“Have you read the latest Neal Stephenson book? Â It’s called Reamde,“Â a friend recentlyÂ asked. “I bought the book, but hate traveling with a thick book, so I bought a second copy on iBooks and read it on the plane.”
A throwback like me, I thought. Loves books, but doesn’t want to carry them around.
Nice to know I’m not the only person buying two copies nowâ€”the physical book that my optimistic side thinks I might really enjoy reading, and the ebook, which I actually read. Â Since recognizing this pattern I’ve pretty much stopped buying the physical copies.
The first ebook I purchased wasÂ Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. It seemed fitting. Since then I’ve purchased a dozen more, and downloaded several dozen of the classics, which are out of copyright and therefor free. I like to read, and the iPad is an amazing reading device.
Yet somehow I’ve noticed something curious: when I read an ebook, I often feel like I’ve not actually read the book. Â People ask me, “Did you read Steve Jobs?” and my first instinct is to say “No.”
But I did read it. I just didn’t have to hold up a physical book to do so.
The fact is, I love ebooks. I love being able to carry an entire library of books with meâ€”and music and movies, for that matter. I love that I can look up a word I don’t recognize without leaving the page. I love that I don’t need a special light to read in the dark. I love that I can change the font, or make the words larger or smaller to fit my eyesight and mood. And I love that I can download a new book and start reading it within minutes of hearing about it.
Ebooks are changing the world of publishing, from one that is about printing and distribution, to one that is about great content and marketing. For authors, this lowers the barrier of competition; but it also dramatically raises the basic productivity of society. It dramatically changes the business model, and the industry is only beginning to adapt. Ultimately, the changes will be huge. As with any industry where the marginal cost of production is zero, the distribution and prices will adjust accordingly.
But I also wonder if ebooks will lower the perceived value of the written word.
When I have to go out of my way to purchase books at a bookstore, or at least order them online and store them on my bookshelf in my home library, I am committing to a certain cost associated with the act of reading.
When we eliminate or greatly reduce those costs, do we see it as a less expensive and therefor less worthwhile activity? Is there a certain amount of “price signaling” associated with reading?
I certainly hope we continue to place a premium on reading. But the reality is that eBooks are as revolutionary to publishing as Gutenberg’s original printing press.Â When the printing press became commonplace it moved books and reading from the privileged aristocracy, to the masses. And the content of those books changed, as well. Where previously books were storehouses of knowledge (often of a scientific or religious nature), over time books became increasingly a source of leisure. Eventually it was economically possible for anyone to have their own personal library.
Where Gutenberg’s device freed us from the need to hand-scribe every single copy of a book, ebooks allow us to publish instantly, worldwide, without the need for actual paper or inkâ€”and eventually with features Gutenberg could never have imagined, such as embedded sound or video, or text that is automatically customized to each individual reader.
Gutenberg’s revolution played out over centuries. Ebooks have just started to take hold, but already they are taking over the industry. It’s Gutenberg’s revolution all over again.
And that is a revolution I can’t wait to see borne out.