If it Looks Like a Book, and Reads Like a Book, is it a Book?

On: October 17, 2010
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About Marte Lindstrom
I am born and raised in Oslo, Norway. I have been studying at the University of Bergen in Norway, and I finished my bachelor degree in Media Studies in 2006. I have also been so lucky to be an Erasmus- exchange student in Rome, where I took courses in political science and European history. I have been working for some years, mainly as a consumer consultant. I recently decided it was time to learn some new tricks, so I went back to school.

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http://masterinamsterdam.wordpress.com    

The death of the book has been foreseen:  Several sources have predicted the demise of the book as we know it, like a modern Nostradamus. However, this is not the first time in history that we have heard this prediction. The introduction of the radio was also supposed to kill the book, as was the advent of  the movie, and the television.  But the book is still around.

It is apparent that the book cannot be replaced by another medium  which is inherently different from the book. This time around the threat might appear real, as the content is the same; it is only the format that is different. The book is fighting the ebook, and many are betting their money on the latter. As early as 1945, Vannevar Bush envisioned a desk sized library where you could store hundreds of books, and then display the text of your desire on a desk top screen. Vannevar describes this as,

“…a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. (pg. 45)” 

Many have anticipated this development, but the technology has been the obstacle. With the introduction of handheld devices suited to the format of a book, like the Kindle and iPad, the technology is finally catching up with the predictions. The digital library is now a reality.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, is one of the prophets that claim that the book is doomed.  According to Amazon’s figures, their ebooks are now outselling hardcover books. As the world’s biggest online book store, Amazon is not to be overlooked when discussing the future of the book. In the New Yorker article Publish or Perish, Can the iPad topple the Kindle, and save the book business?, Ken Auletta explains how the battle between Amazon, Apple, Google and the major publishing houses in the USA are affecting the sales of books and ebooks. The battle is compared to a game of chess, but maybe a game of poker would be a more suitable metaphor. The stakes are high, they are all playing with the cards close to their chest, with an ace or five up their sleeves, and the prize in the end is dollars and cents. The publishing houses see the authors and the book stores as their main clients, where as Amazon, Apple and Google have the general public as their costumer and they are in general more market oriented businesses. The crucial question in the end is profit, and ebooks do have some advantages over hardcover books. The ebook requires no printing, shipping or distribution, which makes the real price lower than for the book, and the sales price can be lowered with the same profit. If the ebook costs 9.99 dollar, and the book with the same title costs 17 dollar, no wonder ebook sales are up!

Another persona recently stating that the book will not survive the next ten years is Nicholas Negroponte. Negroponte is actively engaging in projects in order to extend internet access in the developing world. This statement was made in connection to a presentation of the One Laptop per Child Foundation.   His point of departure can also be connected to the economical aspect of ebooks in contrast to books, but he also underlines the practical aspects of ebooks. As long as you have the technical device to download an ebook and an internet connection, you have access to information. This really is a benefit for education not only in the developing world, but for learning worldwide, on every level.

The only problem with the ebook is simple: it is not a book. You cannot touch or smell the paper of an ebook. You cannot put an ebook in your book shelf to show your friends that you read the classics. Reading a good night story to your child might not the same when you cannot turn the pages together or point at the pictures. And what about that old book you loved so much you just had to lend it to all your friends so that they could understand what you are talking about? These are some aspects of the book that the ebook will have trouble matching. 

The backgrounds of Bezos and Negroponte seems to be based in different ends of the commercial scale, but their point is one and the same. Cheap and easily accessible information is a good thing. As previously mentioned, this is something that may be invaluable in the realm of education and is certainly an advantage for business-minded individuals.  However, I believe that most readers would deny the claim that reading a novel is simply about obtaining information.  More than a few readers would describe it as an experience.  I predict that many such readers  would prefer to pay a little more for a good novel in order to get the sought after reading experience.  We are still witnessing the beginning of epublishing, and it will be interesting to see how different interest will shape the development of both epublishing and ebooks. But for now it seems that the book and the ebook can peacefully coexist.

References: 

Aletta, Ken (2010). Publish or Perish- Can the iPad topple the Kindle, and save the book business?. Available: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/04/26/100426fa_fact_auletta#ixzz12KktVt4f

Bush, Vannevar. (2003). As We May Think. In: Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Montfort, Nick New Media Reader. USA: The MIT Press. p 35-47

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