Will eBook Readers Replace Real Books?

Will electronic book readers replace real, printed books? The selection of readers, and the features they offer, has been increasing over the past year or so. They are becoming cheaper and more attractive to some people. Is it possible they will replace books? Could a day come where you can no longer buy a printed book?

While I don’t believe that books will disappear completely, what I do see is a time where the majority of books are bought and read electronically. I do think that we will always be able to buy printed books. I suspect, though, that it will largely be in the form of hardcover books, printed in limited quantities and at higher prices, acting more as a collector’s item and for stocking lending libraries. This change will not happen quickly. I can see it taking years, or more likely decades, to happen.

Music is an example of how consumption of entertainment can change. The shift away from physical media for music continues (today, about 33% of music is purchased electronically). Before the advent of the MP3 player, the only way to get music was physical media, first in the form of vinyl records, then adding cassette/8-track tape and CDs. As services like iTunes continue to gain new customers, the decline of physical media will continue. I don’t believe the physical version will go away entirely, since the MP3/AAC bitrates used today are not adequate not for high-quality playback. There enough audiophiles around to justify CD’s. Even LP’s are making something of a comeback, primarily with collectors and serious audiophiles.

Some may point to the decline of newspapers and magazines as an example of the descent of publishing in general. I don’t think this applies, though, since the purpose of the two is different. News is about here and now, books are longer-term “investments” for people. People want news now, not a day, a week or a month later. News is also largely read-once-and-move-along consumption. People generally don’t go back to a newspaper from several days or weeks ago to re-read them. Some magazines get re-read and re-used, depending on their audience (some around hobbies, crafts and cooking will be re-read since they contain instructions, recipes and plans). But a lot are read once, and put into the trash or recycling, never to be seen again.

Books are more like music for many people. They are bought to be read more than once (or the intention is to maybe read them more than once). Books are kept for years or decades, and are sometimes handed down from generation to generation. People also like having a convenient and portable system for reading. A book is the one medium that is already portable and self-contained. Unlike music, you don’t need an external device to read a book. It is because of this that I think the electronic book reader will take a long, long time before it “replaces” physical books. Like music on LP and CD, I don’t think the physical book will ever disappear completely.

I do think that as electronic book readers continue to improve and evolve, and as their prices come down, people will shift away from printed books for most of their reading. It will take a long time, though. Some of the barriers are technical. Granted, book readers today aren’t bad. The batteries last a reasonable amount of time, and the reading experience is adequate. However, you are still at the mercy of the battery, even if it will last a week or more. Readers with displays in colour are still not available in quantity yet, and display resolution is still not at the same level as a printed book. Reading books on backlit screens like PDA’s, smartphones and computers doesn’t work for many people, and those devices have significantly shorter battery duration than current dedicated electronic book readers.

The other barrier is a business one. The library of available books at sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony aren’t bad, and are getting bigger all the time. The challenges, though, are pricing and release schedules. Some large publishers like Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Hachette have indicated they will delay the release of new books in electronic form for weeks or months after the printed release. While this isn’t unusual for other forms of books (paperback releases were usually months after the hardcover release), what it can do is induce doubt into the book buying public. I suspect this delayed release plan will be temporary, as pressure is brought to bear by companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But it is here now, and will be a reality for an indefinite period of time. For people who want to read the newest release (or think they might want to read the newest), there is little incentive for buying an electronic book reader.

Pricing is the second element, for the reading devices and the books themselves. While buying an electronic book for around US$10 is still cheaper than the hardcover, it is similar or more expensive than most paperbacks (which you can get in the US for around US$8-9 in many cases). As with music, people will wonder why they are paying so much for an electronic version of the product. Apple was able to use its clout to drop the price of songs to $0.99, and I suspect that the major distributors for books will eventually do the same thing. The profit margins for all involved, even at $5/copy, would still be pretty significant compared to a physical book. Again, expect this to take time. While printed books continue to sell in their current volumes, publishers don’t have a big incentive to drop the price of the electronic version of the book.

The price of the readers themselves is the other price barrier. Although prices continue to decline, a decent reader is still several hundred dollars. That is a pretty steep price for a single-purpose device. Yes, many readers offer things like music playback and Internet browsing. However, people already have other devices that do those functions, and do them better. For people who travel a lot, an electronic book reader makes sense. But to spend hundreds of dollars on a device that is mainly for reading books is a barrier to many people, particularly if they don’t read much outside of their homes.

The key issue here is time. Unlike music, the electronic book is competing with a product that is portable and self-contained. In music, the competition was as much about the device as the media, and the device is affecting the delivery of the product. Newspapers and magazines are largely competing with a medium that offers immediacy. As the readers improve, and are incorporated into other devices (like the rumoured tablets from companies like Apple and Dell), I can see the demand for printed books declining. But I see that decline taking years, or more likely decades. Despite their relative bulk, a book is portable, self-contained, instant-on and never runs out of batteries. It is those elements that will keep books around for a while.