Printed Books vs. E-Readers: We're Ready to Make a Call
Amazon says over 400,000 books are available on Kindle (image from Amazon website).
By Michael Stillman
There were several developments and news items concerning electronic readers appearing over the past few weeks, and while we will attempt to summarize a few of them, we don't think any one is the real story. For us, the real story is we are ready to project a winner in the battle between electronic readers and print media, and while the returns are early, we believe we see enough data to make our predictions.
Amazon announced that on Christmas Day, for the first time ever, they sold more downloadable electronic books than physical ones. This is a company that started strictly as a seller of physical books, and is today one of the largest retail operations in the world (though now selling many other types of merchandise). Of course, Christmas Day is not exactly a typical sales day (who buys anything on Christmas?). Nevertheless, there is an important milestone here, a first likely to be repeated with increasing frequency in the days ahead. Meanwhile, Amazon also announced that their Kindle electronic reader is the most "gifted" item in their history. We will assume by "gifted" they mean more people gave Kindles as gifts than any other product, rather than that it is the most intelligent or talented product they have ever offered.
Samsung, the large electronics manufacturer, announced that they will be introducing four electronic readers this year. Two are scheduled to be released in March or April, the other two in July. These devices will not only allow for reading, but other functions such as note-taking. Samsung will be offering books from Google's growing library of over one million electronic volumes.
That Samsung and others would enter this space should be of no great surprise. A few months back, Forrester Research upped its projections of sales of electronic readers for 2010 to 6 million, double its estimate for 2009. They had only just upped their 2009 projection by 50% from 2 to 3 million units when making that last prediction.
California recently passed a law mandating that any publisher selling textbooks to California universities make electronic versions available by the year 2020. Digital editions are likely to bring down the huge cost of textbooks today as well as making them much lighter and easier to carry around. While the year 2020 is still a decade away, we expect that this change will come about much sooner and in the 49 states other than California as well. We give it only another year or two before electronic textbooks become the norm rather than the exception. People entering college today are far more comfortable with electronic reading than those of us born at an earlier time. They have been reading things electronically all of their lives.
What do these and other stories about electronic readers portend for the business of printed books? In the January 4 issue of Newsweek, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was asked if he believes the printed book will eventually go away. His response was "I do." He noted that the printed book has had an incredibly long run, over 500 years. If Gutenberg came back today, Bezos points out, he would still know exactly how to use the technology. That is an astonishing fact, as it is unlikely Alexander Graham Bell would know how to text on a cell phone, or Thomas Edison know how to operate an MP3 music player, though their inventions came 400 years later. Still, Bezos says, "no technology lasts forever," and in his opinion, this one is coming to its end.
Printed Books vs. E-Readers: We're Ready to Make a Call
M-Edge's waterproof case for Kindle E-Readers.
Is he right? We are ready to make a call. Yes. Perhaps not quite so completely, but essentially, yes, electronic texts will replace books, newspapers, and other printed matter. Those who love books may protest. There is nothing like the touch and feel of a printed book. If you grew up with them, you may feel this way. Today's generation harbors no such sentiment. They grew up in an electronic world and see no more point to reading from paper than in riding to the mall on a horse. I'm an avid newspaper reader - read one every morning with my coffee. I'll be one of the remaining subscribers when my morning paper goes out of business in the next few years. My children never read them, unless they have an online edition.
That is not to say that print will totally die, as Bezos predicts. Even as tape has virtually disappeared, and CDs are dying, vinyl records are experiencing a resurgence. People like the tangible feel, the covers and liner notes, things not available with invisible, digital downloads. Vinyl sales are believed to have increased by as much as 50% in the last year. However, we need to put this in perspective. Their numbers went from a smaller fraction of 1% of sales to a larger fraction of 1% of sales. There may be a niche market, but records will never again dominate music sales. We believe the day is rapidly approaching when the same will be said for printed books.
The reason is not only that electronic text is more comfortable to younger readers, it also offers many advantages. It is more portable, less expensive, can contain links to all sorts of related information, can be updated or corrected instantly, can be quickly searched, and so on. The "books" that carry electronic text will soon also play music, provide access to the internet, view videos, send text messages and email, and make telephone calls. You can carry a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica around with you and it will never do any of these. The new technology works better, and therefore it will replace the old.
But, here is the piece de resistance. The New York Times asked Bezos what does he say to people who want to use their Kindle in a bathtub. Bezos replied that he already does. He puts it in a one-gallon Ziploc bag. You can't do this with a printed book because you can't turn the pages, but you can push the buttons which "turn" the pages on a Kindle through the plastic bag. Frankly, we think this is an absurd idea, sticking your e-reader in a plastic bag. This is as low tech as it gets. But, now look - a company called M-Edge will be introducing a waterproof case this spring that allows you to use your Kindle in a bathtub, swimming pool, or anyplace else wet. In 500 years, no one invented one of these for printed books. Older readers may not much care whether they can surf the internet or text message their friends from a book, but reading in a bathtub or swimming pool may be just the feature that wins the older generation over to the new technology.