Last August, I wrote an article discussing the imminent fall of the book. The e-reader, I suggested, was going to overrun the market just as soon as people realized what a great idea it was for many of the uses that the traditional book fills. Few agreed with me. There is something important about the physical book, they said. I agree: lacking a television in my apartment, the books that my partner and I have collected are something like a status symbol. Even though I haven't ready the majority of novels she has -- as a masters student in English, she has quite a few -- their presence inspires me to write.
A book is tangible; you can hold it in your hands. E-readers, as they are now, don't seem to be a good replacement because all of the reasons for collecting books -- like having bookshelves with lots of books on them -- are rendered unnecessary. When the iPad was announced, hopes rose. Perhaps Steve Jobs and his armada of geeky-cool workers would be able to make the e-reader fashionable. But the iPad isn't the panacea some were expecting. Its screen is similar to a computer, so reading on it for long periods of time is arduous. It really isn't a replacement for many of the things we carry around (it can't take pictures, for instance, or make phone calls). Instead, it's more like another thing to add to all the others.
Other e-readers haven't filled the bill either. For the most part they are expensive enough to make people weary of the investment and for ones like the Kindle, which require purchasing from one site, the possibility of losing the rights to that purchase long-term are cause for reconsideration. Publishers, long lamenting the demise of the printed word, have tried other options to make progress back into the market. But the problem still stands: with so many books, it's a big risk for a publisher to print physical copies without the assurance that they will sell. Estimates for stores like Chapters put the amount of books being sent back to the publishers above 15 per cent. That's a lot of waste.
Hope is on the horizon. The Espresso Book Machine may be a solution for those desiring physical books. The machine prints, binds and trims books on demand, within 10 minutes for a 300-page book. Some bookstores in major cities have already acquired them, and are happy with the results.
Consider a situation: I am a student in university who demands physical books. The topic I am studying -- say, the manner in which whales catch fish -- isn't a popular area of inquiry. Yet, there's one seminal work on the topic. I desire a copy of The History of Modern Arctic Whale Fishing, but the publisher is out of copies and isn't willing to print more because of the risk of having a bunch of books sitting in a warehouse. But with the EBM, the publisher can print the book on demand. Or, even better, I go into my local bookstore and they print it for me while I wait.
The University of Alberta has already acquired such a machine, and publishers of some repute (such as Oxford and Cambridge) use them to print books that have low demand. Seemingly, this device solves the publisher's worries, while providing the product that the customer wants. Without the risk of losing money on printing more books than will sell, publishers will be able to take on more authors.
I still think e-readers are going to catch on. If Apple does for books what iTunes did for music, soon people will be willing to buy electronic copies of books more often. The fact that most electronic editions of textbooks are around half the price should encourage more students to choose them over paper copies. For those who still aren't sure, devices like the EBM are the answer.