Reading the e-way

Last week I wrote about the business of publishing, thinking about why it makes sense for publishers to move to an electronic format.

This time, I've been thinking about the consumer's point of view.

Depending on how you look at it, I'm either an e-book pioneer or a complete n00b.

I downloaded my first two e-books in 2000 - Stephen King's Riding the Bullet short story, followed by his (still incomplete) serial novel The Plant. In 2004, I downloaded Matthew Reilly's free serial novel Hover Car Racer.

But I read them sitting at my desk, on a PC, looking at a 15" monitor. I even printed out The Plant and still have it sitting in a manila folder on a shelf! Not exactly portable reading!

It was only after I got an iPod Touch that I started downloading e-books and reading them electronically while travelling on buses and trains. I started with the freebies available at the App Store (including making the mistake of reading The Count of Monte Cristo without realising it was about a million pages long, only a small fraction of which made it into the Guy Pearce movie). I then tried paying for a few Barry Eisler short stories, before finally buying an actual novel (Meg Gardiner's The Nightmare Thief).

Since then, I've bought e-book versions of novels by authors that I'd previously have bought in hardback or trade paperback, including Michael Connelly's The Drop and Stephen King's 11/22/63.

I made an exception last week and got The Wind Through the Keyhole as a paper book, solely so I could keep it with my existing hard copies of the Dark Tower series.

I may not buy a dead tree edition again.

I still read a lot of physical books, and think I will for a while, but I see electronic copies becoming more and more the norm.

Part of it is the convenience. I read chunky thrillers, mostly on public transport , and often realise I'm going to finish a novel before I finish my journey. If I haven't planned ahead, I've got nothing to read on the way home, or I bring a second book, thus doubling the weight I'm carrying. With e-books, I can bring 3 or 4 and switch between them.

I suspect there will always be a market for physical books, just as some people still prefer listening to music on CD or vinyl rather than downloads (although, cassette tapes seem to have disappeared). Older people aren't always into technology, libraries are still based on physical copies (although I've started borrowing library e-books too), and there are some books that lend themselves to paper (e.g. ones with lots of intricate diagrams or photos).

But the market will continue to change and I think printed copies will become the exception - and it may be printed on demand.

The best analogy I can think of is photo processing. It used to be people would take 24 or 36 photos on film, not knowing which were the best, get them all processed and printed at a camera shop and then see what they took, including how many were out of focus or had heads cut off. Now, we take as many shots as we like (or our memory cards can hold), preview them and use most on websites, Facebook or e-mail. But people still print out a handful of good ones that they want to keep, send to grandparents, or display in a large, high-quality format (as most home printers don't really cut it). I doubt many camera shops - or photo corners of department stores - process a lot of wet film anymore, instead they've become a place for printing electronic photos.

Maybe bookshops will eventually be a combination printer/binder. People will read most books that can be rendered in text or 72dpi photos on screens, but come into a shop to have something printed on demand in a prestige format. It gives the consumer a choice - picking the best of each world.