A South African technology expert says huge numbers of book readers in his country are using electronic reading devices. He says the rising popularity of such devices, known as e-readers, could lead to the slow disappearance of traditional books. But the appeal of paper may yet survive the changing technology.
Our story begins at a bookstore in the city of Johannesburg. Many people like to look through a book before buying it. But how much longer will traditional bookstores continue operating?
Arthur Goldstuck studies technological developments in Africa for World Wide Worx, a company based in Johannesburg. He says electronic books are growing in popularity and threatening the future of bookstores.
“We’ve seen many independent bookstores closing down because they simply can’t compete either with the big guys or with the digital market.”
Mr. Goldstuck says his brain tells him electronic books are the future of reading in South Africa. But his heart tells him there will always be a place in the country for printed books.
“I’ve read many books on Kindles but I still prefer to go back to a physical book. An e-book is so ephemeral compared to a physical book that there’s a greater sense of solidity and almost stability in reading a book. The ability to flip back in a book, to quickly cross-ref(erence) something, just doesn’t exist in digital, even though it makes that promise.”
It is children’s story time at Love Books, one of the few independent bookstores in Johannesburg. Kate Rogan is the owner of the business. She says many of her store’s customers own e-reading devices, while remaining loyal to traditional books.
“A large part of our customer base is people who do love books. They love to feel them, flick the pages, smell them; they love to have them on their shelves. They are passionate about a certain author and they want a (book) collection.”
Kate Rogan says her store has not been hurt because of the growing popularity of e-books.
“I opened this business five-and-a-half years ago. And it coincided almost exactly with everybody going into a flat panic about digital downloading. But looking at figures and turnover, my business has grown in the last five years. Last year was my best year in five years.”
Arthur Goldstuck says stores such as Love Books are able to survive in a time of changing technology because they specialize. For example, Kate Rogan does not have thousands of different books in her store. But what she does sell is unusual, varied and interesting.
She knows the names of people who often come to her store. She also knows what books they like and dislike. She says bookstores offer experiences that e-books and online bookstores cannot.
“I don’t think that algorithms can ever replace walking into a shop, a bookshop, and finding something that you’ve never heard of, an author you’ve never heard of, buying it, loving it and it touching you in some way or another.”
The number of electronic reading devices in South Africa is growing. But so is the number of stores selling second-hand, used books. Mr. Goldstuck says this is happening because new books are overpriced in South Africa.
Doron Locketz is the Book Dealers store owner. He says the business is very successful.
“We’re seeing continued interest and revived interest in physical books. The initial huge interest in electronic books I think has died down. Kid’s books are still huge. People still want their children to have a physical book.”
Doron Locketz says the printed book will survive e-books because South Africans like “face-to-face” service from booksellers.
“We believe in personally recommending books and this is what I think our customers want. They can come into the shop and they can talk to me or to one of our experienced staff who will recommend something to them which they’ll enjoy. They can’t get that experience online. Every day we have lovely conversations with customers who enjoy talking about books. They can’t do that with the major online retailers; it’s impossible!”
But he warns that unless booksellers tell young people about the many reasons for owning printed books, their stores will not survive.
I’m Jonathan Evans.
This report was based on a story from reporter Darren Taylor in Johannesburg. Christopher Jones-Cruise wrote it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
ephemeral – adj. lasting a very short time
cross-reference – v. to supply (something, such as a book) with cross-references; n. a note in a book (such as a dictionary) that tells you where to look for more information
passionate – adj. having, showing or expressing strong emotions or beliefs
coincide– v. to happen at the same time as something else
algorithm – n. a set of steps that are followed in order to solve a mathematical problem or to complete a computer process
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