Tuesday, August 24, 2010

e-Books v. p-Books

A dialogue began earlier this month when Nicholas Negroponte was quoted at the Techonomy conference as saying that the physical book is dead, due to be replaced by digital books.

Because of who he is, people listened.

Nicholas Negroponte has been on the faculty of MIT since 1966. In 1985, he and former MIT President Jerome Wiesner founded the MIT Media Lab, which investigates how media and technology interact. Most recently, Mr. Negroponte is known for being the founder of the One Laptop per Child Association, Inc., the non-profit that is providing laptops to poor children in developing countries.

TechCrunch quoted Mr. Negroponte's announcement that the physical book is dead here on August 6th:
“'People will say ‘no, no, no’ — of course you like your libraries,” Negroponte said ... It’s happening. It not happening in 10 years. It’s happening in 5 years ..."
A week later, on August 15, Mike Shatzkin, well-known publishing consultant, wrote a post he titled "The Printed Book's Path to Oblivion," inspired by Negroponte's comments.

Mike began by saying:
The critical thing to remember is that, indeed, the book was more-or-less perfected hundreds of years ago. There have been improvements in printing, binding, typography, and paper quality that are not trivial, but that also represent no quantum leap in user benefit ...

The e-book, unlike the paper book, advances every month, if not every day.
As much as I have learned from Mike's speeches and posts and as much as I respect him, that argument makes no sense to me.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer responded to him, saying what I was thinking:
... yes, e-books ARE getting better all the time - at trying to mimic what printed books achieved hundreds of years ago: an ease of use that, despite millions of dollars to develop and more to come, still eludes e-book devices.
In his defense of e-books, Mike argues:
It is very hard for me to grasp why anybody would prefer a printed book 30 or 40 years from now ... The printed book will not “die” in our lifetimes: there are too many of them already around for that ... I’d say that in no more than twenty [years] the person choosing to read a printed book will not be unheard of or unknown, but will definitely qualify as “eccentric.”
The Seattle PI says:
This essay is not intended to be a side by side, mano a mano, book to e-book smackdown, winner take all. E-books and e-readers do have their place ... the primary need for e-books - as an adjunct and not replacement, now or at any time in the future, for printed books.
And now it's my turn to opine.

Guys, this isn't an either/or world. It's about offering more choices to the consumer. Think of the film industry. I can now choose to go to the movies, rent the film (on disk or by download), buy the film or wait for it to come to television. That's customer choice.

The film industry squawked mightily when the VCR came along, saying it meant the end of their industry. Of course, that wasn't the case. The film industry is actually more robust today than it has been.

One person reading an e-book doesn't hurt another person reading a p-book.

And, yes, I realize someone from a publishing house might argue that the e-book is going to gradually push the p-book out of business. I'd counter that argument by saying the market rules. If there is a customer base that prefers to read a p-book, there will be a retailer to fill that need. Didn't we all learn in fifth grade that nature abhors a vacuum?

Individual print-on-demand machines like the Espresso will be able to provide p-books when customers request them. The green movement will probably come into play here. I suspect what will happen is that p-books will rise in cost so that they become one of the many status symbols for the well-to-do. Or prized objects for collectors.

Trying to prove the superiority of one form of media versus the other is pointless because it will ultimately come down to consumer choice and price. [Shrug] If consumers don't value a product, it dies -- no matter how well-made or valuable its advocates believe it is.

The last thing I have to say is that Mike disappointed me with this:
Genre publishing, particularly romance fiction, has had ebook only publications for years. Maybe that’s why romance readers — which one would not expect are necessarily more advanced technologically or economically than most of the rest of us — have apparently made the switch to digital reading more quickly than book consumers at large.
I found the comment unnecessarily snarky. Note he didn't mention sci-fi readers who also embraced e-books early. He specified romance readers.

I know Mike loves baseball, and I could make a comment about men with their bats and balls, but that would be beneath me. [grin]

Go here to read Mike's post and here to read the PI's rebuttal.

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