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Why e-books are bound to fail

April 27, 2007 12:00 PM ET

These are all real, but minor, hurdles e-book makers would have to clear in order to make e-books a major gadget category. But none of them really matter, because there is one unavoidable and fatal fact that will kill the nascent e-book market in its cradle: People love paper books.

In other words, e-books are not, and cannot be, superior to what they are designed to replace.

People who care enough about books to spend $25 billion on them each year tend to love books and everything about them. They love the look and feel of books. They like touching the paper, and looking at words and illustrations at a resolution no e-book will ever match. They view "curling up with a good book" as an escape from the electronic screens they look at all day. They love to carry them, annotate them, and give them as gifts. Book collecting is one of the biggest hobbies in the world.

So many predictions about the future have failed because futurists tend to overemphasize the possible over the desirable. They give too much weight to technology and not enough to human nature.

Once upon a time, 1950s-era futurists predicted that by the 21st Century (as in right now), food would be made from sawdust, cars would be nuclear-powered, and everything in your house would be waterproof -- you'd clean up by hosing down.

They believed, and they were right, that technology would make all these things possible. But few stopped to think: Do people really want to eat sawdust? Do people want radioactive fallout after every minor car accident? Do people want to sit on plastic furniture?

Likewise, do people want to "curl up" with a battery-operated plastic screen?

The obvious answer is no.

And that's the simple reason why e-books will never even come close to replacing paper books.

The end.

Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at or his blog:

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