Sunday, 23 May 2010

Books and the digital revolution

When it comes to hunting down a particular book in order to read it, my first instinct is to go to a bookshop. However, a recent experience has highlighted just how many alternatives to the good old fashioned paperback are emerging. Reading, it seems, is the next passtime to be transformed into a digital experience.

Last week I dropped into a large bookshop in town, intending to purchase the book I'm supposed to be reading for my reading group, only to be told it's not available in paperback until the end of the month. I was a bit stunned by this, because there's an unwritten rule in our group that books selected must be available in paperback, so I emailed the group to see where people were at in tracking down the book. Some had borrowed it from the library, but others hadn't given it any thought yet.

What followed was a google-fest as a few of us looked at the options. The front-runner for a while was to purchase the book as an audio -- which would have been great if we could download as MP3 directly. Problem was, this option seemed to be available for US residents only, no matter where we looked. So maybe our US-located group member could download for us and FTP the files across? Can't remember why, but this wasn't going to be possible either.

Somewhat amazingly, my google-fest revealed a prevalence of e-reader downloads available for the book. Amazon of coursed pushed downloads for the Kindle, but there are many other e-readers being launched at the moment -- most recently in Australia the Borders Kobo eReader -- and many seemed to be supported. It makes me wonder how many Australians have embraced this new trend. Not many I know, that's for sure. For my part, I think it prudent to ensure I purchase a device with a standard format. Why lock myself in to buying ebooks from one source only? And with so many devices appearing on the market, it seems to me sensible to wait. I'm certainly not rushing out to buy one just so I can read this particular book.

We ultimately settled for the US-located group member to buy paperback copies in the US and post them -- only it turned out not to be available in paperback in the US either. So now the only remaining option is to buy in hardback or source from a library. The other challenge is we only have two weeks remaining before the discussion, from today.

This whole experience has struck me as a sign of things to come -- where books are available as electronic downloads before they are released as paperbacks. I've heard that surveys of 'Gen-Y' reveal little commitment or predisposition for 'real' books -- they are the digital generation who don't buy CDs or DVDs either. It's all about the Internet and downloads.

There are certainly advantages to eReaders (and audio files), most notably the fact they don't take up any space. And now, obviously, the fact that they're readily accessible by download from wherever you happen to be; no more trekking out to the bookshop. Cost, perhaps, too -- although I'm sure the discount is less than is perhaps warranted by the drop in printing costs. Are publishers pushing them because their profit margin is better?

Besides, hands up if you actually like trekking out to the bookshop and caressing a tome of cardboard, paper & ink, and placing it carefully in your overladen bookshelf, and dragging it out every so often to flick though and relive in fragments when the mood takes you . . .

There is no doubt there's a time and a place for eReaders, and I'll inevitably take the plunge and purchase one sooner or later. They are a part of the future, and can only help to make books more widely available and accessible. But I will be sad if/when this starts to spell the end of the paperback, or 'hardcopy' books in general.

UPDATE 2 June 2010
Here's a link to an interesting article by Garth Nix, launching the Kobo E-Reader, on the subject.


  1. I've nearly talked myself into buying the Kobo reader. I suspect when I actually see one the in flesh, as it were, my last bit of resistance will crumble.

  2. I regularly buy e-books from Baen, who allow you to download them in one of about eight different formats (including Adobe and RTF, which are fairly platform neutral). They also have quite a few e-books that you can download free.

    E-books are often released a couple of weeks before the hardback, let alone the paperback (which from a supply chain point of view makes sense).

    For my favourites, nothing beats the paperback format - but if I already have the e-book, then I can wait until they hit the 3 for 2 discount, rather than needing to buy them at full price.


  3. Kirstyn - I will be interested to learn more about them. I confess I know very little at the moment.

    Deb - I'm interested to know what device you read them on and how you find it?

  4. I know two people now who have Kindles (and have let me play with them!). There's certainly nothing about them to put me off reading on one, except the currently limited range of titles available for Kindle in Oz. But yes, I still like cover art, blurbs, paper, typefaces and the smell of a new book fresh off the shelf.

  5. Quite frankly, I hate the trip to the bookshop. I wish I could just think about a book I need, and hey presto it would arrive on my doorstep.
    (You know, just like it was with the horse. We thought about what we needed, and hey presto H emails me that her work colleague has a horse for sale. Horse has all required features, and more that we weren't aware of).
    Anyway ... back to the books. So, don't like trekking to bookshop, but love having a copy of the book in my hand. Cannot stand the electronic version in any form. Need the paper, and print on it. Need to be able to write in it, underline bits, highlight things, add postit notes, and earmark corners.
    And then, need to be able to pull it off my bookshelf at a moment's notice as reference or proof for something or other.
    Happy reading!