Editorial

eBooks: replacement or enhancement of the printed page?

In the 15th century Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing process. This new technology changed the world forever. One specific task was made incredibly easy — the spreading of written words. eBooks take us to the threshold of a possible shift in the way we read books.

In this editorial I would like to share my opinion. Earlier this week, I have already shared my impressions of the newly revealed eBook readers, direct from the floor of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

eBooks were possibly the chief subject under discussion at this year's book fair. Amazon may be the most prominent player in the growing market of eBook readers, at least in the US. Here in Europe the market is just opening up to this new way of experiencing books. The premise of which certainly is very tempting; you are able to carry hundreds of books with you, and read whatever you want at the ease of a click. Just like iPod revolutionized the way we listen to music on the go, some expect the same success for eBook readers.

Publishers agree that they don't want to behave as insusceptible as record companies did in the wake of online music stores. Amazon did recognize the potential at an early stage, which explains their rising success by selling of eBooks and offering the necessary hardware too. Only this month, however, two years after the U.S. launch, did Amazon decide to offer their Kindle reader internationally. This will surely put some pressure on Sony and the other combatants who are trying to win the battle for market share in Europe. The refulgent victor could emerge as soon as summer 2010.

Personally, I don't share the enthusiasm concerning eBook readers. I don't read many novels, mostly just reference books or non-fiction. And I prefer the texture of a printed page. As an eBook every book feels the same; they are all transformed into valueless digital files. When I open a beautiful photo book I can appreciate both the art of photography as much as I do publishing. Digitizing books also categorically impugns the art of printing. Before I continue lengthening my list of cons, though, I will list the pros.

Psychologically we always rebuff the new. Fact is the word doesn't need paper to spread. Likewise, clay tablets, papyrus and parchment are media of the past. For thousands of years, humanity has always relied on the ability to communicate. It is clear now that there's no argument against the advent of the digital distribution of books; since, there is today a powerful force that drives it: economy. There is however, yet another force facilitating the rise of eBooks: climate change.

I must confess that I love to exaggerate sometimes, and I certainly do by saying that we are destroying our planet. That is no secret anymore; it was made clear in several striking documentaries, released over the past few years. Still, I'm not a pessimist. I like to believe that we may yet turn the tides. eBooks could help us do that, by reducing the number of trees chopped down. This would also reduce greenhouse gases emitted during the transportation of wood. It's only one very small contribution surely, but every bit helps.

A fervent reader of paperback novels will love the prospect of being able to carry hundreds of them in a device thinner and lighter than one novel even. So, there are practical reasons in favor of eBook readers. On a long and tedious flight, your children can read all Harry Potter novels, if they so choose. Technology can also rekindle excitement for reading with tomorrow's generation. They have a very different perspective on computers and Smartphones — strictly speaking computers are new to my generation, too. I can vividly recall the first time my father bought a computer, back in 1991.

I may not be the target group for eBook readers, but I can still recognize the positivity it can pass onto the book industry. The printed page doesn't last forever; if not kept in a very controlled and secured room, books rot and fall apart — there is always a way of retrieving data from a file.

At the moment, Google is involved in an ongoing legal dispute over its service Google Books. The harshest critics call Google's undertaking of scanning the world's books simply an expropriation. A final settlement could be decided at a U.S. court on November 9. Generally the response to Google's plans of digitizing the world's literature and knowledge is one of excitement. The trend seems to go in the direction of a happy end for everyone. By the time they launch Google Editions, an eBook shop platform, in the first half of 2010, the eBook might have made it to mainstream in Europe.

As a writer I understand the concerns authors have. I studied creative writing in London, and so I track the dislike of digital book distribution. Unless a novel sells more than a million copies, an author will never make a lot of profit. Now, with the rise of eBooks, the author's royalties threaten to diminish yet more. Only bestseller authors will be able to continue make a living with their favorite pastime. Copyright issues have always been in the way of the digital age. With music it was no different. The artists want more than they are getting; this is of course understandable. If I would write a novel I would want to make money with it, of course. No artist today is bohemian enough to claim that they only pursue higher ideals. I'm an artist myself so to speak; besides writing I also work as a freelance photographer.

At the beginning I was also very careful with my photography. Even though, amongst my friends, I'm known as the great tech geek, I never posted my photography online. For a time I showed my work on Yahoo's photo service Flickr, but honestly I never felt comfortable. As I read more about online rights, I became even more sensitive to the notion of showing my work online. Then I decided to make my own personal website, which I can control completely. However, I digress.

What I'm trying to say is that authors have the right to be protective of their work. They invested vast amounts of time in their writing; if success is not the natural result, then they should be allowed to keep the rights of the work they publish. Right now a literary work is protected by law until 75 years after the author's death. This law doesn't regulate, however, the way publishers are allowed to deal with their literary stock. At the book fair in Frankfurt a general euphoria was apparent, though. I felt that people genuinely desired to learn how to use digital technology to make literature last forever. The benefits over the printed page are very similar to those digital photography has over analogue film. Yet in both cases the big difference is what digital technology lacks altogether — the sense of touch.

An analogue black and white photo always has more life in it. Now it's possible to mimic the visual aspects of an analogue film, but it's cheating. I myself use digital photography, of course, but perhaps I should say that I could have learned much more yet had I started with analogue film. It's not that authors are generally technophobes, regardless of their age. However, digitalization gives the impression that a work loses its substance; the tactile is transformed into an abstract illusion — we must solely rely on our six senses to know how a book or a photo feels in print.

Reading an eBook is the same as reading an article online — it feels like I'm simply collecting information. When I open a book, on the other hand, I have to make an effort to find my favorite passage, for instance. Turning the pages of a book is as natural to us as reading itself. Future generations may find reading on an eBook reader just as natural as we do reading today.

I grew up with the computer and the Internet, but eBook technology is one threshold I refuse to lope. And I dare presume that we won't see hundreds of millions of eBook readers around. As sincere as possible, I highly doubt that eBook readers will become ubiquitous as perhaps the iPod has. Yet, I can be very wrong too.

This editorial is the opinion of "Max Majewski" only, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Neowin.net

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Ebook currently aren't winning the battle :
-Ebook cost about the same that their physic counterpart. (sometimes the same price, other times with a petty discount of a 10-20%)
-A ebook usually is no more that 160dpi, while a cheap book can be over 300dpi.
-You can share a book endlessly.
-A book is batteryless.
-The refresh rate of a Ebook is annoying at best.
-The ebook readers are expensive
-A book can include colors.

I think people attached to printed material over electronic are largely just sentimental about it or are the sort that like showing off their collection to demonstrate how brainy and cultured they are. Which is fine, but later generations may grow up with eBooks and lack that feeling.

I do like owning and reading printed books but when I'm engrossed in a novel I don't think about the typeface or texture of the paper, nor do I think about the binding or the cover - I'm focussed on the content and my imagination. Therefore, if the medium for delivering content is comfortable and convenient for me to use, that is all that matters.

I can see a couple of big pros for these devices besides that.

Firstly, it's not just the ability to carry 100s of books around but also the ability to store them. I don't have room for many more books in my apartment and my mother is drowning in the things. Going to digital for music and games has been a real boon. If I could cut my possessions down to my clothes and computer equipment I'd be very happy indeed. I expect the average student, especially internationals, feel similar.. lugging huge text books between classes or between home and your dorms is not fun.

Secondly, publishing a book costs a lot. The publishing house/whoever is paying has to take a risk that it won't sell and will lose them money, which makes it harder for authors I'm sure. If they know a book won't sell many copies it won't get into print at all. eBooks are a way to make older and less popular books available. It may also be a way for budding authors to share their early work and build up a fan base in the way some musical types do.

Another strong point for me is with back-lit devices you can read in bed without having a lamp on to disturb your partner, or constantly fluttering pages.

All that said, I won't be buying an expensive £200 device, then paying more for books that Amazon could choose to delete at any time. When you can get good ones with long battery life for £50 I will consider it.

back lit devices are bad on your eyes... side-lit, however, are coming along nicely. as for "amazon could delete at any time" a pirate retailer sold a bootleg book on their service, and amazon STILL appolgized for removing it... I can't imagine them, or in the long run, whoever buys amazon's ebook section if amazon dies, not maintaining the archive... it's too valuable to just scrap and it dosn't make sense they'd cut off people's abilities to re-download if they keep the archive intact...

How many trees does it take to make an e-book and it's reader?

Sure, digital costs are virtually nil on the environment, but the actual reader itself; how many books = an e-reader in terms of energy, materials, packaging etc

There was a study about that, I think it was 20 books before it pays off. And if you are buying this reader I think, I hope you are going to read quite a lot more than that.

120 said,
Ever sit and wonder how an entire civilization could loose all of its accumulated knowledge?

This is also why I'm opposed to paperless voting machines.

Until paper books come with a built-in dictionary, they will never be able to compete. Except for pablum books, written for fourth-graders, the dictionary is an enormous convenience. Instead of guessing at what a word means, click-click and you know all the possible meanings of the word. It makes reading period pieces or non-contemporary books more enjoyable.

You may only have the reading comprehension of a forth grader, fortunately that doesn't apply to the majority of adults who read.

Personally I think ebooks are more suited to reference works where you tend to want to search and bookmark. For other publications I much prefer the real thing. When colour e-ink becomes available, multi-touch (why have buttons to flick through pages for example?), and the prices come down then perhaps. The Kindle looks like it should cost about $20.

m.keeley said,
You may only have the reading comprehension of a forth grader, fortunately that doesn't apply to the majority of adults who read.

he said 'period pieces or non-contemporary books' , so im guessing like shakespeare and stuff like that... i know only a few people who can understand whats written in those plays, everyone else i know needs someone to explain everything for them, and its not like they all have "the reading comprehension of a forth grader"... its more like you need an excessively high level of comprehension to be able to understand works from different eras ...
but with an ebook, at least they can embed a modern english translation into each of the words and sentences

Assuming that everyone in the world has access to brilliant schooling AND that they do not push themselves to learn and read in other languages is rather foolish. Having an easy dictionary on hand will make a big difference to many people.

You yourself do not have perfect spelling and grammar so there's no need to be insulting toward people who do not have as highly developed vocabulary as you

I think the e-book will be useful for the periodical. Newspapers, magazines (which will still exist in paper just for waiting rooms!) and the like.

Books will be available in e-book form and paper form, but I sure hope that paper book sales don't disappear all together.

...we are destroying our planet... we may yet turn the tides. eBooks could help us do that, by reducing the number of trees chopped down. This would also reduce greenhouse gases emitted during the transportation of wood.

That may well be untrue... a scientific analysis needs to be done, free of interference from those with economic interests. Making an ebook reader is not environmentally friendly -- not the manufacturing process [probably in a country without environmental regulation], nor the materials used, nor the transportation of those materials & the finished product, with final disposal most likely in a landfill. Storing/distributing ebooks also carries an environmental cost. Once you own a paper book in contrast, especially one printed with soy ink, it will have little or no further impact [you might transport it if you move]. The trees for paper like the soy for ink are renewable resources that are farmed. I don't believe anyone can know which is more *Earth-friendly* until the scientific community studies the entire process & publishes their work for review/debate... we just don't have the info & can only guess.

That said, if/when the price & usability of ebook readers are improved considerably, & a universal format adopted, it could really open up the world to self-publishing. Right now there are millions of authors, just like there are millions of musicians, but only a relative few companies to distribute their work -- they hold all the cards. Musicians are figuring out how to take control of their work & sales/distribution -- when ebook readers reach roughly the same development stage & are as common as mp3 players, writers will too.

Today ebook readers are at roughly the same stage as early CD, & later DVD players -- bulky, inconvenient, & too expensive for what you get. I don't know what the future will bring... personally I think I'd like a somewhat flexible ebook screen that would roll up like a window shade for carrying, but at the very least I'd think you'll have something physically similar to portable DVD players for about the same price or less. Maybe they'll use lasers &/or something along the lines of cheap, small projectors, so you'll carry something that looks a lot like an mp3 player today, providing your own viewing surface wherever you are.


ebooks will never replace real books. They will simply supplement them.

Might be different in a 100 years from now but no time soon.

I have read a few ebooks on my iphone and find them incredibly convenient. But that is all... It won't replace physical books for me in the development sector, i prefer paper.

Also the idea of carrying 100s of books... I don't get it. Say a book takes a day or so to read - why carry 100s? It's not like an ipod where each song is 4 minutes long. Also people tend not to chop and change from book to book as they do with music.

njlouch said,
...Also people tend not to chop and change from book to book as they do with music.

Which is an ideal reason anything technical be distributed in ebook form... We all get software updates -- why shouldn't the information we read be updated the same way?

njlouch said,
Also the idea of carrying 100s of books... I don't get it. Say a book takes a day or so to read - why carry 100s?

its not so much about reading 100 books, as it is about telling the ebook to search for something through 100 books... its more useful for research and stuff, but thats where ebooks can shine, ebooks are not just to be taken on long flight journeys...

in fact although 'ebook' contains the word 'book' in its name, it really looks and functions more like a clip pad... anyone whose job involves carrying around a pile of papers they flick through constantly are going to benefit from ebooks

honestly i think that its almost rote to bring up the point about how real books allow you to touch them, feel them, etc.... its so obvious that if someone wants to hold a book in their hands, they buy a book, if someone wants ebook features, they buy an ebook....

i think that an ebook is more a form of a communication device than a physical manifestation of information... if you want information to last forever there's no beating physically inscribing it onto something... but since an ebook is a communication device, the information which it does have is the opposite of a physical and permenant inscription, not bound to some physical object, and the act of propogating it is as much as a form of information in itself...

one more thing... you mentioned Gutenberg's machine of printing books... remember that an ebook is a machine too, hence it is more closely related to the printer than it is to the books which are printed... in the end we will all feel like an operator, rather than a reader...

Did the first paragraph really make a comparison to the invention of the printing press? eBooks will revolutionize reading about as much as the Segway revolutionized transportation. Cool that Neowin is putting out some original pieces, but I tend to stop at the first sign of contrived sensationalism, regardless of its source.

boogerjones said,
Did the first paragraph really make a comparison to the invention of the printing press? eBooks will revolutionize reading about as much as the Segway revolutionized transportation. Cool that Neowin is putting out some original pieces, but I tend to stop at the first sign of contrived sensationalism, regardless of its source.

No, no comparison was made actually. If you really think that ebooks are not going to change the way that we read "books", then you are severely mistaken. I'm kind of surprised that you are unable to see that.

I have people in my family that read a lot of books, some of them don't even use a computer, but love the idea of an ebook because it will make things more convenient and in some cases easier. My grandma would find it great being able to enlarge the fonts, and my friends would find it great being able to write notes in their uni text books, my Dad loves the idea of being able to download books through a 3G connection.

If you think this is sensationalism, then you must hate reading/watching anything that involves blindingly obvious predictions or facts.

Reading a real book you hold, feel and touch feels nicer than reading a book downloaded from the internet. I don't know why but I never seem to be able to read an ebook with as much interest compared to one that is real and in front of me.

Agreed. The only real advantage I see an eBook having is the ability to instantly search by keyword and such and maybe bookmark management if its a big enough book. But actual books are much more enjoyable overall -- to me at least.

Well there are a few books that I'll always want to have on paper (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, among others), I really do love ebook readers simply for their convenience.

This article also makes me wonder if email would be called eMail if it were invented before the iPod.

Silverskull said,
Well there are a few books that I'll always want to have on paper (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, among others), I really do love ebook readers simply for their convenience.

This article also makes me wonder if email would be called eMail if it were invented before the iPod.


*facepalm*
Meant "after" the iPod. Couldn't edit it.

Reminds me of an article I wrote a few months back: link here

I strongly belive that eBook readers have their place. Prolly will never replace printed copy 100% - since hobbyest and collectors will always want them, but (as I mentioned in my article) the educational sector could see a HUGE benefit as well as daily news paper.

Good read Max :-)

Any way it gets more people to read is fine by me, but, printed word is still easier to read and most can't afford a Kindle or whatever and reading an ebook on a computer is noisy. Reading a book by a dark light in a dreamy sort of mood is the only way to read some books. But hey $150 textbooks. Well those are the first to go.