A Nearly Perfect Technology

“A nearly perfect technology.” That’s how former Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio once referred to the printed book. The statement came a few years ago, in response to questions about whether Barnes & Noble had any plans to get into the eBook business. Riggio asserted that B&N had no concrete plans to do so. Obviously with the 2009 release of nook, B&N has taken the plunge in to the eBook industry, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t right about the value of printed books.

Plenty of people seem to think that eBooks are the way of the future, and they’re certainly opening up new worlds, but I think reports of the death of the printed book are a bit premature. Comparisons are made to the digital revolution of the music industry, but they seem overblown. Online music and file-sharing solved a very basic problem that had been building in the music business: people were tired of paying $17 for two good songs, and ten poor ones.

What problems do eBooks solve?

It seems to me that there are only really two: storage, and portability. But most people who have personal libraries love their shelves of books, and it isn’t that hard to take books with you when you travel. These problems aren’t necessarily problems at all, so it’s hard to see eBooks as presenting a solution to anything substantial.

Of course, eBooks are cheaper, but that’s a problem in itself–digital books mean that tens of thousands of employees in the printing business are no longer necessary, and it also means much smaller checks to authors. eBooks may introduce as many problems as they solve. Of course, they are the long-awaited answer to lowering textbook costs, but that’s a fraction of the book market.

I think Steve Riggio was right–books are as close to a perfect technology as you can get: they’re portable, durable, relatively cheap, and everyone loves them. eBooks will certainly revolutionize the book industry, but I don’t see the printed book going away anytime soon. Unlike, say, newspapers.

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2 responses to “A Nearly Perfect Technology

  • mylittlefawn

    Jack Hoey, you hijacked my brain didn’t you?!?!

    P.S. nook propaganda at the b&n made me want to die.

  • Loapalehorse

    I doubt that the issue is whether the “book” will go away any time soon. After all, despite the disappearance of those creating new vinyl for analog music reproduction, people such as myself still have access to players for our vinyl and to stores selling vinyl that was once part of someone else’s collection.

    I wonder, however, whether the slow (and possibly inevitable) disappearance of those places which once published new written material on paper will disappear.

    Those who desire to write will continue to write, whether the final medium has tactile pages or simply virtual ones. People who were born to read (whether it was in a formal book or simply whatever they saw printed on the cereal box at breakfast) will read.

    With the loss of quality publishing houses with good editors, it is my fear that it will become harder to find the gems worth reading among the dross that would not even make it to the worst-designed cereal box.

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