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!

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com