hundreds of titles and, increasingly, their natural ink-on-paper quality of display. In the process, the victim has been the familiarity of a printed page and the sensations it evokes-- the texture of paper against the skin, the evolving typefaces and illustrations that please the eye, and the delightful smell that overwhelms the olfactory senses.

There are good arguments in favour of going electronic-- saving trees, saving space, saving transportation-- and supporters have made all of them. Many point to the way Apple's music player revolutionised the music industry and conclude that electronic readers will similarly re-engage the reading public. However, this is a textbook case of comparing apples with oranges, and unless today's e-book readers evolve, it is unlikely that they will come close to replicating the success of the former.

  • Despite all its defects, Apple's music distribution system (through their iTunes store) introduced the concept of micropayments, allowing listeners to purchase a single song, instead of the entire album sold by traditional record stores. Even though the music industry would be loathe to admit it, this probably had a greater impact in reducing music piracy than the wanton lawsuits that record companies engaged in. No such parallel exists in the world of books-- it is not possible to legally download a favourite poem or a single copyrighted short story. Electronic book sellers have so far been aggressively undercutting the prices of electronic titles compared to their printed versions, but this phenomenon may very well be transient.

  • An enormous factor in the popularity of MP3 players was the ability to transfer one's personal music collection to the portable player with minimal cost (usually by expending time). With books, on the other hand, there is no simple way to digitise the contents, and existing owners would be forced to buy a digital copy of the same title should they desire to read it electronically. A similar problem had arisen with vinyl manufacturers in the wake of the MP3 player's popularity earlier this decade, and many record companies rose to the occasion by including a digital copy of the music with the vinyl album. Budget USB-based turntables were also introduced that allowed analogue music to be digitised. Unless the publishing industry adopts a similar creative approach (perhaps by tying up with Google who spent the last two years scanning and digitising books from twenty libraries worldwide), it would not address the hesitation of book-lovers to take the leap.

  • The ability to download music through a cellular or broadband connection meant that the music player was no longer tethered to the computer, and this had a huge effect in popularising portable players. In this respect, Amazon's devices hold a distinct advantage over Sony's in having an embedded wireless broadband card that allows books to be downloaded in seconds from anywhere in the United States (disclaimer: the author worked on this underlying wireless technology). However, in forcing the reader to buy exclusively from their website and imposing digital rights management (DRM), Amazon runs the risk of becoming a monopoly at a time when other industries are moving towards an open-source, system-agnostic environment. Ironically, Amazon had led the movement against Apple's practice of selling DRM-encoded music!

  • Finally, in the wake of the popularity of e-book readers, the publishing industry needs to re-evaluate their business model and borrow ideas from other prevailing media. Periodic distribution of free stories or book samples might generate enough interest in the reader to buy the entire book, either paper or digital (much like the effect of listening to a hit new song on the radio). Another practice could be to allow reading new books wirelessly on the reader without reserving the right to store it (similar to streaming music or video on the Internet). There is also an untapped market to "lend" a time-limited digital book at a fraction of the purchase price, along the lines of a video rental. This may also help tying devices to libraries other than Amazon's, who in turn could subsidise the cost of readers (like some newspaper conglomerates are reportedly planning).

Thus, unless the publishing industry and the device manufacturers come together and work on an open architecture of distribution and format, electronic book readers are likely to remain proud heirlooms of either the occasional traveller or the gadget geek. And having used a Sony Reader over several months, I can safely affirm with the rest of the reading public, that nothing is more satisfying than curling up in bed with the latest paperback, without worrying that the book may get destroyed if one accidentally dozes off!

Shelved rows of books warm and brighten the starkest room, and scattered single volumes reveal mental processes in progress, books in the act of consumption, abandoned but readily resumable, tomorrow or next year. By bedside and easy chair, books promise a cozy, swift and silent release from this world into another, with no current involved but the free and scarcely detectable crackle of brain cells. For ease of access and speed of storage, books are tough to beat.
John Updike, Books Unbound, Life Unravelled

1 comment:

samir said...

holy mother of god is this you rito