Friday, June 13, 2014

The Art of Reading: Ebooks vs. Print


All bibliophiles have at least one thing in common: the love of books. Still, as I'm reminded every time I talk to another reader, that doesn't mean we express our affection for the written word in exactly the same way. I'm referring to how we read.

This post’s theme: ebooks vs. print. Is one better than the other? For the reader? The author? The environment? What do you prefer personally and what do you think the future holds for books?

I’m unconvinced (to put it mildly) whenever I hear someone state that the invention of ebooks means the near-future death of print books. In fact, I consider that an arrogant and ignorant claim. Arrogant to present an opinion as fact (not to mention claiming certainty about the future and assuming everyone agrees with you) and ignorant about all the people out there who still value print books.

As for my personal preferences, I’m a print book loyalist. I have tried ebooks and, for me, they cannot replicate the experience of holding an actual book. I love the smell, I love the feel, and I love seeing real books line my shelves. Despite all the fuss over ebooks being ideal for air travel, I love that I don't need to power down my real book during take off and landing. I like lending physical books to friends and I like asking authors I meet to sign my book. In fact, let me share something that emphasizes how much I prefer print books. I'm offered free books all the time (because I work in a bookstore, because I review books on this blog, and because I'm a writer myself and know people in the industry) and I will often pass up a free digital copy in order to buy (or borrow) a print copy myself.  

However, don't mistake my print book bias for ebook hatred. Ebooks do offer features you can't find in a physical book. I love how much control ebooks offer the reader in terms of page layout: you can change the font style or size, the margins, and the line spacing, among other things. I have definitely pined for that flexibility when I'm reading an otherwise great book with teeny tiny font or a font style that I find distracting. I think the biggest advantage for more people, though, is condensing material objects. Rather than a huge library of print books, you have one ereader. For the most part, I actually prefer my books to take up space. I like seeing them on the shelves and I like that my guests and friends can see what's on my shelves. Of course, every few years I have to ruthlessly pare down my collection lest it plot to take over my home and bury me alive, so I do understand the "less clutter" point. Speaking of taking up less space, ebooks are also known for being the easier travel option. Instead of packing 3-5 print books, you can pack your ereader. While I'm happy to pay a bit more and in support of authors/ editors/ publishers of the books I love, some readers prefer ebooks for their lower prices. Last, there's the privacy benefit. As I mentioned, I love that anyone in my home can see what books I have read or intend to read and love when a book’s presence sparks a conversation, but some people are more private about their reading tastes. In fact, romance took off faster than any other genre in terms of ebook sales and many speculated that it's embarrassing reading a novel in a public place when the cover features a scantily clad couple in throes of ecstasy...but if you're reading on an ereader no one need ever know what you're reading. Another valid point, though not an issue for me personally since I believe in owning yourself and your tastes. I've read books in public with potentially embarrassing titles or covers, but see no need to trade my print copies in for more discreet digital versions.

Of course, ebooks have their drawbacks. (Otherwise, yes, they might have eclipsed print books.) There's the tactile and other sensory elements that bookworms miss. More prominent, though, is the elusiveness of an ebook. One of their greatest strengths can also double as a weakness. Yes, they take up less space, but files are also easier to lose and can you really own a file in the same way as a material object in your hand? Take the examples of when Amazon quietly removed ebooks from their customers' digital libraries without any notification. To me the print book equivalent of this would be a bookstore employee sneaking into your house in the middle of the night to take back a book you had bought. Which leads me to another debatable flaw: distribution. Different companies created different ereaders and sell their own ebooks. Some ereaders are open-format and can read ebooks sold by other companies, giving the customer freedom to purchase anywhere, while other ereaders lock you in to purchasing from one company (like Amazon's Kindle). So an Amazon Kindle cannot read a Barnes and Noble Nook ebook or a Kobo ebook. In my opinion, ebooks will never take over print books as long as they're disunited like this. If I have a print book, I know I can read it whenever I want, that it's mine until I choose to give it away, and that whatever conflicts might be occurring between different companies that doesn't keep me from buying books from each. With ebooks the files don't always play nice, so you might have to buy the book again if you switch devices. Also the ereader you're using could be discontinued or the company that makes it go out of business, etc. I know numerous ebook readers who have bought the same book more than once based on compatibility issues. This consistency is a big sticking point for me. When I buy a book, I want to be able to use (read) it whenever I want and have it for as long as I want, not be told it’s out of date or incompatible and I can’t open it anymore. The last factor I want to mention about ebook shortcomings stems from a study I read that found students performed worse on tests about a book if they read the ebook version rather than the print version. The article went on to speculate that perhaps we approach reading a printed page differently than a screen and naturally skim more and absorb less when we’re studying digital material. On a more anecdotal level, a friend once told me that someone asked him if he had read a book and he answered, “No” only to later realize that he had read that book - as an ebook, and somehow he remembered far less about it than when he reads print books. Of course, an important factor to note here is that perhaps we’re socially trained to approach digital material differently and perhaps that might change in a future where people are exposed to ebooks from a younger age.

The ebooks vs. print debate makes it sound like you need to pick one or the other. In reality there’s plenty of room for both. They’re different products and, hence, will appeal to difference consumers and different circumstances. Though I prefer print books, there are certain situations when I would specifically want an ebook. While numerous people thought ebooks would take over, research actually showed a dramatic shift to ebooks at first (those people who primarily prefer that format making the switch to a new technology) and then a leveling off or even slight return to print books. And studies also prove that consumers rarely choose one or the other. Most buy both and the biggest question is what percentages for each.

I hope we see more bundling in the future: buy the print book and get the ebook as well. While I gravitate towards reading the print version, I often think how nice it would be to continue reading (on a phone app perhaps) when I don’t have my book with me - if, say, I forgot it or didn’t realize I would have some time to kill. This ability wouldn’t be worth paying for the ebook as well, but I sometimes wish the ebook came along with the print version.

The last debate I wanted to address about ebooks vs. print is environmental factors. When ereaders first entered the consumer market, everyone gushed about how much better they would be for the environment. Now I’m no expert, but that assumption always made me skeptical, concerned that people aren’t thinking far enough ahead. One ereader to replace a library of hundreds of books might sound like a brilliant way to save some trees, but what others factors should we consider? First, disposal. What happens when you’re done with that ereader? If someone litters a book, it will eventually compost, but broken electronics are trash. That dead ereader is going to a landfill. Second, it’s likely not one ereader. I know dozens of people who are already on their second or third or fourth device, whether because earlier ones died, became outdated, or the person switched to a different device they liked better. I repeat that I’m no environmental impact expert, but my point here is that I think this debate is far more complicated than ereaders save trees.

Your turn to weigh in. Do you have a personal preference between print books and ebooks? What are your thoughts on ebook merits and drawbacks?

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