Kindle-ebook-next-to-row-of-booksOnly a few months after publishers expressed the belief that e-book sales were declining and print sales were coming back, the BBC takes a serious look at the question, “Are paper books really disappearing?” Given the publishers’ apparent belief to the contrary, and my earlier piece about the unlikelihood of this happening any time soon, I wondered who gave them that idea.

E-book pioneer Robert Stein, as it turns out. Stein, who co-founded early e-book publisher The Voyager Company and the Criterion Collection laserdisc company, also founded the Institute for the Future of the Book. He believes those complacent publishers are “reading the tea leaves incorrectly” and, once screens improve a little more, the plateaued e-reading market will once again begin to grow.

Stein imagines, for example, that future forms of books might be developed not by conventional publishers but by the gaming industry. He also envisions that the distinction between writer and reader will be blurred by a social reading experience in which authors and consumers can digitally interact with each other to discuss any passage, sentence or line. Indeed, his latest project, Social Book, allows members to insert comments directly into digital book texts and is already used by teachers at several high schools and universities to stimulate discussions. “For my grandchildren, the idea that reading is something you do by yourself will seem arcane,” he says. “Why would you want to read by yourself if you can have access to the ideas of others you know and trust, or to the insights of people from all over the world?”

I’ve expressed doubt before at statements that e-books would ever go through a transition that would change the entire way we read, and Stein’s prediction doesn’t seem to be any different. Both e-books and paper books work via the simple time-honored technique of reading all the words on one page and then going on to the next page. You can do it on any e-reader or e-book app without needing much in the way of familiarization. I just don’t see any call for adding confusing features that people may not even want. We read a book to glean ideas from the book—if we want insights from other people; there are other places we can go for those.

Mike Shatzkin projects that it could take 50 to 100 years for paper books to fade away entirely, but thinks that the inefficient nature of producing and distributing them will eventually take its toll. That seems like about the right timeframe to me, though others aren’t so sure it’s a good thing. The article cites a number of studies that purport to show e-books are not as easily comprehended as the paper kind, but also notes that there are other studies that say the opposite—e-reading is still in its infancy, and studies on it are simply too inconclusive as yet.

But for all the worries about e-books changing the way we comprehend the written word and interact with one another, [Center for Reading and Language Research director Maryanne] Wolf points out that “never before have we had such a democratisation of knowledge made possible.” While too much time on devices might mean problems for children and adults in places like Europe and the US, for those in developing countries, they may be a godsend, Wolf says – “the most important mechanism for giving literacy.” 

The article is an interesting piece, even if it doesn’t delve as far into those figures purporting to show e-books’ “decline” as some have. It also includes an interesting look back at what may be the first commercial e-book—Peter James’s 1993 novel Host, originally published on two floppy discs. James himself believed that e-books would become more popular when they were as easy and enjoyable to read as paper, and his prediction by and large came true with the advent of the Kindle. The description of some of the backlash he experienced for the idea of publishing a book on floppy discs seems remarkably quaint now.

(Found via The Passive Voice.)


  1. All of these contending views seem terribly oversimplified to me. I’ll mention one major factor that is being glossed over, the greater heterogeneousness of eBooks as compared to pBooks. All pBooks are sans DRM and un-siloed but some eBooks are not. Those encumbrances are not uniform either. Then there are the various screens to consider. Etcetera, etcher, etcetera. The reader experience is far more varied with eBooks than pBooks. All of this makes broad brush comparisons less than informative.
    Then there is the content variable as it relates to the above. Many works of fiction are read once and only once regardless of medium. The worst case of eBook reading doesn’t have much impact there. OTOH, non-fiction and fiction that doesn’t pivot on revelations that serve as spoilers, are re-read and referred to over and over. There we feel the burn of eBook encumbrances and build resentment toward them.


  2. There’s a general rule that for Technology B to replace Technology A, it needs to be perceived as about ten times better. If it doesn’t, Technology A remains around.

    If you consider a horse and carriage as a Technology A, then the modern bike was beginning to replace it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Horses required a lot of daily maintenance and hitching them to a carriage was a nuisance. A bike was ready to go at any time and didn’t need feeding. Of course, both weren’t enjoyable in cold or wet weather.

    But before the bicycle could establish itself the car arrived in most countries, particularly the U.S. Even the early car models were better than a horse and carriage. By the 1930s, the has improved enormously, traveling much faster and being a far better shelter from the weather. It was easily more than ten times better than the carriage. Except for a few rural areas, the carriage disappeared.

    But not so the bicycle. It did not die out. Depending on the circumstances, sometimes it was a good as or better than a car. It endured as a solid form of transportation some places (i.e. Holland) and hung on as transportation for children (the U.S.). Later with rising gas prices, choked highways, and an interest in exercise, the bike returned to common use. It hasn’t died out and gives no evidence it will do so.

    I suspect the differences between print books and ebooks will always be more like that between bikes and cars that between either and carriages. In fact, print books have so many advantages, the differences with ebooks will never approach that critical ten-to-one difference. For each, you can tally up advantages the other lacks. Ebooks are more compact. Print books represent real ownership. You own them completely and can loan, sell or give them away. None of that is true of ebooks.

    Note too that we use bikes and cars in different ways. Bikes are great for short trips in good weather. Few people drive them cross-country. Print and ebooks will probably have similar differences. I tend to buy print books if the content really matters to me and I want to consult it or re-read it later. For fiction, I tend to go with digital since for most I’ll only read it once.


    In fact, in the fiction and pleasurable reading category, for me ebooks haven’t replaced print. Audiobooks have replaced both. I now listen to fiction on audiobooks. The cost isn’t an issue either, since there’s a wealth of well-done, free, public domain audiobooks available online, my latest being this scifi classic by Andre Norton:

    I’m not sure why a 1957 novel is in the public domain, but it is. Just be aware that the summary on that webpage isn’t right. The authoritarian Pax had been overthrown before the novel begins. The voyage to another star is pure exploration. Good writing, great characters, and an interesting new world. The pacing is great too.

    –Mike Perry

    • The 1957 novel is probably in the public domain because at the time it went out of copyright, copyright renewal was required and it sounds like Norton forgot or didn’t care enough to renew it in time. There are a scattering of works of that vintage in the public domain, such as much or most of H. Beam Piper’s oevre, for the same reason.

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