Ebooks vs Paperbacks, Kindles vs iPads

Two interesting topics have come up in recent days; both of which seem connected. The first is Amazon’s prediction that ebook sales will overtake paperback sales by the end of 2011. Not entirely surprising, considering they’re already outselling hardcovers (“180 e-books for every 100 hardcovers”). And on it goes: paperback sales are eclipsed, ebooks will then be compared to the combined sales, paper becomes the minority, and so on. I think we all know the trend.

So if the market’s future is digital, what exactly do we want from the experience? The answer to this question depends a lot on who you ask, and there seem to be two strong opposing views. See Conan O’Brien’s tweet from yesterday for the first vision: “The Kindle 3 was released yesterday. I read about it on my iPad“. Pretty funny, but also typical for a large group out there who believe that Amazon (and eBook readers generally) have already lost the battle.

This is an assumption I’m not convinced of. Maybe in the future, but not now. Amazon released the Kindle 3 a few days ago, and I don’t see any signs that this product is trying to be an iPad killer. As Nicholas Deleon at Techcrunch says,”they’re two different products for a reason”. Couple this with a simple fact: people still strongly prefer paper books over ebooks. Even in the lion’s den: a recent poll over at Mashable supports this.

The experience of reading paper, even recognizing our human attraction to its simplicity, needs to be fully considered. Not doing so would be a mistake; turning our backs on longer written discourse. Both for fiction and nonfiction, there’s something inherently attractive to us about sustained interaction on a single written topic or story. We complain when we don’t have time for this luxury, and find time for this experience when we have none. You don’t dismiss an activity like this, or wholly replace it. No matter how ‘cool’ the alternative.

One side point I’d also make would be to respect Amazon’s business approach here. You can read ebooks now on an iPad, the Kindle or a PC. The channels are there, they all route back to Amazon’s store, and the market remains one of the biggest on the web.

The challenge, I believe, will be to create an exceptional reading experience – on either the iPad -or- Kindle. We haven’t seen the full range of possibilities with the iPad yet, but that will likely morph into something closer to the interactive web, than a direct competitor to the ebook. And comparing these two digital devices, inevitably, causes confusion.


  1. The question is whether these channels make any sense whatsoever to legal publishing. Right now, they do not. Trade publishers have never had the relationship to customers that legal publishers have enjoyed for over a century. Now they are finally having to come to grips with how to (gasp!) sell directly to consumers. And some authors are finding that perhaps they don’t need publishers any longer (just a few). But for legal publishers (such as myself), Kindles are of dubious value (usability wise) for our products. iPads are better, but there is still the problem of losing our publisher-customer relationship because Apple is the intermediary there. Plus, there’s the problem of adoption and penetration into the legal market.

    Honestly, I have a love-hate relationship with the Kindlization of books right now, particularly because of the way it’s affecting consumer expectation of books generally. As a consumer of those books, I love it. As a producer of different books, I hate it.

  2. The current discussion of ereaders reminds me of the early days of the internet – while I recognize it’s not a fair comparison, I do wonder when we will really know if ereaders will turn out to be “game-changers”. I have both a Sony eReader and an iPad – I carry my iPad with me all the time because I like the combination of ereader functionality and the other features that it offers. So maybe it’s not fair, but to me what’s important is a package that includes an ereader and that has almost everywhere internet access.

    When travelling, the iPad is a great way to read the Globe (and I don’t miss the newsprint version at all). I like having ready access to whatever book(s)I’m reading (I don’t have to remember to pack to paper version wherever I go). I also like having a screen that means I can more comfortably read emails and surf the web than I can on my Blackberry.