I became a part of the “gift culture” very late in life. I love books; I love to receive them and give them as gifts. I think books make the best gifts. Recently I wanted to send Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” to a friend as birthday present. But she said it didn’t make sense as she owned a Kindle, Amazon’s ebook reader. She said that if I was really keen on sending the book, I could send her an ebook copy.
An ebook copy of a book as gift? What is the fun in sending or receiving an ebook copy as gift? If the print copy is the best gift in the world, I think an ebook copy is the worst. Thankfully very few people in my friend circle own an ebook reader. But, gradually, this is going to change (well, not in months but years). The death of print publishing is no more a conjecture, it is a certainty. The only question is when.
An ebook reader clearly has certain advantages over print books. It is light-weight. It stores hundreds of books in one place, so you do not have to worry about running out of (bookshelf) space. If the device has backlight, you can read in low light, without straining your eyes. Ebook copies are generally cheaper than print copies and out-of-copyright books are outright free!
If the print publishing dies (and it is in the interest of companies like Google and Amazon that it does, and therefore they will play an active role in digging its grave), buying a reading device will no more be an option. Today if someone wants to buy a book, they can go to a bookshop and grab a copy. If one is not fortunate enough to afford it, they can borrow from someone else. Or they may go to a public library and either read there or take membership so that they can take books home. The point is, the access barrier is very low.
Once print publishing dies, people will compulsorily have to buy a reading gadget. But everyone will not be able to afford it. Public libraries will vanish too. So suddenly the access barrier will get so high that it will leave a vast pool of masses without any means to read books, especially in a country like India where one-third of the population fights for subsistence on a day-to-day basis. The government has spent considerable resources on eradicating illiteracy. But while we bridge the gap between literate and illiterate populations in a few years, we would be facing another challenge in its place: the gap between digital haves and have-nots.