Today’s Wall Street Journal featured an in-depth article about the potential disruptive impact of digital books and e-book devices. (The author touched on implications for new pricing schemes and business models for the publishing industry, but that’s not the subject of this post.) The question is, should book lovers like me switch over to e-book readers like Kindle 2, or should we wait for the next generation of devices?
The jury’s out.
Time for confession: I’ve been a book lover all my life. I’m passionate about a well-told tale, and love browsing independent bookstores and the local public library. Relative to most Americans, I spend a fortune on books, both fiction and nonfiction. In any given year I read hundreds of books, thanks to early training in speed reading. But I don’t yet own a Kindle or a Sony e-book device. Their value propositions aren’t sufficiently compelling, at least not yet.
To me the primary benefits of digital books are convenience, portability and searchability – functional, utilitarian benefits. Where’s the joy?
Like most people I read books for a variety of reasons:
- Pleasure: the desire to be captivated by a well-told tale or enthralled by an interesting and complex set of characters (e.g., Possession)
- Curiosity: an interest in learning about people and cultures, places, historical figures or times in history that are way outside my personal experience (e.g., Three Cups of Tea or The Girls of Riyadh)
- Distraction: a way to pass the time on a long flight (e.g., The DaVinci Code)
- Thirst for knowledge: a way to learn new theories, concepts or models that might benefit my personal or professional life (e.g., The Tipping Point, Groundswell, etc.)
- Guidance or self-help: a way to learn new skills or contemplate behavior changes (e.g., Yoga Anatomy or The Not So Big Life)
- Business: reference sources that relate to specific areas of expertise (e.g., Marketing Metrics)
I understand the convenience of digital books for reference purposes, such as travel guidebooks or business books that I might want to consult on a regular basis. In those cases searchability is a real benefit. I can also imagine what might happen if e-book readers had built-in GPS devices, to help find current restaurant or movie reviews that are linked to the device’s current location.
But even so…
Today’s Devices Require Too Many Compromises
For me devices like the Kindle 2 still require too much of a compromise: you lose the tactile and aesthetic experience of a well-designed book. Books distributed via the Kindle 2 must sacrifice the author or editor’s intent for typography, design and page layout in favor of searchability, portability and the requirement to offer scalable font sizes for people with vision challenges.
Given the device’s limit of 16 shades of grey, complex illustrations and typography must be compromised. The screen is still way too small. Yes, you can install documents in PDF format (via conversion), but I find myself wondering whether in doing so, you lose the fidelity of the designed page when you make that conversion.
Will Next Gen Devices Hit the Sweet Spot?
I understand from online gossip that the next Kindle will offer a larger screen (just under 10 inches). I wonder how many shades of grey it will support; whether its screen resolution will be better than today’s 150–167 dpi limitations (whatever the actual details).
Based on my experience 20 years ago with the desktop publishing revolution, I know that the quality of the reading experience will improve enormously once the technology affords 256 shades of grey and improved screen resolutions (closer to 300 dpi). And a page size that approximates a 1:1 ratio with the original page layout.
I can imagine buying digital books when e-book reader devices impose fewer constraints on book design: no sacrifices in page and chapter layout, typography, illustration fidelity, etc. I don’t require color, but I do want high-fidelity grey scale.
It’s possible that the next generation e-books, given larger screen sizes and improved resolution, will hit the sweet spot — when my motivation is business-related or utilitarian, i.e., when seeking information like maps and travel guides, restaurant reviews, newspaper articles, blogs, etc. I can also understand the appeal of e-books for in-the-moment distraction while waiting in line, or passing time on a cross-country flight. For those situations I’d be willing to give up the tactile joys of holding a book and turning pages in favor of the option of carrying lots of books “inside” a device that weighs less than a pound.
It would be nice to have my entire library “at my fingertips” – fully searchable — but it’s hard to imagine that Amazon would ever offer a pricing model that would make that affordably attractive. Not for someone like me who already owns hundreds, if not thousands, of books. Amazon’s pricing model to add digital rights to the cost of a printed book (when purchased one at a time) is still too high a delta to pay for a single book, let alone large numbers of books.
Net net: for someone like me the devices aren’t yet good enough.