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The books they are a-changing

THE printed press led to the novel; the camera led to the feature film. So where will the Kindle lead us?

E-book sales have exploded worldwide, and while sales of eBooks in Australia are still comparatively small, 2010 is the year when devices such as the iPad and the Kindle could dramatically change the shape of books to come.

Australian publishers currently face numerous copyright and digitalisation issues, but Elizabeth Weiss, academic and digital publishing director at Allen & Unwin, believes that changes are happening in the industry incredibly fast.

“Many of the issues we’re facing are ones we saw coming, the copyright issues, the sales issue, digitalization and so on, but the particular way we’re experiencing them now is changing week by week, month by month. Because there can be developments in technology or devices or software, the changes that occur then have ripple effects all the way down the line and across the world, and those ripple effects happen very fast.”

Instead of the colourful story books that we all remember from our childhoods, in a few years time parents may just be grabbing the iPad and opening up the interactive version of Alice in Wonderland, or Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat.

Interactive digital applications, or apps, give a more interactive version of a particular book that can be used on tablet devices such as Apple’s iPad. Books now outnumber games in Apple’s app store, with more than 27, 000 books available.

“Sometimes those apps include multimedia, for example there’s a Nigella Lawson cookbook that includes video footage, photos and such or it may just have less text but more interactivity,” says Weiss. Walt Disney Pictures has been quick to develop an Alice in Wonderland app for the iPad. It is like a virtual storybook where, according to the creators, you can “tilt your iPad to make Alice grow as big as a house, or to shrink to just six inches tall, play with the White Rabbit’s pocket watch and help Alice swim through a Pool of Tears.”

Julie Posetti, media academic and mother of an 8-month-old girl, has reservations about the new formats. She says that while her child loves to play with the interactive books on an iPhone, she becomes more engaged with the story when reading print books.

Since the release in October last year of Amazon’s Kindle, a handheld device for reading mainly text-based books and media, eBook sales figures have increased dramatically. The most popular books have been in “disposable” genres, such as crime, romance and fantasy. According to Kindle owner, Gerald Atkinson, it’s “e-ink” technology means that you can “read it for hours on end and not get sore eyes.”

E-Readers aren’t just for the tech-savvy, either: Weiss says there’s quite a demand for eBooks among older people and those with a disability.

“There are older people who are completely loving the fact that these devices, like the Kindle and the iPad, enable them to increase the font size when they’re reading. So many books these days don’t appear in large print edition but now people have access to any ordinary book and, in principle, they can read it in the font size that suits them.”

These devices are also changing the way readers physically interact with books, again adding to their appeal for those with a disability.

“Lots of people have such bad arthritis that they can’t turn the page of a book anymore, or they have a disability that makes it difficult for them to physically handle a book, and for these people a device that allows a finger turning page method is an absolute miracle,” says Weiss.

Magazines and newspapers are going digital as well. The Digital Future Project 2009, conducted by the Center for the Digital Future, found an increase in the amount of users who read online newspapers. Center director Jeffrey Cole believes the “greatest opportunities in their existence await newspapers that can move decisively online.”

The Australian also recently announced it would develop an app for the iPad that will allow readers to subscribe to a digital edition of the newspaper. Whether or not this will reduce the number of print newspapers is yet to be seen, especially with the release of the iPad in Australia delayed until the end of May. According to David Salter, editor of The Week magazine, online newspapers will just bring the length of articles down.

“Most people tend to resent having to read more than a screen full of text. The minute you start scrolling people lose interest,” he says. As such, the worry, he says, is not the devices and the death of printed press, but the actual content itself. While a digital newspaper may be convenient, energy efficient and cheap to deliver, it will not wipe out paper newspapers.

So will devices like the iPad and Kindle do to printed press what the iPod did to CDs?

Salter thinks not. “I don’t think printed press will die. Print has a perfect reputation; it will not break. It’s a bit of a miracle really. You just chop down a tree, put ink on it and people will go out and buy it. It’s been working effectively like that for years,” he says. “To say it will get wiped out is to say it’s transitional technology. Radio wasn’t wiped out by T.V., it just changed. And that’s what will happen to print.”

Print media and books are likely to coexist with digital newspapers, magazines and books for some time. New models may eventually emerge but, as Weiss says, “it’s just going to take some time.”

Many of us bibliophiles find the idea of any other format succeeding books unbelievable. We’ve in love with them as objects; the way they smell, the way the feel under our fingers. Our relationship with them is very intimate: we take them to bed with us, read them in the bath, and share them with our children at bedtime. Yet our connection with books began with the words within rather than the physical form. It may take time but we will adjust. While it may have felt funny at first to download a song rather than buy a CD, or to stream a movie rather than go to the theatre, we managed to adapt to that digital revolution, as we will to this one.

Along the way, we may even re‘kindle’ our love of words.

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