E-books not ready to replace print materials

I don’t have a Kindle, a Sony Reader or a Nook, mainly because I don’t have the money to buy one. I must admit the gadget-hungry fiend in me is aching to nab a new toy like an e-reader, but, as a print journalist and creative writer, I have to question the implications of e-books and e-readers creeping into our lives at an alarming rate.

The advantages of e-books are pretty obvious. They save paper and money, are easier to distribute and transport and don’t take up shelf space. For now, print media still exists as an important source of information and doesn’t seem to be in any serious danger of being phased out by e-books.

But for how long?

The e-book issue significantly affects both the education and entertainment sectors. In regards to education, e-books seem like a great replacement for heavy, expensive textbooks we dread buying at the start of each semester. Given that students are spending more and more time in front of the computer screen, switching to e-books in the classroom is practically a no-brainer win-win. Many universities (including USC) are already taking advantage of this, as many courses use PDFs as their primary classroom texts. However, full implementation of electronic textbooks is currently a difficult endeavor; Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison recently rejected the use of Amazon’s Kindle DX to replace textbooks because of its inaccessibility to blind students.

As tempting as it might sound to reduce student costs by replacing print textbooks with electronic ones, that kind of model could jeopardize the educational content of those texts by starting a snowball effect.  If profits were to decrease, publishers, despite only giving around 7 to 15 percent royalties to the authors, would be forced to cut back and possibly pay authors even less. Consequently, the quality of available authors might decrease, leading to summarized, paraphrased and dumbed-down work to match publisher’s pay. The worst-case scenario of exclusively electronic textbooks would result in Kindles that basically only link to Wikipedia-esque content.

Thus, the coexistence of electronic and print textbooks must be maintained in order to protect educational content. Print textbooks, with their astronomically high prices, could use some competition from electronic textbooks to lower their prices. Likewise, electronic textbooks would benefit from a coexisting relationship with print,  making older texts available alongside newer ones and increasing the quality of material available to students.

Even with the books we like to pick up for leisure reading, e-books cannot stand alone as a replacement of print. However, there are some unique benefits of the electronic reader — with the Kindle Store, new authors bidding for popularity could offer their works for free and boost their rankings on online best-seller lists.

Of course, the story can’t end there— authors need to make money. It is unclear yet how successful free e-books can influence consumers to buy print copies of an author’s other works. According to a New York Times article, a few authors offering free e-books managed to increase the sales of their other books exponentially. However, e-books currently represent only 5 percent of the total book market, and most authors are still afraid of trying new media. Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins, was quoted saying, “free is not a business model.”

E-books and print-books can have a positive relationship with each other, but the share they both take in the market is a crucial element to watch. E-books seem to be able to affect the sales of print books at a noticeable scale and could start to eventually take a larger chunk of the market, burdening print publications to the point of collapse.

I’m not ready to let go of the look and feel of the paperbacks on my bookshelf, but I am eager to try an e-reader. The gadget-hungry fiend and the writer in me will just have to get along if we’re going to make it in this market.

Victor Luo is a junior majoring in English.

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