The Internet has been called the greatest boon to literacy since Johannes Gutenberg refined moveable type in the15th century. Some cybernauts even predict that it will do away with conventional printing. Just as paper replaced papyrus, clay, and lambskin as a publishing medium, they believe, the screen of digital devices is destined to replace paper.
This won’t happen anytime soon, according to recent findings of a survey by Pew Research Center. Fully 65% of those polled who said they read a book during the past year read a printed book, while only 28% read an ebook, with younger readers, as expected, more likely to do so. Also interesting is that only 73% said they had read any kind of book.
More people are using tablet computers and smartphones to read ebooks rather than a standalone ereader. Over the past five years the percentage of people reading books on an ereader rose from only 7% to 8%, while it rose from 4% to 15% on a tablet, from 5% to 13% on a smartphone, and from 7% to 11% on a desktop or laptop PC.
Though the phenomenon of books being on a screen may not have done away with printed hardbound and paperback books, the Internet is causing a significant transformation. In 2012, sales revenue from ebooks in the U.S. surpassed hardbound books, according to the Association of American Publishers.
The benefits of ebooks are palpable. An ereader, laptop, or smartphone weighs the same whether it stores one book or a thousand.
Ebooks are searchable, which can be especially beneficial when doing research. You can obtain ebooks immediately over the Internet, without having to go to library or bookstore. Unlike printed books, ebooks don’t require trees for paper and petroleum for ink.
Paradigm shifts never happen without drawbacks, and ebooks are no exception.
Unlike with a digital device, if you drop a book on the sidewalk, you rarely risk ruining it. Likewise with keeping it in your car’s trunk on a hot summer day.
You won’t have a problem reading a printed book on an airplane during takeoffs and landings. It can be difficult if not impossible to loan an ebook to a friend or sell it in the used book market.
Ebook publishing has seen its share of controversy. This past March the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Apple’s appeal of a lower court decision that it conspired with five publishers to monopolistically increase ebook prices. Apple was fined $450 million.
Apple’s scheme had raised many ebook prices from $9.99 to $12.99 or $14.99. After this was uncovered in 2010, the price of many ebooks has fallen back to $9.99.
One of the unfortunate legacies of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, as documented in Walter Isaacson’s flattering biography of him, is his threatening Amazon in 2010 that it wouldn’t get ebooks from big publishers if it didn’t go along with Apple’s pricing model.
Some ebooks, to the bewilderment of many ebook aficionados, cost more than the hardback version and sometimes even the paperback version, when the cost to produce the ebook version is significantly less.
In the future, with healthy competition, the price of ebooks should decline and more accurately reflect production costs.
Many people rue this changing world. Popular bookstore chain Borders liquidated all of its stores, more than 600, in 2011. Its main competition, Barnes & Noble, makes much of its money these days from the sale of coffee, sandwiches, and nonbook gifts.
There’s no denying printed books’ physical attraction, the way they look, feel, and even smell. But there’s also no denying the economics and practicality of ebooks.
Will books in general ever disappear? People will always need, in one form or another, the results of others’ in-depth research, analysis, and storytelling. Books don’t appear to have any likelihood of disappearing any time soon.
Printed books are another story. Still, it’s likely that they will persist as well. But it’s also likely that they will be produced in smaller numbers.
Just as radio found a niche after television, printed books will likely find their niche after ebooks become ubiquitous. One possibility: Handsome bound books will be used in the future primarily for such specialized purposes as gift giving and collecting.
Just as with the prestige distinction for writers between being published in hardback or only in paperback, there will likely remain a similar prestige distinction between being published in print or only in ebook format.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or reidgold.com.