Nick Hornby on why no one is flocking to buy ebooks

A few weeks ago I faced the daunting task of buying a friend a book for his birthday. The challenge: By his own confession, this friend is not a book fan. Most years he’s one of the third of American adults who never picks up a book. But this year he wanted to start reading again.

So imagine how thrilled I was when in a flash of inspiration I realized I could convert my friend — a 36-year-old mechanic — into a rabid reader. I could hook him on one author’s books as surely as I could if he were an eighth grader and had never picked up Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The book I was thinking of was High Fidelity by Nick Horny. Although it’s not my favorite of this author’s (that’s reserved for How To Be Good), it is perfect for any man who has ever loved and lost and realized he’s done it in a most boneheaded fashion. And who is willing to laugh about it. Hard and often.

Hornby wins readers over by being brutally honest and extremely bright. Maybe it’s just me, but he strikes me as someone I could picture having a pint with down at the pub. (Yes, he’s British, but the film based on High Fidelity shifted in setting from a London record store to one set in Chicago, and stars John Cusack and a then-unknown Jack Black — it travels across the pond surprisingly well).

I reveal all his because Nick Hornby has a blog, and in it he recently listed all the reasons why book publishers should neither look at e-books as a threat or a salvation. In his view, the latests ebook reading devices, Amazon’s Kindle and the iRex Illiad, are non-starters. Here’s a demo video of the latter product:

Here is an excerpt of Hornby’s explanation of why ebooks won’t fly off their virtual shelves any time soon:

  1. Book readers like books, whereas music fans never had much affection for CDs. Vinyl yes, CDs no … For readers, a wall lined with books is as attractive as any art we could afford to put up there.
  2. E-book readers have a couple of disadvantages, when compared to mp3 players: When we bought our iPods, we already owned the music to put on it; none of us own e-books … [And] so far, Apple is uninterested in designing an e-book reader, which means that they don’t look very cool.
  3. We don’t buy many books – seven per person per year, a couple of which, we must assume, are presents for other people … The advantages of the Iliad and the Kindle –- that you can take vast numbers of books away with you – are of no interest to the average book-buyer.
  4. Book-lovers are always late adaptors [sic], and generally suspicious of new technology.
  5. The new capabilities of the iPod will make it harder to sell books anyway. How much reading has been done historically, simply because there is no television available on a bus or a train or a sun-lounger? But that’s no longer true.

Sadly, I think Hornby is again spot-on. Except for one category, I don’t see ebooks immediately selling in any sort of numbers. That exception is business books, which can be far more useful as searchable reference sources than as comforting fireside yarns — or in Hornby’s case, exhilaratingly and often hilarious ones.

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