E-books arrive with a rush -- and caveats

Some say the end of the printed book is nigh. They may not be wrong, but a bit hasty. And they miss the point: What books have to tell us will always reign supreme over how we read them.

Will that be paper or virtual?

Booksellers are finding themselves in the same boat as newspapers and magazines – whether to push the physical product or the digital one – while they navigate the roiling waters of 21st-century publishing.

Online reading is already a hit for quick reads, from Twitter and Facebook to news headlines and sports scores. But what about long-form reading – novels, biographies, college textbooks? Aren’t they better digested through the tactile experience of paper pages, bound together in a book, easy to drop, easy to share?

Two examples show which way the trend lines are running. Amazon, founded as a way to sell paper books over the Internet, now sells more books as electronic files than it does hardcover books. At the same time, slumping profits at Barnes & Noble, the largest bricks-and-mortar bookstore chain in the US, have led to it being put up for sale. Its stores are now stocked with toys, games, and other attractions to lure in foot traffic that used to browse there for books.

Nicholas Negroponte, former head of MIT’s Media Lab and founder of One Laptop per Child, says the era of the printed book will essentially be over within five years. Dorchester Publishing, which says its paper book sales have dropped 25 percent in the past year, seems to agree. It’s going to offer its vast array of mass-market romance and fantasy novels in digital form only, with paper versions available only on demand.

The prices of e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, once considered fancy toys for the techno-savvy, are coming down rapidly. Digital editions of books already are usually less expensive than their paper cousins.

So, are paper books an endangered species? Quite likely in the long run, but perhaps not as quickly as techno-enthusiasts imagine. After all, we’re still waiting for the paperless office to arrive, decades after it was forecast. (The typical office worker still consumes about 10,000 sheets of paper per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.)

It’s true that sales of e-books have grown dramatically, to 8.5 percent of the market this year from 2.9 percent last year, according to the Association of American Publishers. But that’s still only a fraction of what’s being sold on paper.

No doubt e-readers will get better and cheaper – that’s the way of the world in consumer electronics. E-reader screens are improving, getting easier on the eyes and easier to read in bright light. And someday soon, new formats, such as flexible screens that can be rolled up when not in use, may make them even more convenient.

Right now reading at length on a computer screen is a taxing proposition on the eyes. And recent research from a guru in the field of reading on the Web, Jakob Nielsen, shows that people still read faster on paper than on either a Kindle or an iPad by about a 6 percent to 10 percent margin.

E-book lovers argue that they can get just as lost in the “pages” of their Kindle or Nook as in a paperbound book. Print lovers say nothing compares with the delights of cracking open a new paper book, feeling it in one’s hands, riffing through the pages, noting your progress as the right side stack of pages shrinks and the left side grows thicker.

Whichever way we read, content will always be king. Worlds of ideas await us inside our books, ideas that shake us and shape us, and make life richer. In the end, they are what count, whether delivered on paper or by pixels.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited Amazon selling more electronic books than all paper books, when those e-book sales only surpassed sales of hardcover books.]

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