English novelist Nick Hornby on eBook readers

Over at Penguin Books' official blog, there's a surprisingly excellent little post by English novelist Nick Hornby, in which he level-headedly points out all the little niggling problems that face ebook readers in gaining mass acceptance. Some of the points are elegantly restated tropes of the anti-ebook argument ("Book lovers love books as a form of medium, where as music lovers are ambivalent to CDs and only really were ever passionate about vinyl"), but this is probably the depressing standout point:
The truth is that people don’t like reading books much anyway: a 2004 survey of two thousand adults found that thirty-four per cent didn’t read books at all. The music industry’s problems are many and profound, but you never see advertisements asking us to listen to more music; there are no pressure groups or government quangos attempting to ensure that we make room in our day for a little Leona Lewis. The problem is getting people to pay for music, not getting people to consume it. Can you see every teenager in Britain harassing their parents for a Kindle? Me neither.
I assume ebook readers will eventually reach mainstream ubiquity, but reading books on them will not be the primary function: they will simply be mobile internet tablets with the ability to read books. In fact, the Kindle itself (the most successful eBook reader) is already a prototype for that device. Until ebook readers are only incidentally ebook readers, we're not going to see mass acceptance... and book lovers will always prefer the tactility and smell of leafing through a volume. Nick Hornby on eBooks [Penguin Blog]
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25 Responses to English novelist Nick Hornby on eBook readers

  1. Moon says:

    I wonder how many people would say the never listen to music? Or never buy music?

  2. kleer001 says:

    I just read “Down and out in the Magic Kingdom” on my phone over this last weekend while traveling in Poland: in the airport, on the airplane, in the train, bus, and renovated soviet era train. I couldn’t have lugged that book around in my pocket. It’s a matter of operative volume.

    Books are great. I recall the heady euphoria of the first sniff of a 3rd printing edition of “Farenheit 451″ or “Slaughterhouse 5″. And there’s the all over tingling pleasure of walking into a super giant used bookstore like Powels. I love, respect, and am in constant awe of the magic of books, the idea of a book.

    That all said I also love stories. Stories read, stories improvised, stories on printouts, stories on computer screens, and now, stories on my phone.

    Stories and books, two different things. Sometimes they coinside. Sometimes they don’t.

    Convergence, I think, is the world to watch.

  3. arkizzle says:

    #23 Laurie

    I’m genuinely shocked. Everything I’ve read has suggested that the only way Kindle could view web based material was through subscription. I had a proper grudge against Kindle that I’m now going to have to seriously reconsider.

    Thanks so much for posting this information :)

  4. Dominic says:

    It’s a little bit presumptuous to speak for all book lovers on this, but I understand where he’s coming from. Yet, I’ve personally found that it’s fairly easy to convert readers to ebook forms.
    I’ve been reading almost exclusively on a PDA for about 5 years now. I started with a Philips Nino that I got off Ebay for $20, and just upgraded to a Dell Axim that I also got for $20 at a yard sale. I’ve never been suckered into hundreds of dollars for a Kindle or any other device, when a small investment lets me handle open formats like txt and html. Just for example, I’ve only ever read Cory Doctorow’s work on a PDA. With a good prog like uBook, the text is resizable to be comfortable, and the aspect ratio is the same as a novel.
    Similar small investments and a DVD of the Blackmask library have gotten several of my friends off on the same course of ebook reading. Don’t fall for the marketing, go cheap, go open, and save your money for the books you’ll really keep.

  5. yer_maw says:

    Far Too Expensive.

    I dont pay more than 1p for a book (even with scandalous 2.75 shipping), So why would i spend £400 on an ebook reader?

  6. irisclara says:

    I totally agree with #13 & 14. I’ve been a heavy library user for years because I can’t afford as many books as I can read. I still buy books, just not until I’ve read them first.
    I’ve been collecting ebooks for a while but only recently got an mp4 player with reader function. While I wouldn’t want to read anything too complicated on it, it’s perfect for Doc Savage. (Dominic, where can I get Black Mask?) I’ve read some books on the computer and much prefer pdf for that, but the one handed ease of use the mp4 player has greatly improves the reading experience. It’s fun and easy to use.
    I can see myself using a reader of some sort for the rest of my life. Books are great, but stories keep me company throughout my day. Now I don’t have to lug around something the size and weight of a library hardcover.

  7. SeamusAndrewMurphy says:

    I drool over having a Kindle (and in general), but these things are too damned expensive. Don’t forget, you have to buy the books too.

    If it ever prices out at about an hour of overtime, I’m there, but no way I could ever justify one with a family to provide for (cue violins).

    Great if you’re a tech guy and have disposable cash, but not for most folks.

  8. mellon says:

    I think Catbeller pretty much has it. I don’t want the Kindle because it’s broken – it’s /only/ an ebook reader, and it only works if you accept being locked in to Amazon’s system. I don’t mind paying for books, but they’re brutally overpriced these days.

    I know publishing books costs money, but given what I got for the DHCP Handbook, and given what the average copy editor or dev editor makes to edit a book, most of the cost is not in production, but in the medium (paper) and distribution (advertising, shelf space).

    Electronic books are a way to get around that problem. But right now they’re being used to duplicate an old business model, and if I have a choice between the old business model and a paper book, or the old business model and an electronic book, it’s not hard to see why people aren’t choosing to be early adopters.

    To me, something like the OLPC is a perfect e-book reader, because it’s a general purpose computer that’s good for reading books, rather than an ebook reader that does nothing else. I hope we see the OLPC display technology (including the flippy display) appearing in commercially-available devices soon.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Am I alone in wanting an ebook reader stuffed full of reference documents, books and comics? I couldn’t care less if the damn thing played mp3s. Just make it so navigating through the menu is as responsive as whipping your scroll wheel through a picture slide show and I’d be downright giddy. Allow all the files to be search-able for specific words in the documents, with countless book marks for favoriting pages which can be flipped through. Excellent for cookbooks, and a special page-flip would skip to the next bookmark. I want something useful, not a torturous carrot that smacks me in head but never makes it into biting range.

    Damn you Sony and your unusable eReader.

  10. arkizzle says:

    #4 TheMagus

    I disagree, one improvement to books that I can think of straight away is text-search.

    #9 Moon

    I believe that if you want your kindle to do anything more than purchase books with it’s evdo, you have to pay for a subscription, eg. looking at free blogs..

  11. Anonymous says:

    The Bathtub Factor:

    Ebooks will only succeed when they are cheap enough and rugged enough to use in the bathtub. At around $500 a pop, no one is taking their Kindle anywhere near water.

  12. membeth says:

    Since I am quite allergic to dustmites and have moved around enough to have given away a majority of the beloved books I’ve ever owned (which is unfortunate, although good for my sinuses), I ought to be the prime market for these thingys. Plus, I spend hours staring at a screen reading stuff like the Times and cases on Lexis so it isn’t like I have some aversion to reading off a screen. And there’d be the added benefit of less light disturbance to my significant other during my bouts of insomnia. But nope. Still got my paper copies. Reading actual books is just so comfortably throwback. And the bathtub thing is a very real barrier.

  13. catbeller says:

    Adding in my thoughts, I’ve noted in the last year that not as many people read books as they used to. Steve Jobs nailed the meme into our consciousness when he more-or-less said that he wouldn’t build a reader because no one read books anymore.

    But. Is this because no one likes to read, or because, for most people, the ones who make eight dollars an hour, a new book costs a full day’s pay?

    Is the ebook reader necessary to bring books back into people’s lives? When books become free – let’s face it, they will be free — people will read them the way they listen to music. Books have become the province of the wealthy, as they are made of trees and the trees are “owned” by companies who are jacking the price of their product up endlessly.

    The refusal of any company to take a twenty dollar LCD screen and mate it to a ten dollar circuit board in a ten dollar case and sell a reader for around a hundred – or much less – is not a consumer driven decision. It is the combined will of the publishing houses that glower at the cowering gadget makers that keep it at a $400 or $800 price point, and make the DRMed copies as expensive as the paper.

    The world needs ebooks, etextbooks, enewspapers, but doesn’t know it yet. I hope someone breaks the logjam soon, before people forget how to read more than five minutes at a time.

    Billions of people are learning to read soon. We cannot just make more books for their insatiable appetite, because the shredding of trees to make books must stop. There simply aren’t enough trees, and even if we plant millions of acres of quick-growth pine like corn, it is a disaster on a global scale. We need them for air, for cooling, for permitting animals besides dogs, cats, and rats to live. The planet is not the back forty for the publishing industry.

  14. Clay says:

    The popularity of ebook ecosystems will continue to be a direct function of the MSRP of the lowest-priced device on the market.

    At $500, you will have only the overlap of the geek and yuppie markets.

    Once $99 can be broken, you will get the sum total of the geek and yuppie markets.

    When you get to $29.99, the printed book is dead.

  15. Moon says:

    Ummm, I don’t the Kindle requires a wireless subscription. From Amazon:

    # Unlike WiFi, Kindle utilizes the same high-speed data network (EVDO) as advanced cell phones—so you never have to locate a hotspot.

    # No monthly wireless bills, service plans, or commitments—we take care of the wireless delivery so you can simply click, buy, and read.

  16. Moon says:

    Also, the Kindle is $359 now.

    /I’m still waiting for it to go under $300

  17. Havanacus says:

    I love my Sony Reader… I bought it a few months ago and It’s already paid for itself in the cost of books I’ve read without paying for… I would never be able to afford my expensive reading habits and now I don’t have to because of Piracy, Creative Commons and Public Domain… I chose the Sony Reader over the Kindle because the Kindle cost more and requires a wireless subscription… Also, Amazon would probably expect you to actually pay for your books… As for size, I’ve had no problems with the Sony Reader’s size ever sense I started buying cargo pants…

  18. Daemon says:

    Love the real book. There’s just nothing like the smell and feel of a real book. The only thing that’s going to make me switch to an ebook reader is the cost of printed books as they skyrocket due to the cost of shipping them.

    And they’d damned well better make a reader that doesn’t suck and cost more than many laptops by that time. I mean, seriously….

  19. zuzu says:

    The Kindle will become immensely popular once the tools for “ESN repair” become easy to use for programming an EVDO WWAN card with unlimited life-long Internet access from Sprint’s GhostNet.

  20. Havanacus says:

    Wow, I guess the Kindle does have free access to the EVDO network… An internet browser and everything… Blast, now I almost regret buying from Sony…

  21. stratosfyr says:

    “…and book lovers will always prefer the tactility and smell of leafing through a volume.”

    I’ve always hated that. After an hour of reading my weak little wrists are about to break from the weight of some dreary tome. And whether it’s the chemical sizing of a new book or the mildew and acid-rot of an old one, I could always do without the smell.

    I’d bug my mom for a Kindle but a) she’d never spend $500 on it when I’m old enough to buy my own damn gadgets, and b) they won’t sell it to a foreigner like me, because I might read a terrorist training manual or something on it.

    My biggest problem with the Kindle is actually the size: too big for a pocket, too small for textbooks. An MP3 player, PDA, or smartphone is a good enough reader for many, and has other features besides.

    We’ll see when the price drops.

  22. dculberson says:

    Oh man, I love the mildew smell of old books.

  23. the spacebase says:

    what was that line from High Fidelity?

    “Fetish properties are not unlike porn. I’d feel guilty taking their money if I wasn’t, well, kinda one of them.”

    Hornby loves books, I love books. There will always be those of us who love the smell, and those of us, like Stratosfyr at the top of the comments, for whom it does nothing.

  24. themagus says:

    ebooks will NEVER be as popular as books
    the book is the perfect invention
    you cannot improve on it

  25. Anonymous says:

    I have a Kindle, have had one for several months now, love love love it.

    #16 Anon:

    Kindle does what you want. Full searchability on any word (well, I haven’t tried on typical stop words like A, An, or The, but you get the idea). Bookmarks are unlimited.

    There are problems with Kindle — if you have hundreds of books loaded, it’s a little hard to scroll through looking for what you want.

    #20 Mellon:

    Bestsellers from Amazon are under $10 (hardcover-only in stores at $25). You can also load it up with all the free stuff there is out there. Anything you can get in .mobi or .prc format works, and .txt, .doc, and even .pdf files can work on kindle with their converter. So yes, to buy DRM’d versions of books you’re limited to Amazon, but you can still use it for virtually anything else non-DRM.

    #21 Arkizzle:

    Currently you can use the EVDO connection to connect to the real actual web for almost anything you’d want. Yes, they ALSO try to sell you subs to things like BoingBoing, but your average geek will instantly fire up the browser and type in boingboing.net and voila! Now, there’s no guarantee that won’t change later…but for now, your Kindle is basically a web browser as well as an ebook reader. It’s kind of amusing to read the web in monochrome. Very old-skool.

    Someone else, who reads on their phone: I used to read on my Treo, but I hated how much battery life it burned. And the Treo was really battery-efficient. I have a Kindle now and also an iPhone, and the iPhone has to be recharged just about every day and I barely use it, whereas the Kindle I can read for a week, hours per day, and still not need to recharge. Awesome.

    I think the real audience for Kindle should be college students. Imagine having all your text books — totally searchable, highlightable, and bookmarkable — at your fingertips in something the size of a trade paperback? Unbelievable. Imagine the convenience. I might actually have studied in college!!

    — Laurie

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