Books: traditional or electronic?

This particular topic has been bouncing around in my head for a while now, especially in light of the number of updates on FB from a certain JA Konrath concerning his earnings from the sales of his e-books. It appears that e-books could be a nice little earner for writers. However, is reading from an electronic device the same as actually reading the words from a ‘real’ book.

I will point out here that I have nothing against new technology and innovation, in fact quite the opposite.I love science and technology, mainly because it still has an aura of the whizz-bang surrounding it as far as I’m concerned (gained, no doubt, from watching too many sci-fi films in the 60s and 70s). And THAT’S because I am, admittedly, mostly technologically inept. Even my mobile gets me all tangled up occasionally (although, if I’m honest, about 98% of the features programmed into it are superfluous to my needs). Conversely, I embraced both the internet revolution and CDs when they came blinking into the daylight two decades ago, and with unseemly haste too.

However, e-books are different for me, somehow. It just doesn’t feel right to me to be reading a book on a monitor screen. I find it difficult to read vast chunks of text on my computer. When I did a computer multimedia degree course back in the early nineties, one of the things I was taught was that people get put off having to read a screen crammed full of words. I was told to break the text up into smaller clumps, so people could assimilate what they were reading much better. I guess, though, that with the spread and universal ubiquity of computers nowadays, and the fact that kids are growing up with computers, our brains have evolved to accommodate things differently and that we have learnt to adapt. Is it any wonder that traditional book sales continue to slide, or so I am led to believe.

Call me old-fashioned, but I still prefer the look and feel of a real paper-based book, not to mention the smell associated with them (especially second-hand ones). Additionally, I find their solidity reassuring and comforting. There’s a deep sense that Β books contain a whole world within their covers, just waiting to be opened and discovered. With an electronic device, however, despite efforts to the contrary, I just feel that the ‘book’ I’m reading is simply a collection of bits and bytes, of nothing more than digitised ones and zeros.

That thought tends to destroy any romantic notions that books engender for me, certainly as a reader. I think it’s the result of the way I was brought up. My father was an avid reader, as I have noted elsewhere, and he passed on his respect for them to me. He would get irritated if I even thought about bending back a corner of a page to act as a place-marker. I started reading at a relatively young age, because the house was full of them, and my parents would deliberately leave tomes lying around so my natural curiosity would make me want to pick them up and demand to know what was inside them. By the time I was six, I was reading a couple of books a week and, at six years-old, I read Lord of the Rings (mainly because it was my dad’s favourite book).

As a writer, I think it does behoove me to look into it, and see whether, should I make any sort of impact, that releasing e-books will bolster any potential income. That’s a big if though. Even given that, it would definitely be Luddite in the extreme to ignore the possibilities inherent in the medium. As a punter, however, I doubt whether I’ll ever invest in a reader – it would be a false economy, simply because it wouldn’t receive much use and lie forgotten in a corner somewhere, collecting dust.

There ARE advantages to someting like an iPad; you aren’t limited to bringing just one or two books with you on holiday, for instance – you could bring an entire library with you. You can’t fault them for their convenience. Plus, e-book titles are cheaper to buy than their paper cousins. Even if you take the initial reader price into account, especially if you’re a voracious reader. You can just slip a reader into your bag, containing thousands of titles (more than you could possibly read in an entire lifetime probably), and be on your way.

I suppose I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to books. There’s something stirring when I look at all my books lined up on my shelves, a feeling that I don’t think I’d get if I was looking at a file index on a computer monitor. It’s been the same with my music collection – unless it’s extremely hard to find, then I would prefer to have the actual object, either CD or LP, in my hand. Nothing else would do. That dictum applies to books as well, and it always will.

It’s all about perceptions, I guess. I see books as worthy objects in themselves, not just as a way of filling up the time on a train journey, or as a means to stave off boredom on a wet Sunday afternoon. Apart from anything else, I love collecting old 50s and 60s paperbacks, in particular genre books and pulps. Handling and reading one of those gives back a vibe – who owned this book originally? What were they doing when they bought it? Where did they buy it and why? Why did they dispose of it?

You can’t get that with an electronic device. I may be one of a sadly dying breed, but I can’t help feeling that with the advent of e-books we’ve lost something. It’s that sense of wonder that I still possess, inherited from my father. Of course, it’s been blunted slightly, but it’s still there nevertheless. For my part, I hope that feeling will never fade…..

17 Responses to “Books: traditional or electronic?”

  1. I’m halfway through Tom Holt’s ‘Blonde Bombshell’ which is the first book that Scott bought on his e-book reader. Given that his recent jobs have been selling ebooks, then it makes sense for him to have one.
    It’s not bad (a Sony Reader) but it takes a little getting used to the eInk technology and I would prefer a little more light behind the page.
    It doesn’t have the smell of a good ol’ book either.
    However the main issue I had last night, whilst reading in bed, was when I went to turn the page and turned the e-book over instead!
    It’s handy to have multiple books in one carry case (much better than the book bag on Dragon’s Den last night!!) but it won’t replace the look and feel of a well thumbed and enjoyed book.

  2. When eReaders come down in price and the digital versions of mainstream books are less extortionate in this country (they’re subject to VAT, for some reason!) then we might see more of a print vs digital divide.

    I can see the pros and cons of digital versions – but my biggest worry would be losing the eReader/getting mugged/leaving it in the sun or too close to the tide…at least with a print book I’d only be losing one copy! And who last got mugged for their paperback copy of a Thomas Hardy book?

    Personally, I think both print and digital will live side by side. They’re both viable sources of income to the publishing houses, as many consumers prefer one to the other. Claims that ‘traditional print publishing is dead!’ are too soon to call – at the same time, this is a new way of reading that should be given a fair trial.

    • Some valid points there, Adrian… was discussing this issue earlier with Johnny Mains and he sees the future of small-presses being solely in the digital realm…. for my part, I think it’ll be a mixture of the two…. but we’ll see… πŸ˜€

  3. Yep, a lot of small presses are springing up, proclaiming themselves as digital-only…saves on overheads, warehouse storage and print runs, I know. But with POD I don’t think there’s any excuse to ignore the print side, especially as a lot of readers and small press supporters are fans of print books. That’s potentially a lot of lost sales.

  4. Personally I hate the very notion of ebooks replacing the wonderful, textured experience that is a physical book. But I do see a use for them if you were, for example, an editor – managing submissions via an iPad or eReader might actually make the task of ploughing through hundreds of short stories a more manageable and efficient process.

    Also, I firmly believe that the ‘youth’ of today do not place a value (in Β£ sense) on products unless it is an enabling platform such as a Phone or gaming console. Anything that has a value in Intellectual Property (novel, game, music) is merely something to be accessed and discarded when they’ve done with it. And they expect it to be free because there’s nothing physical to experience. I believe digital files/ITunes has devalued music, and the same might be happening with books.

    On the flip-side, an author may well be able to exploit these new platforms by achieving massive sales – and let’s face it, if something does take off it can go viral in a matter of hours via the power of peer recommendation and digital distribution. So opportunities are opening up and this should be embraced. It’s up to the publishers to sort out the royalties and therefore the value of the IP in digital form.

    • Again, sone excellent points raised there, Mathew… and, as a writer, I see the value of the platifrom in achieving good sales… but as for using an e-reader myself… I very much doubt it…. thanks for your contribution!!

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    • Wooh!! I have a Versatile Blogger Award…. seven things about myself? That’s going to take some doing… plus I need to choose the other blogs carefully…. do excuse one for taking a little time to think about his… πŸ˜€

  6. I love physical books. My single most treasured possession is a cheap paperback copy of Lord of the Rings; it’s been all over the world with me. Tanzania, Peru, Deepest Darkest Sussex, Canada, the US, Greece, Egypt…. Also Columbia, the Galapagos, and several others while on loan to other people. The spine is so bent it’s semicircular, the corners are almost non-existent, it’s covered in stickers and even some writing, but I *love* it. Everything else I own is replaceable. It’s not. I’d be devastated to lose it; I can’t imagine ever feeling like that about an e-book reader. Sometimes you can judge a book by it’s cover πŸ˜€

  7. One thing to consider as well is your eyes… I mean I have been at my pc on and off most of the day… and having just got out of the bath my eyes are killing me. At least when I read a book I curl up and off come the glasses…. can’t do that with a Sony E Reader can yah?

    I have to say that for keeping a copy of valuable literature… great… but where is the sense of self… who here doesn’t walk into a friend/neighbour/relative’s house and naturally find themselves looking at what books are on display? I have 2 types of book… the cheap 2 for Β£3 publishers clearence house books that keep me going and the hardback, to keep imemorium books that I will treasure forever… sorry but I find it very difficult to assign sentimental value to a peice of hardware. When was the last time you signed an E Book? Not the same as looking at a childhood book with that years birthdate and your mothers name inscribed to give you a sense of what was….

    • You really have hit the nail on the head here, Gili… that’s exactly what I was trying to get across here…. πŸ™‚

      • Well just think about it, unless glasses are going to be a lot cheaper…. e-books are going to be detrimental to a lot of people… all the time in front of the pc is bad enough already!

        But thinking about the quick nose at other peoples collections… they are a good indication of the person I find.. I mean someone with no books… its not like you are about to book up their e-reader or i-pad to check out the fav reads…

        Ahhh where is the romance!

        Saying that, like music downloads versus buying the cd – its fine as a suppliment. And just like the afore said… I don’t think books are going to be written off any time soon!

  8. Sefton Disney Says:

    A few years ago, I read an interview with Neal Stephenson – definitely not a Luddite! – and he was asked if he thought e-readers would replace paper books. He thought not, because the paper book was a “perfect” technology, that people were comfortable with. I tend to agree with him.

    I can see that an e-reader is great for replacing (say) a huge stack of reference books but… a paperback book can fit in your back pocket or beach-bag really easily. If you lose it, you’re out about a fiver, and it can be replaced pretty easily. No-one has ever been mugged for a paperback. Lose your e-reader and you’re down maybe 250 quid and a thousand books… And this is before we get to the sentimental value of specific volumes, or the expression of pride in ownership and personality through one’s collection…

    I’m sure e-readers are here to stay, and it’s worth any writer’s time learning about e-publishing. But I think the death of paper (like the death of the CD) has been rather oversold by pundits. I think paper and e-books will basically co-exist quite happily. They each have their own strengths, weaknesses and pleasures.

    • Yes exactly, Sefton… look at vinyl records – they were going to disappear with the advent of the CD but quite the opposite has happened. Vinyl is still considered by an increasing number of people to be THE perfect medium for bringing warmthe to a recording… I still own many vinyl albums and I still play them now and again, and enjoy going down memory lane, with crackles, pops and hisses an’ all…

  9. Sefton Disney Says:

    I really like CDs – they suit my temperament and love of listening to music in the bath perfectly – and the easy accessibility of (sometimes very obscure) music online has literally re-enchanted music for me. I’m the last person to knock digital music. Having said that, it never fails to make me smile when I see a clip on YouTube of someone playing, a very old, very worn, very crackly, very much loved vinyl 45 – I really can’t see someone doing that with a CD in 50 years time!

    And I think much of the same argument applies to e-books, web-comics, etc.

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