Will books be the next records?

My post of last week about the exaggerated death of vinyl records (and their resurrection) has got me thinking about the challenge to the physical book from the Kindle and other similar electronic devices.

Will Kindles, and any eventual and probably much sexier Apple i-Tablet thingie, kill books?

The contrast with recorded music is a curious one. Music has had a shifting portability dimension in modern times mainly built around the “player”.

Phonographs and record players had limited mobility, while radios became more portable (but lacked storage/choice elements). As storage media changed (to 8-track cartridges and cassettes) car stereos became possible, and eventually mobile personal stereos (both boombox and Walkman styles) the norm.

With CDs we got sound-quality and durability that created an expectation that our music should be available everywhere. Digital music was thus just the next step. Of course, there was that disruptive technology stage where digital was a poor substitute and the players were clumsy, but Apple sorted that all out for us.

The pace of change in the book industry has been much slower. The basic product is not much different to that of 100 years ago. Yes, the printing technology has been transformed, but the reading experience is pretty much the same. Portability has never varied as the content and the medium have remained one and the same.

The big question then becomes whether the embodiment of the book is more overwhelming for consumers than in the music market. I can see that carrying multiple titles around in a Kindle is more practical when travelling, or as a students, but beyond that I personally am pretty wedded to carrying a single book on public transport, to a cafe etc. I like the diversity of covers, typefaces, textures, weights, sizes etc and associate them strongly with my reading experience.

If others share such emotive connections, are Kindles a real threat to publishers, printers and bookstores? Or are they just the cassette player of the noughties?

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4 Responses to “Will books be the next records?”

  1. yashjv Says:

    I think that as Kindles get more popular, and perhaps sharing books illegally becomes easier, they may start hindering bookstores- just like MP3 sales hinder CD/vinyl stores. But I think it’ll be a slower growth; partially because books generally have more… personality? than CDs (if the content is ignored), and partially because it’s reading compared to listening. Personally, I’m probably going to get a Kindle; being able download books is a big bonus for me, and the ability to read PDFs seems really useful.

  2. russm Says:

    Publishers and retailers are facing different challenges here.

    With reference material in particular, I buy both electronic and physical copies (thanks to the good folks at Pragmatic who make this really easy). Electronic is great for searchability, but nothing beats the utility of a stack of reference books with a handful of post-its, pens, and random scraps of paper marking the pages I tend to keep turning to. Fiction is a different story – I like the physicality of an actual book but it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s less an issue with younger consumers.

    My personal experience with physical books is that publishers who “get it” are doing well, but that it’s book retailers who are paying the price. I still buy technical books, but I buy them direct from the publisher (since that’s how to get a cheap e-book copy in the same purchase). I don’t even know when the technical bookshop on Elizabeth St. closed its doors, it’s that long since I’ve gone into a bookshop to buy reference material.

  3. Tom Osegowitsch Says:

    I think Andre#s blogspot reveals how important some seemingly minor issues such as the tactile nature of a book (and the corresponding conditioning of the young reader) are. With the various technological breakthroughs in the music sector the experience of listening to music – be it through loudspeakers or headphones – didn#t really change much. It was just the availability, portability, durability etc of music that improved drastically.

    Kindle and similar gadgets did the same for the book, but handling a Kindle also provides a different tactile experience which dinosaurs such as Andre (and myself) will take some time getting used to.

    Sometimes the seemingly smallest things turn out to be rather important for consumers. And have the power to delay (I do think the physical book is probably doomed in the long run) a significant innovation for a substantial amount of time.

  4. Unrelenting Tedium Says:

    There is another angle that strikes me about the difference. Books are singular and private. You can bet your bottom dollar that any device like the kindle etc that is wifi capable will shortly have some twitter app or facebook or email or whatever, to interrupt your happy reading. It is difficult enough concentrating on anything on the computer with constant applications vying for your attention (telling you about international BS blogposts the moment they are posted for instance).

    Mind you, I get very annoyed by convergence (a camera in my phone??? Couldn’t I just have a better phone with a longer battery life?) but I seem to be a lone dinosaur on this one. And also I said Are You Gonna Go My Way would never be a hit…I am not know for backing winners…but books are popular with people like me who find technology useful but not always entirely seductive. A quick straw poll of the Gen Y kiddies in my office showed that none of them (none?!?!!?) read a book in the last year. Why would they buy a kindle? They all already have iPhones, would an iPhone book app that gave them the latest dan brown or harry potter book get then there.

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