Another chapter in the rise of the e-book

Amazon may kill Waterstones, but nothing will kill the book
Amazon may kill Waterstones, but nothing will kill the book

Waterstones’ embracing of the Kindle is hugely significant – but don’t write off paper and ink

For all the talk about the rise of e-books, 92 out of every 100 books sold in this country are still made of wood-pulp and glue. The future may be coming, but it’s not here yet.

Today, though, it’s a bit closer than it was yesterday. Waterstones, the bookselling giant, has announced that it is going to stock the Amazon Kindle e-reader, and is rolling out free Wi-Fi in its stores so that customers can browse its electronic titles as they do physical books. The company promises that they are not waving the white flag for the paper editions, but it is telling that even the flagship of the British book market thinks that the digital world cannot be beaten. It’s not only Waterstones, either: the US book superstore Barnes & Noble has recently signed a multi-million-pound deal with Microsoft to develop its own reader, the Nook. Our own W H Smith’s has done something similar with the Kobo.

Perhaps many will feel a little sad about this, if they think that it does herald an end to physical books. There is a wonderful pleasure in leafing through a big hardback, or having a teetering tower of books on a kitchen table. The convenience and speed and storage space of e-readers are well documented, but you won’t catch sight of an old favourite on a shelf out of the corner of your eye, or be able to riffle through the pages of a dog-eared copy. There’s also a feeling of permanence about an old leather-bound book that can be passed down through generations, the words preserved for centuries.

But bibliophiles needn’t fear the e-book. For a start, the long-foretold death of the physical book is some way off, whatever Waterstones has done. The death of Waterstones, however, might be nearer. The huge bookseller, itself such a voracious predator a few years ago, has been suffering lately, as chunks are bitten from it by the bigger fish of the internet. But then bookshops in general have been suffering for a while – about 2,000 have closed in the past six years – and it’s nothing to do with e-books: it’s all about the web. Waterstones itself got so frightened by the power of the browser that it recently dropped the apostrophe from its name, in case the inverted comma confused users in “a digital world of URLs and email addresses”, as James Daunt, the company’s MD, said. (Wonderfully, a campaign to reinstate the apostrophe then began online; at the time of writing, said apostrophe was last pictured on Oxford Street, next to a cardboard sign saying “will denote possessives and contractions for food”.)

The company that has killed the Waterstones apostrophe, and may soon kill the rest of Waterstones is, of course, Amazon. As a seller of traditional books, it’s the semi-secret success of the web. Newspaper headlines scream about every glooping sound from the tech bubble, such as Facebook being floated at $104 billion, despite it making only slightly more money than an East End whelk stand. Meanwhile Amazon quietly continues to rake in the billions. The UK site alone made sales of £3.3 billion last year (and didn’t pay any corporation tax in this country).

It’s because books are the perfect online commodity. You don’t need to try them on to see if they fit; it doesn’t matter what material they’re made of. They can’t go mouldy or stale. Whether their form is physical or electronic, all they are, in the end, is digital information: sequences of 26 alphabetic characters and a further 20 or so punctuation marks. The information is what counts, not the medium, and so purchasers can confidently buy them online without worrying that they’ve bought the wrong colour or size.

And that, paradoxically, is why the e-book phenomenon is here to stay, and why it doesn’t matter. For what it’s worth, I suspect the physical book will be around longer than any of us. As Jonathan Franzen said this year, in a somewhat fogeyish attack on e-books, “The technology I like is the American paperback edition of [his latest novel] Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work. So it’s pretty good technology.” He’s right. From bitter experience, I can tell him that another advantage is that you can drop a real book 4ft on to a concrete floor without smashing it, which is not necessarily true of the Kindle and its ilk. You also don’t need to remember the charger for a paperback when you take it on holiday.

But whether in 2050 we’re reading from paper pages, or from touchscreen tablets, or simply having the information downloaded into our brains via a neural plug-in (I’m rooting for that one), it shouldn’t worry us. In the end, the technology that copies and reproduces the information – whether Benedictine monks, the Gutenberg printing press, the e-reader or futuristic mind-zapping – is secondary to the technology which made it all possible, perhaps the greatest in human history: the alphabet, the written word. People who love books may mourn the death of the medium. But people who love reading will know that the message remains unchanged.


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