Talking tech since 2003

When the Kindle came out, ebooks – admittedly from a very low base – shot up 1,260% in the two years from 2008 to 2010, according to the New York Times. Though it leveled off after that, the share of the market that ebooks control has continued to grow steadily since then. The question we’ve got to ask ourselves is whether this is set to continue. Will the printed page disappear forever from our world? Or, instead, will the two mediums find a new equilibrium, where some books are read on screens and some read on paper.

It’s a big question that has many proponents for both sides. Some swear that paperback books are done. They’re wasteful, take up far too much space and are heavy. Others – particularly those who like having traditional libraries – cringe at the idea that ebooks could ever overtake print books as the preferred means of reading, let alone send the written page the way of the dodo bird, much like clay tablets and pages written on the type writer.

To consider which will happen it’s a good idea to look at another prediction – and that is of the paperless office.

We are going to have no more paper in the office by 1990

The paperless office has been predicted pretty much since the day that printing became a reality. Then, when our computers ended up networked, everybody was confident it was right around the corner. And yet, it still has not arrived.

Though the amount of paper used in many offices has declines sharply over the years – largely to cut costs and for environmental concerns – to date it has never completely gone away. Interestingly enough, this seems to be a generational thing, where people who have grown up reading on print outs are far less likely to let the printed page go.

Those of us who were raised with screens very much a part of our lives, however, have found it far easier to let the printed page go and read everything we want – be it a book from Terry Pratchett or a text for an essay – on the computer screen. In fact, many younger office workers very much prefer the computer screen for reading material, as it allows for such activities as searching and the copy and pasting of notes and text chunks for later use.

Could the same thing happen to the book?

When we look at who reads ebooks and who reads printed books a very similar picture emerges. Millennials and those a little bit older by and far prefer screens, while the older generation prefer the printed word.

Of course, this effect is not complete. There are still plenty of millennials who prefer the feel of paper to swiping on a screen. What we can’t yet know is whether that is going to change in time as well. Will the preference for ebooks continue to grow into the next generation as well?

Actually, it might not even matter.

The economics

You see, there is another thing that needs to be considered and that is the economics of the situation. The printed book is expensive. Not only does it require you to chop down trees and make ink, but it also weighs a lot and can’t be transported around instantaneously.

What’s more, book shops need a great deal of storage space to store the books that they want to sell. And what about books that they don’t manage to find buyers for? Those are incredibly expensive, as they take up space for a long time after which they either need to be destroyed or sent back to the printer.

Ebooks don’t have that problem. They do not run out. They can be instantaneously uploaded to a person’s reader and they take up virtually no space, with the prospect of carrying around a library in your pocket already a reality.

This has already made the ebook cheaper than the normal book (though it is the case that prices are being kept artificially high in many cases). As the books continue to lose market share, the production of individual units will become more and more expensive. And that will push more people into the arms of ebooks – thereby provoking a spiral.

It’s only a matter of time

Just like the paperless office, the speed at which the normal book will disappear will be far slower than most people predicted. At the same time, it will have to happen. At one point a tipping point will be reached where the mass-production of books will simply be too costly in comparison to their electronic variety.

Though of course books will never disappear entirely, with some people always willing to fork over serious money to own a physical product, they will end up being specialty items for the discerning collector. For the rest of us, we’ll have to go look in the cloud to see what our virtual bookshelf holds.

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