Digital versus Print Books – What Do Readers Prefer?
Posted on May 26, 2013
As a follow-up to the post about Stephen King’s choice to not offer an e-book for Joyland, I wanted to address the larger issue that King’s decision touches on. In most of the comments, there seemed to be a broader application to the discussion, which showed a division into three groups: those who like e-books, those who like physical books, and those who like a little of both.
E-book-Only Readers: Once the e-readers and e-reader applications became widely available on multiple technology platforms, the rise in e-book popularity was inevitable. Allowing for complete portability, a digital library shrinks thousands of books into one convenient form. In this day and age where we’re getting more and more used to being able to get things in just a click of a button, it satisfies that “immediate” sense of gratification.
Cost is a big part of what makes e-books even more attractive. For the self-published author, that’s a huge selling point. Most indie authors offer books from as low as $3.99 to $.99, including free promotions. But for more established authors and their books, the cost for e-books has been a sore point. From J.K. Rowling who priced her book around the same price as her hardback when her non-Harry Potter book was released to the court case against Apple and other publishers about price gouging, many readers feel that asking for anything over $9.99 is unrealistic and unfair as a digital version doesn’t cost the same in production as a physical book.
For e-book enthusiasts, it doesn’t look like the format is going away. Some authors are making leaps into different digital formats, such as Neil Gaiman and his Blackberry Keep Moving Project that used technology to create a shared story and reading experience.
But digital is not without its issues. There’s an issue with Amazon and the Kindle as their books are affected by DRM (digital rights management). That means that the files sold through Amazon can only be read on a Kindle. All other e-readers seem to use the epub file. But in the long run, is a digital file going to last as long or be as cherished as a physical book? As technology changes so quickly, how long will it be until these digital book files become obsolete? No one wants literature to just disappear, but advancements in technology may make that happen.
Physical-Books Only: There are those that refuse to support the e-book growth because books are important parts of their lives. They’re something to hold. It requires physical acts to participate with the book to turn the pages. There’s a clear sound to it and a specific feel to holding the book that a click on an e-reader can’t provide. The books will last for a longer time and can be passed from person to person.
More importantly, there’s a relationship that a person can have with a physical book. As someone mentioned in the comments, it’s almost like a romance. A physical book can court you with an intriguing cover and thickness of content. An e-book can have an attractive cover as well, but it’s hard to weigh an e-book in your hands and decide how much time you want to commit to it. A physical book can be caressed and touched. If you really like it, you can dog-ear the pages to mark what turns you on. And if you want to remember something in particular, you can write marginalia and become a part of the book itself.
Physical books have a distinctive smell, and there’s nothing like turning a page and getting that slight whiff. Stacks of books all over the house aren’t a mark of laziness – they show love of being surrounded by beloved words. And if physical books all disappeared, what would we do with our two-story grand libraries with ladders, couches, and fireplaces?
Beyond the romantic aspect of physical books, many people believe that the books that can be bought in brick-and-mortar bookstores have gone through a vetting process that proves they are worthy of being read. More than one person cites this as a firm line between established authors and self-published ones. Many self-published authors offer physical books of their works, but it is true that it’s harder to get them into the bookstores. Only a few hybrid authors like Hugh Howey have gotten the deal to get their books in stores. And traditional publishers and authors like King are busy making that line visible.
Hybrid Readers: Then there are the people who partake of both e-books and their books in hand. I fall in this category. I resisted an e-reader for ages until in my graduate program. Once I found the convenience of downloading and reading the many books required directly on my computer rather than killing my back by carrying them in my bag, I became hooked. Instead of my house being inundated with books with a little room for us, I could have thousands of books at the touch of my fingers on different devices. I can’t tell you how many times being able to continue reading a book on my phone has been to saving my sanity while waiting in line.
But I will never give up the important books to me. I do support my local bookstore when I can to purchase the books that will stick with me forever. I’ve begun to really appreciate hardback books, and purchase collector editions from my favorite authors – if I’m going to spend bigger bucks, it’s nice to have something that is special. Of course, some of my e-book purchases could be due to the fact that my husband can’t complain about how many books I own if they only exist in digital form.
My brother just bequeathed to me our shared old copies of the Narnia collection. It’s not that the books themselves are particularly special. They’re pretty beaten up paperbacks. But it’s the memories of reading them together. As was said in the comment section of the King post, memories that are made with books are priceless. It’s doubtful that an e-reader with e-books can convey the same experience. And I’m not sure how generations in the future will appreciate being handed an outdated piece of technology with a digital library on it or who will spend millions of dollars on that library like some do on the rare books like Shakespeare’s Folio.
Many readers go back and forth with what they prefer or they are staunch loyalists. I don’t think either form will be disappearing any time soon. But the most important aspect of all is that books are written and continue to be read. The biggest tragedy would be if either disappeared simply because we stopped reading.