ebooks vs printed books

Are new forms of publishing making the conventional book redundant, if not obsolete?

There is no denying the increased popularity in new forms of publishing such as e-books and print on demand in recent years.  The highly significant advantages of portability and mass storage capabilities of e-readers have become valuable assets in a society that demands immediate and large amounts of information available at its fingertips, whilst print on demand remains beneficial to books that do not have a big enough market to make a conventional print run profitable.  Despite these advantages, however, they are nonetheless limited and, as is customary with new technology, are still flawed.  As such, it is unlikely that the conventional printed book will be made redundant and certainly not obsolete by new forms of publishing, its uncomplicated design, functionality, and enduring appeal still eclipsing any advantages held by these new forms.

The conventional printed book dates back as early as the 9th century (Printed Books 2010:⁋1) and there are plenty of reasons for its long-lasting existence and relatively unchanged design over the centuries.  Famous Italian author Umberto Eco sums up accurately their everlasting nature: “Books belong to the kind of instruments that, once invented, have not been further improved because they are already all right, such as the hammer, the knife, the spoon or scissors” (Eco 2003:23). The fact that hardback leather cases have been designed for the iPad to mimic the feel and look of an antique book verifies a reluctance to relinquish the form of the traditional printed book.  Sydney Morning Herald Columnist Chris Ching states that;

There’s a sense of achievement that comes from tracking the progress of your bookmark or dog-ear down the width of the spine.  You don’t get this sense of progress from e-readers – the hammer wheels and treadmills of reading – because you’re physically always on the same page. (Ching 2010:⁋9)

His reflection identifies the importance of reading as an experience, one which is simply not replicated with an e-book regardless of how it may be dressed up to imitate a real book.  Similarly, some books simply cannot be digitally reproduced.  The Pop Up book maintains its allure with images that literally jump out of the page, making for great entertainment for children.  The Pop Up book emphasises the three dimensional nature of a traditional book, unachievable with an e-book.

Books are inexpensive and do not require a device such as an iPad, Kindle or personal computer to function.  E-readers advertise the low cost of their e-books, but the fact remains that the devices themselves such as the iPad and Kindle DX can cost close to $US500 (Detwiler 2010:⁋5).  For consumers buying twenty books or more at an average cost of $25 each, this would pay for itself.  But for many, the cost of such a large lump sum is simply too much, especially considering the short-lasting and ever-changing nature of new technology which is often transitory and easily broken.  As with other technological mediums such as mobile phones and computers, e-readers face the problem of having a screen which can crack when dropped, gets scratched when in a bag, and to the dissatisfaction of many, attracts “smudges and finger prints inherent to e-reading” (Ching 2010:⁋5).  The conventional printed book is not immune to wear and tear, but when it only cost a mere $10-$30, it seems hardly an issue if the binding gets worn, the front cover gets bent or coffee is spilt on the spine.  Ultimately, books are fairly hard-wearing, such is their design, so that if it is dropped or bent, it is more often than not still usable.  This is not the case for a cracked screen, where e-books become inaccessible and the e-reader unusable, a significant loss after spending close to $US500 on the device, not to mention the cost of the thousands of e-books bought and stored on it.  There is also the added inconvenience of needing a power source for the devices to run. The battery life of a Kindle with its wireless turned off is about two weeks whereas the iPad runs for a meagre 10 hours (Detwiler 2010:⁋15).  Even the Kindle with its two week battery life still is no comparison to the traditional print book which has proven to last hundreds of years with no recharge required.

In addition to this, as a new technology it has yet to be standardised, with vendors supporting multiple formats.  Essentially this means that an e-reader more suitable for fiction books and recreational readers, such as the Rocket e-book from NuvoMedia which has a small black and white screen (Stort 2000a:⁋8), would not be suitable for someone wanting to download and read text books where charts and tables could “sometimes be pages and pages away from the text they’re connected to,” (Drum 2009:⁋3) as is a reported problem with the Kindle. The iPad may be more suitable to support a wider range of formats with its bigger screen and other capabilities, however its LED-backlit glossy screen makes it harsh on the eyes and impossible to read outside (Detwiler 2010:⁋8).  It is simply not viable for readers to be expected to buy multiple high-priced devices to accommodate the different forms of texts they will be reading and the various locations they will read them in.  Likewise, publishers are expected to cover the cost of “creating books in multiple formats or forego whole sections of the e-book marketplace” (Stort 2000a:⁋14).

One of the major problems with e-books, and possibly their greatest defect next to the conventional printed book, is their susceptibility to online theft, where digital copies are made and can be downloaded illegally, instantly, and at no cost on file sharing sites.  Bestselling author J.K. Rowling has not hidden her reluctance towards having her Harry Potter novels sold as e-books, professing “piracy fears and a desire to see readers experience her books in print” (Frisch 2010:⁋18). Her fears are not unfounded either, with reports early this year revealing how digital piracy had struck Dan Brown’s newest novel The Lost Symbol.  Although e-book sales on Amazon.com exceeded hard cover copies of the book, it was less than 24 hours after its release that “pirated digital copies of the novel were found on file-sharing sites such as Rapidshare and BitTorrent. Within days, it had been downloaded for free more than 100,000 times” (Frisch 2010:⁋3).  Undeniably, the copying of traditional printed books is not impossible, but “the cost and inconvenience of doing it manually has kept this type of piracy to a minimum” (Stort 2000a:⁋9).  Instead, it is possible to copy an e-book at the click of a button, accounting for the preference of authors such as J.K. Rowling to keep their books in traditional print form.

Despite the disadvantages of these new forms of publishing, it is important to identify that many of these issues are to be expected from new technology and are likely to be irrelevant before long.  Current concerns surrounding having to stare at a screen, contributing “to eyestrain for regular readers since onscreen fonts aren’t as well formed as printed texts of the same size” (Stort 2000b) will undoubtedly soon be a thing of the past as the quality of e-reader screens and pixels are constantly improving, fast resembling the look and texture of the paper pages of traditional books.  The technology to resize text is making progress in appealing to vision impaired and older readers.  Chris Ching reported “a study by Nieson Norman Group that compared reading speeds for a Kindle 2, an iPad, a PC monitor and good old-fashioned paper found that reading on an electronic tablet was up to 10.7 per cent slower than reading a printed book” (Ching 2010:⁋2), but again this is expected to only improve with time.  Batteries are also being regularly boosted to offer a longer battery life, although for the time being finding a source to recharge a device will be an ongoing issue.  It is foreseeable that as e-readers become more popular, the standardisation of their formats will also be put into place to end the need to buy multiple devices or for publishers to make multiple formats available.

Most importantly, however, is that the two major advantages of e-readers – portability and storage capacity – are fast becoming indispensable.  With travel now available and affordable to a large percentage of the global population, the desire and need for a portable compact device able to hold vast amounts of information is eminent.  Long haul plane/train/car/bus trips no longer necessitate carrying kilos of books, with the e-reader providing an unbeatable alternative.  Despite any issues with durability, piracy, and cost, readers are likely to lean towards an e-reader when travelling for this reason.  Additionally, the added benefit of accessing English books whilst in a foreign country, and vice versa, also deals with a common predicament not previously resolved with traditional printed books.

Notably, some traditional forms of printed books are already not far from being completely replaced by new forms of publishing.  “The encyclopaedia and many technical manuals have virtually been replaced by electronic format” (Cope & Kalantzis 2001:5).  This is testament to the advantages of containing large amounts of text within a compact portable device.  Correspondingly, A study in Boston “found that the average middle school student carried more than 20 pounds [9 kilos] of books in a bag (Petracco cited in Cavanaugh 2006:2), another motivating force for some mediums to merge towards new forms of publishing.

E-readers offer significant, albeit limited, advantages that the traditional printed book cannot.  The same design of the traditional printed book that provides one of its best selling points in terms of ease of reading, is also its disadvantage in terms of bulk and portability.  Similarly, the concept of ‘getting lost in a book’, in that it provides no other distractions from the reading experience, is also a concept that impedes a need in today’s society to be continually connected, which is offered by devices such as the iPad which has internet capabilities.  The three dimensional nature of the traditional printed book which allows for the production of such forms as Pop Up books, will perhaps soon be surpassed by 3D books on e-readers.  Of great importance is also an ecological one; With a growing concern by the majority of the population for the environment, e-readers do not require the chopping down of trees to produce the paper needed for traditional print forms.  Essentially, the attributes of e-readers are those that the conventional book cannot transcend, and thus it is likely that these new forms of publishing will continually increase in demand with time.

The concern, however, is that new forms of publishing will soon make conventional printed books redundant or obsolete.  By comparison, it took the following mediums to reach a market audience of 50 million:

Radio         38 years
Television     13 years
Internet         4 years
Ipod         3 years
Facebook     2 years

As one of the top selling e-readers on the market, the Kindle is reported to have only sold about 3 million devices in the 4 years since its release in 2007.  In examining these statistics, some assessment can be made of the likelihood that new forms of publishing will surpass the traditional printed book.  “Television and video did not replace cinema.  Rather, they extended the cultural and commercial range of cinema.  So it is with books” (Cope & Kalantzis 2001:5). In this day and age, mass marketing and accessibility to information over the web means that trends in technology take off like wild fire and the above figures show just exactly how quickly people are willing to sign on to new technology.  When looking at ipod figures, which took a mere 3 years to reach such a large market, the Kindle pales in comparison.  Although not representative of all e-reader sales – just as the ipod figures are not representative of all music player sales – it is nonetheless indicative of e-readers as a whole, highlighting that despite the allure of their portability and mass storage, their seduction is short-lived and in spite of the hype, the number show that people are still reluctant to renounce the traditional printed book.  Furthermore, in “many countries the number of published printed books continues to rise annually” (Tedd, L & Large, A 2005:57).

There is no doubt that new forms of publishing are becoming increasingly popular across the world.  Their benefits are those that the traditional printed book could never imagine to surpass, and they fill a gap in a rapidly increasing market of readers dictating portability and mass storage as necessary to the current lifestyle.  However, evidence shows that readers are not entirely convinced that e-readers are books of the future.  They have not caught on as other recent technology trends have, and the consistent theme of simulating e-readers to resemble traditional books, indicates that consumers are not prepared to relinquish the time-honoured form for this new technology.  As such, the chance of books becoming redundant or obsolete in the near future is improbable.  “The history of communications media tells us that new media often do not replace old.  At most, they redefine the purposes and functions of older media” (Cope & Kalantzis 2001:5). Of more value to consumers then, is a co-existence of the two, amalgamating the benefits of each to accommodate for the needs of all, rendering neither redundant or obsolete.

~storytelling nomad~

N.B. I strongly believe that a love of reading and a love of books are independent concepts.  I love both, and so embrace new forms of publishing as it greatly appeals to me when I am travelling, but will always love (and favour) to collect and read the conventional printed book.

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23 comments on “ebooks vs printed books

  1. Great research on what is typically an uninformed debate. I love Umberto Eco, “The Name of the Rose” has to be one of my favourite books. Is that where you got the quotation?

  2. Great post; I was given a low-end e-reader last Christmas and was very excited to try it out. I especially liked that the electronic books were priced lower, however I have a harder time becoming ‘engrossed’ in my reading and easily lost interest, even without WiFi. There’s something about having a physical book in front of you that’s special; I felt the same way about mp3 players when they replaced my beloved CDs.

    • So true. I love the convenience of ebooks but I do get distracted easily, and it’s just not the same as having a book in my hands. Don over at Random Literary Blogging has written an interesting article called ‘the Art of Reading’, and questions “Isn’t there something suspicious about a digital device reading experience that leaves a reader feeling undernourished, while the same book in print satisfies that intellectual core that fuels our essential need to read?”. Check it out at http://doniganmerritt.wordpress.com/2011/05/27/the-art-of-reading/

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  5. I’m about to necro this post. I can only apologise, on the grounds that I don’t think I’d discovered your blog yet when you wrote it.

    I just want to share a link in answer to your comments about ebook piracy. You might’ve already seen this by now of course, but maybe not.

    It’s the excellent Neil Gaiman.

    • Charlotte! I haven’t seen this before but it is excellent, and so true! Thank you for sharing it with me. I just received American Gods in the mail yesterday too, and very much looking forward to reading it.
      I have no idea what you mean when you say you’re about to ‘necro’ my post though, but it sounds evil. Should I be worried? Lol

    • Hey, Charlotte, thanks for posting that. He makes a good case, and one that i have thought was probably the cae. Now I’m convinced. I always wondered why Fox Network relentlessly has (and does) constantly harasses the fans of their shows. I placed a 2 minute clip of Homer Simpson going through the seven stages of grief. I found it on Youtube. Sure enough Fox’s lawyers made them take it off. It was a good ad for the program.

  6. Excellent essay. Being someone who tries to write essays, I can see how well-thoughtout yours is.

    I guess no one else metioned it, so maybe I shouldn’t, but it would drive me nuts knowing that there was a typo in the introductory summary sentence, “reundant.”

    I prefer holding a real book. Nothing will ever beat that. But I love books on the computer when I need to mark them up for a close reading, study, and so forth. I never write in a book. Just can’t bring myself to do it.

    Another advantage of having a book in an electronic medium is wieght. Some textbooks are mighty hefty in more ways than one.

    • Well spotted! I’m ashamed to have missed it! By all means signal away if you see typos…nothing like a big fat spelling mistake to ruin your day.

      I, too, prefer a real book but see plenty of benefits in ebooks. I’m asking for a Kindle for Christmas, so hopefully I’ll soon have a better insight into the matter! Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  7. Pingback: Best Australian Blogs Competition | storytelling nomad

  8. Wonderful blog! I found it while browsing on Yahoo News.
    Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News?

    I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Thank you

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