eBooks: Settling the Debate

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My Kindle vs. My Library (My Kindle can hold eight times as many books).

With the emergence of new technologies in the Early Twenty-First Century, new debates would — and continue to — arise around all sorts of issues that this revolution heralded. One debate that concerned me especially was that of the implications of technology on existing ‘technologies’ we already had (and had had for centuries). Specifically, if technology is to be understood most simplistically as the advanced conveyance of information, then what did this mean for that tried-and-tested storer-in-chief of information, the book?

The Debate. Image Courtesy of Freepik: <a href=”http://www.freepik.com”>Designed by Freepik</a>

When the Amazon ‘Kindle’ really started to take off in the early 2010s, a flurry of opinion-articles and profiles flooded the web decrying the dawn of this new technology as the ‘death of the book’. In 2010, HuffPost published an article entitled ‘Five Ebook Publishing Predictions for 2011’, which boldly laid out a positive vision of the then-newly emerging eBook market and the strides it was undoubtedly going to make in the coming year. Whilst the article didn’t rail against the new technology per se but was certainly one of the first instances in which the possibility of e-readers replacing print publishing was entertained, which is important. Some articles posited more hopeful messages. An NPR op-ed from 2009 made the claim that eBooks may ‘even cause people to read more’. Other sources were not so optimistic. Take The Guardian, who, in 2011, published an article saying ‘Is This the End of Books?’ And furthermore, eBooks.com proudly boasted in a talk given in 2013 (though published in 2017) that, ‘The End of Print is Nigh’, almost like a Biblical prophecy.

Regardless of this divergence of opinion, what is clear is a consensus from all sides that states that technology and literature are in conflict with one another, that there is a fundamental, ontological clash between the two. On the surface of things, this claim seems undeniable. Print books sales took a large dip from a recent peak of 778 million made in the United States in 2008 to 591 million in 2012 — surely not unconnected the fact that 2011 saw the highest ever Shipment of e-book readers before or since, 23.2 million. Furthermore, the rise of ‘Emojis’ has created an all-new debate about the erasure of the written word as we know it, with sources claiming both doom, ambivalence, and progress. Whatever one thinks of these new forms of technology, my point is that there is certainly a contrived dichotomy being set up between the two. The printed word, or technology: you can’t have both!

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Unit sales of printed books in the United States from 2004 to 2019 Sources: Publishers Weekly; Nielsen BookScan.

As the decade progressed, this dichotomy was furthered. Every ensuing report on either book sales or eBook sales was pitched always like an epic battle between mortal foes. For instance, by the middle of the decade, a consensus was reached that eBook and e-reader sales were slowing, print sales were up, and the ‘hype’ around this new reading technology had rather jumped the gun. In 2016, The Telegraph published an article about how Penguin Books — the biggest print publisher in the world — admitted they ‘read too much into the eBook hype’. In 2017, The Guardian — who had been churning out articles decrying the eBook as ‘the end of the book’ up until then — claimed that ‘Kindles now look clunky and unhip’. In 2016, The Verge, slammed the idea that eBooks were replacing printed books, citing the fact that 73% of Americans admitted to reading at least one print book that year, as opposed to 28% who admitted the same of an eBook. Indeed, by the middle of the decade, it really looked as though the great debate was settled after all. Slate declared in 2016 that ‘It Looks Like Ebooks Won’t Kill Print Books After All’, citing the undeniably surprising and indisputable slump in eBook sales at the time as evidence that the end was now not nigh for print books.

And that looked like the end of that.

Until 2019 when the debate returned again in full force. The Good E-Reader blog declared triumphantly: ‘in 2019 ebooks are making a comeback’ — citing an uptick in sales. But similarly, Vox published that the eBook ‘revolution’ promised in the 2010s, ‘never quite came’. The point is this: the debate is going to rage on indefinitely unless the goalposts around the debate itself are shifted. This is something that I feel must happen. For, why have the two formats have been placed in opposition at all? Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Almost the entirety of the Library of Congress’s Archives is online, a feat of enormous brilliance. And multiple charities aiming to increase world literacy are now relying on eBook technology for its efficiency and interactive element, such as Reading is Fundamental and Amazon’s Kindle Reading Fund.

Side-by-Side? Can’t the ‘competing’ technologies co-exist? Image Courtesy of Freepik: <a href=”http://www.freepik.com”>Designed by Freepik</a>

These instances of eBook and e-reader integration could not be faulted even by the staunchest Luddite. They are a genuinely practical attempt to utilise the convenience of e-readers towards humanitarian ends. On the simplest level, a whole crate’s worth of books providing almost infinite information can now be delivered in a device that fits inside your pocket. How could that kind of technology not be used? And besides, a further reason why the supposed ‘clash’ between books and eBooks does not make sense is the fact that Print Book Sales have seen a large resurgence in popularity. Mental Floss reported in 2019 that print book sales were back on the rise, and The Guardian noted how the number of independent book stores in the U.S. and U.K. has been increasing rapidly the past few years. This, teamed with the popularity of e-Books and e-readers makes for one ultimate truth that should come as joyous news to any fan of the written word. The combined total users of these two mediums most likely mean that more people are reading now than ever have before. That sounds like progress to me.

Me reading the morning light on a train somewhere in Europe. You can’t deny the romance of a printed book. 

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