WSJ Predicts the Death of eBooks: Oh, The (Digital) Humanities!
The Wall Street Journal is one of the best business newspapers out there, but when they try to cover a tech topic they tend to articles verging on the nonsensical. You might recall the WSJ columnist who in August gave up on his Kindle because he forgot to charge it before a cross-country flight; today I have an article which argues that ebooks are a failed product niche simply because the adoption rate has slowed.
This article was written by Nicholas Carr, and it is based in part on the recent survey results released by Pew Research Center last week. He points to the detail that more readers have read a paper book than read an ebook and uses that as a basis to pretty much proclaim that everyone who is a proponent of ebooks is wrong.
Mr. Carr is quite fond of straw man arguments, and in fact he starts his article with one:
Ever since Amazon introduced its popular Kindle e-reader five years ago, pundits have assumed that the future of book publishing is digital. Opinions about the speed of the shift from page to screen have varied. But the consensus has been that digitization, having had its way with music and photographs and maps, would in due course have its way with books as well. By 2015, one media maven predicted a few years back, traditional books would be gone.
I’m not sure I know anyone who would have claimed that paper books are going away – not in 2012, in any case. Sure, some people thought that in the early days of the Kindle (2008, 2009) but I doubt that anyone really believed in that aspect of ebook hype past late 2009 or so. I know I did not.
Mr Carr also seems to like mis-characterizing the rise in popularity of ebooks in the past few years:
The initial e-book explosion is starting to look like an aberration. The technology’s early adopters, a small but enthusiastic bunch, made the move to e-books quickly and in a concentrated period. Further converts will be harder to come by.
The reality is that an explosive growth in a market as people rush in to adopt a new product is not an aberration; it is a basic truism of economics. The point at which the rate of adoption slows down is called saturation (Wikipedia).
Yes, folks, this WSJ writer did not bother to consult Wikipedia while trying to understand the economics of the ebook market.
Mr. Carr goes on to mistakenly identify a particular literati subculture as being the only ones who read so-called literature:
Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital. They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call "real books"—the kind you can set on a shelf.
The problem here is that I know any number of people who read heavy-duty, dense books on ereaders and smartphones. That, and arguably it’s a mistake to claim that a title identified as literary fiction is actually of higher quality than a popular novel like The Hunger Games (here’s why).
But once Mr Carr gets past the weak arguments and misunderstood economics, he begins to reach the conclusion that many people in digital publishing figured out years ago:
E-books, in other words, may turn out to be just another format—an even lighter-weight, more disposable paperback. That would fit with the discovery that once people start buying digital books, they don’t necessarily stop buying printed ones. In fact, according to Pew, nearly 90% of e-book readers continue to read physical volumes. The two forms seem to serve different purposes.
Welcome to 2009, dude. Once you have adjusted to the changes, perhaps you could join us in 2013? We don’t have flying cars, but we do have Skynet.
And finally, Mr Carr closes out the article with a historical inaccuracy:
Having survived 500 years of technological upheaval, Gutenberg’s invention may withstand the digital onslaught as well. There’s something about a crisply printed, tightly bound book that we don’t seem eager to let go of.
Um, Gutenberg didn’t invent the book, or to be more exact he didn’t invent the codex (the technical term for a book with paper pages, spine, etc). The codex dates to at least the first century AD (Wikipedia, again). Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Even if books had died out, I seriously doubt that printing presses would no longer exist in any form; they are used for far too many purposes besides printing books.
All in all, this is a disappointing article, especially coming from what used to be an august publication like the Wall Street Journal. Hell, I’ve done better, and the total sum of my writing training consists of just the few writing classes required to get an engineering degree from a state university.
Surely Nicholas Carr can do better.
image by Lynn Gardner