Sunday, 28 April 2013

Books and E-readers: The Future?

Last week I wrote about the joy of real books compared to e-readers. E-readers are a relatively new technology which have come about over the past few years, to the point where many people (although, not yet a majority) own one.

I’m always curious about how new technology comes into our lives, and become a permanent part of it. Around the year 2000, before the iPad came onto the market, I had a feeling that MP3’s would end up being the way to go for people to consume music. I bought an early MP3 player, although it wasn’t very good – it only held about 30 mins of music, and it was incredibly hard to actually transfer music to it from a computer. Whilst my first MP3 player may be gathering dust in a box, my feeling about how MP3’s (and other similar audio standards) would come to dominate has proven to be correct, with many people considering CD’s to be a dying format.

So, how will technology continue to develop? And how will we use it? E-readers are here today, but are real books about to face the same fate as CD’s? I also have some thoughts on how we might consume TV programmes in the future...

And so I’m now going to try and predict the future of these technologies, or, at least, say how I’d like to see them develop. Many people in the past have tried to predict the future and not got it right (I’m still waiting for my hoverboard!) and I’m not going to claim that I’ll be any more accurate than those who have tried before me. But I guess time will tell just how right (or wrong) I am – you might want to check back on this blog post in about 10 years time... (Although, you may have to wait a bit longer for some of my predictions!)

In this post I’ll be focussing on books and e-readers, and next week I’ll be looking at TV programmes.

In what follows I’ll be making references to what the law says in respect to copyright. I am not a legal expert, but I know a little about copyright law. What follows will be what my understanding is under British law. If I happen to have anything wrong, then please do correct me in the comments.

So, here goes. Remember, these are merely my predictions... :

The e-reader market, and the e-books market, will continue to grow. E-readers will continue to fall in price, to the point where a basic one won’t cost more than £20. Eventually, a majority of people will own an e-reader.

However, real books will not die out as a format. As stated in my post last week, many people will still have a love for real books, and there will still be a large market for them.

The real book market and e-book market will sit alongside each other. Eventually, real books will come with a code you can enter into a computer to download an electronic copy of the book. The code will be a one-time use only code, and will have to have security features to prevent people taking a note of them whilst browsing a book store – possibly something that has to be scratched off, or the code only gets printed on a receipt.

As time goes on, e-readers will become the medium of choice for reading out-of-copyright books. Under British law copyright for books lasts for 75 years after the death of the author. So, for example, Charles Dickens died in 1870, and so his works would have come out of copyright in 1945 (although I’m not sure if the current laws were in place by then). This means that, as time goes on, more and more books will come out of copyright. For example, J. R. R. Tolkien died in 1973, which means that his works come out of copyright in 2048. Once a book comes out of copyright, it is legal to freely distribute and download copies of it. And so, in 2048, books like “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” will become freely available – many people will download copies to their e-readers, even if they already own real copies of these books.

Many popular books will take longer to come out of copyright. For example, J K Rowling is still very much alive and well, and hopefully will remain so for many decades to come. However, one day, she will die, and then a 75 year clock will start. Once that clock runs out, her books will come out of copyright. And so, sometime probably around the early to mid 22nd century, the Harry Potter series will come out of copyright, triggering many downloads of said books.

By the mid 22nd century we’ll be living in a golden age of literature, as vast quantities of books will be out-of-copyright, with people freely downloading them onto their e-readers. Out-of-copyright books will become one of the main drivers for the take up of e-readers.

There will be other factors that see e-readers become more popular. As their price comes down they will be given away freely to children in schools. They will contain all of the textbooks for their classes, which will conveniently get automatically deleted once they have completed the relevant learning, although they (or, rather, their parents) will have the option to purchase a permanent copy. Teachers will also make use of e-readers by using them to distribute worksheets and presentations.

There’ll be something similar in place for uni students. At present, many second and third year students will sell their old textbooks to younger students who wish to acquire the books for their courses cheaply. In some university dominated towns there are bookshops that help facilitate this second-hand market. However, as e-reader take-up rises up to the point where most people have them, clever publishers will exploit this. They’ll find a way to offer students to buy their books, but only to own them for a limited time, the most common periods being 1 year (to cover a specific module), and 3 years (to cover a whole degree course). The cost of these extended loans will be considerably less than the full retail price of the books, and will be extremely competitive when compared with the second-hand market (from which publishers make zero profit). Many students looking to save money will opt for these extended loan options.

Whilst e-readers will become ever more popular, there will still be a place for real books. There will be people who will always prefer them to e-books, much like there are people today who prefer vinyl to CDs and downloads. The real book market will not die out, but they will become more expensive. The cost to physically produce them will become higher as more people opt for e-books. Some publishers, as a marketing ploy, may make some popular books only available as real books for some time before releasing the e-book copy, with the real books priced to make them more profit than the e-books. But this will only happen with the most popular books which have a high demand for them. New authors will most likely see their books first published as e-books – this is already starting to happen. Without the need to physically produce real books, e-books will be seen as a safer option for publishers to test the works of new authors. However, to ensure a fair test they will have to make them available in formats that are compatible with the majority of e-readers.

Real books will still dominate in libraries. Whilst some libraries already offer e-book loans, their collections for real books will still be popular, and demand for them will be high, especially for people who choose not to buy an e-reader. This will continue into the future, and will still be a popular choice for those who wish to read the latest books but can’t afford to buy them.

Real books will have a retro feel to them, and will be popular with those who are nostalgic for the past. All avid readers today will continue to have large collections of real books, right up until old age. They will eventually be passed on to their children who, if also avid readers, will continue to keep them, and grow their collections.

Therefore, I feel that in the future there will still be large markets for both real books and e-books, although people will acquire and consume them for different reasons than they do now.

So, there you have it. How close to the mark am I? We’ll just have to wait and see on this one. What are your views on the future of books? Please let me know in the comments – I’ll be especially interested to hear from anyone who works in the publishing industry, particularly if they think what I’ve written here is rubbish! I don’t mind being told I’m wrong if you believe that to be the case...

Join me next week where I’ll again be trying to predict the future, this time of TV shows. Copyright law will crop up again, but this time it will be more complicated – and intriguing...

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