Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has been making the talk show rounds with the new Kindle 2, and many hosts blabber on about their love for the feel and smell of real, paper books. They croon wistfully over the printed book's demise, and express wariness of the digital book era (see the Daily Show clip below.) I am here to tell them to shut up.
E-book readers, as these things are called, are not meant to replace books. They're meant to render them anachronisms, much the way that cassette tapes did vinyl records. There, the hard part's been said. Breathe easy.
Books will never go away, but for all practical purposes, their production will likely be replaced within about 20 years. Don't scream and kick; it's happening. As a consumer, you have surprisingly little to say about this transition. Book publishers are drowning under the crushing legacy costs of producing printed books. Their only chance at profitability is an IP-only business model centered on digitized books. Without this transition, these companies can't stay in the business of publishing their authors.
Printed books will remain on a cheap print-on-demand basis, for oldsters and paper enthusiasts. But pay attention to these Kindles, because devices like them will be—everywhere—within our lifetimes.
And why shouldn't they? Right now, I pay $25 for a hardcover book at the bookstore; a Kindle book is $10, and I can search it, annotate it, and cross-reference it with the Kindle's built-in Web browser. Our college students throw away thousands of dollars every semester on books that go out of date in one year, and weigh hundreds of pounds. What if they could buy one Kindle-like device that held all their textbooks, purchased for half the price of printed books? What if those textbooks had linkable text, embedded videos, auto-updating articles and audio features for blind or learning-disabled students? Is the satisfying crack of a book-spine worth giving up all these things? Not a chance.
Because e-book readers are simple and portable, and able to be manipulated easily with one hand, many users have said they end up reading more than they normally would. Getting bored of what you're reading no longer means you have to stop; take a break and read The Times, or delve into a better book.
If you have a green conscience, you should be that much more pleased to give up paper. While most of the paper used for books is farmed, not wild timber, the immense cost of producing and shipping heavy books across the world accounts for a massive carbon footprint that could be almost entirely eliminated. As the process works now, book publishers print thousands of books in their first print runs, and end up destroying the ones that don't sell. This isn't just an inefficient way to run a business; it's a waste of valuable resources.
So, book lovers, relax. No one will try to pry your beloved first editions from your hands. But look forward to the day when your prized copy of To Kill a Mockingbird is more like an antique and less like a commodity.