Sunday, January 25, 2009

Paper Books vs. E-books

I had a discussion last night with my husband and his best friend, who was visiting for the weekend, about the advent of digital media. We were particularly focused on books, because music and movies and other types of media seem to be more easily adaptable, and often have already been adapted, to digital formats. I don't know that I learned anything that I didn't already know through this discussion, but it did confirm for me that I'm not the only one with mixed feelings about books moving more and more to a digital format.

I do not currently own an e-reader, but I admit that both the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle have piqued my interest in the last few years. I have my generation's love of tech gadgets, and I also travel several times each year on lengthy trips during which I polish off two to five books. In case you haven't had the opportunity to travel with two weeks' worth of reading material, books can be kind of heavy to tote around in your luggage! There are plenty of other good reasons for moving to digital books as well, not the least of which is the positive impact it could have on the environment - making paper is still widely a pretty toxic experience for our environment, and most inks used in printing are not something you want running off into your water supply. Shipping books and displaying them in a retail store is also not particularly eco-friendly.

I still haven't taken the plunge, though. For one thing, I really don't know if I can get past holding a machine and not a paper book, or pushing a button instead of turning a page. For another, as our friend pointed out last night, human nature seems to have an innate collector mentality that makes it hard for me to imagine my many, many bookshelves filled with beautiful books replaced with just a gadget. While I decidedly do NOT love packing up and moving all of those books, I have an equally hard time imagining buying them all again digitally. Reading e-books also makes it a lot harder to lend a book you loved to a friend for their enjoyment, or to trade a book that you read and don't really want any more for another one (as with sites like Book Mooch and Paperback Swap).

Honestly, I think all of those reasons are fairly universal concerns among book lovers, and if the publishing industry decides (as many industries before them already have) that digital is the way to go, they are going to have a serious fight on their hands to get most readers to switch over. Current e-book prices are only very slightly lower than prices for hard copy books, and that's going to have to change in order to gain more digital fans. They're going to have to make the price point of the digital format appealing enough to offset readers' other concerns. In addition, they're going to have a heck of a struggle with retail book stores, which will have nothing to sell without paper books. I suppose that, theoretically, they could package up DVDs of electronic books to sell in stores, but that just seems to defeat the best parts of digital media, which are not needing to leave your house to buy something and the immediacy of the download - you can shop in your pajamas and not have to wait for something to be shipped to you.

Primarily because of book stores, I have a hard time believing that paper books will be going away entirely any time in the near future. I do believe that my great-great-great grandchildren may live in a world when retail stores in general are a thing of the past and 99% of all types of shopping is done electronically. But until that day, retail stores are going to fight their hardest to prevent widespread digital book sales unless they themselves can get on the train to sell e-books through their websites.

So, I guess I'm curious. I want to know what other readers think about e-readers versus their beloved paper books. Do you buy digital books now? If so, what convinced you that was the way to go? If not, would you be willing to move to digital reading if the cost of e-books comes down? Or are your paper copies just too asthetically valuable to you? Are we all just Luddites, holding onto the past for no good reason?


  1. I have at least one friend who sprung for the Kindle and loves it, but I can't imagine springing for one myself any time soon, for all the reasons you list above plus two more:

    I buy most of my books from flea markets, antique stores, yard sales, and other used places. The only exception is when I'm bedazzled by something from the best seller list (there's a local place that sells best seller hardbacks for 40% off) or if I'm looking for something specific and immediately. I'm sure it'll be as easy to steal ebooks as it is to steal MP3s, which is great if you're into that (I'm not) but who's going to recreate the used book market for ebooks, and how?

    I read a lot - often 3 or 4 books at a time. I read on planes, trains, subways, buses, and my own vehicle, if I can sucker my husband into driving. While I'm not abusive to my books, I do tend to leave them laying about at home, and stuff them into whatever bag I'm carrying on the road. There's a huge difference between damaging or losing a sturdy book I paid anywhere from $.50 (flea market paperback) to maybe $20-25 (bookstore hardback) and damaging or losing a >$300 fragile electronic device!

    I love to read but don't usually write about it, so I look forward to following your blog. It sounds like we think alike. :)

  2. I'm a fan of eBooks. Mainly for the reasons you stated: Books are heavy and hard to deal with in bulk.

    I've used a series of PDAs over the years from ancient Pilot devices (predecessor to the Palm Pilot, which is predecessor to the Palm series of devices... They're old, okay?) to Palm devices, to Windows CE-based PDAs to an n800 that I now use.

    I've never understood the reluctance to hit a button rather than turn a page, especially since it's so much faster, cleaner, and easier. Bam, the page is there. You never rip a page, they never stick together, you never forget what the line was between pages.

    As for sharing the books or giving them to friends... If you're having that problem with eBooks, you're buying the wrong books. Do NOT buy DRM'd eBooks from Sony or Amazon or whoever. You will have no end of troubles and are stuck using their proprietary interface, which probably sucks.

    Instead, buy from sellers like who care about their customers and sell their books DRM-free in multiple formats. You can even use a regular web-browser to read them, if you so choose. (Baen also has an amazing library of free eBooks as well.)

    Another great reason to read eBooks: The free ones! With physical books, the only 'free' ones are the ones at the library, which you have to drive there and back to get... And you can't lose or damage. There are many free eBooks online legally. (See and Project Gutenberg.)

    The downside to eBooks is the huge entrance fee. Buying a reader is expensive.

  3. Hey, thanks for stopping by, guys! lifeontheedges - you are totally right about it being scary that you'll bang a really expensive reader while tossing your bag around and damage it. Or drop it in water, as klutzy as I am. I imagine I will still get one at some point, but I just don't think I'm there yet :)

    William - wow, thanks so much for the tip on Baen. That's a really valuable source, to know about the DRM-free books. I still think it might be hard to share with friends just because they are not likely to be comfy with the technology yet either, but that will change over time. And of course, free books are always appreciated :) I actually get the majority of my books for almost free through (really, it's just the cost of the postage for me to mail a book out to someone else, and then I get a point to spend "mooching" a book of my choice from anyone in the system), but almost free and totally free are two different things. Plus not having to wait for a book to come in the mail would be fab.

  4. Actually, I did just that with my last DSLR - dropped it in the water. My cameras have to be expensive and electronic, but my books do not. :)

  5. My first post was eaten *sighs* the Internet loves me.

    As someone published in the ebook realm I'm partial to the venue. However, as a reader with over 7,000 books stuffed in her house...yeah, I have a problem.

    Instead of spending the money on Kindle or Sony I plunked $100 down on a remanufactured Compaq from a corporate lease program so I can enjoy my ebooks (and write them too) without a lot of weight. Granted a laptop isn't as small as a Kindle, but it is still smaller than the time I decided to read The Historian and Jonathan Stange & Mr. Norrell at the same time.

    So now I proudly have an additional 910 ebooks (that fit one a single 2G chip/flash drive) to add to my library. And my husband has quit complaining about me trying to bring the house down around ours ears through the sheer weight of books.

    Another nice thing is being able to increase the font size, but on the down size, I can't read these in the bath tub. Pros and cons aside, I like them both.

  6. For those interested in exploring the possibility of buying a reader further, Nathan Bransford (lit agent) wrote a review today of his new Sony Reader, which he prefers (for the most part) over his Kindle... Check it out here.

  7. Jen, I'm with you - I just can't be convinced to come over to digital books yet. While it's a pain to pack books to travel, I do enjoy leaving them places for others to enjoy. I know that you can waterproof your reader by putting it in a Ziploc bag, but the idea of laying by the pool, on the beach, or in the tub with a reader in a plastic bag just doesn't appeal to me yet.

    I'm a collector of my books, but I do only hold on to the ones that mean something to me. I like looking at my shelves and not just remembering the book, but where I was in my life when I read it. Picking up a book I loved so much in high school that it's covered in underlined sentences, and has long forgotten papers in it, just can't be replicated on a reader.

    I do find it interesting that from my perspective, the people brought up on technology - today's teens - don't seem to be flocking to this tech piece. I do see kids come into my library to read a manga on the computer, but they seem to do that when they have exhausted our current supply of book manga. As soon as I put new mangas out, the computer is forgotten. They all have their iPods and cell phones, but I haven't seen one student curled up in a chair with a reader. it is highly possible that they keep it at home, but with the way technology is shown off, I'm not convinced of that yet.