Are ‘Traditional’ Books Under Threat?

Private Property South Africa

Many traditionalists out there like myself no doubt felt somewhat irked by the advent of Amazon’s Kindle in 2007. “They’ll never be able to replace good old fashioned books with some digital gadget,” I thought. And that’s where it ended for me. Or so I believed.

The Kindle was initially viewed as something of a gimmick which would be relegated to the gadget graveyards. However, it quickly gained a following and has since spawned a host of eReaders such as the Gobii, Nook, PocketBook, Papyrus and Kobo to name but a few. All the latest tablets now also boast eReader capability.

But it wasn’t the fact that so many of my friends now own an eReader. Nor was it the fact that Amazon has claimed to sell 80 percent more digital books online than hardback books which prompted me to look into the issue of eReaders versus traditional books. It was the behaviour of a friend and the closure of a well-loved Johannesburg bookshop which really piqued my interest in the matter.

While enjoying dinner at an event recently, said friend happened to show me pictures of books on his cell phone he had taken at his local bookshop. He informed me that he was going to download e-books onto his tablet at a later stage based on the pictures he had taken. It was intriguing behaviour and provided an interesting window into just how far eReaders and e-books have come. The closure of the Boekehuis in Melville further fuelled my belief that traditional books might be under threat. After 12 years of trade the shop had to permanently close its doors recently citing non-profit as the reason for doing so.

So just why are eReaders and e-books becoming so popular? EReaders allow you to store loads of e-books on them and in the case of the Kindle, back up your library with ease. You can buy and download e-books from wherever you happen to be using your eReader/ tablet which fits in nicely with society’s need for instant gratification and most e-books cost less than their paper counterparts. Many eReaders feature dictionaries and keyboards; are easier to carry around than traditional books; are becoming more affordable and multi-functional and can be deemed ‘green’ in that they eliminate the need for paper and ink.

So where does that leave the good old fashioned book? Is the publishing world cringing with fear at the feet of these digital upstarts? Not really says Ben Williams, Exclusive Books’ Online Retail GM.

According to Williams, traditional books as a “category of experience” currently face more of a threat from other media such as gaming and TV than from eReaders and e-books. “As gaming, cinemas and TV’s advance, books and reading in general increasingly have to vie for people’s attention,” says Williams. “In actual fact, eReaders can be viewed as a boon for reading in that they are helping bridge the divide between old and new and are making reading more attractive and accessible to the digitally inclined.”

In terms of the ‘threat’ to traditional books, Williams says that the world book market is growing and that there will always be demand for traditional books. He also points out that the number of e-books being sold within the commonwealth (with the exception of the UK) is still relatively small when compared to overall hard copy book sales.

“That said there is no doubt that eReaders and e-books are growing in popularity. Traditional publishers and book shops are concerned about their long-term viability and are under pressure to be agile and innovative and update their business models accordingly.”

And it would appear that some, such as Monte Casino’s ‘Skoobs’, are already taking the need for innovation to heart. In addition to featuring books from just about every genre, Skoobs offers a whimsical coffee shop, a dedicated seated reading area, an interactive animal themed section, a classy champagne bar complete with baby grand, a Zen garden, a Tuscan themed courtyard and soundproof gaming section-all of which equates to a leap forward in South Africa’s literary evolution. I have yet to see anyone whip out an eReader while in-store.

Ultimately it seems that, as was the case with Gutenberg’s printing press, eReaders and digital books represent a whole new era in reading which both scares and excites people. Personally, while I don’t see myself curling up in bed with an eReader any time soon, I can definitely understand the appeal of owning one and will no doubt plug into the trend sometime in the future.

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