Death of the book ?

by John Q on September 20, 2004

The death of the book, like the paperless office, has been predicted so many times that people have given up paying attention. But, for me, at least, it came a big step closer today, at least in one sense, when I downloaded a PDF version of China Mieville’s Iron Council from Amazon.

This event was entirely unplanned. I went to Amazon planning a standard order and noticed that the PDF option was available. Since I didn’t want to pay for postage and wait weeks for delivery (and the PDF version was a bit cheaper anyway) I decided to try it out[1]. The download was pretty straightforward and the Digital Rights Management doesn’t seem too obtrusive – as I understand it I can use the file on as many computers as I want, with just a userid and password.

I’ve read about fifty pages so far[2], and my feeling is that, with a large flat-screen monitor, reading a good-quality PDF is comparable to reading a medium-quality printed book. Given the limitations, particularly the need to sit in one spot, I can’t see this become my preferred mode for a while. Still, there are a lot of advantages to consider, and in many cases, these will outweigh the negatives for me.

First, it means instant cheap access to new books published overseas. This is important for Australians, and others outside the US and UK who often have to wait a long time for ‘colonial’ releases of books published in the metropolitan countries.

Second, there’s essentially no storage problem. Iron Council is 1.7 MB, so I could store about 20,000 similar volumes on an iPod. For someone whose home and office bookshelves are already groaning (and with no wall space remaining for more) this is a big issue.

Third, I can see big advantages for book reviewing of which I do a fair bit. I’ll easily be able to search for bits of text, cut and paste quotes[3] and so on. And presumably we’ll eventually see the kind of added features that have made DVDs so popular.

So, is the death of the book imminent? Not, I think if we value books as texts rather than as physical objects. As I argued here, the idea, pushed by Camille Paglia and others, that the Internet is little more than a turbocharged TV set is the worst sort of pop McLuhanism. It may be that the medium is the message, but that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) refer to the distinction between paper and screens as delivery vehicles. A comic has more in common with a video clip than with a physics text, and a blog has more in common with a magazine than with a movie.

Far from spelling the end of the book, the advent of the Internet, and the expanded possibilities for digital delivery of text, represents the beginning of a new golden age.

fn1. I actually tried more than a decade ago, with a floppy-disk based version of Jurassic Park. It wasn’t unbearably bad, but not an experience I was keen to repeat.

fn2. As with Perdido Street Station, I’m finding it a bit slow going at the start. But I found Perdido Street Station really gripping by the end, so I’m not discouraged.

fn3. At least if Digital Rights Management doesn’t kill this option



ogged 09.20.04 at 3:56 pm

And with a smaller laptop, or tablet pc, you wouldn’t need to sit in one place to read it.

Odd that the book is available for download, but not for searching “inside.”


JPed 09.20.04 at 3:59 pm

What is the quality like? I’ve downloaded a few eBooks in .pdf format, and I was a little put off by the enormous font size and the lack of pictures or any other design features (fonts, etc). But it could just be the books I picked, which are sufficiently trashy that their titles will not be mentioned here…


steve burnap 09.20.04 at 4:18 pm

I’ve been downloading books to my PDA for years, now. I’ve probably read around twenty novels and a few years worth of SF magazines.

It’s not perfect as the screen is too small, but on the other hand, it’s easier to read one-handed while standing on the subway and being able to carry thousands of hours of reading material in a package smaller than a paperback is nice.

When I started reading on PDAs, on an old Palm III, it was a poor experience with blocky fonts and poor backlighting. Reading on my modern Clie, the only real issue is that the screen is about half the size of what I’d like. The technology is here, it is just a matter of someone packaging it correctly (and not encumbering it with stupid proprietary file formats like previous attempts at eBoook hardware has sufferred with.)


Ken Houghton 09.20.04 at 4:48 pm

If I take a paperback to the beach and it gets wet, or on the subway and I get jostled and drop it, I’m at most out a few pages, or a


yabonn 09.20.04 at 5:30 pm

Once they find some real electronic paper that won’t waste my eyes, maybe. Even then, i wonder about the influence of piracy on that potential market.

For technical references type of books, the string research functions are very nice,though.

…Come to think of it, for a novel, it could be hours of fun. Map and compare lexical field on a clic! Repetitions check! Palindromes! Longest sentences! Words used only once in the book! Yay!


Joel Turnipseed 09.20.04 at 6:15 pm

I’ve tried reading books from PDF and can only agree that it’s great for hard-to-find material (out of print Go books, academic or technical papers,etc). From a cost standpoint, the savings are negligible (cost of printing it, say, plus opportunity cost of trying to keep pages together, etc–not to mention 8.5×11 is much larger than most book formats, versus marginal cost of hardcover vs edoc): when I found out how little it actually costs to print even small print runs (and how much goes into editorial, royalties, and marketing costs — not to mention retail discounts), I gave a huge “Whew, the book is saved!” sigh of relief.

Now, if I could just afford a few hundred extra square feet…


Pedro 09.21.04 at 3:52 am


I loved Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and The Scar, but Iron Council has been a disappointment. I wonder how you feel about the novel.


Joey 09.21.04 at 4:54 am

No, I don’t think print is going anywhere anytime soon. Jakob Nielsen (an expert in usability) has an article showing that online reading is about 25% slower than reading print.

From the little I’ve read, I do believe that MS ClearType has helped decrease the difference.


agm 09.21.04 at 8:13 pm

Although this does transfer the cost of printing to the reader, which is non-negligible for lots of technical/ academic reading (4 pages here, 10 pages there, 35-60 pages for a review paper, at least 30% of which will have a color scale for data, no less than 1/3 of which must be printed in color since the data will be uninterpretable if redered in grayscale…). I mostly go to the library these days for journals whose back issues are not fully online yet. Thank god for online publishing or journal articles, but I still have to pay 25-50 cents a page for my plasmagrams.


Gary Farber 09.21.04 at 8:33 pm

The rain here gives me a focus for banging my head.

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