eBooks and physical books

I’ve been involved in or heard the eBook and physical book conversation several times, which can take many different forms from heated to jovial but I feel rarely actually reaches any real conclusion. Why? Because I believe people are approaching the conversation entirely the wrong way … but lets start how this subject tends to be discussed.

eBooks are wrong!

Time and time again I have heard people make the very strong, vehement even, statement that eBooks are simply wrong. Brooking no argument, they are the spawn of the devil and should not be accepted. I exaggerate, mostly, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you can imagine it as after all we’ve all jumped both feet first and made a sweeping statement about something before haven’t we?

The fear of change is a strong one, people don’t like to go into the unknown and the printed book has been a part of our civilisation for literally hundreds of years now. Even then the innovation and proliferation of eBooks isn’t actually changing what people are truly doing, which is simply reading. Books and reading was once a rarefied thing, it is actually only much more recently that it has become taken for granted that everyone can read.

Newspapers came about as a result of this widespread ability in the populations of our countries and with the advent of the internet people are getting used to the fact that you can actually consume the news faster and easier via digital devices like computers, tablets and smartphones. When the first cars were out on the roads they had someone walking ahead with a warning flag, and another behind. Now the roads belong to cars, buses, lorries and other vehicles.

I’m sure I’ve heard the phrase “Change is the only constant.” and in this case I think it is very true, we are simply seeing technology change the way we can read. eInk screens have made it possible to read without a backlit screen which causes eye strain, replicating the classically printed paper page within a device which is comfortably held within the hand.

What I will hasten to add though is that the eBook doesn’t utterly replace the printed book instantly. Due to their screen sizes, and currently black and white nature, there are a number of uses they aren’t entirely suited to. Textbooks for instance are often larger page size to allow for diagrams and images, which I have seen poorly translated into digital form already where a previously coloured legend has been reproduced verbatim in barely discernible shades of grey …

There is also that tangible and aesthetic quality which many a book lover will associate with. The different effects on the cover, the paper stock, that smell of a new or old book and truly the one individual thing is the ability to get the author to sign it for you! I have a few books myself which I like because of this, my copy of Information is Beautiful for instance, or The Manual because they are visually pleasing.

The paper book is dead!

When this topic comes up from time to time it is usually most strongly debated when you get someone who replies to the above “eBooks are wrong!” with this opinion, that the advent of the eBook and mass consumption of them means that the printed book will disappear. Perhaps an ill advised statement, considering the technology has really only been in use for around a decade now if you include the eBooks which appeared on the internet. Even less if you take the launch of the first Amazon Kindle, which many credit as the reason eBooks have become so accessible to the public, as the technology becoming “popular”.

As I mentioned above there are several reasons that people will elect to keep their printed, dead tree books. The likelihood of aesthetics ceasing to be a reason we purchase or keep things in the future is very low in my opinion, there will be people who have books in their homes for a long time to come. There is also the question of longevity, how do we ensure that the content of any publication lasts for the future? After all books aren’t just for fiction, they are also for gathered knowledge to pass on to future generations. I have no idea how long a printed book would last in a reasonable environment, but I wager it’ll last many times longer than the average digital device battery …

What is true however is that we are seeing the digital consumption of content change the publishing industry as a whole. The advent of the internet and free flowing instantaneous news (though not always a good thing, since fact checking and editorial seems to be less and less important in the headlong rush to be the first to announce anything) has already had a significant impact on newspapers, particularly with the explosion of mobile devices over the last decade. In fact I can’t remember the last time I picked up a newspaper, let alone read one!

eBooks are changing the fiction market as well now as consumers can literally buy and read books within seconds, no need to wait for the book to arrive from the website you ordered it on or go to the book store in town. Furthermore the path from author to that end consumer can be completely different from what it used to be. Instead of having to get your book accepted by a publisher, sometimes requiring an agent to even get a foot in the door, anyone can publish an eBook online through various systems and sell direct to the end customer. What this can mean is that we have the chance that someone’s masterpiece isn’t overlooked by editors, but most of the time it means we get a lot of low quality prose which hasn’t been edited.

A question of cost

How much does a book cost? Well that’s an interesting, if perhaps often provocative, question. Is the book printed? Hardback? Special edition? Standard digital edition? Enhanced digital edition? Who wrote it? Was it self published or from a publishing house? Is it only available through somewhere in particular?

It is possible for one title to have many different price points, and how they relate to each other can sometimes appear to be completely random. The price of a hardback book being higher than a soft back book is easiest to accept for most people, you are paying for physically more material which is expected to be higher quality. Similarly people are generally willing to pay more for a limited run of a product to get that exclusivity, and indeed second hand books are still more valuable if they are first edition even if that means the book is one of tens of thousands printed in a run.

However what about the eBook version of that book? You aren’t getting anything in your hands, just a digital file which lives on your device (I’m not going to touch the subject of licensing here!) Does that mean you should pay substantially less? Not to mention the cost of a dedicated eBook device, whilst they are getting cheaper and cheaper they do amount to the cost of several print books.

Or are you paying for extras which don’t exist for physical books? eBook production isn’t as simple as clicking “make eBook” from the print version and then there are servers, technical support and bandwidth costs to consider. You could say that servers and bandwidth are the digital equivalent of stores and warehouses, though the analogy is only really rather tenuous at best since a printed book will only exist in the retail world for maybe one or two years whilst an eBook could conceivably continue forever. I don’t have precise figures but I’m quite certain that the difference in logistical costs for a title being delivered either physical or digital isn’t that dissimilar, most of the cost of a book from a publishing house is in the author, editing and marketing.

There is also the factor of convenience. The major difference between eBooks and physical books is that you can get an eBook instantly, and they don’t take up any physical space beyond your device. I used to have over 400 novels from my time working at the Black Library, having moved to digital copies and with no desire to keep those books I was able to free up a lot of space in my clear out recently which was remarkably freeing.

Generally speaking though it seems that printed books are keeping a premium price over their digital cousins, we shall see how this changes over the coming years as the publishing industry adjusts to digital consumers.

What I think it is all about

I hope that from my slightly tongue in cheek commentary above you’ve figured out what I think it is all about – personal taste. This is what people often forget when this subject becomes a debate, because really there is no right or wrong. Reading is reading, no matter what the medium is because the content will still be words written down in one way or another.

Those who like to read a lot will most likely move to consuming a lot of titles through a device but keeping and choosing specific titles to have. The coffee table book, one that you like to have and go back to from time to time or that makes an interesting conversation starter. Unless of course they are an avid book collector, in which case they will have several book shelves proudly displaying their eclectic tastes and proud possessions.

The simple fact is that neither wrong in and of themselves, an eBook might be the right choice for that story you just want to read because it sounds good whilst the collectors edition leather bound hardback of your favourite author’s latest title might be your next prized possession.

Pick what works for you, I’m certain both the eBook and physical will be living alongside each other for a long time to come.

That said, I’d love to hear your thoughts so why not drop a comment below?