They're Electronic Devices – Not Books
E-books are the hot new electronic device. For those unfamiliar with the frenzy of these new electronic marvels, an E-book, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is "an electronic version of a printed book which can be read on a personal computer or hand-held device designed specifically for this purpose." An E-reader is a lightweight device specifically developed for downloading and displaying these materials page by page. Amazon's Kindle™ E-reader was the first on the market, Barnes and Noble followed with the Nook™, and there are now over thirty more in one stage or another of development.
These devices, however, are not books. They are readers. Books have pages that turn, they have a heft and a smell, you can dog-ear their pages, you can press flowers in them – and they are put on a shelf when you are done with them for the time being. E-readers will not replace books – at least not all books.
First, because E-readers, at about $200, are relatively expensive – and you still have to purchase books for them. Eventually, the price will come down, but there will still be many people that cannot afford the devices and would like to continue purchase their books from a bookstore or borrow them from a library.
Next, there are some books that cannot be replaced – at least with current E-reader technology. Children's books that you read to your nieces and nephews, sons and daughters, and grandchildren when they snuggle up next to you on a sofa, come to mind. Art books will continue to be published in traditional form. E-readers will probably not replace books on graphic design – and certainly not books on typography. (He wrote with tongue firmly planted in cheek.)
E-readers, however can be a strong competition to books for entertainment. You may eagerly anticipate Dan Brown's next novel. You may thoroughly enjoy reading it. But, when you are done, what do you do with it? Put it on a shelf where it will sit until you decide to throw it out. Unless it's a signed first edition, Dan Brown's new novel will have little value once it is read. That's where e-readers come in. When you are done with an E-book, you can simply delete it from the E-reader and it will be stored in the cloud for you for future use.
You can also put over 1,000 E-books – or many very big E-books – on a single E-reader. Required reading for scholars, educators, students and professionals in the technical trades is today satisfied by many – heavy – books. E-readers can be a godsend to these folks. One E-reader has to be better than carrying 30-pounds of traditional books in a backpack.
To become more mainstream, however, E-readers will also need to improve their typographic presentation. One or two fonts are simply not enough. Kerning, line spacing, paragraphing, column alignment, and all those other typographic details we sweat over as designers, and appreciate as readers, will have to be addressed in a much better fashion. Technology has done a pretty good job of putting words and letters on digital substrata. It will, however, take the knowledge, skill and, yes, the passion that we put into traditional graphic communication, for E-readers to make much of a dent in real book sales.
Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging. Here he is responsible for strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs.