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Reading in Color, Why is this such a big deal?

Reading a New York Times article this weekend, titled “Reading E-Books in All the Colors of the Rainbow,” [available here] got us thinking about why there’s such a seeming rush to make e-reader displays colorful.

When I go to my bookshelf [that’s me, Monique, one of the editors], 99% of the books on it are black & white, no color whatsoever inside. Ok, the truth is, I’m ignoring all of my husband’s graphic novels when I estimate that 99% figure, oh, and the children’s book collection too… but, otherwise, really, they are all black & white.

Thinking about this, three things seem to explain the apparent rush to color. We should also note that Amazon has been quite content, at least publicly, with the black & white display on it’s various iterations of the Kindle. So while they too are talking about a color display in the future, they do not seem overly anxious to rush to color.

So, why the push for color displays on e-readers? Here are the three ideas we have.

First, because we’re all quite accustomed to seeing color displays when working with our electronic devices, computers for the most part. This makes it seem normal to have color display even though on paper we are still quite comfortable with black & white.

Second, because newspapers have made the transition to color and are now shying away from printing as much as they can choosing instead to push their readers towards consuming their product electronically. In going with color, newspapers have also begun to use color graphics which are designed differently than are black & white graphics and converting from color to black & white is not entirely a straightforward affair for graphics. This same issue is becoming more and more relevant in textbooks as well. Most textbooks are now produced in color and as they are converted into eBook formats the need to convert to a black & white display is an added cost. Thus, the educational arena is part of the push towards color displays for e-readers.

Third, because hybrid electronic display devices, like Apple’s iPad—designed to serve as an e-reader as well as a multi functional communications device—have color displays. These multi-functional devices are competing with more traditional e-readers [sounds almost funny to say traditional when referring to such new devices] and using their color displays as one way of distinguishing themselves from black & white e-readers.

But the real question is, do we need color displays when we’re curling up to read a novel?

We’d love to hear what you think.

The statistics on e-reader shipments quoted in the above mentioned New York Times article gave us an idea of what we’ll tackle next in terms of tracking this business through statistics. In 2009, according to iSuppli, 5 million e-readers were shipped worldwide. In 2010 the market research firm forecasts e-reader shipments will reach 11 million units. We wonder how many eBooks per e-reader are being sold annually. We’ll try and track that down next.

Gutenberg II?

Helen Sheppard Fisher, one of our associates, a lady with a keen sense for books, acquired a remarkable volume by Alberto Manguel soon after it appeared and made it part of our corporate holdings as a gift. The book is A History of Reading, Viking, 1996. One paragraph came back to us the other day while contemplating the spread of e-books and electronic publishing generally. The paragraph comes from a chapter titled “The Shape of the Book.” Here it is:

The effects of Gutenberg’s invention were immediate and extraordinarily far-reaching, for almost at once many readers realized its great advantages: speed, uniformity of texts and relative cheapness. Barely a few years after the first bible had been printed, printing presses were set up all over Europe: in 1465 in Italy, in 1470 in France, 1472 in Spain, 1475 in Holland and England, 1489 in Denmark. (Printing took longer to reach the New World: the first presses were established in 1533 in Mexico City and in 1638 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.) It has been calculated that more than 30,000 incunabula (a seventeenth-century Latin word meaning “related to the cradle” and used to describe books printed before 1500) were produced on these presses. Considering that fifteenth-century print-runs were usually of fewer than 250 copies and hardly ever reached 1,000, Gutenberg’s feat must be seen as prodigious. Suddenly, for the first time since the invention of writing, it was possible to produce reading materials quickly and in vast quantities. [From page 134; footnotes omitted.]

The first Gutenberg bible was completed in 1455. Thus in roughly fifty years printing spread over Europe, in less than a hundred across the continents. We may now be in an analogous process whereby the book migrates from printed pages to electronic storage and transmission—and the process is likely to take places much faster than the spread of movable type. Manguel points out elsewhere in this chapter that printed books did not replace hand-written volumes. Indeed some of the more beautiful such volumes were created in this period. But ultimately calligraphed books disappeared from commerce altogether. Is that likely to happen to the printed book in the turbulent wake now beginning to rise from the Kindle?

In a way we hope that printed and electronic books will both continue side by side into the distant future—if for no other reason than to guarantee the preservation of knowledge. The big difference between these two forms of the book is that printed products will survive any kind of major technological meltdown which deprives large areas of electricity for extended periods of time. Bad things do happen. If they were to happen in some future time when books are no longer printed (thinking now in a science fiction mode), humanity might not only lose much practical knowledge but may have to recover from a few ancient volumes the wisdom of the ages—and may have to reinvent movable type all over again.