For the longest time I denied the e-book revolution. A book was something you held in your hand; you could rifle through the pages and catch that lovely whiff of aged paper. There was some sort of psychological comfort that made me resist the switch to e-books. Then, two years ago, just before the Little Man was born, I bought a Kindle, and from the Kindle store, I purchased a Jack McDevitt novel and since then my entire outlook has changed. I still love my paper books; my office shelves are still filled with more than a thousand of them. But now, there are only very limited circumstances in which I buy a print edition:
- The e-book edition does not exist and I don’t want to wait for one
- I want to add the book to my physical collection
- I want to get the book signed
Having been one of those people who couldn’t imaging making the switch from paper to e-books, I now have a hard time imaging why everyone doesn’t switch. Yes, I get that you have to layout some cash to buy a reader (despite the fact that the reader usually pays for itself pretty quickly because the price of e-books are less than the price of even discounted hardcovers.) Yes, I get that there is that smell. And maybe there is something aesthetically pleasing about the way a book feels in your hand. But I have got to believe that our attachment toward paper books stems more from cultural habit than practicality of form. We have been using paper books for thousands of years, and it takes a lot to undo the need we feel to read things on paper.
That said, in all of the debate between print books and e-books, the underlying work goes unchanged. Dances with Dragons is the same book whether you read it in hardcover or paperback. And it is the same book whether you read it in paperback or e-book form. So are Shakespeare’s plays and Gulliver’s Travels and the Bible. An e-book is a work dressed up in electronic clothes.
We can debate the advantages and disadvantages of e-books over print books, but what seems to clear to me is that the underlying work contained on the physical or virtual pages is the clear winner in this debate. There are people who will go on insisting that they will continue to buy print books until the day they die and that will help sell those books. There will be others who will never want another print book again, but will be happy to buy the book in electronic format. That will help sell the book. The multiple distribution channels make what is contained in the “book” more readily available. I suspect that over time the balance of those channels will shift, but I don’t think that will impact the overall availability.
We seem to want to separate e-books into some separate bucket from print books, and I’m not clear why, since when speaking of print books, we mean hardcovers, trade paper, mass market. The term e-book itself has, for good or bad, made it appear that there is some critical distinction from a “real” book. But the fact is, when you look what is between the covers, the books are identical.
E-books are hot right now, but I can foresee a time when we’ll stop referring to them as e-books, just as we don’t going around saying, “I’ll order the hardcopy,” and instead we’ll start referring to them as what they really are: