Home » Disruptive Innovation, Ebooks » Paper vs digital reading is an exhausted debate

Paper vs digital reading is an exhausted debate

2 April 2014

From The Guardian:

The digital revolution is going into a decline, Tim Waterstone told the Oxford literary festival. Well, it’s an attention-grabbing statement, ideally suited to our culture of assertive headlines, but it’s probably not true. That’s not to say that the rapid growth of digital will necessarily continue, either, certainly not in markets that are already saturated with handheld devices.

Why? Because the future is – as William Gibson told us quite a long time ago now – not evenly distributed.

. . . .

There are fewer and fewer venues where digital technology has made no impact – and where there’s a digital device, there are ebooks, at least in potential. They need not be anyone’s primary method of consuming literature, but in some situations they will be the best one. Rather than circling the wagons as other media industries did (to no good outcome, it has to be acknowleged) publishers need to learn the more recent lessons from music and film and consider, for example, providing digital copies as standard with hardback editions.

Digital will continue to grow for a while at least, and continue to exist, because it is becoming part of the world we inhabit at a level below our notice, no more remarkable than roads or supermarkets. Ebooks are here to stay because digital is, and quite shortly we’ll stop having this debate about paper vs ebooks because it will no longer make a lot of sense.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Russell for the tip.

Different people adapt to new technologies in different ways. PG has no doubt that somewhere, people still stroll around listening to Walkmans and Diskmans. However, digital music isn’t tied to a particular device and people listen to music on their smart phones or tablets or their Sonos speakers (PG is currently in love with Sonos). Similarly, people watch digital video on a variety of different devices.

PG does think ebooks will replace paper books. For one thing, paper books require industrial-age scale to be sold at a reasonable price and still earn a profit for everyone in the supply chain. Publishers, distributors, bookstores and authors can earn money on a hardcover that costs $3 to print in China. A POD hardcover is going to require a higher price to generate the same profits or, more likely, cut organizations out of the supply chain in order to sell at a reasonable price that’s still higher than the same ebook would cost.

It’s dangerous to extend one’s own preferences and experiences to the rest of the world, but PG rarely buys paper books any more. He received a paper book in the mail yesterday because it was much cheaper as a used book than the ebook was. However, he immediately regretted the impulse purchase because he’s unlikely to read it. He much prefers a featherweight Kindle that doesn’t lose his place if he falls asleep and it slips from his fingers. PG’s stack of very good yet unread paper books is collecting dust.

Disruptive Innovation, Ebooks

44 Comments to “Paper vs digital reading is an exhausted debate”

  1. Your commentary shows the variety of responses to the Brave New World. For myself, I rarely buy ebooks, although I read a lot of free material and sample books on my Kindle. I wouldn’t think of buying a new ebook, simply because I want to retain control of my media (yes, I know Amazon can be read on a lot of devices, point accepted), but paper is more portable to me than the reader.

  2. Oh criminy! You posted some good ‘uns today! I still buy the occasional paperback. My husband with his three Kindles? Nevah!

    Wow. I always think it’s funny how those who view themselves as the most progressive are, in actuality, the most conservative. They hate change unless it’s exactly the kind of change they want.

  3. “PG does think ebooks will replace paper books.”

    THIS. Agree.
    The historical trend has always been in the direction of increasingly ephemeral media. From scratching on rocks, to impressions on clay tablets, to pigments painted on animal skins, to ink pressed onto paper, and now electrons with nearly no mass at all.
    The obvious danger has always been the impermanence of the medium. If you burned a Mesopotamian library of clay tablets, all you did was bake the books into a more permanent form of fire-hardened brick. Burn a paper library and all you get is ash. A single EMP from an atomic blast or meteor strike will erase far more…
    Despite this danger, ephemerance and impermanence must offer some other overwhelming advantages. I’ve thought about that a lot, and still not satisfied that I know what all those advantages are.

  4. Whereas I’m finding it very hard to find ebooks that I want to read.

    My preference is not to patronize Amazon. Take them out of the equation and it’s terribly difficult to find good ebooks. I’m sure they are out there, lost in a sea of unknown authors, but I cannot find any. I feel like I have to be up-to-date on the whole of indie publishing to recognize any of the thousands of authors on Goodreads and Smashwords. Without that education, every ebook is a crapshoot and I don’t like to gamble. It’s easier to go to the bookstore and pick out a paperback with an author’s name that I recognize.

    • Couldn’t you go to Goodreads, Smashwords, Amazon etc. and pick an ebook with an author’s name you recognize?

      I do have a question. Doesn’t it get incredibly reading trading the same authors over and over? I’ve had my Kindle Fire for a bit longer than a year and in that time I’ve discovered many new authors whose stories I love. There’s a whole universe out there, why limit yourself to one planet?

      • That’s the problem. Goodreads and Smashwords don’t have any authors that I recognize. They don’t even have any authors that friends have recommended to me.

        Amazon has authors I know and that I have heard might work for me. But I don’t want to buy from Amazon. (Mostly because I don’t like their e-reader app, and I can’t get Amazon purchases to work with other apps on my Android tablet.)

        I have done some reading of new authors to try them. It has almost always been disappointing. (In one case it has been rage-inducing, when I bought a book that was heralded as the greatest indie breakout ever and found it unredeemable dreck.) I do want to find new authors, but after three or four books that disappointed me I’m tired of searching through mud to find the diamonds. At this point I just want to read something that I’ll like. I just want comfort reading. E-books aren’t giving it to me.

        • If you don’t want to buy from Amazon, try Kobo or B&N or iTunes or Google Play or one of the smaller stores. All of them carry both indie and trad pub books and should have some authors you recognize.

  5. I buy fewer and fewer DTBs myself, but it really hits the fan when you’re moving – I didn’t realize how many DTBs I had lying around the house in lots of weird places. ;-) These are books that are pretty specialized, so I doubt very much they’ll ever be digitized.

    And, of course, having most of your reads in ebook form doesn’t require any boxing up and doesn’t take up space that could be used for other stuff. :-)

  6. I only read PG’s part…..

    I, although I can’t believe I’m saying this because I never imagined I would, find paperbacks pretty annoying these days.

    Can’t change font size, can’t read with one hand, must find some way of marking the place I left off, bulky, and more.

    I used to buy some paperbacks and even hardcovers, but nowhere close to the number of ebooks I buy now. I haven’t purchased a paper book since I bought my Kindle several years ago.

    • I (mostly) feel the same way.
      I recently reviewed the print books I’ve bought in the past year. With two exceptions, all the print books (8 of them) have been instructional or reference books of some kind. Everything else (~20 or so) has been in the form of electrons and photons.

    • I borrowed a book from our neighborhood Little Free Library, and it was a good one, but I had to turn a light on to read it, couldn’t adjust the brightness or type size or line height, had to hold it open with two hands, and after 3 years of almost-exclusive e-reading it was just a pain in the arse. I never finished it.

      Still keep my specialized and reference print books, but not buying any new paper publications.

    • Yep. I had a big library of all the hardcovers and paperbacks I’ve loved over the years, and even sort of fetishized the whole thing–the smell of the pages, heft of the book, old notations, etc. But once I got an iPad, I was done with paper. I get cranky if a book I want is only in paper.

      For one thing, I fall asleep reading every night, and it’s so much nicer that the device turns itself off instead of being woken up by a book slamming me in the face.

      I moved recently, and got rid of half the paper books, knowing I was never going to read them again in that form and knowing my kids won’t either.

      At first I liked the Nook app because of that sweet little page-turning gizmo, but quickly no longer needed that crutch…

  7. it’s probably my age and I assume that I’ll eventually become more fluent with ebooks, but right now, I’m stuck in the ebook (which basically = Kindle) for fiction, print for non-fiction. Nonfiction books are tools that I can mark up and make my own. As I say, though, eventually I’ll be able to do that with ebooks.

    JM Brown’s comment about the EMP got me thinking, though…we need a giant Faraday box for our ebooks. That’s something for the libraries to be working on.

  8. I buy paper books when there isn’t an ebook available and not likely to be any time soon. These are mostly out of print books that I buy used on Amazon. They are books I have decided to buy before looking for them based on recommendations.

    But to be honest, I always wonder why there isn’t any call to get rid of print books entirely. Since we have an accessible and efficient alternative, why aren’t we trying to phase out print books for the environmental benefits? Wouldn’t it be better if we stopped cutting down trees to provide our entertainment?

  9. I rearranged my office yesterday, and moved two of my bookshelves. In the process I had to remove the books and place them on the newly relocated shelves. I intended to get rid of some ‘obsolete’ books. I couldn’t do it. And then I realized I had books I haven’t read yet. Not that I don’t have books on my Kindle I haven’t read yet. I’m a book hogger, paper or electronic.

  10. PG, your anecdote reminded me that I purchased two Lindsay Davis books (in her Falco series) six months ago, because they were on sale. I thought, “Oh, I don’t own these, I like to re-read her, and these are a great price!” Ha! Now I wish I hadn’t succumbed to the marketing push. I haven’t read them, and I’m not sure I will. I didn’t realize how much my packaging preferences had changed until this moment. So that’s why I keep scooping up Georgette Heyer ebooks every time I see them on sale. Because I don’t want to re-read my paper copies. I actively want to re-read them on my kindle. Huh.

  11. I only buy paper books now when I can’t get it digitally, and even then I’ll hesitate because I don’t want to add another object to my rather small home that’s going to take up precious space. It’s not as convenient to handle and notate paper books, either, which is important for somebody like me who does a lot of research and often likes to have access to multiple sources at once while I’m working on writing my own books.

    So yeah, it’s dangerous to extend one’s own preferences to the rest of the world, but man, there is a lot to be said for the convenience of digital books!

    I do still enjoy having beautiful print editions of books I love in my home. I feel pretty confident that print books will stick around as collector’s items for a long time yet, but I’m not the only person on Earth who thinks twice about whether I need to read that book at all if I can’t get it right now on my Kindle.

    • Agree. I think print books will become luxury goods, to be admired as part of a much-loved collection. Although I cringed at what I had to pay, I’ve bought the ebooks of almost half my Terry Pratchett paperback and hardback collection.

  12. I haven’t reached the walkman stage yet.
    I own a Kindle because I publish for Kindle, but I haven’t become at all comfortable with it.
    I still buy paper books and I’ll probably always buy them.

    So I have some faith in the printed text and am making sure that all of my books are available both digitally and in paper. To judge from fan mail, my readers are very, very grateful.

  13. As much as I embrace new technologies, I still read paper books. Just like ‘em. My preference. Frankly, I think there’s room for both at least for another generation. Things will happen when they happen and not a moment sooner.

    That said though, I can’t stand to read non-fiction on an e-reader. On that point, I won’t budge.

    • Till you realize that the digital non-fiction version must have come with links and clicking those would have gotten you more information and templates immediately.

      Older paper editions for research i don’t mind, but current? Digital, no contest.

  14. I’ll read e-book, hardcover or paperback. In fact, a local grocery store has hardcovers on sale for three bucks. I scored some reads that we’re on my list for a while.

    I truly don’t know how you can look at where we’ve been, as far as the written word is concerned, and where we’re going and not conclude that digital will be a dominant player in the future. I read non-fiction as well as fiction. The capability to “mark up” an e-book is coming. Does anyone truly doubt that? If you want the physical book “smell”, I’m sure an inventive company could impregnate your e-reader with book pheromones that activate when you click your next read.

    I’m excited about the future of the written word. If for no other reason, technology is allowing smaller publishers, indie authors etc. to not only get their word out but to also make a living while doing it.

  15. Recently I started reading (on my Kindle) The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christoper Greene. Fell in love with his writing and sought out what else he’s written. Turns out, he has only two other books — neither available as ebooks. I couldn’t bring myself to order the paper versions even though I really, really want to read everything Greene has written. That’s how far into the digital age I’ve plunged. I doubt I’ll ever buy another paper book. I can at least take solace in the fact that his earlier books were not as well-received as the one I’m now reading.

  16. I buy a lot of ebooks and I still buy paper books as well. I did recently discover a downside to ebooks though.

    You know when you’re partway into a book and you reach that point where you’re disgusted enough to throw the thing across the room? Yeah. Not gonna do that with my Kindle or my iPhone or my iPad. Now I just quietly close the book and move on to the next one. Doesn’t seem as satisfying somehow.

  17. I read a dozen books on the Kindle app of my iPhone during a 3-week overseas trip, and downloaded the third Mary Beth Pfeffer in Paris. If I’d taken the real thing, I would have had to take another suitcase, and I wouldn’t have been able to find out what happened to Miranda and Alex until I got home.

    That said, I continue to buy print books, especially non-fiction so I can write marginalia and dogear and highlight and underline, and because illustrations and maps and photos are much better in print than in e. I know you’re right, PG, I know you are, but I will be very sad when print books disappear.

    • I agree illustrations and maps are better on paper, at least for now, Dana.

      • That reminds me of the coffee table book “Moon.” Nothing but photos from the Apollo missions, including several gatefolds. They would not look the same on any tablet unless it was table size.

        • Wasn’t Apple coming out with a coffee table/tablet? I seem to remember they were playing around with one around the time the ipad came out.

  18. Chris Armstrong

    I walked past a B&N recently. They had a book that I’ve been interested in reading. The hardback on-sale for only $5. The ebook is $12, and the paperback is $14! (I figured this out after I left.)

    I spent about 5 minutes seriously considering going back and buying the book. Then I looked at the other paper books I have sitting around that I never finish because my kindle is always in my backpack and ready to go.

    It’s kinda insane, that I will probably pay more for an ebook – simply because then I don’t have to cart the thing around on the off chance I get a moment to read.

  19. I’ve been reading books for a writing contest the past couple of months and found that I really don’t like reading paperbacks–I thought me reading mostly on my phone or Kindle was all a convenience thing (handy, easy to carry), but the paperback was so heavy, and I had to have the lamp on, which disturbs my hubby and my wrists were not happy with the extra strain. I still buy most references in paperback–I love flipping back and forth and making notes–but fiction is pretty much all ebooks for me now.

    But no, I won’t spend $14 for an ebook just for convenience sake. Unless you’re Brandon Sanderson, and the paperback is over 1000 pages, I’m not spending more than $10 for an ebook.

  20. Paper books depend on paper bookstores. If paper bookstores don’t have a big enough audience to support themselves, they will close shop, or at least the big chains will. Then the paper book holdouts will switch to ebooks, for the most part.

    That could happen within a year or two.

  21. Count me as one of those still using a diskman with MP3 capability! One black single-fold slipcase full of burned CD’s of my favorites (I think for a total of 16-20 DVDs), and I’ve got days worth of music. Still haven’t found anything that can store ALL that music so that I can carry it all with me at all times, but I know the day is coming. I’ll just keep using the Diskman until that happens. I see no reason to change until it happens. :D

    Meanwhile, I have switched to ebook for everything except some out-of-print stuff, reference, and books with a lot of images.

  22. I own an e-reader, but I mainly use it for checking my formatting and occasionally for reading during travel or extended waiting periods.

    However, I never feel fully comfortable with my e-reader and vastly prefer print books for both fiction and non-fiction. Ninety percent of what I buy are print books as well. I only settle for an e-book when there is no print edition available.

    I don’t think print versus e-books is a contest anymore than hardcover versus paperback. Both formats can coexist and will for the foreseeable future.

  23. I buy slightly more physical books than ebooks. Reference books=always physical.

    Fiction, eh…depends. I have certain series I must have in physical editions (The Dresden Files, A Song of Ice and Fire, Crown of Stars). Others not so much, and I do love reading on my Kindle (it’s easier on my eyes, and being able to adjust the font size is a big Yay!).

  24. I went to the original post in The Guardian and there was a banner ad at the top for a “FREE Writer’s Guide to Publishing.” Clicking on that sent me to a website for AuthorHouse (an “imprint” of ASI). :(

    Of course, you have to fill out a form with your contact info — e-address, phone — to get the “free guide.” Hello spam em’s and junk phone calls from ASI!

    • Anything from AuthorHouse wouldn’t be worth having. You can find much more reliable sources of info, without having to be on the receiving end of spam.

      I mostly read eBooks nowadays, though only a couple of years ago I was just getting into digital anything (I’ve only had an iPod a few years). I still prefer paper books for reference books, but I’m building an electronic library of those as well.

      My Kindle has been a great help to me over the last two years as I spent a lot of time in hospitals and doctors’ offices due to my parents’ health issues. I read, or played Scrabble for hours! I couldn’t have done that with paperbacks.

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