When Povondra from Karel Čapek’s infamous War with the Newts novel saw one of the creatures in the Vltava river, it was as if the world was going to end. Now these amphibians have invaded the internet. The Municipal Library in Prague has begun offering online downloads of the renowned author’s work now that the 70-year period of copyright protection has expired. Many see the move as the beginning of the end of paper books.
The truth is that a variety of books have been offered online for years without major success. In 1999 Microsoft sponsored the International eBook Awards – including the award of USD 100,000 for the best literary work in digital format – but it had no impact on paper volumes. In the beginning of the millennium, bestselling authors Stephen King and Frederic Forsyth tried to publish their novels on the internet and, even in these cases, success was small.
The internet is not a place suitable for long texts. It’s no coincidence that the majority of successful internet projects use short video and tabloid-style graphics. It is way too easy to “change the channel” when you feel like it. And, although it is possible to use laptops for reading on a bus or in bed, it is not as satisfying.
Some authors say that publishing a literary work on the internet has had a positive effect on sales of the paper version: Readers decide they like the book but think it would be difficult to read online so they buy it. This could change if someone invented an electronic reader with all of the positive features of a paper book. A good example is an LCD display allowing the reader to “flip” pages using a simple control device, and with the memory to allow one to download books from the internet. The electronic reader has a number of advantages: It has a capacity of multitude libraries, it does not take up space, its backlit display allows reading in bad lighting …
Even here the results are not without problems. The SoftBook Reader was described as the end of the paper book in 1998. Books survived; the SoftBook Reader did not. The situation was similar with the Rocket eBook reader. Nowadays, the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader PRS-505 are considered the most promising devices, but there are no signs of them jeopardizing the print industry. Information has appeared that Apple plans the next revolution.
Harry Potter does not like internet
Let’s assume that the gossip about the Apple Tablet reader is true and that it will be as successful as the iPhone. This would probably shake things up. But only a little. There are several reasons for scepticism. A good book is a literary work, but this cannot be said about electronic devices. Buying books is a passion for collectors, which helps secondhand dealers make a living. Some authors strictly refuse for their works be published online. For example, readers of Harry Potter will be allowed to download the work only 70 years after the death of JK Rowling.
The expected scenario is the coexistence of both electronic and traditional books. The electronic devices are ideal for reading expert literature, thanks to their capacity and the possibility of hypertext. What is more endangered, though, are newspapers and magazines. Not only because online media allow for rapid updates of content but also because they work with freelancers for minimal cost, while traditional publishers refuse to adopt such models, perhaps without good reason.
Even if this would put an end to paper books, there is no need to worry: What matters in literature is not the medium but the content. As long as people want to read Čapek, we don’t need to worry.