Are e-readers making books obsolete?

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Books are a beautiful thing. They offer practical information and can tap into joy, sadness, anticipation, fear and a multitude of other emotions bound only by the depths of the imagination. It's no wonder that throughout the ages and across all cultures, people have had such a powerful passion for the printed word.

But for all the knowledge and enjoyment they provide, books are not the most convenient of possessions. Over the course of a lifetime, anyone who owns more than a few inevitably spends a significant amount of time hauling, storing, organizing, shelving, loaning and reclaiming their lexical loved ones. It begs the question: Is this the smartest way of managing literature and other texts in today's increasingly tech-smart world?

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Enter the e-reader, an electronic device that allows you to read books, newspapers, magazines and any other printed material in digital format. But that's not all. Many e-readers also offer Web browsing, games, music, movies and an endless array of apps such as The Weather Channel or Microsoft Office to enhance the user experience. E-reader sales have steadily increased since the debut of the Sony e-reader in late 2006 (Amazon's Kindle launched in early 2007), totaling 13 million in 2010 [source: IMS Research].

What's more, in January 2011, online retailer Amazon.com reported that it sold three times as many Kindle books as hardcover books. As of that same month, the company also began selling more Kindle books than paperbacks [source: BBC News].

Looking at these figures may be enough to make you wonder if e-readers will forever change the way people read. Is it possible that these electronic gadgets will ever replace books entirely? As we attempt to answer this question fully, let's take a look at the pros and cons of both e-readers and books. What limitations, if any, do e-readers have? Keep reading to find out.

Pros and Cons of E-readers vs. Books

When considering the question of whether e-readers are making books obsolete, it helps to take a look at what e-readers actually do. As of early 2011, there were at least a dozen different models on the market, each with its own specific features and capabilities. None are good at everything, and so choosing one over the other depends on which of those capabilities are most important to you.

Some e-readers are just that -- devices dedicated to displaying digital books, newspapers and magazines. Examples include Amazon's Kindle, the Sony Reader, Borders' Kobo, and Barnes and Noble's Nook. Some dedicated e-readers offer Internet connectivity and other high-end functionality, but their main purpose is to display e-books, which they generally do very well.

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Other e-readers are more aptly called tablets. These devices come equipped with features like Wi-Fi, MP3 support and full-color touch screens. They're a lot like laptop computers, but smaller and a bit more portable. The Apple iPad is one example of a tablet. It isn't an e-reader in the technical sense, but its size means you can certainly use it as such. Barnes and Noble's NookColor falls somewhere in between; it's a color-enhanced tablet-style device, but with fewer capabilities than the iPad.

So how do traditional books compare to these newfangled gadgets? For starters, you can enjoy a traditional book in direct sunlight. This is tricky at best with tablet-style e-readers (think of your laptop screen on the beach at high noon), though dedicated e-readers are much better in these situations because of their black-and-white or grayscale displays. Loaning books may also be an issue with e-readers. For those who are accustomed to sharing their reading material, there are a variety of lending applications for e-books -- such as the Nook's LendMe feature -- though these may have some limitations, including time constraints on lending periods.

Cost is another potential downside to e-readers. Consumers may pay anywhere between $140 and $500 for an e-reader, and many of the most popular books (i.e., bestsellers) cost about $9.99 at best. For people accustomed to shopping at second hand book shops or borrowing the bulk of their reading material, this can be quite an investment. Only a few e-readers allow users access to library content.

Still, there's no doubt that e-readers are handy for book worms. Each has the ability to store thousands of books in one easy-to-use device, which makes these gadgets very convenient for students, travelers and anyone who does a lot of reading on the go.

That's just a quick comparison of e-readers with old-school books in terms of usability and practicality. But what does the future hold for these formats? Read on to find out.

The Future of E-readers

An increase in e-reader usage doesn't necessarily translate to a decline in book sales.
An increase in e-reader usage doesn't necessarily translate to a decline in book sales.
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It's difficult to predict the fate of traditional books in light of e-reader technology, but it might help to look at the music industry as a comparison. Until relatively recently, there was very little variation in the way music was recorded, distributed and enjoyed. Around the start of the new millennium, however, MP3 files, iTunes, YouTube, Pandora and a host of other technologies changed the entire industry. Could a similar tech-friendly trend be happening in the world of books?

Before you conclude that printed books will soon go the way of the eight-track, cassette tape and CD, consider that -- unlike these formats -- many people have an emotional connection to actual books, not just the stories and information they contain. In this way, books are more like LPs. Though impractical, many people still cling to their vinyl collections for the richness of their sound.

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"It makes sense for some books to be available digitally, such as textbooks and certain reference material, but traditional books will never go away entirely," says Steve Cymrot, owner of Riverby Books in Washington, D.C. "A 200-year-old hand-bound text printed on rag paper is a thing of beauty, and that will never change."

And interestingly, booming sales of e-readers don't necessarily translate to a decline in sales of traditional books. For example, Amazon.com's January 2011 news about e-books outselling paperbacks came on top of reports of continued growth in paperback sales -- at least for the online retailer. The situation, however, is a bit different for some traditional bookstores. Borders, a national chain of bookstores, declared bankruptcy in February 2011, reporting that it will refocus on e-book and e-reader sales in order to save the company [source: The Wall Street Journal].

More and more Americans appear to be jumping on the e-reader bandwagon, too. An August 2010 poll by Harris Interactive revealed that 8 percent of Americans were using e-readers and about 12 percent planned to do so in the next six months [source: Harris Interactive]. In 2011, sales of e-readers are expected to reach more than 20 million [source: IMS Research]. This is good news for makers of e-readers, which continue to advance the technology by making these devices lighter, faster and smarter.

Considering the growing popularity of e-readers, sales of traditional books may eventually decline. In fact, the entire world of book publishing may be headed for a radical transformation. But fear not, bibliophiles. It's unlikely that traditional books will ever become completely obsolete. They simply need to find a new place alongside their cool new cousin, the e-reader.

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Sources

  • Adair, Tracy. Nook user, personal interview. Feb. 24, 2011
  • BBC News. "Amazon Kindle e-book downloads outsell paperbacks." Jan. 28, 2011. (Accessed Feb. 24, 2011)http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12305015
  • Collins, Kirsten. iPad user, personal interview. Feb. 24, 2011
  • Costa, Dan and David Pierce. "Barnes & Noble Nook Color review and rating." PCMag.com. Nov. 16, 2011. (Accessed Feb. 24, 2011)http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2371554,00.asp
  • Cymrot, Steve. Riverby Books, personal interview. Feb. 24, 2011
  • Harris Interactive. "One in ten Americans use an e-reader; one in ten likely to get one in next ten months." Sept. 22, 2010. (Accessed Feb. 24, 2011)http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/mid/1508/articleId/568/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/Default.aspx
  • Ford, Brian. Writer, personal interview. Feb. 24, 2011
  • FPD Market Research. "IMS Research reports iPads exceed e-book reader volumes while new entrants strengthen both supply chains." Sept. 28, 2010. (Accessed Feb. 24, 2011)http://www.fpdmarketresearch.com/press-details.php?eID=OA==#top
  • Tech Shout. "Apple iPad review: flits between an entertaining multimedia player and e-reader." Feb. 25, 2011. (Accessed Feb. 25, 2011)http://www.techshout.com/reviews/2011/25/apple-ipad-review-flits-between-an-entertaining-multimedia-player-and-ereader/