Paperbacks Vs EBooks? Easy – You Don’t Need a Charger

The Great Horse Manure crisis of 1894 caused our predecessors to get their knickers in a right twist. Writing in the Times one commentator estimated that “in 50 years every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure”. Such gloomy forecasters ignore a fundamental aspect of economics; that, by nature, developments evolve organically and people will respond collectively to change if a development will improve the quality of their lives – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the horse, or its manure is redundant.

In March this year, Tim Hely Hutchinson, Group Chief Executive of Hachette UK, wrote to all his authors, to explain how, as a publisher, they were addressing developments with regard to digital matters and the advance of ebooks . For traditional booklovers the figures did not make easy reading. He pointed out that, during February, in Britain, sales of printed books were down by 13% year-on-year, and in 2011 the total consumer market for printed books in the UK was down by 7.8% – the third successive year of decline.

But authors and readers can still take heart, particularly novelists.

At one time there were fears that the cinema would kill the theatre, and then that television would kill the cinema. In fact, in 1946, Darryl Zunuck of 20th Century Fox said “People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” Today, the stagedust has settled and all three coexist. Likewise, 30 years ago, my cousin, a professional french horn player, drove around with a sticker in his car saying ‘Keep Music Live.’ Live music has never been replaced by recordings as it offers a different experience and, for that matter, the online equivalents can never replace the intense family rivalry and fun at Christmas of board games. I have no doubt either that the introduction of the telephone caused many to fear the demise of face-to-face conversation and an e-greeting just doesn’t compare in the same way as a tangible birthday or Christmas card – even Moonpig mail their beautifully crafted online creations on behalf of their customers. Then on top of that – I can’t see me ever queuing to have a Kindle signed by the author – and given that so many of us harbour some kind of primal collector instinct, I can’t see either how the comfort gained from scanning a row of dusty thumbed Dickens can be replicated on the e-shelf.

The fact remains that different media can live side by side providing they can each prove their worth in relation to the need.

So why do we need printed books? The printed book doesn’t run out of power or rely on a mislaid charger. It doesn’t remind me, while I am reading, that my daughter has made a move in Words With Friends or that a Groupon email has been posted in my inbox. I don’t need to hide a printed book under the towel on the beach nor, for that matter, does it mind too much if I get sand in the cover. If I drop it in the bath or accidentally drench it in wine I haven’t lost much of my unbacked up life’s work and I know that if it’s stolen I can replace it relatively cheaply – and when I do climb up to the first base of Everest I don’t need to worry about a signal.

Ebooks have improved the quality of our lives in many respects, not least our baggage weight at airports and failing eyesight but, fundamentally, printed books can share an equally long shelf life especially if they’re released in advance of an ebook.

Alan Sugar, in February 2005, said that the iPod would be “dead, finished, gone, kaput” by the following Christmas. Well that was clearly an e-error of judgement and I am suggesting, rather than predicting, that printed books can live on providing, that is, authors don’t write a pile of manure.

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