Ebooks accounted for 20% of all book sales reported by publishers in the US, while Amazon said it sold 114 Kindle ebooks for every 100 paper books sold through its site in the UK. Sounds like the bell is tolling for the print books – or is it?
Rumor has it that Jeff Bezos & Co. are on a mission to make Johannes Gutenberg break the turning-in-my-grave record (previously set by a bloke called William Shakespeare). In the battle of Heavyweight Printing Press vs. Ultralightweight Kindle, the supposed Chihuahua has resoundingly trounced the 560 year old Huskie.
Or has it? The Kindle is certainly a blessing for voracious readers – no lugging around heavy tomes in the Delhi Metro or the 20 hour trans Atlantic flight. No long waits for obscure titles that have to be specially ordered with the friendly bookseller. No more sleepless nights figuring out where to create space for the fifty new books strewn across your home (there just ain’t any space left for book shelves or cases) – in fact, it’s light enough to drop off to sleep with while reading your favourite Wodehouse or Feluda. It is a fantastically useful invention, and if Flipkart or Bahrisons are missing me, they should just check with Amazon. But a few months of Kindle mania has also reminded me of the joys of a real bookshop that this little chit of plastic will never be able to match.
For instance, in a bookshop I can just close my eyes and choose a book at random. I may not know the title or the author, but I can feel the pages in my hand, smell the paper and admire the curve of the words – and give in to temptation if there is a strong attraction. The Book Thief, The Hakawati, The Laughing Policeman, The Islam Quintet and many more have made it to my protesting cupboard for these reasons, and no amount of browsing in Kindle can match this.
Once the bright blue plastic basket is filled to the limit of my arm muscles, I can settle into a corner and start flicking through each book – opening the book at the 25th page and then jumping to the 1st, and then off to the 71st, oh wait, let’s go back to the 25th and finish reading the chapter. And I’m already weaving my version of the story in my head – Kindle’s sample of the first few pages just doesn’t match up to this intoxication.
And we haven’t even talked about Captain Cover yet. It’s a virtual fashion show out there, with books coming clothed in all shades of violet to red and the entire spectrum in between. How then to fall in love with the Kindle’s Model T specifications, where it’s impossible to distinguish Lose Your Weight, Not Your Mind from the Complete & Unabridged Sherlock Holmes With Original Illustrations.
And sometimes – on a sleepless night or a rainy day when the fragrance of wet earth mingled with garam chai and piping hot pakodas has swept over my senses – I can walk over to my prized book rack, inhale its musty dusty fragrance and just stare at the mass of colour and jiggles and wiggles and shapes and sizes, straightening out the well thumbed copy of Gone With The Wind and admiring the burnished cover of The Classic Art of Calligraphy.
So let’s not pop the cork just yet, Mr Bezos. True that several large and small bookshops have had to shut down and many more are in losses, but they are being forced to sell the silverware due to the myopia of the publishers. By continuously skimping on the quality of publishing, they are getting rid of the very people they desperately need to stay afloat, happily lining their graves with toilet paper quality book paper.
Clearly the way forward for publishers is to think of the rbooks (real books) and ebooks as complimentary channels, but they need to get more creative and audacious. How about releasing only ebooks of the mass audience books, and investing the margins into producing high quality rbooks with limited demand? Or have both versions (after banning toilet paper quality bookpaper) but price the rbooks at an appropriate premium, and let the consumer decide? That’ll also give Gutenberg a breather before his next somersault.