Will ebooks replace books?

Posted: Wed Aug 18 2010

As the debate hots up over the future of the publishing industry, Time Out's Books editor Chris Moss lies down the Kindle and asks three experts what will happen to the humble printed word

My first night in with the Kindle was short and not sweet. I'd downloaded some erotic fiction by a Spanish author hoping - along Ballardian lines - that the combination of cool, hard surface and sweaty prose would be enlightening. It wasn't. I hated the interface, accidentally pushed a button that took me back to Amazon's retail site, and then the battery went flat. I grabbed a paperback.

But that was a little while back and the recent announcement that Random House US is expecting ebook sales to jump 'beyond 10 per cent' of all sales next year does make you wonder. Some industry insiders expect a third of all US books to be virtual by 2015. London, which is an odd mix of the modish and the bookish, may go the same way - or not. Can you lend a friend an e-read? Can you sunbathe with a gizmo? Then again, my flat is small and my many books oppress me. The jury's out, so I asked two wise men and a wise woman, whose life is the link between author and publisher, to give us their expert views.

Derek Adams Time Out's gadget guru
'The hardback will be first of the book media to go the way of the the audio cassette, the vinyl LP and the compact disc. It's cumbersome, heavy and past its sell-by date. The paperback will follow soon afterwards. Why? Because the human being is lazy, always in search of a more practical and more entertaining ride. We embraced CDs because we didn't have to get up and turn over the record. Then Apple created the iPod which meant we didn't have to get up ever again.

'With the advent of Sony's eBook, Amazon's Kindle and, more recently, Apple's all-singing iPad, I'd expect the entire literary medium to head down that same digital highway. Whether we like it or not, the geeks have inherited the world. The devices may be expensive and breakable (and nickable) but already there are rumours of Apple embracing OLED (Organic LED) screens for its next iPad update. This allows for flexible, unbreakable digital screens without a backlight. Five to ten years down the line, today's 'digital natives' will all be carrying affordable bendy plastic ereaders containing their entire book, music, photo and video collections, all in one tidy package. Besides, it's probably more eco-friendly that way.

Nick Harkaway, Novelist
'I doubt ebooks will ever entirely replace paper. As digital technology surrounds us, we seem to fall more in love with the idea of physical connection as authenticity; a hardback on the shelf - especially a signed one - is like a handshake with the author,
and therefore a physical contact with the story itself. We shouldn't underestimate the extent to which we humans are creatures of touch.
'Paperbacks are good technology. They do a job. They're resilient and cheap. They can be passed around, annotated in pencil; they cannot be surveilled or magically recalled by a central authority. There are parts of the world where paperbacks are frankly better than digital. To ask whether ebooks will replace paper is also to ask whether the whole world will take the same social and developmental path: probably not.'

Hannah Westland, Literary agent at RCW
'The exciting thing about digital is how much more intimate and immediate a form it is. You can sit on the tube reading an ebook and noone knows what you're reading - that's just as appealing as reading an ostentatiously jacketed classic so that everyone knows how brainy you are. One of the essential elements of the reading process is its privacy, the direct conversation you feel you're having with another sensibility:

I think that could actually be enhanced by reading something on your own digital device.
'How this will actually translate in practical publishing terms is still hard to see. More commercial fiction and zeitgeisty stuff will increasingly be read in digital format, and paperback sales of these may suffer as a result. But as the market for digital reading grows, I hope writers, agents and publishers will be able to get more creative and nimble about how they can capture readers with interesting and timely content - and in ways that ensure we can still generate sufficient income from this for writers to keep writing stuff we want to read.'