I haven’t bought a paper book since I bought my first iPad in 2010. Before that I bought between 20 and 40 books a year. I also own every Wired magazine, including issue 1.1, but I switched to the digital version as soon as it became available. You could argue that I prefer digital over analog most of the time. But I would like to refine that a bit. I like substance over form and content over carrier.
As a technologist and early adopter of technology I’m often pushed into a defensive mode. People will see my iPad and (rightly) assume I like it and then try to poke holes in my reasoning for liking it. That’s fine and I often enjoy the discussion. Especially when I can persuade people to look beyond their preconceptions. Of course, I’m prejudiced myself, with my unshakable faith in technology and innovation and my unconditional love for all things Apple.
When I meet authors, publishers or avid readers I like to ask them about the future of books. Not long ago I met with Walter Isaacson and asked him how many of his books were sold as ebooks. Unsurprisingly it was more than 50%. Then I asked him when his books would go all digital. Surprisingly he said he didn’t believe that would ever happen. He couldn’t see a future without paper and believes people will always prefer paper books over digital books.
A lot of people can’t imagine a future without paper books. They’ll argue they like the smell of paper and the fact that books are tangible, real, and even, romantic.
All those qualities also apply to the horse and carriage, doing the dishes, washing your clothes by hand, and a fireplace. And of course, you can still go on a horse ride, do the dishes without a machine, wash your clothes manually and get a fireplace. But even though all of these things still exist, it would be safe to say they also have been replaced by their modern equivalents.
When I hear people say they will always prefer paper books over digital books I can’t help but think that it’s almost an insult to writers and content producers. It is like saying you like someone just for their looks. Or that a painting goes well with the drapes. Or… you get the picture?
Now, I understand there are a few advantages to paper. But I see a lot more advantages to digital. The fact that I now carry about a hundred books with me, wherever I go, that I can read whenever I want, outweighs any advantage a paper book could give me. Well, beyond the shallow extremities of the paper book, like its smell.
There are however a few technical challenges that could be overcome by Amazon and Apple that would make my digital books even better and would let me forget about paper altogether.
1: Make it easier to show off my library
Not too long ago a journalist visited my house. He looked at my books, smiled, and said ‘we have the same books. I own 90% of these books, at least’. We became instant friends based on the books I own. Nobody knows what’s in my digital library. Now I know there are sites where you can build a digital bookshelf. Right now it is possible, just not easy, to do that. I already have an iCloud account. Why not let me show which books I own (including my reviews) at boris.icloud.com. Apple isn’t very good in doing social (Anybody use Ping?) but they do have a huge opportunity there.
2: Make it easier to share books
There is no second-hand market for digital books. That’s unfortunate. I would like to share my digital book with my friends, even if that would mean it would disappear from my library. It could even contain a sharing history so I could see (on a map?) who is reading my book right now. Amazon at least lets customers borrow some Kindle books, but Apple is still behind.
3: Make is possible for authors to digitally sign books
I had to get a paper book out of my library for Walter Isaacson to sign. Luckily I had his book on Benjamin Franklin so I asked him to sign that. But both my girlfriend and I had read the Steve Jobs book on the iPad and there was nothing he could add to that. How easy would it be to add an ‘author signature’ page to a book? You could hand your iPad to an author, he could draw something on that page or call up a keyboard and type something. Even better, you could ask him to do it remotely and it would have an indication of the queue length. You could enter a request to have him or her sign it for a friend and the book would predict it would take 6 months before you get the signature, without ever meeting the author.
Digital books are here to stay and there is no doubt that within a few years we will look at paper books as relics from the past. They will still exist but will be expensive and only available for a small group of collectors. We will still see a lot of innovation in digital books. They will become more useful, personal, shareable and awesome. And I will keep buying and reading them.