Nick Hornby on why eBook readers are not the new iPods

Katie Tech 4 Comments

amazon_kindle_nick_hornby.jpgAsk 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.

Read Nick Hornby’s Penguin Blog post

The Amazon Kindle
The Rex Iliad

By Katie | July 4th, 2008

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  • kahani

    Count me in with the exceptions then. I have been eagerly awaiting the day I can afford an e-book reader. The idea of being able to tote a library around with me thrills me to pieces. particularly if I ever have to take a long-haul flight again. (Very likely).

    And I’ve never been a fan of printing out academic texts or other documents. Save the trees and read them on your e-book!

  • Alan Choo-Kang

    E-book readers will never reach critical mass in their current form. To appeal to the general book reading public they would need to be (a) nicer/cooler looking (see iPod comment by Hornby) (b) much, much cheaper. I’m not sure what the tipping point would be but for me it would be way less than the current price for the underlying hard drive. Maybe about £50 if it looked really nice… The e-books themselves would also have to be as cheap or cheaper than the hard copy. (c) all (or virtually all) books would have to be available including popular bestsellers from publication date. the smaller the selection, the less chance it would work.

    I think a more likely technological challenger to the traditional book especially given Hornby’s point that people in general find reading a chore, is the rise of audiobooks. Audible seems pretty popular, a lot of people have iPods already so the hardware is there. For me I don’t like DRM, and don’t have a compatible player and don’t have enough time to make the subscription plans very good value, but if they were a bit cheaper, or pay-as-you-go was cheaper, and DRM-free (I might consider eMusic’s eBooks if they had a better selection) I would probably give these a go. Advantages – you can listen to them when you need hands for other things like driving, people are lazy and like being read to, voice audio takes up relatively little HDD space which is cheap anyway)

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    Nick Hornby on why eBook readers