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November 28, 2000

A public radio commentary

I've started to see ads for electronic books, called e-books. These ads insist that paper based books are out of date. They'll be replaced by an e-book which looks like a small laptop computer. The ads promise a "new way to enjoy reading." Now as a dedicated reader - I have some two thousand books in my home - I wasn't aware the old way had any problems.

As an engineer I'm going to make a rash predication about technology: E-books will flounder at best.

It's mostly because they won't appeal to core book buyers. By core I mean the seven percent of the population that buys fifty books or more a year, compared to nearly half of the public that buys fewer than five books. The main problem with e-books is they focus only on content. The ads promise you can "read comfortably on a large, clear screen", but they miss the tactile aspects. I didn't fully realize this facet of reading until my wife pointed out that after I turn a page I slowly run my hand down the center of the book - caressing it in a sense.

Touching and holding the book helps to communicates its information: I can remember if a phrase was on the left or the right hand page - and my hands tacitly tell me just how far into the book the information was located. All of this lost with an e-book where each page is tactilely identical to the previous one.

Next, the ads promise "thousands of titles." But getting thousands of titles isn't ever my problem, it's getting through thousands of titles. The e-book ads proclaim that when you travel you can have "dozens of books" at your fingertips. But I've found over the years that the secret to reading a lot is to take only one book with me. If I take two I never get much read; I spent the time choosing which book to read, but with one book I have no choice and so I plow through it on the trip.

I'm not upbeat about e-books, but I do think technology is going to revolutionize the publishing industry. Here is where I'd place my bet. Usually technology impacts us the most when it blends the new and the old together. So, keep your eye on the machines, which are just beginning to appear, that print books on demand. It's a very fancy laser printer with a binder attached. Choose a title, press a button and out pops a paperback not much different than one you might buy today. This radically changes the distribution and cost of books, and also leaves the book lover with exactly what he or she wants: A real book to touch and hold.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises