A General Thought: Could EBooks be the Segways of the Literary World?

I remember when the Segway was first announced. A self-balancing, two wheeled vehicle of awesome. It was so cool. It was going to revolutionize the way people walked. The way cities were built. The way public transportation was handled. The sky was the limit, and everyone was going to want one of these puppies.

Bit by bit, the Segway lost some of its cool factor. It was expensive. It became something people might try out on a vacation, for the novelty. And then it fell off even more. People might use them for work purposes, but to casually have one sitting around to use for day to day transportation?

What sort of a person would do that?

And then, television showed us what sort of person would do that:

Gob Bluth

And that’s where the Segway is today, more or less. A run-on gag that isn’t taken seriously, despite the fact that it really is cool when you take a minute to step back and think about it. But in the end, it does something that people figured out just isn’t necessary. Walking works better for most cases, and it’s better for you.

Are ebooks going to be like the Segway?

I’m not trying to say they’re going to become irrelevant and a joke, but the explosion that is the ebook phenomenon seems to be slowing down. Growth went from 165% in 2010 to 117% in 2011 to 41% last year. (See here.) And no matter which way you massage those numbers–taking into account self-published book sales or the like–the slowing of the ebook movement seems to be clear.

And so I ask it–are ebooks going to be like the Segway?

Here’s the thing. I’m a techie. I love me some technology. I’m in front of computer screens all day long. And I enjoy ebooks, but the experience of a physical book really is different. When I’m writing and editing what I’ve written, I print the book out, even though it’s more expensive and (arguably) wastes paper. Why do I do it?

Because it works better.

It’s easier to mark up. It can get wet. I don’t have to worry about it crashing, or running out of battery. It’s just plain better.

I’m not trying to say ebooks are bad at what they do. There are some significant advantages they have over print. They’re lighter. They can be read at night. They’re easy to buy. But like it or not, the experience is different.

Could it be possible that this isn’t a case of CDs vs. MP3s, and that it’s more Analog vs. Digital? Vinyl records present something different than MP3s. There’s a place for both of them at the table, it seems. Could ebooks be the same? Is it crazy to think that all this talk about ebooks slaying print media is setting up a battle that will never be played out?

I don’t think it is. In fact, the more I think about it, the more potential I see for a future that exists with both print and ebooks happily coexisting. And if you don’t see that future, watch a few episodes of Hoarders and get back to me.

People like things. They like objects. Digital books aren’t objects.

I’m not making a full on prediction of the future. Just pointing out some possibilities. What think you of the matter?

1 thought on “A General Thought: Could EBooks be the Segways of the Literary World?”

  1. I think that this is not a perfect analogy, but it is a good one. I think one element that no one likes to talk about it are the economic/class issues associated with e-books. Although libraries are increasing access to e-books that you don’t have to purchase, most users of e-books still purchase them. But there are many people out there who don’t purchase brand-new books very often and prefer to check them out from the library, borrow them from friends, or buy them used. E-books will never work for that market. There is also the group of people who don’t own tablets, e-readers, or smartphones–or who don’t even have a personal computer or home internet access. Although popular perception is that the entire country is becoming rapidly more wired, any employee of a public library will tell you that there is still a big divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ when it comes to technology. These users are probably never going to use e-books. If you are the sort of person who purchases new, mainstream titles and has a tablet or smartphone, you are probably an e-book user. If you are lower-income, older, and/or rely on the library or used book/thrift shops for reading, you probably won’t ever get on the e-book wagon. E-books work for some types of readers and for some types of reading (I doubt they’ll ever catch on for children’s books, especially easy readers and picture books), but not for all types of readers.

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