There is still nothing to beat the power of a book. However, it is natural that the smartphone juggernaut will have us take a look at whether flipping virtual pages could be as impactful as the real thing. In fact, for digital migrants, it is still hard to replace a book with a touchscreen, but the digital natives have no such qualms and can read long-form on a three-inch screen if the need arises.
However, has the smartphone really grown enough to replace a hardbound? It is a tough question, especially in a country like India where a lot of the old world still has strong ground despite the smartphone juggernaut. But our liking for large-screen smartphones might just be what makes people go for the big shift. Analytics firm Flurry says 38% of Indian smartphone users are on a phablet with a screen size of at least five inches. And that size is perfect for those who want to take a book wherever they go. Most Indian websites are being read more on mobile than on desktop. And it is wrong to think people read only short-form online; longer stories seem to be read more on small screens.
Coming back to books, reading online offers an advantage no library will ever be able to replicate, and that is the promise of choice and access to millions of books all over the world. Amazon Kindle, arguably the largest bookstore in the world, offers 3 million e-books on its Indian store. About 800,000 of these books are exclusive to Kindle and about 50,000 are free.
Sanjeev Jha, India director of Kindle Content, says the company wants people to read at their convenience and Kindle is happy to provide a platform which enables them to read on their smartphones too. While Kindle is usually associated with its e-readers, there is also a popular app that works on all kinds of devices, even the PC. “India is among the top-ten countries globally for books, and is the third-largest market segment for English books,” says Jha. Amazon’s excitement with the Indian market is reflected in the fact that the latest Kindle Paperwhite e-reader was announced for India the same day as the rest of the world.
While Indians love books across all genres, Jha says that major categories are literature & fiction, business & economics, biographies, children’s books, and mythological & religious books, in that order. It helps that a lot of books are actually more affordable as e-books. Amazon has over half a million titles priced under R99 and 1.5 million tiles under Rs 299. Recently, it offered a discount for those who wanted to pre-book Amish Tripathi’s new book on a Kindle device.
But what are the other advantages of reading online? There is a possibility of continuum or the ability to continue reading the same book seamlessly across devices with technologies like Kindle’s Whispersync. Then you can tap to find the meaning and usage of a word, especially useful for kids. Plus, you could be carrying a virtual library wherever you are going without paying for the excess baggage. And, for kids, the books could become really interactive too.
I have bought a couple of children titles on my Kindle to see if my four-year-old can be weaned away from his tablet. It does interest him, but does not have the appeal of a colourful, smooth, high-resolution tablet screen. He loves to flip through the same books on the Kindle app. The way bookstores across the country are shutting shop, I am tempted to tell him that he better start getting used to an e-ink screen.
I am in no way suggesting that books are dying. I know that, while I lapped up the pre-order version of Tripathi’s new book, I also ordered the paperback within minutes. As Wayne White of Canadian e-reading giant Kobo once told me, a lot of people will still continue to buy a book for its “trophy value”. After all, you cannot showcase an e-book reader or a smartphone on your bookshelf!