Ghosts in the machine

It's time for book lovers to face the music. They're dead. Or, more accurately, mostly dead (thanks William Goldman). That is, glued pages and cardboard will persist for a while yet, but they will eventually fade from widespread public use.

It’s time for book lovers to face the music.

They’re dead. Or, more accurately, mostly dead (thanks William Goldman).

That is, glued pages and cardboard will persist for a while yet, but they will eventually fade from widespread public use.

They will, within the next few years, become an artifact, like a vinyl LP – beloved and lauded for the quality of its sound, but ultimately less convenient or useful than a CD.

Which is stone dead, by the way – killed by the digital download.

As evidence, look no farther than Pitman, a town of 9,365 people in New Jersey.

It’s home to one of two remaining Sony CD factories.

Built in 1960, it was owned by Columbia Records and pressed vinyl records. But in 1988, it was acquired by Sony and started burning CDs.

Today, its 300 employees whip out about 18 million CDs and 15 million DVDs a month.

On March 31, it will close.

Nobody’s going to cry about the disappearance of the CD. Or the DVD, which is also dead.

They are all being supplanted by the digital download – streamed content.


Because it uses fewer natural resources and costs less to manage and distribute.

That is, it makes sense to consumers and producers because it is very convenient.

Readers often think of books differently.

They have been around for hundreds of years, and people like the heft and feel of the paper. And some admire a good binding. They have all become part of the package.

But the meat is the words – the story woven by the writer. And that is now easily distributed through digital channels.

Because of that, the book, as we know it, is finished.

Devices like the Kindle and Kobo are now relatively cheap. And will grow more so – they will soon fall to the $50 range – just a little more than the cost of a single hardcover a few years ago.

Yet they can contain more than 1,000 volumes. And it’s all searchable and wired to the ‘net, so finding that great idea or passage to share with your buddies on Facebook is as simple as two or three clicks.

There will be no more boxes of dusty, ragged books to store or maintain on bookshelves.

And an entire vacation’s reading can be carried in a single purse.

Put it in a Ziploc, and you’re reading by candlelight in the tub.

Eyes weak? The print can be made an inch high.

Finish a book at 10 p.m. and want the sequel? You can download it in 15 seconds. Literally 15 seconds.

And no book has to go out of print. In the future, all books (even the worst potboilers) can be available. Forever.

This sounds like a sales pitch. It’s not supposed to, just a few points to underscore a couple of benefits of the digital book.

In fact, buying a Kindle or Kobo reader isn’t recommended right now.

While the technology is great, the publisher’s insistence on digital locks makes it goofy.

A book bought on Amazon’s device can’t be read on the Kobo and vice versa.

And in Canada, some publishers only offer books through Indigo’s Kobo. While others are tied to Amazon’s Kindle.

You want to read Sebastien Junger’s War? Well, you have to own the Kobo.

Want to read something else? You have to have the Kindle.

It’s idiotic.

Rights-crazed publishers are trying to force consumers to have several devices to read, and hampering sales in the process.

That won’t last (heck, if they get cheap enough, people won’t mind having a couple of readers lying around – which will make sharing easier), but it will slow the growth of digital book delivery.

Which is why the best readers – Kobo and Kindle – will probably fall to a device like the iPad, which can display digital content from all publishers.

This doesn’t suggest the failure of digital book delivery. Quite the opposite.

People love books, and they have been the most popular delivery system for the written word for hundreds of years.

But no longer.

The electronic book has arrived.

Those who love a good book should gird themselves.

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