A contrarian (but defendable) view of e-books

Tech author Nicholas Carr has some interesting statistics that led him to state that perhaps e-books will complement printed books, rather than replace them.

It’s not hard to find history to support that hypothesis.

I learned in journalism school that radio was supposed to be the death of print, because it was free, and fast. It didn’t work out that way. After an initial uptake, it turned out that for some forms of news and entertainment, radio was better, but for others, books were better.

Along came television, and the same argument happened all over again. And history repeated itself again. Video killed the radio star, but then it created a new kind of radio star. Books and magazines and newspapers continued too.

Depending on the message, some messages are better for some media than others. That was so fundamental, that if you didn’t recognize that idea, and couldn’t attribue it–Marshall McLuhan, if you’re wondering–you probably weren’t going to get into journalism school at all. At least, not the school I graduated from.

Then, in the 1990s, along came the Internet. We were very interested in the Internet then. In fact, the school I attended had been delivering the news using computers and modems for several years when the World Wide Web appeared and made the Internet friendly enough for the masses. Most of the students and faculty at the time just expected “digital” to end up complementing the old media, rather than replacing it entirely. Even when we saw Knight-Ridder’s concept tablet (generically called “The Tablet” or “The Pad”) in 1994, when I argued in class that a tablet that allowed audio, video and text to converge ought to make television nervous, the argument went nowhere. “New media displaces old media, it doesn’t replace it. Fact.”

That doesn’t make it fact, and that’s not how we talked in 1994, but the theory was so widely accepted, arguing otherwise was futile.

When “The Pad” didn’t appear in 1995, or 1996, or 1997, it quickly became the butt of jokes at school. Even among some of the professors. But technology wasn’t ready yet. Viable tablets didn’t appear until early in the next decade–fast-enough CPUs, wireless data connections, and audio and video codecs were all much easier to imagine in 1994 than to make, and an order of magnitude easier to imagine than to afford–and marketable tablets didn’t appear until 2010. In all fairness, the video predicted that in 1994, tablets were 10-15 years off. So they got it about right, even if many of us missed the point.

Getting back on topic, e-readers started appearing in 2006 and 2007, and early adopters warmed to them quickly, and as prices fell, adoption ramped up even more. But they aren’t selling as well now that a 7-inch tablet costs double what a 6-inch e-reader costs. And e-book sales are slowing down now too.

I think we’ll find equilibrium. Children’s books are fantastic on tablets. For long reading, I prefer e-ink on a good e-reader. And maybe printed books won’t completely go away either. My Nook Simple Touch can hold more books in it than my university’s library, but a shelf with 100 print books on it still looks more impressive, doesn’t it?

So maybe the world will find a place for books and e-books, the same way it found a place for radio and records and television and recorded movies, among other things.

And what about my argument from 1994? I had no real reason to believe television was going away, and it hasn’t. But television is nervous. While it’s not going away, it’s having to deal with a divided audience. I think back to this past Christmas Eve. We were at my mother in law’s house, and her shiny and new and expensive TV was on, and there were lots of us in the room, and we glanced up at the TV from time to time, but mostly we sat and talked and fiddled with our smartphones and tablets. I didn’t know the specifics 19 years ago, but I was on the right track.

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