Want to Bet?

John Green has been talking about the future of the book on his blog. Like many, John predicts that the bookstore an entity will disappear, much the way that the corner record store went away. I bet him a classic comic that his dire prediction was wrong. If I’m wrong and still ambulatory in 10 years, I’ll pay up.

Here’s why the book is not going to go the way of the album/LP/CD. The creation of digital formats for music playback was a huge innovation that so drastically improved the listening experience that it made the older format obsolete. Listening to a song on your computer, iPod, etc is a much better experience than putting a piece of scratchy, popping vinyl on a turntable.

Once songs were in a digital format, it was a natural step to share them electronically. Remember that users were doing this long before iTunes revolutionized the music shopping experience–it’s called stealing. The retail experience changed because the end user process changed and record companies were losing buckets of money.

Putting books in an electronic format changes next to nothing. Sure, with a Kindle, you can download books from Amazon (until they decide that you don’t own what you own, but that’s a different story), but the reading experience is still the same–lines of words on a screen looks the same as lines of words on a piece of paper. You’re not going to enjoy the act of reading any more than before. There is no analogous improvement. In fact, tactually speaking, reading on an e-reader is a less desirable experience than holding a book, and I can’t imagine readers sharing playlists of novels the way they share music.

Remember that buying books is a social activity. People browse, they hang out, they chat with others, and they drink coffee. This is what they do. Music buyers pop in head phones and block out the world.

There an good, valid uses for ebooks–textbooks, magazines, newspapers–but they are a parallel market that doesn’t and won’t supersede the book itself, which, as wasteful as it is, is still the cheapest long term way to put and keep books in the hands of readers.

So check back in ten years to see if I have to hand over that Golden Age comic or get to do a happy dance–that I hope won’t throw out my back.

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