July 20, 2010, 2:46 PM — Amazon has just announced that in the last quarter it sold 143 Kindle e-books for every 100 hardcover books it sold. Actually, that's just the tip of the e-book iceberg. You see, Amazon also announced that in the last four weeks, it has sold 180 digital books for every 100 hardcover books. And, of course, that's not counting free e-books or e-books sold in the Barnes & Noble Nook format, Apple's iPad format and so on.
Paperback sales still dwarf both, but think about it. E-books have only really gotten popular since Amazon introduced the Kindle less then three years ago. Since then e-book readers, and what I see as their inevitable replacements, tablet computers like Apple's iPad, have exploded in popularity. Vendors are now aggressively positioning e-books as textbook replacements and, lead by Barnes & Nobles, retailers are slashing e-book reader prices.
At the rate e-book sales are going, I think that the traditional hardbound book might be on its way to being a collector's item as early as 2015. By 2020, paperbacks may well have joined them there. And, when 2050 rolls around, books may be seen in the same way we now see 78-RPM records — odd historical relics with little relevance to how we spend our lives.
You might think that since I'm about as techie a guy as you're ever going to find that I'd welcome this change. You'd be wrong.
I've been a book lover ever since that wonderful day when the letters 'look' became "LOOK" in my mind. I really do recall the moment and it was an epiphany. Had it happened on an e-reader or a tablet, maybe I wouldn't feel the way I do, but it happened with a battered old Dick & Jane reader and I've been in love with books ever since.
I recently moved and I had to cut down my library. Between us, my wife, who is a book artist, we still have about 5,000 books. In short, we're not just book lovers, we're bibliophiles. We both hate the idea that books are going to disappear.
It's not just because we're the products of our time though. I'm sure teenagers in 2050 will feel just as strongly about their smartglasses or contact lens with their built-in neural inputs as many people do now about say their iPads. Who knows, perhaps, we'll even see Neal Stephenson's A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer" ala his book The Diamond Age.
No, what worries me about this rush to the e-book is that we'll lose the warmth and comfort of the book.
But, it's more than that. We're also losing the ability to share books. Today, you can loan a book to a friend, give it away to a charity, or sell it to someone else. With most commercial e-books you can't do any of that.
More disturbing still, there are no universal agreed upon standards for e-book formats. For example, I can't read an Apple EPUB book on a Kindle or, without Kindle software, I can't read an AZW Kindle book on an iPad.
This is not a small issue. I can reach up in my library and grab a book published in 1867 and read it without any problem. I can't even be sure that I can read any e-book from one vendor on another vendor's e-reader or tablet. And, that's with today's books with today's hardware. Will I be able to read a Kindle book a year from now? Probably. Five years from now? Very likely. 10 years from now? I don’t know.
In addition, no one can come in and remove and destroy my books, ala Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, unless they break into my house. Today, as Amazon proved last year with the 1984 fiasco, they can remove any of 'my' books whenever they want.
No, while I like e-books, I don’t want to see them replace physical books unless a lot more details are worked out. And, quite frankly, in the long run I don’t ever want to see them replace 'real' books. While technology has made e-books much easier to carry and read than physical books, that same technology makes it far too easy to destroy them or lock them away from their readers.