Hugh Howey posted an intriguing exploration of a possible – perhaps even likely – near-future in which our very concept of e-readers and e-reading has shifted. We’ll own physical book-like objects that are technically blank but will fill with words via native or bionic technology. This way we get the traditional feel of a book if we want that, but maintain the swap-out, thousands-in-your-pocket convenience we’ve come to know through current e-readers and e-reader apps. Or we can let all the physicality go entirely and allow our GoogleGlass accessories or GoogleLens contacts to let us read on walls and ceilings or whatever else might be in sight. We’ll even get to do all of this while we ride from place to place in our self-driving cars, which means even more time for reading. Yay!
I could see any or all of that happening. Even things we haven’t yet imagined. And I’m excited about it! But I don’t think physical books will stop being relevant to readers or end up wholly phased out of the market. Not because of heft/feel/smell/etc. alone, as some folks might suggest, but for three other reasons.
1) They won’t disappear yet because there’s still a frankly nonexistent (or at least profoundly constrained) model of interpersonal loans for ebooks. So while physical book purchases may eventually decrease significantly, without a more ebook-owner-friendly method of legal sharing, folks who love handing a friend a book when they visit or giving away a book one has already read and don’t need anymore will still want physical books. It’s still one of my biggest frustrations, honestly, because “you can read it when I’m done” is currently impossible unless I let someone else use my e-reader or share an e-reader account with them, which I’m not going to do. Someone on the supplier side could fix this problem if they wanted to, but I’m pretty sure they don’t.
I’m not in any way resistant to new technology. I love new tech and would love to see – and probably use – the faux-book multi-faceted e-reader Howey talks about or glasses that let me read on the ceiling in bed (*please soon*). Currently, I primarily use audio books and pick up ebooks sometimes if there’s no audio option, but if I really enjoy something or find it useful, I get a hardcopy to have around for rereading, sharing, and gifting. See what I did there, though? I bought both! We can’t think of these markets as simply cannibalistic, ebooks eating the physical book market for lunch. They can serve unique as well as overlapping functions.
2) Physical books will also matter for collectors (which I think most of the “but I like the smell” type folks probably are). Collectors aren’t typically about pure utility so much as aesthetics and a certain experience of use and ownership. For some sorts of readers, the faux-book e-reader may be just enough like an old-fashioned book to satisfy them, but to many collectors? Even if it’s an excellent facsimile and/or very handy, they’re still going to want to handle their battered copy of Little House on the Prairie, sigh happily at the line of coordinated color on their shelf that corresponds with their favorite scifi series, and stack intriguing mini-collections on and around coffee tables as a gesture of intellectual openness toward visitors. For these folks, a faux-book that’s both static and dynamic in the way Howey describes would be like a meal at a major chain restaurant would be for most foodies – adequate, maybe even good, but never offering the unique experience they appreciate from gourmet supper clubs, high-end food artists, exotic foreign street vendors, and kitschy Mom & Pop hole-in-the-walls with a specialty to die for.
I could foresee a trend toward personal collections of what one might consider heirloom books, for example, books bought or otherwise gathered with the intention of passing them down. I love that I have my brother’s copy of Ender’s Game, my mother’s copy of The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, and a friend’s once personal copy of her best-selling book. I don’t want just any copy of those books. I want the copies with histories that matter to me. There’s still a visceral difference for me between the content itself, even its base packaging (look/feel/smell), and the unique ineffable quality a book takes on when I read it with my neice and then say she can take it home with her. It’s not just a story or even just a book then. It’s a treasure.
3) Considering the take-backsies problem some e-reader users have experienced, especially if some legal dispute occurs or even just as standard practice for dealing with electronic versions of certain periodicals, it’s not hard to feel like “ownership” in a wholly electronic environment is far more tenuous than in the physical world. Yes, my physical books can be stolen or waterlogged by flood or set on fire, but barring extreme circumstances or my active desire to part with them, I’m sure they’ll be accessible to anyone in my home or office thirty years from now. I’m not sure my e-copy of Analog scifi magazine will still be accessible even 30 days from now.
There’s a certain sense of permanence and domain that comes with physical books that ebooks – by their nature and amplified by the policies surrounding them – just don’t have. Perhaps that sense is an illusion or irrelevant to some readers (or with regard to some books), but I think it’s not something we can wholly discount.
So, while it may become a semi-niche market, like scrapbooking or art collecting, I strongly suspect that distinct physical books will likely stick around a good long while.