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Amazon Kindle

Are e-readers like the Amazon Kindle going to make print books obsolete, or will people’s undying love for the printed book continue on in the digital age? While the Sony Reader didn’t catch fire, the recent release of the Amazon Kindle has brought another round of debates over the future of the print book.

I spoke at a conference of small book publishers in British Columbia, Canada, and they were generally unfazed by the e-reader phenomenon. Many people there believe that small literary presses with artfully designed books will have staying power, while academic texts and reference books will more likely be swallowed up by digital replacements. One particularly wise publishing veteran noted: “These e-book readers seem to be a solution in search of a problem. Are people really demanding that books be replaced?”

Because MediaShift readers are often a bit more tech-savvy than the public at large, I asked whether there was something that would entice them to use e-readers instead of print books. What features did they desire most? Not surprisingly, people wanted to pay less for books in the digital format, and they wanted more than just the book’s content — they also wanted online links to more material, ways of sharing content and open formats so they could transfer material to other devices.

One reader, Jim, had the most pithy response: “Sleeker hardware. Better design. Larger reading surface. Thinner. More portable. Cheaper content. Cheaper unit price. Ability to load your own stuff. Word processing.”

Timothy Nott knocked the Kindle for being too ugly and the Sony Reader for being too expensive. Nott says a successful e-reader must do more than a printed book:

I need a solution that is rugged and can do more than one thing. For a couple hundred bucks, I want to be able to do more than save a couple trees. The technology has to be BETTER than paper, not just nearly as good. I need to be able to take notes/write responses, send those notes to someone, check references online, build a derivative work. A handheld is oh-so-close to what I want, but the screens are too small.

Another reader, Drew, points out the dilemma for the e-reader: It has to fit in with all the other devices in our lives, and it has to have enough available content to cover all the possible print books we would want:

I would like the same flexibility for a reader that I have with an MP3 player. I know that I can get any new content in MP3 and I can easily convert my current content into MP3s, no matter how obscure or unpopular it is. For reading, I’m dependent on someone else deciding what gets converted so some periodicals, some books, some newspapers become available but not necessarily the ones I want. For me it would be the worst of all worlds — I’d have to carry a reader AND printed reading, all while I’m probably also toting a laptop. One of those has to go and it’s the reader.

Kayrun, an actual e-book publisher and writer, says that an e-reader must look and feel similar to books:

We have a definite need for an e-book reader that is very similar to a book, with large reading screens, but which allows bookmarking, note taking, and email…It should be thin, lightweight, open like a book with a screen on each side. Think iPhone for moving things around and adding text (or maybe voice activated). It should be comfortable to support with one hand and read from it in the traditional reading position. If the developers will give us the hardware, watch e-books (with video and audio) take off. We will then really start saving trees and time! We will also be better able to organize and retrieve our knowledge.

Joe Wickert is a vice president at the book publisher John Wiley & Sons, and also maintains the Publishing 2020 blog, along with a new Kindleville blog. Wickert recently figured out a way to offer his entire blog’s archive in e-book format through Amazon for 99 cents.

Wickert thinks that e-readers will have to do much more than simply replicate a book’s content on a new piece of hardware.

“How about a device that offers more than simply the print book in electronic format?” he wrote. “I’m talking about a major overhaul to how books are written, but one that would result in a better layering of content, particularly for reference material. This is more than simply embedding links to other sources; it’s really about tapping into the platform and creating a product and content repository that has social networking capabilities. Again, it’s more than just a port from print to e-book and probably way out there on the timeline.”

Reading on Cell Phones

Not only did people comment on what they’d like to see in an e-reader; they also had a spirited debate over the future of the printed book. Playing off of Jennifer Woodard Maderazo’s recent post, 5 Reasons I Won’t Give Up Books, folks weighed in at both ends of the spectrum. Some people believe that print books are doomed, while others would never give up books for digital devices.

What’s interesting is that there are people who are perfectly happy to read digital books on their existing cell phones. One reader, Avagee, has even been using a regular “dumb” cell phone to read novels: “At the moment it’s all been public domain and Creative Commons stuff from Books In My Phone. For me the phone is perfect for that kind of ‘low format’ content — it’s more portable than Kindle or a paper book.”

Ged Carroll similarly uses a cell phone — in this case a more high end Nokia E90 — to read books. He also reads PDF books through Adobe Acrobat, but says that the Kindle would have to be “10 times better than my current solution for me to choose it, and cheaper, easier to read, more flexible than my current device.”

Meanwhile, Bob Benz spelled out five reasons why he’s given up books. For Benz, something changed when he got a Kindle:

I’m not saying books will die. And I was a bit dubious after buying the Kindle. But a month later, I’m hooked much the way I was when I switched from vinyl to CDs and then from CDs to MP3s. There will always be someone around extolling the “warmth” that vinyl brings to a recording’s sound. There will always be vinyl. But I don’t miss my turntable at all…

Of course, others jumped to print books’ defense, just as Jennifer had. Amy Strecker was one of many folks who has a strong love of books. “There’s something deeply personal and connective about sharing a book with a friend and watching it become gently worn by the multiple of hands that have enjoyed its secrets,” she wrote. “Passing a PDF just doesn’t provide the same kicks!”

Bob Kasher, who runs a company that provides content for mobile phones, takes a middle ground in the print book vs. e-reader debate. Kasher notes that disruption does not always lead to obsolescence, and also points out a possible generational divide on printed books and old media:

Each media has its own sense of warmth, usefulness and utility and the notion that one will somehow necessarily replace the other can sometimes be a fascinating exercise to speculate about. Ultimately I think we will find that most media (not all, I have nothing to play my 8 track tapes on after all) will find its own niche and relevance with those who still appeciate the individual appeal of printed text vs digital.

However…let’s not forget that the generation now arriving doesn’t have that same loyalty to the printed word, or the television channel for that matter. YouTube, MP3 downloads and mobile texting seems just fine for them. That is far more relevant to what the future may bring than what those of us who still use books, magazines and newspapers bring to this debate.

What do you think? Will certain printed books disappear over time or are they all doomed? Or do you believe books will prosper in a digital age? Is there a generational divide on the future of print publications? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of Amazon Kindle by Min Liu via Flickr.