The impending return of the book

Topics books | e-book

I can’t help but introspect when I find myself buying the books I feast on more and more in printed  format rather than doing what I have been doing for the past two decades, buying them in electronic form, for example on the Kindle. Add one further reason to introspect — these books I buy have titles like Neural Networks with R, and come filled with algebraic equations and computer code. 

Initially, I explained this behaviour by telling myself that I was just being practical: Dense computer codes do not read well on Kindle, a fact that is ironic. After all, if there is one business that stands for the internet, it is Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, which was started in 1995 as a bookstore on the internet.

Why did the world’s first online store start by selling books? Wikipedia’s page on Amazon does not say this, but having lived through those times, my understanding is that one major reason must have been that the book industry in the United States in the mid-1990s had a margin of 40 per cent-plus at the bookstore level, which made it possible to offer discounts big enough to lure prospective buyers to adopt online shopping. We had to wait till 2004 for Chris Anderson, the editor of The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Chris explained to all of us that in industries like the book industry, a large number of book titles are read by a few people. These passionate readers constitute the “long tail” and are more likely to pay a good price for a book than readers of best sellers who need a heavy discount to lure them to buy /read a book. This “long tail” model has since then been adopted by many other industries and one could today easily say that it forms the cornerstone of online shopping. And, just imagine, it all started with the printed book industry.

Come to think of it, Tim Berners-Lee, who came up with the idea of the World Wide Web in 1989, was motivated by a desire to make the sharing of knowledge easier. And the Web did live up to that goal, at least for the first 15 years of its life. We all rejoiced in the enormous amount of written material we could read for free on the Web, not to mention the enormous amount of free music and free video/films that we could watch.

Illustration: Ajay Mohanty

What then explains why I am wandering back to reading programming and other tech books in the printed form? The first reason is the hurdle that I encounter increasingly when I search the Web for answers to a tech puzzle and hit on a website that  promises to provide an answer to my question. After I read about a hundred words and start marvelling at my luck in stumbling on such a great and well-written explanation, the website halts: “Subscribe to read more!” screams a banner spread across the page that I am reading. I hesitate, because, most often when I do pay money and subscribe, and start reading a longer version of what I have read so far, another loud banner pops up: “Download our eBook!” I hesitate, again, because the many times I have done this, it results in a version which has just a wee bit more than the version on the Web, but not all the details that I eventually find in the printed version of that book. 

The question that springs to my mind is this: Has the World Wide Web then degenerated in the last two decades of its existence to become a mere promotional medium? A tool that merchants use to lure you, in stages, to buy the real thing, a printed book?

Scholars and management theorists say that the World Wide Web has impacted our lives in three fundamental ways: The first way is it “dis-intermediates”, i.e., the manufacturer of, say a mobile phone, in Shenzhen, China, can reach me, an Indian consumer in Mumbai directly through the Web and avoid the cost of paying commission to the chain of distributors. Thus, it is theorised, this “dis-intermediation” is how the Web makes economies more efficient just as “mass production” did in the Industrial Revolution. The second way is “dematerialisation”, the classic example being music that no longer exists in material forms like gramophone records and cassette tapes, but only in its “de-materialised”, streaming form. The third way that the Web is impacting our lives is “disaggregation”, an example of which is when what we know of as “a bank” gets disaggregated into “payment” companies, “lending companies” and so on. Vast private equity and venture fortunes are being poured into making profits out of these three big movements and contemporary entrepreneurship means starting a business that capitalises on one of these three waves.

In the light of all this, how do I view my own switch to printed tech books? Have there been any cases where we have seen a reversal of an industrial revolution? What comes immediately to mind is the current reversal in worldwide views about the by-products of the Chemical Industrial Revolution: the Chemical Industrial Revolution started with the synthesis of indigo, and led to an era of affordable synthetic drugs, synthetic textiles, petrochemicals and so on but today is reversing itself as a revolution against plastics, petrol and synthetic chemicals of every kind gathers momentum.

Is such a pro-printed book wave around the corner?

The writer is hard at work on a textbook on Machine Learning for Standard VIII students in India in 22 languages;

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