September 6th, 2010

books in a stack

Digital epiphany

I don't think anyone in publishing would argue that ebooks aren't going to grow in popularity. As Mike Shatzkin has pointed out, ebooks are improving while the last print change was the invention of the paperback. But a lot of folks make the case for print having such superiority that it can't ever really lose. I started to make a list of ebook and print book pros and cons, but I stopped because many of the benefits of ebooks are eReader specific. Also, some of the limitations of ebooks are imposed by DRM, which is not inherent in ebook technology.

A helpful friend recently sent me a link to this Slate article, an essay by a 20-something on why she will never buy an eReader. It's actually kind of funny in a way; one reason she doesn't like seeing people with eReaders is, she can't tell what they're reading. That's actually one reason a lot of folks like using an eReader. She got a lot of impassioned comments, some thanking her for standing up for print and some decrying her Luddite tendencies. One commenter pointed out that a lot of the arguments for print were made years ago when digital cameras came out, and people spoke up in defense of film. That's when I had an epiphany.

We've had almost this exact argument before, twenty some years ago, about sending email versus sending print letters. Every time some writer or other famous dead person's correspondence was published, someone would point out that email could kill print letters and what a shame that would be if that happened as we would no longer have that record. Other folks would chime in that when correspondence was digital, no one would worry about spelling or grammar, or being witty, or insightful— any of the things that made old letters so interesting to read.

Every argument was pretty much dead on. Email is inherently less formal, less structured than print correspondence. And unless you print it out and keep it, your emails might well be a good deal more ephemeral.

Now think about the last time you wrote out a print letter to someone. Subtract the times when someone had just died and business correspondence, and if you're like me that date will be decades ago. My kids have only ever sent print letters for graduation present thank you notes.

Speed, convenience, and low cost trump sentiment and charm. Print letters haven't died out entirely, they've just shrunk to a narrower range of communication. Print books will likely be the same way.

Anyone care to argue otherwise?

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