Why eBooks are a fad

Shuffle aside the Smart Display; send that dusty-old PDA down to the Scouts’ jumble sale. You’re going to need the space in the cupboard in which you hoard redundant tech clutter. Because I confidently predict that anyone buying an eBook reader this Christmas will have discarded the device come Easter.

Why eBooks are a fad

Wide-eyed “experts” have already labelled the eBook reader the iPod of thebook industry. They’re wrong, although it’s easy to see why they’ve come to that achingly predictable conclusion. Just as the iPod (or any otherMP3 player for that matter) allowed us to lug around our entire CD collection for the first time, the eBook reader squashes bookshelves into a device as delightfully slender as the Sony Reader. And who wouldn’t want to have all their books available to flick through at the mere touch of a button?

It’s a compelling argument, but it makes one mighty assumption: that people consume books in the same way they do music. They don’t. In fact, they’re not even remotely comparable. “The truth is that people don’t like reading books much,” concludes author Nick Hornby, in a devastating deconstruction of the eBook hysteria on his blog.

He cites a 2004 survey that found 34% of adults don’t read books at all. Even those who bother to read books do so in moderation. The average adult buys only seven books per year, according to BML Books and the Consumer Survey. Why, then, do they need a device that carries hundreds more books than they’ll ever find the time to read? “You never see advertisements asking usto listen to more music; there are no pressure groups or government quangos attempting to ensure that we make room in our day for a little Leona Lewis,” Hornby concludes. “The problem is getting people to pay for music, not getting people to consume it.”

It isn’t only the volume, but the pattern of consumption that undermines the eBook reader’s attractiveness. One of the joys of the MP3 player is listening to a track from one album, and then dipping into a couple of tracks from the next. We set the device to randomly raid our music collection, playing The Beatles one minute and the Arctic Monkeys the next. We create playlists of hand-picked songs from across a dozen or more different albums. Such effortless variety is its USP, which is why Apple et al increase the storage capacity with everynew generation of device.

The same doesn’t hold true for eBooks. Few read a chapter from Wuthering Heights one minute and White Teeth the next. Only a literary lunatic would set the device to randomly shuffle through the pages of every book in the reader’s memory. We generally read books from cover to cover and move on to the next. There’s almost no value in having that book digitally archived on an electronic reader. How many books on your bookshelf have you re-read? One in ten? Probably fewer.

The only time I could see the eBook reader being genuinely useful is for holidays or trips aboard, when a tiny eBook reader containing all your reading does far less damage to your minuscule hand-luggage allowance than a wodge of paperbacks. But even that convenience is short-lived. Take your sensitive eBook reader down to the beach and you’ll be picking the sand out of the buttons long after your tan’s worn off; get it splashed by the poolside and it won’t even last that long. Likewise, thumbing through a few chapters in the bath back at home is a definite no-no. For a device whose chief selling point is supposedly convenience, an eBook reader can be pretty damned inconvenient.

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