Ask the average geek what he or she thinks of eBook readers and most of them will reply with a snort of derision and a roll of the eyes. At the last Le Web 3 in Paris, Scoble asked Philippe Starck what he thought of the design of the Kindle and much fun was had at its expense. And now Nick Hornby’s got in on the eBook bashing act, writing a guest post for thh Penguin blog about why the eBook has a long way to go before it’s even close to replacing books.
What’s interesting about his column is that although he points out the obvious failings of eBook readers that we’ve all managed to spot, he also makes some very obvious – and until now overlooked – points about just why the eBook is not likely to take off any time soon.
The most important problem he highlights is that the average human only buys seven books a year. And since they have enough trouble trying to convince consumers to pay £4 for a normal book, convincing them to pay nearly £400 for an Iliad is likely to be a fairly fruitless task. As Hornby says, “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.”
He also reckons that book readers are a fairly fusty bunch who are likely to be late adopters of any new technology (though both Susi and are are big readers, but possibly my survey of two is a little skewed), plus he points out that “when we bought our iPods, we already owned the music to put on it” but that “none of us own e-books”. Not strictly true, since we all have access to the wonder that is the Gutenburg Project, which offers free eBooks of the old out-of-copyright classics.
But probably his most compelling argument is that the iPod is already threatening the future of books anyway. Now that people can watch TV shows on their iPods, there are even fewer reasons for them to buy books to keep them occupied by the pool or on the morning commute. Certainly, I can be spotted playing my DS Lite into work most mornings at the moment (but only until I finish The Phantom Hourglass and Susi hands over her copy of the Mitford Sisters’ letters) and so for less dedicated bookworms, the draw of digital video and gaming fun is likely to be even stronger.
Alex Roumbas wrote a great column for Shiny Shiny about why she’s not sold on eBook readers, and I think I’m probably one of the few technology journalists I know who actually feels the need to own one (though not until they’re a whole lot cheaper). Most people just can’t get excited about them, and even I can see the sense in predictions for their doom. While I love books, I also have a house filled with the bloody things, and the thought of being able to only buy special editions whilst leaving the throwaway paperbacks to my digital reader does appeal.
I appreciate that I’m in the minority on this one, and even I can’t argue that books are anywhere near as popular as music. So while I’m still rather taken with the idea that one day I might be able to carry around my very own Hitchhiker’s Guide filled with every book I’ve ever wanted to read, I’d be more happy just to know that books – in whatever form – are still being read in 10 years’ time.