I’m back and this season I won’t be reading an eReader
I’m back: proof positive that updating your blog software is a good idea if you want to keep posting. I will be updating the site with my latest articles when I get time.
In the meantime it seems I’m not alone in wanting to keep up to date at the moment. There appears to be a rush of Old Book Brigade eager to show that beneath their dusty jackets lurk technophiles bang on trend.
Listening to Radio 4 yesterday, I was struck by a discussion about new Sony Readers between Peter Florence and John Sutherland. “Marvellous and so shiny and cool” was the general verdict of the newly launched kit. “I’m a convert,” they concluded.
I nearly dropped my croissant.
I’d been to the launch of the readers a fortnight ago, and yes, they looked okay but essential cool kit? I don’t think so, lacking as they do the casual hipness all Apple products. They are big (too big for the average pocket) and their screens black and white. One responds to touch, the other clunks along like an old style notebook or iPod wannabe. One lets you book mark pages and even write on them with a stylus. All very practical and workmanlike – the kind of tool middle managers on road trips to Swindon would love.
And of course, there are lots of free books that you can load onto them: out of copyright books that you could pick up for 99p from any good book website without having to splash out £250 for an electronic device with which to read them.
And therein lies the problem – be they Sony or Kindle, why do you need a bit of kit to read books you can buy for less than half the price in hard copy and read without downloading?
One point made by Peter Florence highlighted why he and John Sutherland were not the right people to talk about ereaders: they both talked of how great they were for anyone reading manuscripts. Yes, it’s true: for professional readers, who have to carry round bulky manuscripts, the readers are perfect.
But what percentage of the reading public is that? Less than 1% I imagine. For the rest of us, is there really any need for a piece of kit that costs a fortune to buy and even more – when compared to hard copy prices – to load with up-to-date reading?
Books cannot go through an iPod moment in the way that music did for a number of reasons. First, iPods took off because it was free and easy to upload your music library to a computer. You cannot do that with your existing library of books – and I wonder how many would want to? Books are to some extent wallpaper that maps your intellectual development, tastes and memory. We display them more to show off than to reread. People won’t be replacing paper libraries with vast electronic ones, as happened with iTunes.
Even if it were possible to download everything you have read and may wish to reread, the cost would be high. Until ebooks can match supermarket prices for hardbacks and paperbacks they will not sell in the numbers needed to justify the hype. The high price of ebooks, like audiobooks before them, risks killing off a market by making it seem expensive and yet another rip off by The Man.
Yes I know upfront investment from publishers is considerable and is reflected in prices, but that is not how the average person in the street sees it. They see that they have to shell out a lot for a reader and then even more for every book they buy that isn’t out of print. They also see that the same book is available for under three quid in Tesco without the faff of technological intervention.
Perception is everything in sales. And until consumers perceive electronic readers as value for money product that they must have, they won’t be buying them in droves.
If Peter Collingridge of Enhanced Editions and Canongate get their way the iPod moment will happen. They have released an ebook, Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro, for iPhones. Here’s the app link on the App Store: http://tinyurl.com/noxks8
Collingridge says that he and his partners were “underwhelmed by the monochrome view of the ebook future forecast by the Kindle or Sony Reader”, and so their iPhone ebook is “enhanced” with a range of features, including audio and video as well as social networking and other interactive elements”.
That to me is the future of ebooks. Not just because it recognises that ereaders are a totally different medium, which should demand a different approach to storytelling and factual content (just as iPods have ended the supremacy of the album), but because they don’t require the reader to go out and buy a new piece of kit with which to read the book.
I say “future” for a reason. IPhones are hard on the eye and have a way to go before they become great reading devices. But that will happen.
The market also has a way to go before consumers are convinced to buy ebooks. One thing is needed: prices must drop, something that will happen if the supermarkets start retailing ebooks. But that is not necessarily good news for publishers.
* If any of this looks familiar, it’s because I wrote much of it on Twitter at the time of the press conference. So, I can do technology after all!