Paper pushers

Since the first Potter book hit the shelves in 1997, there have been worldwide sales of over 30 million copies, translations into 33 languages and literally years in the world's bestseller lists. And guess what: the Potter titles are not those newfangled e-books, they're those things that use 500-year old technology called paper books.

If the paper book (or p-book) can make authors and publishers alike so much money, and delight readers of all ages, what is all the fuss about e-books? Are we to believe that our book shelves will become obsolete?

Recent research by Accenture of US consumers has led them to predict that the market for consumer e-books will reach $US2.3 billion by 2005, representing approximately 10 per cent of the market. The push is coming from traditional publishers of p-books as they position themselves as value-adders to an author's work, regardless of the final format. Besides, they don't want to miss out on what e-books might offer, and book retailers feel the same, with Barnes & launching its own e-book imprint.

What exactly do e-books offer? The rise of digital technologies has actually increased the use of paper - it has been estimated that global paper consumption has increased 5 per cent per year since 1995 - so why the rush to leave it behind? Have people started to complain that the book just "doesn't work" any more?

In its current form, an e-book is an electronic version of a paper book - this may sound like the bleeding obvious, but it is key to the fact the e-books simply don't do anything better than a p-book can. If they are to survive and thrive, e-books must offer more than ink on paper does.

To do that they have to compete with a p-book that can be dropped time and time again and still be used. There has to be confidence that batteries won't run out on the last page of a thriller. And technology needs to develop to the point that the batteries, memory cartridges, and thin-film displays are invisible, because they can't compete with the human technology of eyes and hands.

But even if they can match all of that, there is the almost mystical role the p-book plays in our society. People talk about the texture of a book. People talk about the intimacy of reading a book. There is the undeniable concept of the printed book as artefact, an aesthetic and cultural repository. I have a book of Henry Thoreau's famous essay Walking. I rarely take it off the shelf, not because it is too precious to touch but because I don't want to abuse the pleasure of opening it - the quality of the paper and binding, the amazing photographs, the beautiful treatment of the text. It is worth far more than whatever I paid for it.

The environmental advantages of e-publishing are regularly raised, and so they should be. While e-books would save many trees, they would (or should) be plantation timbers, which are a renewable resource if managed correctly. And e-books aren't squeaky clean anyway - the readers are made of plastics and heavy metals that go into landfills when they expire (just like computers do).

The future will see both e- and p-books survive, rather than one conquer the other. Anyone who thinks e-publishing is dead should look at what CD-ROMs have done for the encyclopedia market.

Interestingly, authors are lining up on both sides of the fence. While Stephen King has been a high-profile supporter of e-books, John Updike and Ray Bradbury have criticised the format. (In one of the better quotes I've heard, fantasy writer Terry Pratchett has described the Net as a "whining Californian mall rat, forever demanding that the real world be redefined to suit its whims".)

The "traditional" e-book will continue to appeal to those who want to carry thousands of pages at a time in a single novel-sized package (such as travellers). But until e-book readers start to exploit wireless Internet connections to offer a rich, engineered connection with distributed content, I think it's going to be an uphill battle against the sheer flexibility and efficiency of the p-book.

In the meantime, we are left to see the irony in the fact that J.K. Rowling has rather sheepishly confessed that she thought Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - the biggest seller in the history of online book selling - would be an "obscure" book that might only garner a "handful" of readers.

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