Wednesday 18 November 2009

Why books are not videos or music

We are all used to the comparison of the book trade and its approach to e-books with the music and video industry - ie hiding the head in the sand, ostrich-like, and vainly hoping it will all go away, only to raise the head, shake the sand out of the eyes, and see the pirates swarming over the beach with the treasure. Unless publishers get their act together, we hear, it will all be gone to piracy and the publishing industry will be bankrupt, derelict, a dinosaur, etc.

Yes, publishers need to work out what they are going to do about electronic distribution (and theft) of content. Yes, more people are buying e-books in one form or another - but cheap iPhone and Touch apps are going to stamp all over the expensive Kindle/Sony/etc model (book apps are already outselling games on the iPlatforms). Yes, books are pirated (often from the pdfs the publishers send to printers in India and China) and distibuted for free.

But books are NOT like videos and music. Why has no-one noticed? An mp3 or other audio file is a natural evolution of an LP, an audio tape and a CD. Think Pokemon - you get a basic level little monster and if it is successful it evolves into something more powerful in a Great Leap Forward. Films, too - from video tape to DVD to mpeg and other video formats on computer. But books? No. The difference is that you could never read a record, a CD, a video tape or a DVD without a piece of equipment. You can't hold a DVD up to the light and watch the movie. So if a better technology comes along, the cruddier technology will fail - of course. But a book you can read without any technology, and an e-book is an alternative rather than a replacement. The bicycle didn't replace walking; cars didn't replace bicycles, though the market share changes as new options are added.

e-books are an indulgence for the tech-savvy, money-rich, 1st world, social elite. If publishers neglect paper books while pursuing the illusory moneypot of e-books many, many readers will be disadvantaged and some people - those who most desperately need books - will be denied them. A library with 20 computers each with 2 million e-books can serve 20 readers at a time; a library with 20,000 books can serve 20,000 readers at once. A book doesn't turn off because it's run out of electricity; it's format doesn't become unreadable; you can only lose your whole library at home if you have a fire - you can't leave it on a train.

Make e-books, but give them away free with paper books - the format has no value, and if you are producing a paper book, producing a basic e-book is free - it's a by-product like weetabix or marmite (you can make it by sweeping up the spare electrons from the production process).

People will buy books if they are available and nicely produced. Books were always borrowed for free from libraries (and friends) and yet still people bought them. People like to have the physical object because of things they can do with it that they can't do with an e-book (like show it off on the shelf, smell the paper, enjoy the binding, flick through it to remind themselves of what it's like...)

Books aren't going away unless publishers give up on them, and even then there will be small presses and (God help us) self-published books. Because you could never do those things with a CD or LP or video (except, note, with the printed inserts) the change for the consumer from black vinyl to a bunch of electrons was insignificant. But an e-book does not replace all the functionality of a paper book so individual consumers will choose the format they prefer. Interestingly, it is the celebrity pulp novels that people are least likely to want in paper format. There is no pride or pleasure to be had in owning a Dan Brown paperback, surely? So the very books publishers are choosing to print are the very books that eventually - if they are right about the expansion of e-books - will be least well suited to that format. Hollow laugh.


  1. Thanks for the common sense explanation, after all who is going to risk getting sand in their readers on the beach. The idea of giving away an e-book with the paper copy is excellent.

  2. "A library with 20 computers each with 2 million e-books can serve 20 readers at a time; a library with 20,000 books can serve 20,000 readers at once" No only an argument for paper books, but also an argument for libraries. Everybody I talk to about this says that they need the feel of a book in their hands--even teenagers. I personally might get a load of e-books to take on holiday because of the luggage weight problem with the 17 books I take with me--but only if the technology evolves to SmartPaper (which it will quite soon.

  3. Interesting explanation. I also believe that one does not necessarily have to replace the other. We do also listen to music in many different formats. But I do think that the technology gives writers an opportunity to do some of this marketing on our own and, perhaps, even make a bit of money out of it. Audiobooks is a great example. I wrote some more about this at my own blog: Thanks.

  4. Good to read a reasoned argument about something which has long just been a gut feeling. And the fact that 'individual consumers will choose the format they prefer' does suggest that e-books may actually increase the overall readership. Well, one can dream.

  5. But, but, but - a paper book is a piece of technology, so the argument about better technology coming along and replacing surely still applies? If eReaders work better then they will largely take over sooner or later. If they're not then they won't?

  6. Simon, I didn't say a book wasn't technology (in the broadest sense of a tool) - I said you didn't need any [additional] technology to read it. There is no mediating technology involved, as there essentially is with a recording of music or film. So an e-book reader is a mediating technology which is not strictly essential. It's not a matter of replacing a technology as introducing an extra layer.

    Thank you, Sue - I'll take a look at your blog.

    Lucy - would you be put off reading a book on holiday if it wasn't in e-book format? That might be significant for people (unlike us!) who only read on holiday.

  7. Sorry this is a late reply!

    I'm still unsure about this. A paper book is also a piece of "mediating technology" : it's a way of conveniently delivering a story to someone. The book isn't strictly essential either : for most of time, story-telling was obviously oral. Then books came along and made it easier/cheaper for stories to be delivered to people. Now e-readers are continuing that trend. There may be a lot wrong with the way e-readers currently work but I just don't see a class difference between books and e-readers.

    And, no, I don't own one!