Books, E-Book Readers, and Audiobooks

Nick Hornby has a very interesting post on his blog (and on the Penguin blog) regarding about the future of the conventional book.

In branches of Borders, they are trying to flog us their e-book reader, the ‘Iliad’, for £399. Meanwhile in the London Evening Standard, David Sexton seems quite taken with Amazon’s version, the Kindle. In my branch of Borders on Monday, the Iliad was piled high on the left, just as you walk in; on the right is their wall of bestselling paperbacks, many of which are being sold at half price. It was a quiet Monday morning, and there didn’t seem to be too much interest in the four hundred quid e-book reader; what was striking, though, was that there didn’t seem to be too much interest in the four quid books, either. Attempting to sell people something for four hundred pounds that merely enables them to read something that they won’t buy at one hundredth of the price seems to me a thankless task.

According to Hornby, “there is currently much consternation in the book industry about the future of the conventional book,” but believes the book will prove itself to not being going anywhere. He gives a number of reasons.

1) Book readers like books, whereas music fans never had much affection for CDs. Vinyl yes, CDs no. They are too small for interesting cover art and legible lyrics, the cases break easily, and despite all promises to the contrary, they are extremely easy to break and scratch. Books have remained consistently lovable for several hundred years now. For readers, a wall lined with books is as attractive as any art we could afford to put up there.

This is very true. Books, unlike digital their counterparts, can be signed by the author and collected. Early editions of classic novels are big collectors items. I personally enjoy the convenience of listening to audiobooks, but if I enjoy an audiobook enough, it is safe to say that I will buy the book to give it its deserved spot on my bookshelf. Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, are two examples of novels I first experienced in audiobook form that I’ve since bought in traditional book form, in the earliest edition I could find. Book readers like to keep books long after they’ve been read to serve as a testament to hours of reading done by the reader.

2) E-book readers have a couple of disadvantages, when compared to mp3 players. The first is that, when we bought our iPods, we already owned the music to put on it; none of us own e-books, however. The second is that so far, Apple is uninterested in designing an e-book reader, which means that they don’t look very cool.

Another good point. I might be open to trying an e-book reader, but the biggest problem I have with that, besides the cost of a e-book reader, is that I have nothing to put on my bookshelf.

3) We don’t buy many books – seven per person per year, a couple of which, we must assume, are presents for other people. Three paperbacks bought in a three-for-two offer – expenditure, fourteen pounds approx – will do most of us for months. The advantages of the Iliad and the Kindle – that you can take vast numbers of books away with you – are of no interest to the average book-buyer.

I’m sure I’m part of the minority of people who buy (and read) closer to twenty books a year for myself. While the advantage of carrying a vast number of books with me at time, that’s only one small convenience gained by the e-book format. Audiobooks, similarly, can downloaded and stored in large numbers on your iPod, and given that all you need to do is put on your headphones and hit play, you can, with some limitations, multi-task while you listen to the audiobook. The e-book is still read the same way as a tradition book, and multi-tasking would be extremely difficult.

The advantage e-books have over audiobooks is the price. E-books cost less to produce and thus cost less than traditional books. Audiobooks cost more than traditional books — even as purchased downloads rather than in tape or CD format.

4) Book-lovers are always late adaptors, and generally suspicious of new technology.

When it comes to new technology regarding books, this may be true. Audiobooks are a good format for me, because the format allows me to multi-task. E-book readers may be cool devices to carry around, but I’d just as soon read a real book than try to read a screen.

5) The new capabilities of the iPod will make it harder to sell books anyway. How much reading has been done historically, simply because there is no television available on a bus or a train or a sun-lounger? But that’s no longer true. You could watch a whole series of the Sopranos by the pool on your iPod touchscreen, if you want. Reading is going to take a hit from this.

I’m not as concerned about this as Hornby is. As our daily lives continue to become increasingly digitized, I still say books will continue to fill up our bookshelves.