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The electronic challenge to reading gains momentum

December 28, 2009

Kindle ebooks outsold traditional volumes on Christmas Day, while “vooks” — books augmented with video –grow in popularity. Is this the end of reading as we know it?! Not yet, but it’s a distinct prospect for future generations.

As Ben Parr reports at Mashable, the Kindle broke sales records last month, as people bought the latest cool gadget for Christmas presents. So it’s no surprise ebook sales spiked on Christmas day — those who found it under the Christmas tree were playing with it.

At the same time, Parr notes, “it makes sense traditional book sales would be down. The Christmas shopping season would have passed and most people were concentrating on their families, not shopping, that day.”

Furthermore, while conceding the Kindle’s popularity, Parr terms Amazon’s crowing as “mostly PR smoke and mirrors.” Sales of ebooks were a fraction of traditional books over the holiday gift-buying season as a whole.

Still, while ebooks may not quite be shoving paper volumes off the shelves, it may be only a matter of time, as the digitization of everything continues apace. Who knows?

Nobody, that’s who. The Washington Post weighed in yesterday with a long, comprehensive assessment of the publishing industry as it grapples with new technology in a poor business climate. The Post says publishing companies find themselves at odds with both readers, who want cheaper books, and authors, who want higher royalties.

Publishers so far have been flatfooted in their response to the digital challenge, but the Post says ebooks do not have to mean the end of books as we have known and loved them. Publishers, though, need to adapt quickly. Will they? Take a look at the Post analysis and tell me what you think.

If you want a really scary look into the crystal ball, though, read the Post‘s excellent report on vooks.

I recoil with horror and disgust at these “multisensory” sensory books, with their thin narratives and video enactments. But young readers — what the Post calls “digital natives” — have an entirely different relationship to technology. They find vooks comfortable, familiar and fun.

A publishing exec argues that vooks and books are entirely different genres– a comforting thought for fogeys like me.

But my fear is that vook “reading” — which is actually more akin to watching a video or surfing the Internet — will supplant traditional text reading.

The Post reports that reading researchers say children already can’t do imaging and imagining exercises as well as they once did. “Video’s doing it for them,” says reading consultant David Sousa.

The Post challenges each assertion made by vook partisans. It’s an excellent piece of reporting. Give it a look. Then tell me if I’m overreacting.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Connie permalink
    December 28, 2009 2:30 pm

    I didn’t think anything could freak me out more than the movie “The Road,” but the entire notion of “vooks” may send me over the edge. Guess I’m a dinosaur. But I’m OK with that.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 28, 2009 3:21 pm

    I’m starting to think Homer and Langley weren’t entirely crazy. Don’t be surprised, if you outlive me, to read (on your Kindle, of course) a news story of the old man whose house was filled with books and newspapers. You may have to explain to your grandchildren what a book or a newspaper is…er, was.

  3. Tommy permalink
    December 28, 2009 3:44 pm

    I read both articles and I think you are overreacting, again I hope.

    In a follow-up to the vews story (get it? I replaced the “n” with a “v” to highlight the fact that the news is mainly distributed through video, can the people in charge of naming these things be a little more imaginative?) I took possession of all the books in the old guy’s home and took them off-world because a race of creatures who cannot appreciate books deserves a slow illiterate death.

    Long Live the Bookies! (see how I replaced the “w” with a “b”, pretty crafty)

  4. Steve Grubb permalink
    December 28, 2009 5:37 pm

    Vooks and books ARE entirely different genres– but you are right, books are destined to become obsolete, just like typewriters. But I can’t see me getting comfortable with a vook whilst relaxing on the couch. And I will REALLY miss newspapers.

  5. evan james roskos permalink
    December 29, 2009 12:12 am

    books will become like vinyl — replaced by technological advances, but never eradicated. and, like vinyl, there will be a strong enough interest in the format to keep them around. will Borders & B&N be able to survive? Probably not in the current form they hold (think smaller book section, slightly larger cafes). I think if publishers really wanted to control the ebook craze they would have held out from dealing with Amazon & Sony — or demanded more $$ up front. it seems like in an attempt to avoid looking like the MPAA and the various record companies, they ended up giving in a bit too easily. then again, maybe they can curb their costs without cutting into royalties and staffing. ad rates are dropping. the only thing that will rise are printing costs — if the print runs are smaller, the cost-per-book is higher. (plus, the shipping costs will fluctuate according to transportation costs).

    The whole thing seems pretty big and publishers might need to take a step back to figure out how much they can afford to charge for ebooks while still paying their content providers a decent amount AND somehow not make customers understand that the amount they are paying for an ebook is not arbitrary.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 30, 2009 12:47 pm

      Evan, one thing that’s been missing from discussions and news reports I’ve seen lately is the impact print-on-demand technology may have on all these. We’ve all been focused on the fast-rising popularity of ereaders and ebooks. But POD will be able to produce paper books of decent quality anywhere a machine is located. This could translate into significant cost reductions for publishers in transportation, returns, overprinting and so forth. Again I say, who kows?

  6. December 29, 2009 10:25 am

    I am afraid something is a foot. I read an article that in 5 years the newspaper industry and book industry will be vastly different than it is today. If you have large stores selling 80% below real market value then they will control and readers, and they will expect to get it almost free. Newspapers will hang in a bit more because people like reading them in the morning . Readers today on the internet think much is free. The advertising revenue has to be there or it will not be there. We are in a change over for sure. To survive large newspapers and large publishing houses need to go free from the big conglomerates. They have leveraged the papers to a dangerous level. It will almost have to be a start over to stay a certain size. They will then survive for a bit. I am sad about it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 30, 2009 12:48 pm

      I fear newspapers and paper books are doomed, and I don’t mean in the far future, either. I hope I’m wrong.

  7. December 29, 2009 10:18 pm

    Change is coming, of course. Change always comes. And this switch to vooks (or whatever) will take place no matter what we say or do, sad as that fact is. BUT as Evan says vinyl is still around and will go on as long as there are those who care and want to have the feel of the REAL in their hand, something they can put on a shelf and admire and share with a friend, rather than something that disappears when you push a button. Don’t waste too much emotion on this issue, Chauncey. Minutes of your life are flying by and you’ve got important work to do. This Xmas I bought books for all on my list (they expect it) and I would have rather have shot myself in hand than send anyone I care about a vook or kindle or coggle or crinchal or whatever the progs will call them tomorrow. Gadgets have a way of becoming just that. Gadgets, not Treasures that you’ll keep for the rest of your life and pass on to your children or grandchildren. I stubbornly will remain an optimist on this subject. The Duffer.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 30, 2009 12:52 pm

      The vinyl comparison is doubly apt because, more than two decades after the cd was supposed to make it obsolete — and well into the digital revolution that consigns cds to obsolescence — vinyl has not only survived but surged in popularity in recent years. So there is hope.

      But please, Duff, do not deny me my hobbies. I’m pessimistic by nature, or so I’m told, and as the great scifi writer once told me, “I take consolation in a dark view of life.”

      You are right, however, in saying time is short and there is work to be done. Thus has it ever been.

  8. December 31, 2009 10:55 am

    I will try and be the part that stays around. I may have to go underground like in the 60’s. If I do not need a zillion dollars may be it will be like going to a museum or some thing. We must be part of it one way or the other. I may be a dinasour, but I am a happy little one. I still think people want to read news papers and books. Real ones. It will come down to profit or not. It always has. The old industry really has hurt itself by everything must be the biggest, sell millions or they do not touch it.

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