Tuesday, December 22, 2009

E-Readers Hit the Big Time

Fear of new technology is not new. In 1982, the king of all Hollywood lobbyists, Jack Valenti, told the US Congress:

“I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

Hysteria aside, the movie industry was utterly convinced that the advent of video cassettes would destroy the film industry. 30 years on, video and DVD have had the opposite effect – far from undermining the industry, they are integral to its ongoing profitability. How could Hollywood keep producing so many films, at such great cost and such variable quality without the “straight to DVD” option? Even the notorious box-office bomb, Waterworld, almost broke even in the end, thanks to DVD sales.

There has been similar angst about the fate of books and the publishing industry since the arrival of the Internet and new technology like e-readers. In 2007, the US National Endowment for the Arts reported a “remarkable decline” of American reading habits, its chairman saying that it would damage the civic, political and economic fabric of the country. The New Yorker chimed in, quoting sociologists who claimed that “reading for pleasure will one day be the province of a special ‘reading class’, much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy.” The Boston strangler strikes again!

E-readers are all the rage this holiday season. Industry experts forecast that Amazon will sell 900,000 Kindles in the last two months of 2009. The Sony Reader and Barnes & Noble Nook, which sold-out before it even hit the shelves, are also on a tear. There was a lot of skepticism about e-readers in the first couple of years, and a lot of doomsayers who thought they spelled the end of the written word.

The truth is that technology has ended the monopoly of bound, mass-produced manuscripts we call books, and expanded choice for readers. We can read on the computer screen, on dedicated e-readers like Kindle and Nook or on our cell-phones.

We love books for the stories and the emotional power, the insights and inspirations. Who ever puts down a great book and says, “Wow, I loved the paper-stock, and the font was awesome!”

People who love reading will read more than ever before – I know I do.

Circumstances, mood and moment will determine how and what we read – the Kindle is great for plane trips or train-rides; the cell-phone works well for a quick catch-up with emails or news, and nothing (for me, at least) will beat the pleasures of a book on a beach, or a bookshop on a rainy afternoon.