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A Novel Romance

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Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend;
Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.
        Groucho Marx.


People have had a love affair with paper books dating back several hundred years. While some would have you believe that this love affair is on the rocks, others would say that it is over and the divorce is being finalised. Last year was a keystone year for e-books and e-readers. They swept onto the shelves of major retailers and were in many homes by Christmas. Borders Australia proclaimed that the Kobo was its number one seller of the holiday period. The rise of the e-book format has continued into 2011, with a spike in sales following the doubt surrounding REDgroup Retail. Earlier in the year, Amazon announced that e-book sales had overtaken paper book sales. Amazon’s claim is an important one, although e-books sold through Amazon only work on Amazon’s Kindle e-reader device, and the Kindle only accepts Amazon e-books (I guess it is like buying an iPod and being forced to buy songs through iTunes; some people are pleased to, but others wouldn’t be overly happy, they might want the CD).


But does that mean we will see the slow death of paper books, much like the death of the VHS? Or will paper books live on? Do consumers carry a torch (or perhaps a booklight) for our flammable favourites? My research indicates that people have a strong emotional attachment to paper books. Findings suggest that paper books evoke a multitude of senses, such as smell and touch. There is a very sensual aspect to reading paper books, that an e-book, no matter how developed, will struggle to induce.

However, while the research showed that people have a strong bond to reading paper books, it doesn’t necessarily deter them from considering purchasing an e-reader device. An online survey conducted by The Age found that 41 per cent of people had already adopted e-readers, while a further 29 per cent were considering adoption. That left three in ten people who were against the idea of e-readers. These results are consistent with the findings of my research. Although, when probed further, I found that three quarters of participants would still reach for the paper version of their book if the option of either format were presented to them.

Is it just ingrained in us to read books printed on paper or is there more to it? A large portion of the participants displayed an urge to protect their books. One participant built a large bookshelf, an alter of sorts, to display his treasured paper books, while another participant had a collection of books that she would look at, but wouldn’t touch for fear of damaging them. These behaviours support the idea that there is more to a book than just its content. Are you a hard cover person or a paperback fan? I guess the correct question these days would be ‘are you a hard cover, a paperback or an e-book fan?’

The stellar rise of the iPod has not seen the death of the CD. It could be argued that people like the tangible, they like having evidence that they purchased the album. Perhaps this is why DVD killed the video star (or store), the tangible product was replaced, and people still had a symbol of their purchase, something tangible that meant something. Paper books won’t vanish because people have a bond with them, but perhaps they can evolve. Consumers may not see the adoption of e-readers as an either/or decision. Conceivably the future is a combination of the two formats - paper and electronic. An analogous example can be found in the home cinema market where the DVD faces an ever increasing threat from Internet downloads and Blu-ray; but suppliers have seen the opportunity and now often bundle the three formats together, standard DVD, Blu-ray and digital copy, in one pack. Since the wider release of 3D televisions, packs are now released that contain both a standard Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray discs. It might be time for publishers to take notice and bundle physical books with e-books, either through USB or an access code. Paper books are here to stay because people love them, but publishers need to consider how to evolve.

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