Just got caught up reading a very lengthy (and contentious) comment thread over at Making Light regarding Amazon vs. Macmillan and eBooks in general, and it got me thinking. One of the commenters puts forth the idea that eBooks are the ultimate future of reading, and that those silly old things made out of paper will disappear into history shortly enough once eReaders make it big.
I see a couple of problems with this. First off, the 250 unread books currently looming on my bookshelves beg to differ. They sure aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Same with the millions of books in new and used book stores and libraries. The commenter theorizes that non-electronic books are going to become collector's items for folks (like me) who just can't let go of physical books and want to live in the past.
The problem with this, though, is that the argument is completely backwards. eReaders are the luxury item. The people who are most interested in eReaders are people who read a LOT because they see the attraction of carrying around 100s of books in their pockets and also because they think they can justify the sticker price. I definitely know that if I took the plunge and dropped several hundred dollars on an eReader any time soon that I'd feel the need to buy all my new books on that platform to justify the cost.
Of course, it seems to me that I'm a rarity in that I think I could read enough to justify spending that much. I bet most people wouldn't see the attraction. Why spend several hundred dollars on an eReader when you can just go to a used book store and pick up a beaten-up paperback for $3 or run over to the library and spend nothing at all? That definitely makes wayyyy more sense for the folks who only read half a dozen books a year, tops.
No, the way I see it, eReaders are more like blu-ray than anything else – and I say that as someone who owns and loves his blu-ray player. Blu-rays are a luxury. $5 bargain bin DVDs from Wal-mart are surely more than good enough for 9 out of 10 people, even those who have 42-inch HDTVs. Hell, there are probably still people out there making regular use of their VCRs – it would not surprise me in the least. eReaders are for the folks who care about having the most they can possibly get out of a piece of technology and who are willing to drop several hundred dollars to get it.
(One odd point the commenter also tries to make is that people don't really care about typesetting or design, but it seems like the people who pay so much for a reading experience would be the ones most likely to care about how something is presented, no?)
My theory (that I have just come up with this morning) is that eReaders will only become ubiquitous when they are either free or so cheap that you could lose one on a camping trip and not worry about it. Or spill an entire cup of coffee on and keep using (definitely a case where printed books are still the winner). Once it is no longer a big deal to replace your broken eReader, then it'll be believable that someone who only reads the new Stephanie Plum novels when they come out would consider picking one up. We may very well eventually get to that point, but I think it'll take a lot to get there, and there are some things that physical books will always do better.
For example, there will always be people like me, who love the feel and smell of a good book in your hands while you read it, who obsess about cover art design and love books as pieces of art that you can experience. I also love the fact that I can loan my books to friends or walk into a used book store and sell them back. It may be possible that someday you will be able to do almost all of those things with eBooks, but it seems like things we take for granted when it comes to physical media are prevented by DRM or considered piracy when it comes to digital media.
I any case, I may someday look back at this post and laugh while I clutch an iPad crammed full of 1000s of books, but I doubt it. I have no plans to buy one at this time. I'm open to receiving it as a gift, though… nudge nudge wink wink!
P.S. I almost forgot to mention – it seems like the folks espousing eBooks the most also think they'll mean a future where self-publishing is the norm. These people are certifiably insane. I want proofreading and copyediting, and I want someone to tell the jackass who thinks he wrote the Great American Novel that no, it's actually a complete piece of shit that nobody wants to read. No creative work should be made in a vacuum.