… of Borders, they are trying to flog us their e-book reader, the ‘Iliad’, for £399. Meanwhile in the London Evening Standard, David Sexton seems quite taken with Amazon’s version, the Kindle. In my branch of Borders on Monday, the Iliad was piled high on the left, just as you walk in; on the right is their wall of bestselling paperbacks, many of which are being sold at half price. It was a quiet Monday morning, and there didn’t seem to be too much interest in the four hundred quid e-book reader; what was striking, though, was that there didn’t seem to be too much interest in the four quid books, either. Attempting to sell people something for four hundred pounds that merely enables them to read something that they won’t buy at one hundredth of the price seems to me a thankless task. (A member of staff at Borders told me that he attempted to persuade a young and famous comedian to buy an Iliad last week. He seemed interested, until he was told the price, at which point he swore loudly and walked away. So at the moment, they are priced too high for millionaire showbusiness entertainers.)
There is currently much consternation in the book industry about the future of the conventional book, but my suspicion is that it will prove to be more tenacious than the CD, for the following reasons:
1) Book readers like books, whereas music fans never had much affection for CDs. Vinyl yes, CDs no. They are too small for interesting cover art and legible lyrics, the cases break easily, and despite all promises to the contrary, they are extremely easy to break and scratch. Books have remained consistently lovable for several hundred years now. For readers, a wall lined with books is as attractive as any art we could afford to put up there.
2) E-book readers have a couple of disadvantages, when compared to mp3 players. The first is that, when we bought our iPods, we already owned the music to put on it; none of us own e-books, however. The second is that so far, Apple is uninterested in designing an e-book reader, which means that they don’t look very cool.
3) We don’t buy many books – seven per person per year, a couple of which, we must assume, are presents for other people. Three paperbacks bought in a three-for-two offer – expenditure, fourteen pounds approx – will do most of us for months. The advantages of the Iliad and the Kindle – that you can take vast numbers of books away with you – are of no interest to the average book-buyer.
4) Book-lovers are always late adaptors, and generally suspicious of new technology.
5) The new capabilities of the iPod will make it harder to sell books anyway. How much reading has been done historically, simply because there is no television available on a bus or a train or a sun-lounger? But that’s no longer true. You could watch a whole series of the Sopranos by the pool on your iPod touchscreen, if you want. Reading is going to take a hit from this.
But – and this is the most depressing reason – 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’m not naïve – I’m sure that in the future we’ll be able to take a pill that saves us the trouble of having to read anything ever, and books will die overnight. But while people are so resistant to the act of reading itself, the four hundred pound reader is not going to be the must-have accessory of the near future.
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