The printing press was invented in 1440. Apart from the Internet, this one invention is probably one of the most incredible things that happened in the last millennium to help spread ideas – books and the ideas they contain have transformed the world.
And yet, almost nothing has changed since the 15th century in the technology itself. Sure, the ink and paper is better quality now, and the availability of the resulting books is worldwide and in the tiniest shops now.
But apart from being able to have your own “printing press” at home, how the technological process works has remained pretty stagnant in over five hundred years, and how the publishing process works has barely changed in the entire last century.
In this post, which is likely going to ruffle some traditionalist feathers, I am going to tell you why this is finally going to change likely within the next decade, and why some of us are on-board with the change already. Feel free to whine about progress in the comments below, but the change is going to happen whether you like it or not!
The destiny of physical books: antique collectors’ items
My issue here isn’t with the concept of a book – of course the spread of amazing things like ideas, stories, science, philosophy, cooking recipes, instructions, biographies and all the wonderful things that one or more authors can impart to millions of others – is a fantastic thing. This freedom of movement of such information is the core of modern society.
But physical books are not the best way to do it.
I have always had an issue with physical books. I know many reading this won’t have this problem – but they are losing their romantic appeal to younger generations for practical reasons. I am absolutely confident that within a few decades books will just be antiques. Collectors or die-hard fans will keep them “alive” in much the same way LPs still exist today.
Problems with physical books
The problems with physical books have been so frustrating to me that I have unfortunately always read much less than I should have. I’ve tried to find alternative ways to read, which have helped somewhat in my language learning missions, but they always fall short of just using a normal boring book.
But in the last weeks this has changed completely when I started doing it more efficiently using the latest technology.
Here are some problems with physical books:
- They are simply uncomfortable to use in a lot of situations. People just accept this as part of the experience, but why do I have to use both hands to constantly hold a book open? Some books are too heavy to hold in one hand comfortably for longer than a few minutes or you have to hold your fingers in a strange position to keep the page open if doing it with one hand.
- When you give it your full attention, it only takes a day or two to finish many books. Then what do you do with it? It will go on your shelf and gather dust until you maybe read it again later. Very few people think to recycle it or share it with others who would appreciate it.
- It’s a waste of paper. I’m not a passionate environmentalist, but I simply don’t like the idea of using up so much paper. Libraries encourage re-use of books, but the commercial industry encourages wasting paper. You aren’t buying the information in a book, you are buying a dead tree with the information stamped on top.
- The more physical stuff you own the more you that stuff owns you. Embrace minimalism and get rid of crap you don’t need!
- Travelling with them is frustrating. You can either bring one book that you will finish quickly or take a collection and have space and weight issues. Interesting books usually do NOT fit in your pocket. Books were not made for travellers.
As well as the reader’s perspective, it’s frustrating for the author. Getting a book published depends very little on how good the content is and way more on who you know and how much promotion you do. Seth Godin is one of many that have experience publishing books and found the whole process too time consuming. He and others are sticking to modern distribution methods in future.
What you pay mostly doesn’t even go to them! You aren’t supporting the author enough with physical books. What you pay is actually going into shipping (once again, sounds great for the environment(!)), publisher fees, printing fees, reseller fees and a host of the many little things that were necessary to get that book to you. In the end the author only gets about 10-15% of what you paid. You are supporting an industry, not individuals.
Tim Ferriss writes that the main advantage of publishing a book is for the reputation (any bio you see of him says “New York times best seller” for example), but that it’s not a good way to directly make money, even if you somehow sell ridiculous numbers of copies.
But there is hope! I want to focus on the actual reading experience below, but I like how Everett Bogue gave a nice list of reasons why a world without books is a likely future in a more general context. This is why I went straight to digital distribution of my own book and have little interest (at least right now) in jumping through all the hoops and likely spending the better part of a year necessary to promote and publish a physical book for the off chance that it will reach some best sellers’ list.
The future: e-books
If you think I’m talking about reading PDFs on your computer screen, think again! Most people think that perhaps a device like an iPad (or at worst a laptop) is something people talk about for e-book readers, and immediately point out flaws like the backlight hurting your eyes, the glare making it useless outside during the daytime, and the battery life, size and weight meaning it gets tedious to use after a few minutes.
I agree. I’ve tried to read books on my laptop, and even on my smartphone, but it just isn’t practical for longer than a few minutes. I can’t see an iPad improving on these issues.
The solution is completely different: an e-book reader uses vastly different technology to those listed above that makes it just as good as, and actually even better than a physical book. E-ink is almost like printing onto the screen, and because of this it’s black-and-white (like most books) and doesn’t use any battery power while you are reading the page. The battery power comes from turning pages or using other features (like Internet etc.)
There is also usually no backlight. Like a physical book, you shine line onto it to read it. At first it seems strange to do this with a computer-like device, but this aspect of reading it in light makes it way more book-like and definitely does not strain your eyes.
My e-reader – the Amazon Kindle
To show you what I mean, I made a detailed video about the pros and cons of my recent investment, the new Amazon Kindle. (Currently 3rd generation) There are other ones on the market from Sony, Nook etc., but Amazon currently have the best price and use crisper display technology than the competition:
For most people, the cheaper version does more than enough, but the more expensive version (that I got) has unlimited worldwide Internet over its 3G (or “Edge” in countries with no 3G yet) and you don’t have to configure it at all. I’ll be travelling a lot in October and this is going to simplify my life immensely. No Internet cafés – no need to sign up for a SIM card for my smartphone for the sake of a couple of days. Once my plane lands, I can check my e-mail immediately with no roaming costs, one country after another.
My laptop will definitely continue to be my main gateway to the online world, but for quickly looking up essential info on Google and sending quick e-mails as much as I want wherever I want, I am happy to pay $50. The Kindle is small enough to fit in the inside pocket of my jacket and weighs next to nothing. I also got a case and integrated reading light, but as I said in the video this was quite expensive for the convenience.
While that’s an advantage for travellers, the cheap version is more than good enough for most people. The Internet/one or two games and even MP3 player features are irrelevant to many people. It’s not trying to be a replacement to your computer – it’s for reading.
If you are an avid lover of physical books, I don’t expect this article to convince you otherwise and I expect many people to tell me that they love the smell of a new book or the feeling of the paper. I liked the smell of my Kindle when I bought it, and I buy books for getting into the mind of the author and for learning something new, not to caress a dead tree.
Countless free books & news articles
When you think of a device from Amazon, you might imagine that it was made just for reading Amazon’s books – I actually haven’t spent any money (yet) on dowloading books from the Amazon store, but already have dozens of books on the device.
All you need to do is go to Project Gutenberg to get some of the amazing public domain books that are available completely free.
Some free content online will come in ePub format (the one advantage of non-Kindle readers is that they read this natively; this is something that Amazon will hopefully change in a software update soon), but I just send it to the Kindle via the free (open source) software Calibre, which converts it for me. I also use Calibre to send international newspapers in several languages to the Kindle first thing in the morning to read during the day. This is also completely free and part of the Calibre interface (the articles are from the newspaper websites), and you can read these on any electronic device you like since it handles all conversions.
Most of what I read is in PDF format though. The Kindle does a great job at rendering them – the only catch is you have to read it in landscape mode for it to be pleasant to read, since it will automatically crop around the text (rather than give a print-preview as in portrait mode).
Some poorly formed PDFs, or those with several columns are frustrating to read though since you need to constantly navigate rather than simply pressing next page. If text is formatted like that I will usually just select all and paste it into a text document on my computer first. Luckily I’ve only had to do this once so far. Nearly all the time I just drag and drop the file in, and if I didn’t mind paying for the convenience, I could download paid-books immediately from the Amazon store. I’ve already been enjoying browsing the first chapters of several books completely free.
This is the future
While there is still some progress to be made (as I said in the video, there are things I would tweak in the Kindle myself), these devices are well established now (this is generation 3 of the Kindle), and I am thoroughly enjoying using it.
I am a technology nerd, so I am perhaps more likely to embrace this quicker, the same way I had my first e-mail address back in 1993. But now everyone has an e-mail address, everyone listens to MP3s and soon everyone will ditch 15th century technology and embrace e-books. If some of you cling on for nostalgia’s sake, so be it, but some of us are moving ahead.
Next week I’ll update the Language Hacking Guide with several new languages, each of which will be pre-converted to be readable on the Kindle. But from week one, it was already made available in ePub format. Rather than be a simple book to just read and think “that was nice”, I am happier to see that people have it with them while out and about and after reading a bit, turn off their device and apply my advice to speak with people.
Using an e-reader is getting me out of the house way more for the time of the day I need to study and read, and I am definitely grateful for that. Such new technology used to be more for the introverted, encouraging people to spend more time away from others, but now they are finally bringing us back outside. When I walk outside I have dozens of books and newspapers that can be read very leisurely all in my pocket. That is truly an amazing thing.
Do you have a Kindle or another e-reader yourself? Think I’m crazy for dissing physical books? Let me know in the comments below!
And don’t forget to share this post with your friends on Facebook – it’s time to drag some people into the 21st century! 🙂