Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Rise of Digital Books—Should the Printed Book be Worried?

The topic at Booking Through Thursdays is one that I have already covered briefly in a previous post, but I think it bares rehashing. Ebooks are here to stay. Digital media is here to stay. I think that is something that we all have to get used to. Some people are already embracing the technology full tilt, while others are…dubious to say the least.

I think I fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. I’m curious about ebooks, although I haven’t actually read an entire one. I don’t own an ebook reader because I believe I have to make a conscious decision to go digital, and that time hasn’t come yet. I work in digital and internet in publishing, though. I’m part of the publishing world that is trying to convince readers that digital production is where books are headed to.

And the funny thing is, I can see it working.

When I first started my job, I was dubious to say the least about digital books. The only time I’ve ever read a digital book is on my computer, and I nearly went blind from the experience. It’s hard reading from a computer screen.

But when you shrink that computer screen down to the size of, say, a paperback novel, the argument starts to take a different shape.

And then there’s the iPhone. That shiny beacon of forward thinking is the advanced guard, the first in a long line of a new generation of personal computers that have the potential and the capability of convincing the world that you can read a book digitally. BlackBerry has already come out with a competitor called the BlackBerry Storm, and I dare say by the end of 2009 most major cellphone manufacturers will have a similar model. This is where we are headed, and it’s full steam ahead.

The iPhone is the greatest enemy to the printed book.

But that isn't to say that the print book is about to go extinct. I think there will always be a following of the printed word, but—as with everything else threatened by a newer, shinier version of itself—that following will gradually shrink over time. It may take generations, but it might happen.

Think about it—technology is guided by convenience. So, in twenty years time, when everyone is hooked into their personal mobile computers (because, essentially, that is what an iPhone is, is it not?), what will the reader be carrying? An iPhone AND a book, or just an iPhone with fifty books loaded into it, perfect for every mood, along with the capability to download another fifty in ten minutes, should her mood change?

I'm conflicted. I want to believe that the printed word is not dying, but it's hard to see the evidence to the contrary. I feel like I'm just clinging to my library at a moment when I should be embracing the changes.

So what will happen to the book? I predict the printed word will have a renaissance—the book will become a collectible once again. Books will be made with care, with proper material that can stand the test of time. Because if people aren’t buying throwaway paperbacks anymore, you need to change the look of them. Convince people that your books are worth the paper they are printed on again. Remind us why we covet the smooth, bleached pages, and the alluring scent of the ink.

Digital books are here to stay, but they won’t kill the printed book entirely.

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