Ebooks vs. Printed Books: A Thought

So, I heard from a lot of people on my ebooks and e-readers post last week. There was even a comment from a bookbinder! Some people were very excited about what possibilities lie ahead with ebooks and interactivity and e-readers that target younger readers (whether or not they’re thrust into a toddlers hands for tantrum control and entertainment!).

A few other readers, though, really seem to be rejecting ebooks because they’re not books. Well, yeah. And my iPad doesn’t come in especially handy once a month, either. The two are patently different and, I’d argue, these two media for enjoying written content serve different purposes and (for the most part) different readerships.

Look, there’s nobody arguing with people who love the touch, smell, feel and experience of printed books. This is a joy that folks have known since Gutenberg fired up his press and dashed off the first mass market illuminated manuscript. (The joke cited in the recent New Yorker article about the iPad and ebooks goes that the second thing Gutenberg printed was a book about the death of publishing…)

So there’s no denying that printed books are one (almost sacred) thing, and ebooks are another. But this isn’t Shark vs. Whale where one dies and sinks at the end. (At least not in our lifetimes…cold comfort and heartless, sure, but if all print media, books included, goes the way of the 8-track tape in 100 years, the good news is we won’t be there to see it. But I really don’t think this will happen.)

However, I think people are going to get themselves in trouble, going forward, by denying the power of ebooks or hoping they go away (and here I’m talking about mostly book and publishing professionals, booksellers, etc., not casual readers). They won’t go away. For readers, those predisposed to reading ebooks are probably already in possession of an e-reader or contemplating one in the near future. (A news article I read recently, but can’t remember where, again, which is maddening, says that something like 26% of people were contemplating buying either an iPad or another e-reader in the next year.) For people who want nothing to do with ebooks, they don’t have to make that choice personally, but they should know that ebooks and e-readers are here to stay.

As I said above, it’s really not either/or. If publishers and booksellers and librarians and other bibliopeople want to be successful, they need to maximize impact and profit with ebooks and the people who read ebooks, while fostering growth for their printed formats, as they’re already used to doing. Publishing’s job isn’t to sell people books, it’s to sell people stories and content.

Some people, and I agree, though I have yet to really dig in to some numbers or a case study, believe that having both an ebook version and a printed version of a work feeds sales for both. Last Tuesday, I went to see Cory Doctrow speak and he said that publishing all of his books as a web serial and in ebook format hasn’t stopped sales of his printed work or replaced (in his customer’s mind) a need to own the printed version. If anything, he thinks his printed book sales have benefited from how available his work is online and for e-readers.

Again, this is going to be a huge issue that won’t die or become less important in our lifetimes. There are so many opinions and so many perspectives. From Cory Doctrow — who believes in ultimate freedom and publishes his work under a Creative Commons License — to the bookseller who just had to shutter his or her independent store because the times, they are a-changin’. I can’t even pretend to be comprehensive in these posts, but I hope I am giving you some good food for thought.


Speaking of publishing, I’m in New York for BEA (Book Expo America), a huge publishing trade show, this week. I’ll be having meetings, going to panels, going to lunch, going to parties, and grabbing ARCs for three days straight. I know I’ll have many more thoughts on digital content once this week is over!

15 Replies to “Ebooks vs. Printed Books: A Thought”

  1. How will ebooks and libraries work, I wonder? You download a book to your e-reader from their website, and then a bot comes in and wipes it clean? (“This book will self-destruct in three weeks…”) At least you know you’ll never turn another book in late:)

  2. One irony is that those who reject e-books in blog comments are already e-reading, and probably have been for some time (buying fewer magazines as a result). Right now we still think that e-readers and lap-top computers are two different things, but I’m sure that will change as we get even closer to a single device that does it all, and does it beautifully.

    I love paper books, but as I read all the recent kid-lit I can lay my hands on at the same time as packing to move house, the idea of owning an e-reader is growing more attractive by the day:)

  3. Right after I got my Kindle, my mother asked me if I was going to get rid of my hardcover / paperback library and even my bookshelves! Oh, Mom. I explained to her that the Kindle doesn’t replace paper-book-reading; it’s just a different WAY to read. I don’t see one method as being objectively better than the other. I love how books feel and smell, but I also love being able to take 30 e-books along with me in my purse! I’m excited to see how e-books evolve, but I know I’ll still be a regular purchaser of hardcovers, too.

    (Oh, and I totally LOL’ed at your iPad quip!)

  4. Mary,

    Thanks for pointing out that this is not a shark eat whale world. Both paper books and ebooks have merit, and for different reasons appeal to different people at different times.

    I finally bought a Kindle this past winter and love it. I’ve included a link to my reasons on how I, a confirmed bibliophile, purchased one and what I thought after giving it a work out on vacation.



    However, I would also like to point out that since I’ve bought my Kindle, I have gone to the bookstore a handful of times and purchased roughly 20 hardcover books.

    While this is fewer physical books than normal, I have spent more money due to buying hardcover books as well as ebooks.

    Owning a Kindle gives me better choices regarding which books I want to line my physical bookshelves. I no longer purchase paperbacks, but instead, buy the ebook first. If I love it enough to reread it, I’ll buy the hardcover.

    I have even gone as far as to purchase the ebook of a title that I physically own so I can reread it whenever the mood strikes me. In my book, this increases the sale’s potential.

    Just throwing that out there~ cat

  5. Libraries already do eBook lending – two of my local systems use Library2Go. You d/l the book, which has time-limited DRM. After the lending period the files can no longer be used.

  6. I haven’t used an e-reader yet, but only because I’m kind of a technophobe. The more I travel, the more tempting they become, though. I won’t have to leave any books behind??? Awesome!

    I’ve watched people insult the employees in my local B&N who simply want to tell them about the Nook. Poor employees… So thanks for adding a bit of civility to this highly divisive issue.

  7. Now I want an eReader. I’ll have to drop hints to my husband, like, “Do you think an iPad would fit in my Christmas Stocking, or would Santa have to put it under the tree?”

  8. I downloaded a Kindle for PC from Amazon a while back (can’t remember how long ago, but it seems like several weeks) and I haven’t used it yet (been busy reading the hard copy books I have). It’s so much easier to lay in bed with a book than it is with a laptop. 😉

    As I said before, I do plan to purchase a Kindle or some other ereader at some point in the future. But there are other things on my to buy list before I get to the ereader (like a Macbook Pro with Scrivener). 😉

    Hope you have fun at BEA! I wish I could be there snatching up ARCs. I envy you (see me turning green?).

  9. I guess if I won’t destroy the paper book industry by buying a Kindle, I might give in. 🙂

  10. I agree with Cat. I have purchased several books I already own in hardback for my Kindle, as well as paperbacks I may have skipped over at the bookstore. My husband would argue that I now spend more money on books than before, since I still, and will always, buy all varieties of books.

    It’s another great avenue to encourage people to read… isn’t that the overall goal anyway?

  11. Greta Marlow says:

    You’re right; the content is the most important thing. Paper or pixel, the “book” is simply the distribution method for the story. In my opinion, the smart companies are the ones who are going to keep the focus on the stories while maximizing the opportunities to get those stories to the audience that will appreciate them. It seems to me that e-publishing might make it more profitable (or at least less costly) to publish stories that have a niche audience. I’m one of those readers who likes stories that probably don’t have enough market appeal to make a lot of money (historical fiction about something other than the Tudors, ha ha). If e-books could make it possible for me to have access to more stories in my area of interest, I’m all for them.

    (I say that, but I still haven’t bought an e-reader. I’m waiting for something like the Kindle, but with color.)

  12. Honestly I think it will be a generational thing. My parents only pay in cash or with a check (a CHECK at the supermarket– don’t get me all worked up on that, but if your life time is limited then why would you waste time writing a check!) while I only pay with my debt card. I don’t know any of my friends who carry cash. I think eventually paper cash will go away.

    Same with books.

    My daughter is 2, my bet for the first twenty years of her life there will be both paper and e books. But she will only be using e-books. Eventually (and we’re talking decades from now) the physical book will be only in libraries then in museums.

    We don’t write on clay tablets any more.

    Books are tech. They are an OLD tech and a tech that has lasted the test of time. But eventually it gets out dated. Besides it isn’t the format that matters.

    Star Wars is a great movie, and it doesn’t matter if you watch it in 13 inch black and white TV, on Laser Disc, VHS, DVD or Bluray or a digital copy. The story itself doesn’t change. Just the format and the way we watch it.

    The stories will not change depending on the format.

    Paper books won’t go anyway for a long time. But eventually they will, it might take twenty years or a hundred.

  13. Cory Doctorow’s approach has intrigued me. It’s brilliant. And I can’t believe it works. I think it has been successful for him because he writes techy fiction. I LOVE the idea of releasing books under a Creative Commons license but I am also a big fan of making money off my work. And, somehow, those two things seem at odds with one another. I could be wrong, in fact, I’d love to be wrong, but I can’t figure out how it will make sense in other markets.

    Perhaps it just comes down to getting your work into the hands of as many people as possible. In that case, I think it’s working for him.

    Also, are publishers going to get behind Cory’s approach? How would they react to an author wanting to release their work for free on the interwebs?

  14. I must say, I love my Kindle, but it doesn’t stop me from buying real paper and glue books with pretty covers that look gorgeous lined up on my book shelves. 🙂

    I’ve already seen lots of BEA tweets about Ebooks and such, so I’m sure it must be a big topic.

    Enjoy your time in NYC!

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