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Is Paperback Extinction Looming? Reading and Writing in the Transition Era

If books in traditional book form die, it's not the end of the world

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    • More Than Physical  Paperback books have advantages which I've touched on above - but they also have disadvantages. They wear out, get damaged, fall apart. They take up shelf space to store. A digital library will always appear fresh - and you can carry it around with you given network access or sufficient digital storage.

       I have a large collection of paperbacks and hardcover books. Keeping them organized, keeping track of them takes a certain amount of effort - which is not helped by other family members who regard them as dust collectors, a waste of space, and a mystery since they can't understand why anyone would need to read a book more than once. Why keep them around? Sigh.

       Digital books also offer flexibility. It's possible to scale pages up or down in size, to cope with failing eyesight. Including color artwork/photos is no big deal in e-formats given the right reader - but just not economically practical for mass-market paperbacks. An e-book can be as long or as short as needed to tell a story - there's no need to figure in how many pages need to be set in type, printed, and bound, or how big a press run is practical.

     • The Great Divide The difference between then, now, and tomorrow is that we're in the middle of a sea change. We have a centuries of titles that came out before the introduction of e-books; we have books today being published in both formats; in the future we may have fewer and fewer books being put on paper.

       Some of those legacy titles are important enough, or in enough demand that they're being converted to digital format. Some of them aren't, and never will be. One reason I hang on to some pretty battered old paperbacks is that they'd be impossible to replace - but they're still enjoyable. It's not a new problem either; there are many, many books that have gone out of print and are effectively lost without a trace. While mass-market works may seem inconsequential, they have worth in other areas. They capture a sense of the times in which they were written, a slice of the culture they appealed to - and perhaps attitudes and knowledge that has been lost along with the passing of their readers who lived in that milieu. Those books are a window into their times.

       Now, efforts like  the Gutenburg Project and Google Books are addressing that issue - though not without controversy. Copyright issues, arguments about the commercialization, etc. mean that although the technology is available to digitize books on a large scale, the social and economic issues are still being hashed out. Who pays, who profits in other words.

      And, who decides which books get converted? That's still an evolving situation. Does anyone know of an affordable, accurate system for home use? That wouldn't take days to process a book or risk damaging it to scan it? Anyone involved in running a library has to be giving a lot of thought to this too.

      It's not unlike the problem of having a big collection of vinyl LPs - what do you do with them? There are recordings that will never be released in digital form, either because those with control over them don't want to do so, don't think they can make enough money to justify it, have trashed the original masters, or can't sort out ownership issues.

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