The Irish Mail on Sunday
Plugin. Turnon. Jointhe e-book revolution
Some saidt hey’d never catch on. Others said they’d kill off books.But 120 million e-readers can’t bewrong.And here’s how YOU can said they’d kill get started with our ultimate guide
Technology experts – real, paid analysts, rather than the sort who expound to you about how vast their flatscreen TV is over their fourth glass of red wine – gleefully predict the death of e-readers with tedious regularity.
E-readers and e-books are black-andwhite and a decade old, they say, citing falling sales figures and the rise of Apple’s increasingly ubiquitous iPad. But the amazingly simple-to-use and cheap gizmos, which store digital files of novels that you read like a printed book, are actually hitting their stride (and changing literature itself) only a decade after first appearing in Japan.
That first e-book reader, the Sony Librié, went on sale for €260 in 2004. Now, e-readers are used by more than 100 million people globally. At the world’s holiday destinations they have invaded sun-loungers at a speed that must have saved dozens of forests, in terms of Stieg Larsson novels alone.
They’re lighter, smaller and slimmer than a paperback, and the cheapest starts at around €40. You don’t need to connect them to a PC to make them work; books are downloaded over Wi-Fi (or 3G in some models) in seconds. They are incredibly economical on power, so batteries last a month or more.
E-readers mimic the experience of reading a paper book, which is why so many of us gravitate towards them – and they even have a bar showing you how far through a book you’ve got, and how much is left to go (essential if you’re nearing the end of a murder mystery).
Even in bright sunshine, you can read the most gigantic airport novel on an e-reader without reaching for a Nurofen. Avid readers now just pack one grey slab, rather than kilos of novels, as these tiny devices can hold novels enough to satisfy even the biggest bookworm.
The first Kindle was released in 2007 by Amazon, the market leader in e-readers. It held 200 novels but readers could add room for up to 200 more using a memory card, like on a digital camera. Most of us aren’t lucky enough to get holidays this long. E-readers haven’t evolved much – they haven’t needed to.
The Kindle Paperwhite, released in 2012, can store 1,100 books, and has a battery that lasts a staggering eight weeks between charges. It has a slightly sharper screen than earlier e-readers, which fans of curly fonts will adore, and a subtle side-light for reading in bed without being thumped by your other half. And you can annotate or highlight passages – a useful study aid.
E-readers laugh at the laws of gadgetry – they’re tough and have no glass to smash. The screens display the text using E Ink, a mix of white ‘beads’ in black ink, which form into printed words when an electric current passes through them. They don’t need power to show a page, just to flip one, which is why battery life is so impressive.
My mother happily uses the Kindle she bought in 2007 – like many of us, she loves paper books but ran out of space. Of course, she still scowls like she’s been to a book burning every time we visit a home that has shelves of DVDs instead of bookcases. But she’s seen the light, and hasn’t looked back. And she loves how easy everything is on her reader. When there’s an upgrade, such as a new section in the online store, for example, the gadget downloads the software and relaunches with the new functions added free.
If you haven’t converted yet, how do you find the right reader? Choosing a Kindle for reading is the opposite of choosing a psychiatrist – you want the one with the fewest letters after its name. Ignore the Fire HDX: if you’re after books, go for the basic Kindle. Unlike the posher touchscreens, it has real buttons, with big paddles to flip pages. Sure, pages load slowly, but readers have a little more patience than twitchy teenagers playing Xbox. The slightly more expensive Paperwhite offers flashy extras –
pages flip at lightning speed, and it auto-adjusts to the light around it, so if someone hits the dimmer, you can still plough on.
The Fire HDX series – the colour ones – are harder on the eye if you’re on the long haul through a Dickens. But if you have children, the HDX is very safe, with parental controls (ironically called ‘Freetime’) that Victorian parents would admire, locking fun away behind a password. Apple and Android tablets are meek next to Kindle’s Fun Police.
You can ‘block entertainment until daily educational goals are met’ – ie, your child has to read (you decide how long) before play. You select their books, games and films – and set a ‘bedtime’ when Kindle switches off in their dismayed hands.
But it’s not these touches that have enabled Amazon to steamroller the competition – it’s scale, and a willingness to undercut rivals out of existence. Books on Amazon are rarely full price – since a bitter US court case with Apple about Amazon’s constant discounts.
Amazon constantly offers free novels from new authors aiming to make their name, but even big names dole out bargains, with Game Of
Thrones writer George RR Martin selling his endless sequels for as little as €4 per book.Bookshop sticker guns can’t keep up.
No one can beat Amazon on price per ebook, or volume of freebies (the sheer scale of the company means it can broker deals few others could) but its main rival, Kobo, is a perfectly good choice. On sale in Easons, the Kobo store offers four million books to download, and the ‘standard model’ Kobo Aura (€139) has touchscreen, room for 2,000 books, and functions Kindles lack, such as the ability to add comments to books that other readers can see when they read. Depending on genre, these can be informative, or simply funny.
It’s no coincidence that realworld bookshops have started to sell coffee: it’s a last-ditch attempt to persuade you to stay with paper. Waterstones made a splash with low-volume classical music and stores that actually looked nice, but compared to Amazon’s online store, Waterstones feels like a stand with a few cardboard boxes of novels. Ironically, book chains have started to sell Kindles and their ilk, with big point-of-sale displays showing off the weapons that will spell their own destruction.
There are 2.5m books on Kindle, more than half under €5. But ebooks are just at the start of their revolution – as anyglancearound a holiday resort will tell you. Sure, there are iPads aplenty among the sunloungers, but those are people who either can’t leave their work at home or had to be dragged from their TV. A black-and-white screen is the mark of a clever holidaymaker: one of the advantages has always been that no one can see what rubbish you’re reading. It could be James Joyce or a book with a goblin piloting a spaceship on the cover.
On the other hand, perhaps the popularity of e-books compared to ‘real’ books is down to sheer modesty – half the purpose of lining one’s walls with books (‘middleclass insulation’ as a friend has it) is to show off.
‘Books are rarely full price. Even big name authors dole out bargains’
Admittedly, Kindle is still pipped by the iPad as a do-everything tablet. You can’t run a business on a Kindle, but on an iPad you could just about fool the world that you were in the office, while stretched out on a picnic blanket. But even on Apple’s finest, the best way to read books is on the Kindle app – not Apple’s clumsy iBooks, which is prone to freezing and odd errors. Kindle still offers a smoother ‘feel’ when reading e-books and has more options.
The novel itself is changing due to Kindle too. Kindle Singles – usually €2-ish – are an antidote to the bang-bang-bang world of Twitter: long political essays and longer stories, often from famous authors. Every day, dozens of new writers offer full-length novels for free. No wonder, when authors such as Nick Spalding say they earn €120,000 a year; and EL James sold more than The Highway
Code. Last year, 150 unknown authors in the UK sold more than 100,000 books direct to readers.
And Stephen King’s Guns is a provocative essay on gun control, which ignited furious debate in the US, and couldn’t have existed except as a Single. Living in the age of Twitter, it’s easy to imagine that serious discussion and stories filled with ‘big’ ideas are dying out – but Singles are a ray of hope.
Hugh Howey, author of Kindle hit Wool (originally a Single), said he wrote his to be read ‘in a lunch hour’. And if Kindle has made people devote lunch hours to reading, it’s changed life for the better.