Only Five Years (better hurry)


Washington (CNN) — As e-book readers and tablet computers become more common, one prominent tech mogul says that physical books could disappear sooner than expected.

In an interview with CNN’s Howard Kurtz on “Reliable Sources,” author Nicholas Negroponte, founder of One Laptop per Child, said the physical book’s days are numbered.

“It will be in five years,” said Negroponte. “The physical medium cannot be distributed to enough people. When you go to Africa, half a million people want books … you can’t send the physical thing.”

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  • Andrew

    I can only think of the implications this will have on so many other things. One positive thing is that it will stop the destruction of forests, but, on the other end of that, that will also mean the loss of a lot of jobs in the paper production business. Such an event could cause the economy to continue to be in recession and even deteriorate more rapidly.

  • Clint W
  • How bizarre. I certainly don’t see physical books lasting (in the mainstream) for forever, but five years? I simply can’t take that seriously.

  • Not if ebook prices continue to rise — in some cases, the Kindle version costs now as much or more as the hardcover version and greater than paperback editions.

    Ebooks have great many features and I enjoy reading books on my iPad Kindle app, but given the DRM and inability to share, I don’t think you can even term it “owning” a book — it’s more akin to paying for an ephemeral reading experience.

  • Gloria

    I will continue to buy used books on Amazon for $.01. Kindle can’t beat that (even considering shipping costs).

  • DRT

    Good riddance. Maybe they will put the effort into making audio better.

  • Annette

    I’m a lawyer and we use a lot of electronic sources. But there is benefit to locating things with the physical books that the electronic search cannot match (like seeing where in a statute things fall) and vice versa. The books look better on the shelves…

    Right now, the cost of the electronic is cheaper than the physical book, so many offices are completely changing over. I suspect once hooked, the prices will rise again.

  • I think it’s possible. My books sell about 1/3 as many e-books as print right now. So if 30 print books sell, about 12 e-books sell concurrently. That’s pretty amazing, and suggests a huge shift even since last year.

  • Jerry

    I’ve heard that the Kindle is good for the environment because it reduces the carbon footprint. But what about the minerals/polycarbons/etc that go into the production of computers & e-readers? Do we have an unlimited supply of those things? I’d love to visit a town where those minerals are mined!

  • James

    A nation’s digital library could be lost as easily with EMPs (electromagnetic pulse), That alone makes me want to hold onto books.

  • Jeremy

    I can see the author’s point, but I don’t think it’ll be that fast. For the casual reader, sure, but how often do researchers have multiple books open at once, laid out for quick reference?

    Also, the technology has a long way to go before it’s realistic in reaching the poor in developing nations. I shudder to think how long a kindle would last in a village in the Congo.

  • What a goofy estimate. Is someone going to be shredding the billions of books that currently exist?

    James: Physical books can be destroyed by fire, and electromagnetic damage is only a problem for magnetic media (tapes, hard drives, game cartridges), not CDs and flash media.

  • nitika

    With Kindle at $139 this Christmas, 2011 will be the beginning of the end for the print industry. I predict 5 years from now an ebook will be $5, and a hard copy $25.

  • A few problems with this analysis.

    Unlike other forms of media which have gone digital, there is not a consistent demand for new books among the classes with discretionary income. Teenagers and college kids, who drove the conversion to digital media for news and music, don’t read books.

    Insofar as digital books are tied to a distinct conduit (e.g. Kindle), there is no inherent convenience vs. a physical paperback. In fact, there is a specific disadvantage. If a Kindle is dropped or stolen, the loss is devastating. Not so with a physical book.

    Publishers do not care about poor people in Africa.

  • Sue

    At one point people predicted that no one in the U. S. would cook anymore, either. We would all eat no-prep TV dinners.

    Not ALL books are going to disappear in five years. I’ll bet you a week of TV dinners on it!

  • Dan Reid

    Why are used book sales booming? And what device do you have for “recording” your present pulp books into ebooks (it’s not like going from CDs to MP3s)? And why has the ebook not yet caught on (even when e-readers were given for free) among students for textbooks? And many more questions . . . . “In five years” is an old and worn trope amongst enthusiasts like Negroponte, and I’ve been hearing it for twenty-five years. Ebooks will take an increasingly prominent role over the next “five years” but not a dominate one.

  • Bob Smallman

    Andrew @1 – No “forests” are destroyed in the production of paper. Paper companies (at least here in the north woods of Wisconsin and I presume elsewhere) raise their own fast-growing trees in massive plantations. It’s a crop like corn or soybeans — except that we read it rather than eat it. 🙂

    That said, I simply can’t believe that there will not be a continuing role for actual paper books. Maybe it’s a generational thing (and I’ll report back in when I get my generation 2 iPad!), but I love the physical feel of a book in my hands that I can underline and scribble all over (and, yes, mom — even fold the corners of the pages!).

  • Alan K

    Not knowing anything of the Kindle, can you underline or write in the margins? If not, then the physical book will be here to stay.

  • John Raymond

    E-books will continue to grow, but there are too many Boomers who like “real”books for the print book to pass away. Make it 20 years from now and the majority of book sales will be electronic.

  • nitika

    @ John #19

    I will buy my Boomer parents a Kindle for Christmas to shelter them from having to come to terms with their failing eye sight. Boomer vanity (won’t want to buy large print edition) and desire for instant gratification (book comes in 90 seconds) is exactly why ebooks will explode over the next few years.

  • I think Mass Market paperbacks may disappear.

    My Kindle 3 is nice. But currently specialized books (biblical commentaries, theology, etc.) are largely unavailable.

    The vaunted ability to highlight and bookmark and make notes in a Kindle is nonsense. The process is slow and clumsy and barely usable. Takes seconds to highlight in a book and make margin notes.

    I use my Kindle mostly to put teaching notes on the screen so I can teach without having to bring printouts.

  • David Neiss

    I have a Nook and an iPad, and as much I enjoy the experience, they are still more cumbersome in some important respects than a paper book. Making notes, underlining/highlighting, and marking pages electronically is awkward, though, in time, I’m sure the task will become more natural.

    Several of the benefits of paper books referred to above are irreplaceable with electronic media. I don’t e-books replacing paper books in my lifetime, if ever.

  • David Neiss

    Edit: “I don’t SEE e-books replacing. . .”

  • @ Kevin S. #14 “Teenagers and college kids, who drove the conversion to digital media for news and music, don’t read books.”

    As a youth pastor, who is only 25 himself, I would point out that teenagers and college kids read books at about the same rate that the general public reads books.

    In general, few people are actually book readers.

  • Andy D

    Having come back from the eye doctor this year with a huge jump in prescription, I have decided to continue buying physical books for longer than I expected. It’s MUCH easier on the eyes, even with these new monitors being put out.

  • Andy D

    With one exception: I purchase electronic forms of reference works for use in software like Logos. I couldn’t imagine reading through a single volume text on a screen or “E-book”

  • Kenny Johnson

    5 years? That can’t be taken seriously. e-books are cool and I think the Kindle is a nice device, but I still prefer physical books.

  • Luke B

    Absurd. Books will outlive every one of us.

  • Luke B

    Might as well give me all your cash, because cash will be obsolete too. And gasoline powered cars. And greeting cards, stationary, printers, and magazines. Silliness. One issue with computers in the LDCs is that most homes have extremely limited electricity. Don’t need electricity to read (a book), at least during the day.