Will the Digital Books kill the Physical Books for good?



Google recently counted what they consider to be every single book in the world, amounting to a staggering total of 129,864,880. With the new study Newsweek conducted shown below, I wonder how long it will take the iPads and Kindles of the world to completely kill the physical books for good. Not to mention there is an army of more tablets are on the way.

The overall quality of e-books certainly isn’t the same as most hardcovers, but as the market shrinks for paper books, more talented authors will cease to publish physical copies.

I think the cost and storage of physical books will also be a factor here. We really don’t have the space or money for all the books we want to read anymore. We are also willing to take chances on new authors due to the lower cost of ebooks.  

The other real significance of what’s happening is what’s going to be really important about the rise of ereaders is the new forms they enable. Today’s book is largely an artifact of the printing press and the production and distribution value chains that grew up around it over the last several hundred years. ereaders, and the value chain that is forming around now, are going to foster new creative forms, and a new relationship with the audience.

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About Elias Shams
I have been a serial entrepreneur in telecom and social media space for past 12 years or so. I hold a M.S. degree in Telecommunication Engineering from the George Washington University and a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maryland. I’ve lived and worked in many countries and cities including London England, Tehran Iran, Bonn Germany, Paris France, Alicante Spain, Delhi India, and my favorite of all Washington, DC of great US of A. Two of the greatest Washington, DC based companies I worked for and very proud of are Yurie Systems which was sold to Lucent in 1998 for $1.23 B and telezoo.com that I founded in 1999. I am currently the founder and awesomizer @ awesomize.me

30 Responses to Will the Digital Books kill the Physical Books for good?

  1. John Turner says:

    Great article…I do not think that ebooks will completely replace hard copy books any time soon…but I can tell you that since I purchased my first Kindle, I have purchased 4 traditional books and close to 40 ebooks (about 2 per month).

    Thats 10:1 and for me, and nearly twice the books I consumed previously in the same period.

    • Only if they add the smell of a book. No really, although I see all the benefits of digital books I like the sensations of a book. Cannot believe that I am the only one. We will probably see a movement towards digital book and “limited paper editions”, to serve freaks like me.
      After all, we also still have special editions of cd’s on vinyl.

  2. Elias Shams says:

    of course. What you have been doing falls under the category of cost and storage I pointed out

  3. Fred Gnuechtel says:

    This is going to be an interesting debate going forward. I must admit, I recently purchased an iPad using the rationale that I would start buying eBooks rather than continuing to buy bound paper books. The fact that its really cool, relives me of having to drag my laptop around to check my mail and surf the web also came into play. I have a Nokia E71 smartphone but the keyboard/finger interface remains problematic for me and I actually like the iPad’s virtual keyboard. I made the purchase without doing my homework on the eReader side. I figured that as long as there was an iPad app for B&N/Nook and Kindle, I could always shop the best price on a specific eBook and go from there. Here is what I found to date:
    1 – the price for a specific book, for the books I am interested in, is exactly the same from all 3 providers (Apple, B&N and Amazon). I questioned B&N about this and they claim that the price is fixed by the “publisher”
    2 – If you have a B&N Members card – B&N will not give you a discount on an eBook purchase.
    3 – The iPad, Nook and Sony eReader support the “open standards” ePUB format for softcopy books while Kindle has their own proprietary format.
    4 – there is almost no price difference between a paperback book and its soft copy equivalent.
    So – based on this, I suspect that the sale of hard bound books may decrease but that eBooks will have a much lesser effect on paperbacks until such time as there is a greater cost savings to the consumer. With paperbacks, I can get my discount and still sell the book back to someone when I am finished. The only real benefit I see from soft copy books is the “green” factor – less trees to cut, haul and process; and less distribution cost. At least there seems to be only 2 major contenders in terms of formats, so one would think the publishers will be happy about that. I think I will boycott Kindle for now because I’d like to see a single open format.

  4. Not completly, at least not just yet, it seems that our generation (working adults) and the retired generation will struggle to lose our emotional attachment to paper and thus books, however the youngsters growing up now as the apple iPad generation will not have his emotional attachment to physical paper. Plus until the readers grow in storage capacity and power management I can see paper-based books hanging on for a little while, fascinating topic to watch as it develops.

  5. Bill Vest says:

    I believe physical books will quickly fade, especially in all schools. New editions are always just waiting for someone to buy them. I think the bigger picture is how teaching will change to adopt the digital book. Elementary students get issues an iPad type device, the day’s teaching is sent via a wireless connection, test are all wireless and graded immediately and students can work at their own pace, all reference material is at their fingertips. No need for massive school libraries. One large class room with a few tutors for trouble areas, when your day’s school work is done, home work is sent to your iPad and your day’s achievements are sent to parents.
    I don’t like the thought of this but it will save a great deal of money and be pretty easy to make happen.

  6. Greg Bohrn says:

    I have heard this before. Same with the death of the PC. yes we are moving more digital which givers folks more options. and with digital reads, Ipads, etc. it does get cheaper. Me, i still read many of my development books from in hardback. I read all my for pleasure in hard back as well. The thing people are missing is that though the cost of trees is going up, used books are cheap (and far cheaper than a digital download). the majority of the populous can barely turn on their computer, let alone read books on it (or their Ipad). Other issues is cross reader format support.

    So, I would say no. Not anytime in the next 10+ years. Though we now have more options, which is good. I have many of my reference books in PDF format and take them everywhere (instead of hauling 100s of lbs of books)

  7. Five years seems very short to me. There aren’t a lot of non-English e-books yet. Outside of the USA the publishing sector still has to wake up. It will not be easy to marginalize a five century old technology.

  8. Karl Capp says:

    Werner, the reason you don’t see e-readers is because you are in Belgium. In Anglo Saxon countries the change has already happened with Amazon now selling more e-books than printed books in the US. It has already affected the UK as well. I live in a small village and most neighbours and friends have acquired Kindles or iPads in recent months and for anyone who travels, these devices are fantastic. Another reason for your lack of device spotting is because, as you say, non English e-books have not quite happened yet but they will and Germany will lead the way there. Moreover, the iPad was only launched in Belgium one month ago. We can only speak as we find of course and after living in Germany for a dozen years I know these trends and changes take a while to affect mainland Europe after the UK absorbs them from the US. Give it twelve months and I’ll wager you’ll be astounded http://www.digitaltrends.com/gadgets/page/4/

    • Indeed Karl, I’m in Belgium and here almost everything remains to be done. Since I offer the tool ODFToEPub I often talk to people without a specific technology bias about the e-book concept. Until now I haven’t managed to obtain a single enthusiast response yet. They still response with statement like “I like to hold a book in my hands” or “I like the smell of a book” or also “I can’t imagine reading an entire book of such a device, isn’t that bad for the eyes?”. The local publishing sector (boek.be) made an effort to create a common e-book platform, because the publishers are rather small in a language area like ours. However, it hasn’t made many waves yet. Of course, I hope very much it will happen, but patience will be required.

  9. Good afternoon everyone.
    As a frequent book/magazine reader, I have read things on paper, on my iphone, on an old PDA, on my blackberry, on my laptop, my netbook and recently on the ipad.

    well, nothing beats the felling of a book
    the smell of a new book, the feeling you get reading a used book.

    but i think, that the difference in cost, the easier way to store ebooks, and the interactive element in ebooks will for sure make many of us to read more on digital devices.

    maybe our children will only be used in electronic versions, like we had tapes which is now an ancient technology.

    still, all reading is good

    thanks for listening

  10. M says:

    I don’t think that any will kill each other off. A good percentage of people still appreciate paper and a good number are beginning to almost purchase all their books on devices such as Kindle. It’s all about preference, people will always have their own preferences and as a result there will be paper lovers and digital lovers.

    Digital, however you want to look at it, is certainly a step into the future.

    Book and Novella

  11. Amazon does not sell more ebooks than paper books. Recently the number of ebooks sold surpassed the number of hardcover books, but not all printed books. And the number of people with an ereader is still a minority. But ereader and ebooks sales are increasing rapidly so there will come a moment when they will surpass printed books.

  12. To the original question, of course physical books will not die. Silly assumption, and that’s why this thread quickly went another direction: eBooks penetration. eBooks are another form of story delivery. pBooks (print books) might go the way as France has published in the past: publish softback first, and if the book proves its got some longevity, hardback versions become available. Tet others claim that in the future, physical books will be the souvenir some readers will purchase of favorite eBooks. They’ll want that solid form. It’s all fluid right now, but I bet handsets will rule eventually, as Kindle & iPads, et al, have, what, a million or two out there? Handsets, 1.7 billion sold. That’s the market; I don’t believe the handset makers are sitting around not developing magnificent competition to the current stand-alone eReaders.

  13. Pam Costa says:

    I will buy an ebook reader when the price comes down. I love books though, ebooks will never replace physical books for me. I use the library to check out specialty books, e.g. decorating, cookbooks, non-fiction, etc.. I can see reading magazines and newspapers online or on a device as they are more readily available, have a larger variety and are not often kept in a personal library.

  14. The Santa Barbara Public Library already loans out ebooks.
    http://www.sbplibrary.org/services/audio-books.html

  15. Ebooks are certainly here to stay until some other future technological option surfaces. Due to their popularity or in spite of them, the physicality of touch still holds a deeper personal meaning in a book. The methodology of ease and speed are not critical components to the Luddite in me. I’ll be saving my hardback “best friends” as collectibles just as Jim Hill mentioned.

  16. Pam Costa says:

    Vincent, Collier County Libraries also use have ebooks and audio books for download. Not all books are available though.

  17. I personally really like my Kindle, you can buy a book anytime, anywhere. For example, suppose my son needs to read a book and provide a report for English class, he’s given a list of books to choose from, but it doesn’t matter which one he picks because I know it’ll be available for download and I can purchase it at 9:00 pm on a Sunday night if I want to. The freedom to view content on MY time is what makes ePublishing so attractive. With that said, I still like print books, they’re easier to highlight, take notes on, etc.

  18. E-versions of materials have already replaced hard copy in certain sectors while in other sectors, they are lagging behind. Eventually most sectors will be dominated by e-versions except for materials like Art Books.

    What is important for Publishers is that they modify their process to take advantage of multiple output formats so they can easily satisfy the demands of their market.

  19. Karl Capp says:

    If anyone has any doubts about the impact of e-readers should read this artcle entitled: “The Oxford English Dictionary will not be printed again” http://bit.ly/dehS4I

  20. David, I think you’re right on track. For example, we digitally publish educational content from annual meetings, we currently make that content available for online use (laptop, computer, netbook) but it’s also available for download on your smartphones (Blackberry and iPhone) and iPad. We have not gotten into publishing for eBook readers but it’s on the radar. The key is exactly what David said, taking advantage of the multiple output formats to satisfy the demands of the market. So do you think traditional printing companies will be able to transition themselves into digital publishing giants?

  21. I don’t think you will see a flurry of printers converting the presses into conversion technology. What we have been doing as a full-service publishing provider has been to slowly transition from a print PDF mindset to an XML mindset that allows us to go in any direction in the end, regardless of end product. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see the printers taking on this role.

  22. No. Physical books will still be around for many years to come, but as many posts have already said, their share of the market will inevitably diminish as the ebooks take hold in the mass market.

    There is ‘something’ about a physical book that no electronic version can capture or replicate, however sophisticated the reading device. It may be that physical books will become more expensive, but there will always be buyers that will be prepared to pay for that special physical book reading experience.

  23. Print technology has been an effective vehicle for sharing ideas in the form of “book” for a significant period of time. Digital technology opens up new opportunities that I believe will supplant our concept of “book” for many applications – education at least.
    I’ve enjoyed educational publishing for over 30 years and I look forward to the opportunity to expand not only access to ideas and learning but as well to publishing’s expanding role in education.

  24. Daniel Alef says:

    I agree with Karl’s comments above. Publishers will continue to produce hardcover books, but selectively. I derive a great deal of pleasure from seeing books on my bookshelves and I suspect so do many others. Paperbacks will decline, perhaps in direct proportion to the decline in the price of ebook platforms. And as the prices decline, the volume of units sold will increase dramatically. Analytics firm In-Stat predicts that ebook reader shipments will increase from 12 million units in 2010 to 35 million in 2014. Others predict the sale of 28 million iPads in 2011. The writing is clear–and in many cases in E-Ink.

  25. Paper books will not die, but their sales / production will drop. There are some initiatives where you can print a book on-demand for a very fee. We will not live in a 100% virtual world, because of what Christie said.
    While I do understand people like Pam, the majority will switch to e-books. The moment you will notice switching will be when students use e-books instead(/in addition to) of paper books. They will understand the pros and feel comfortable using them.

  26. Pam Costa says:

    I do love physical books, but what I really love about e-books is the ability to search the content for a phrase, quote or idea, by keywords. With physical books it is always “I know that thought I am looking for was ‘just’ four pages back” when it was really 10 pages back 🙂 I can definitely see the advantage of textbook e-books. My how the instant internet world has spoiled us.

  27. Eric Jubert says:

    Eventually, ebooks will lord over printed ones, but that time is not near.

  28. Eva,

    I think the field is open right now as to who will emerge as powerhouses in the digital publishing arena. Companies will need to re-invent themselves to deal with electronic production.

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