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The Book is Dying Again

When skimming the library-related news, I came upon bit after bit about the “death of the book.” Everyone from Nicholas Negroponte to Jeff Bezos to every over-excitable librarian who wants to seem profound is predicting it.

Jeff Bezos told us this summer that Kindle books outsold hardcover books for the first time this year, and predicts they’ll outsell paperbacks by the end of next year. At first, we weren’t told how many of each were sold or how the sales of both were dwarfed by paperback sales. He also didn’t bother to point out the very obvious pricing differences, either. A question critical, informationally literate librarians might ask is, Why would anyone pay attention to anything Jeff Bezos says about ebooks?

It’s not like he doesn’t have a very obvious agenda: plugging his proprietary ebook reader. It’s not like he’s some neutral trend analyst. And yet, Negroponte cites Bezos’ claim when predicting the death of the physical book.

I find it amusing and startling that anyone is taking any such predictions seriously, especially librarians who are supposed to be critical about such claims.

I find it amusing because none of this is news at all. All these predictions barely count as information. Such announcements from Bezos or Negroponte are so much hot air. There’s nothing really there.

I find it startling because so many people seem to take any of this guff seriously, thus demonstrating how gullible and hungry for stimulation they are.

The book will be “dead” when the book is dead. Until then, everything we hear about the book dying is utterly meaningless as a statement of fact. These seers might as well be saying, “Opaque transparent books masticate harmoniously.”

Bezos is a smart fellow, and is cleverly trying to promote the sale of Kindle books as the future of reading, but I suspect the only way Kindle books will outsell paperbacks at Amazon is if Amazon drastically lowers the price of the Kindle and the books or if they just stop selling paperbacks.

If Amazon stopped selling paper books entirely, then Kindle books would outsell all other kinds of books. Would this be the “death of the book”? If people buy at least the same number of paper books as they do now for the indefinite future, but buy even more ebooks, is this the death of the book? Based on the Bezos logic, it just might be.

Negroponte thinks that within five years most new books will be ebooks. Does that include the entire world, or just America? Will everyone in Africa be reading ebooks on those dinky “one laptop one child” machines? Are publishers all over the world going to convert to ebooks?

And even if paper books do “die,” who cares? If the technology achieves perfection, then maybe paper books will die. So what?

Unlike consumers of light entertainment, most books I want to read are not available as ebooks for mobile readers, but if someday they are, and are affordable, so much the better. I could clear a lot of space in my apartment now filled with books and dedicate the shelves to that Precious Moments figurine collection I’ve always wanted.

The “death of the book,” if that doubtful state ever arrives, will mean nothing to most people anyway, since they don’t read. It won’t make much difference to most readers, either, since that’s what they’ll be used to reading.

People love baseless predictions, but  I have one that’s guaranteed to be right. The physical book will die someday. I guarantee it. You can quote me on it, and if I’m wrong, I will pay each and every one of you a million dollars, thus depleting the vast sums I’ve built up by writing the Annoyed Librarian.

Global warming will eventually get us. In a billion years or so, the sun will have brightened enough to burn water and life off of the earth. A few billion years after that, the sun will steadily expand until it engulfs the earth and turns it into a charred cinder. If physical books are still around then, I will be very surprised, and you all will be a million dollars richer.

Until then, what difference does it make?

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Comments

  1. Real Librarian says:

    But how does this affect academic libraries?

  2. Wayne says:

    Ah, AL, this doesn’t seem to be one of your better-reasoned postings. It has the tone more of what I will sound like in 20 years time after the attendants in the home have refused yet again to wake me up for Regis.

    To whit (see, I’m already talking like an old man): whether Bezos lowers the price of kindle books and so hastens the death of printed books, or whether people see the value and utility of ebooks and start buying them more, the printed book is still dying. Basically what I’m saying is that you can’t argue that just because Bezos does something to hasten the death of print books doesn’t mean that that somehow destroys his argument.

  3. Bruce Campbell says:

    Paper books will never die because you don’t have to plug them in. They don’t flicker and die like Kindles when not charged.

    The argument that kindles will replace books is on the same ground of thinking that cars will replace people walking or riding bicycles. Transportation is the goal of each but they are quite different activities and people do them for different reasons.

    Ridiculous sentiment about the death of books. Good post, AAL.

  4. Raynor says:
  5. Fly in TX says:

    Ridiculous. Libraries have always used the current popular media to provide information, not the media guiding the libraries. Back when microfiche, microfilm, and ultrafiche was new, everyone thought the printed newspaper and magazine would “die”. Instead of getting a paper on your doorstep, you would get a microfiche? Each house would have a reader/printer? This might sound silly now, but in years to come, so will the thought that the book can die.

    Knowledge is power, so use it wisely.

  6. noutopianlibrarian says:

    What is relevent to librarians, dear AL, is that the slow demise of newly printed books will begin impacting library services. Horses still exist – people still ride them. Livery stables just aren’t what they used to be, however.

    If we shouldn’t worry about global climate change until the sun begins burns off life in a billion years, then there isn’t anything to get excited about if temperatures rise by up to 6C in the next hundred years. Wonder if those frogs felt cozy in the pot as it warmed slowly toward boiling?

  7. I Like Books says:

    Wasn’t it once predicted that libraries, instead of being full of books, would be full of wax audio recordings? Old technologies are not always replaced so readily by new. Are printed books the buggy whip of our times, or the dinner plate of our times? Or the pencil? The wine bottle? The leather boot?

    Some observers would see sales increase from one this year to two next year, and predict a yearly doubling indefinitely. Because short-term trends always extend linearly into the far future, like housing prices, right?

    I have no doubt that sales of ebooks will increase, and that sales of printed books will decrease as a direct result of consumers choosing the ebook over the printed book. But they’ll find a new balance. We could call the printed book the pencil and the ebook the ballpoint pen– people still use both, and sometimes there are reasons other than personal taste to prefer the pencil.

    Personally, I’d be happy if people continue to read books in any format, rather than thinking that some two-page article in the first page of Google hits covers everything they need to know about a complicated subject.

  8. Spekkio says:

    The AL has a short memory, b/c I’ve posted a strong argument against this same argument in the past (see “Hapless Publishers Now Blame Amazon” 14DEC09). In short: no librarians in “Star Trek.” (Yeah, yeah, someone pointed out a few exceptions by searching Memory Alpha.) Printed books still exist, but most reading is done on PADDs…which aren’t that far off from Kindles or iPads.

    See also the documentary TV show “How William Shatner Changed the World” or the book on which it was based, “I’m Working on That.”

  9. Carter21 says:

    Good post. The hype of recent has been breathless. Just look at LJ’s Home page.

  10. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    I think the book will continue and libraries with them. Just because there are more ebooks sold and maybe read dosnt mean the two are dead just means there is a different majority mode of reading. Now we have paperback, hardback and now eback. You can pick the mode of your choice. Should libraries move into the ebook business sure.