Romantics and reimagination: The stigma of eBooks
The ascent of eReaders in the mid-noughties gave avid readers everywhere an accessible means of scratching their itch, but it also attracted criticism from literary romantics. For some, accessing a book through cold electronics took something away from the experience, making it impersonal and sterile in comparison to a lovingly worn paperback.
This scepticism is shared by powerful people within the industry; according to Arnaud Nourry, chief executive at Hachette Livre, the eBook is “a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience.” If this is true, however, millions of users are continuing to enjoy this so-called fake experience.
This is largely due to how convenient eBooks are for the consumer. Most books – particularly hardbacks – are heavy and bulky. Having two or three of them in your bag or suitcase will take up a lot of weight and space. They’re also easy to damage, from tears, smears and stains.
Despite reports of reduced eBook sales and a somewhat surprising increased interest in printed book sales, the eBook market was valued at an astonishing $11.68bn globally in 2018. It’s hard to quantify units sold – Amazon are the undisputed champion of self-published eBooks and don’t report their sales to anyone – but for a market that doesn’t provide a “real” experience, a lot of people are still using the devices.
However, there is some merit in Nourry’s criticism. eReaders can provide an absorbing reading experience, but the top-selling tablets from Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and ASUS all share similar drawbacks; a vulnerable and eye-straining screen, chunky aesthetics, and heavy internal hardware. Many tablets are failing to provide the slick interactive experience that personal devices should be able to deliver.
Drawbacks, developments and design
This is primarily down to the type of display that these tablets use. OLED and LED displays are backlit, straining the eye over long periods of time. Their glass surface is reflective, making them difficult to read under direct light. They also require powerful processors (and subsequently bulky batteries) to power the display, the light, and the hardware behind. This results in a bigger and heavier device, when engineers should ideally be creating something light and streamlined.
eBook devices and tablets that integrate ePaper displays solves many of these drawbacks. ePaper doesn’t need a backlight and isn’t reflective, and therefore doesn’t impede the reading experience like traditional displays. It’s also far more durable than OLED or LED, resisting both shattering and impact damage.
On top of this, power is only used to change the image on an ePaper display rather to maintain it. Even if you remove the power source completely, whatever is on the display will remain visible, allowing ePaper devices to boast exceptional power consumption rates in comparison to glass-screened rivals. Consumers can use their devices over a sustained period of time without worrying about running out of power.
These unique qualities expand the market for eBooks well beyond the traditional commuter. The durability of ePaper-based tablets, for example, makes them suitable for children who are susceptible to breaking glass screens; the Board of Education in North Carolina has distributed eReaders loaded with literacy apps to children between 0-4 in the hope of boosting literacy rates.
Making eReaders accessible in this way has real potential to change the stigma surrounding eBooks. If devices are able to take advantage of the qualities boasted by ePaper technology, they can make aesthetic and interactive changes that address the concerns of romantics who prefer book to screen.