In the battle between print and e-books, it is the “work” that comes out the winner

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:

  1. The e-book edition does not exist and I don’t want to wait for one
  2. I want to add the book to my physical collection
  3. 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:

Books.

3 thoughts on “In the battle between print and e-books, it is the “work” that comes out the winner

  1. Jamie, I agree, since I won an iPad at the company Xmas party last December, I’ve been smitten by the whole e-reading thang. Carrying a whole library of books, plus my writing, plus my news reads, plus games (oh, yeah it plays games!) is amazing. And less strain on my shoulders.

    Two channels the ebook vendors will have to grapple with in the long term is library lending and resales. Prior to my new e-fatuation, if I wanted to read something that’s been out in hardcopy for a while, I’d check the library, or bug them to purchase a copy. If it wasn’t yet available at the library, and I was really desperate to read it (Witch of Hebron, anyone?), I’d head straight for abebooks.com or amazon used, and pick it up for a couple of bucks (plus the exorbitant shipping to Canada). My last resort, and only if it was a book I thought had significant, lasting value, was to buy it new.

    Over in Kindle-land, once I “buy” a book, it’s mine on multiple platforms forever (where forever is defined as “as long as we support this digital format”), but I can’t lend it (not yet in Canada, anyways), I can’t give it as a gift, I can’t sell it, and I can’t buy it used. My initial cost is lower than paper, but my rights are restricted.

    1. Philip, I have tried the lending feature on my Kindle and it seemed to work pretty good. I loaned the Stephen King baseball novella to a friend. The loan period was 2 weeks. The problem with it was that he finished the novella in an evening and there is no mechanism to return the loan. You have to wait until the loan period expires. And while the book is on loan, I can’t access it on my Kindle.

      That said, I’m fairly confident that the market will sort out this issue as well. My kids, when they are in high school (more than a decade in the future) will likely use e-books as their primary form. But to my point, the fact that it is an e-book doesn’t change the underlying work. Shakespeare is still Shakespeare; Asimov is still Asimov. And if the form makes the works more readily available, I think that is a good thing.

  2. Yes indeed. A year ago I had never read an ebook and had no intention of ever buying an ereader. Now I have two, several hundred ebooks, and self-published an ebook that sold well enough to cover a bunch of my bills.

    Paradigm shifts are trippy.

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