Friday, September 30, 2011

eReader vs Printed Book

I think I first need to note here that I do not own an eReader, so anything I say may be biased according to that fact.

I recently started reading Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel.  As far as I can tell, it was published around 2001, 2002.  Inside, Maass says that an e-revolution is unlikely because an ebook does not fill a genuine need.  So it could become increasingly popular, but it will not be a revolution (i.e. replace paper books, as the printing press replaced hand-written books).

Thus far, ebooks have done amazingly well, so much in fact that a notable chain bookstore had to close (Borders).  Does this mean the end of printed books?  My guess would be the same as Maass’s back then.  No.

Why?  Well, maybe I’m just old fashioned, but here are my reasons.

If I buy something, I want to have physical proof that I have it.  I want to be able to hold it in my hand.  When I buy an ebook, I get some binary that tells my eReader what to show me.  It is stored on the Amazon network and I assume on the reader itself, but I still feel as though I don’t own it.  For the same reason, I never buy software that is only available for download.  I want a physical copy.

I want to be able to lend/borrow and give my books away.  I want to be able to exchange them at a second-hand bookstore.  It is definitely coming closer, what with Amazon starting that lend an ebook from your library thing, but currently, it is still lacking.  I can’t say to my friend, “Here, read this book, it is awesome!”.  Well, I could, but then I’d have to give him my eReader with my entire novel collection on it, and then I’d have nothing to read.  There are a lot of readers who like to give books away and see them to new homes.  Ebooks make this impossible (at least currently).

I want to be able to read for more than half an hour a day.  Kindle says that the battery will last up to a month.  Wow, I thought.  That’s amazing.  It turns out this is only if you put the Wi-Fi off and read half an hour a day.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I read for more than half an hour a day.  Maybe I just read slower.  Anyway, the battery is a problem.  Real books don’t run out of power.  If there is an apocalypse and after two years you find a book in the rubble, you can still use it.  (And apparently trauma to the battery may cause it to explode.  Real books do not explode.)

And finally, the cheapest Kindle that I can find in South Africa (there are some other scaly brands, but such ones tend to not work as well) is R 1300 ish.  That’s around $ 180.  I just don’t have the money for it.  Printed books are between R 20 and R 100 ($2.80 and $14.20).  That I can afford.

However, with all its downsides, the ebook thing has some useful features that I like.
Number one, I can read a 1000 page book without needing a wrist brace.
Number two, it’s easier and quicker to buy an ebook.
Number three, I can look up words I don’t understand and find passages I want to see again.

But even with these three things, it is simply useful.  Not necessary.  There is no genuine need for it.  If there are enough other people like me, the printed book won’t be dying for some time still.


  1. I think ebooks will take over from printed in about 20 or so years (maybe quicker). Once you have a generation of kids whjo gropw up with them the nostalgia you describe will dissipate quite easily. The cultural chnage of having one book to carry around at school (and that's where the big change will happen) with all your text books on it will kill any 'I love the smell of paper' nonsense.

    Not that there won't still be books around and some die hard purists, but it won't be the mainstream and it won't be lauded as a superior product.

    As for battery life, I use my kindle a lot and I find it lasts around a month. I don't often have the wifi on (just when I need to) but I've never found it that short.

    As for borrowing books, you can do that. Not legally, but then technically lending books and CDs isn't legal, they just can enforce those laws.

    I think the way art is distributed and consumed and paid for is all going to change in the next few years, slowed down only by the corporate forces who don't like change (especialy if that change bypasses their pocket-books). Artists will be fine, and so will the public - although you may have to buy the app that creates that new book smell.

    Moody Writing

  2. I agree that ebooks will take over from printed books. But I don't think printed will be dying out so soon. Twenty-ish years sounds about right, maybe a little longer. Humans are very change-resistant.
    Newer generations won't have that problem obviously, so it could go quicker and quicker the farther we get.

  3. I'm a new Kindle reader and I must say, I LOVE it! I leave my Wi-Fi turned off anyway unless I need to download a book, so yeah, the batteries do last ages! I went on holiday for 2 and a half weeks and never needed to charge the batteries once, and I was reading on the beach for hours every day. Best thing is, I didn't have to weigh down my suitcase with books. Just one Kindle containing over 50 books, and I was set for the holidays!

    The biggest bonus has been all these new indie authors I've discovered from Smashwords and Amazon, whose books would not be available on regular they are a fraction of the cost of a print book!

    Having said that, with all the self-published books out there, it is a challenge to separate the wheat from the chaff. Also, for books I REALLY love, I'd still prefer to own a paper copy with pages I can thumb through and dog ear -- especially if I already own the other books in the series!

  4. @Mooderino - I can imagine print book owners in 20+ years being akin to those people nowadays who still listen to music on LP records. :)

  5. J.C.: It's good to know the battery lasts longer than they imply. Good point about the space/weight. I was going to add that to the benefits, but I forgot.
    Thanks for reading.