The science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote “For all but a brief moment near the dawn of history, the word ‘ship’ will mean simply – ‘spaceship.’” While we today refer to the books that we read on our computers—whether smart phone, iPad, Nook or Kindle—as electronic books or e-books, this will doubtless change, too. The time will come when we simply call them books, since they will be the only sort of books that most of us use.
At the moment, e-book sales amount to only 10 percent of the market, though that’s up from less than one percent as recently as 2007.
A year ago I participated in a survey conducted by a publisher of religious books, both popular and academic. They were curious about the scholarly community’s attitude toward e-books. In exchange for my time, they offered to give me a free book—either an e-book or a printed hardback. I chose the e-book.
I have read some who decry this new technology. They wax poetic about the feel and smell of books. This strikes me as peculiar. When I go to a bookstore, I do not sniff the books and pick one based on its aroma. I do not fondle them and select one for its texture. Instead, I pick one based on its content. When I read, I am not even conscious of how a book smells or feels. I’m entirely lost in the words. So I really don’t care how I get to those words, whether ink on paper, e-ink, or glowing screen.
Before the first century AD, when the Romans developed the codex—bound pages between covers—scrolls were the only way to read. Scrolls are a rather cumbersome thing to use. Think of the old VCR tape verses the DVD. Remember “be kind, rewind?” And fast forwarding?
Unsurprisingly, by the 500’s AD the codex had entirely replaced scrolls throughout the European world. Much as DVDs replaced the old VCR tapes.
A similar transformation in books is occurring today. It began in 1971, when the Guttenberg Project began creating the first e-books. Today, more than half a million titles are available in electronic format from a variety of sources. Every publisher in America now offers e-books.
The first dedicated e-book reader was probably the Data Discman developed by Sony in 1992. Various other manufacturers followed, but it wasn’t until the appearance of the Amazon Kindle in November 2007 that the e-book revolution really began. By 2010, e-book sales totaled nearly a billion dollars. They should amount to nearly three billion dollars in annual sales by 2015. This past Christmas, Barnes and Noble sold a million e-books in one day. Amazon.com sold even more.
Amazon’s Kindle solved one of the frustrations of the early e-book readers: how to get the books into the device. Until the Kindle arrived, customers first had to find a website that offered e-books for sale—not always easy to do. Then the customer selected and paid for the book. Then he or she selected and download the book in a format that would work on his or her device. Finally, the customer had to plug in a cable and copy it from his or her computer to his or her e-book reader.
Most people were simply not interested in the hassle.
With the Kindle—and its subsequent competitors—buying a book for an e-reader suddenly became simple. In fact, it became easier than buying a physical book in the bookstore—and took far less time.
Instead of worrying about cables and copying, the Kindle had a direct link to the Amazon.com website by way of a free 3G wireless connection. The customer could search for a book, click one button, and in less than sixty seconds the book was on the Kindle and ready to read.
As a result of Amazon’s lead, Barnes and Noble and soon Apple followed suit with similar devices that worked just as easily and smoothly.
But ease of acquisition is not the only benefit of e-readers. They also save space. On a device thinner and far lighter than a paperback book, I can have a library of thousands of volumes.
More than 3000 books are crammed onto the crowded shelves of my home. I’m running out of space for them. But all those texts and more can now fit in a single paperback-sized device. And I can search the books for words or phrases as easily as I can search for something on Google. A single click can take me to any chapter.
And if I have the Kindle or Nook app on my smartphone, any book I have on my e-reader is also available on my phone. And it will be on the same page I left off reading on my e-reader.
The e-bookstore, whether Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Apple, keeps a record of every book I’ve purchased. In a matter of minutes, I can replace every last one without paying another cent if I happen to lose or break my e-reader.
Already, the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica has decided to stop producing printed editions. From now on, it will be available only in electronic form. The full conversion of the publishing world to electronic books has already begun.
Resistance is futile.