A 21st Century Dilemma: eBooks vs. Printed Books

I’ve been fighting with a dilemma for the past eight months since I received a Kobo Vox from my mom for Christmas (which I did ask for and was extremely excited to receive). Every time I search for books online for my Kobo, I wonder “Do I want this book in print?” “Will I want it in both versions?” “That doesn’t make sense. Why would I pay for it in both versions just for the convenience of reading it on the subway and having one for my shelf to gather dust?” I imagine, for most people who own an e-reader or are thinking about owning one you may face a similar conflict of interest when you approach book buying. What we’re faced with right now are a wide variety of the same titles in both a digital version and a print version. From my perspective, this saves the publishers trying to figure out which version we’d want for which type of book.

Some genres are easy to tell. Harlequin books are an easy digital sell. There’s not much value associated with the hard copy, and they’re physically constructed for 1–2 readings tops before the spine starts to break and pages begin scattering everywhere. A digital version makes much more sense for these type of books. The same goes for popular science fiction, mysteries, and almost any title that you’d find on a grocery store, pharmacy, or big box store rack. Another genre I’ve found transfers to the digital format well is popular non-fiction. For instance, books on how to live life, diets, well-being, spirituality, and the such. For most, there’s no reason to parade these around on a book shelf, and they’re a good light read for the subway, a long car or plane ride, or your day off.

There are also books of the opposite nature where it’s almost certain no one would buy an e-book version, and if they did they’d buy the print version too. In this case I’m talking about big coffee table books full of pictures. They’re often referred to as “an investment” by people who love to have them. I’m also referring to collectible-type books: classic children’s titles that are well illustrated, picture books, encyclopaedias, atlases, biographies full of colour photographs, and other similar titles. These type of books, with their shiny gloss paper and colourful photographs do nothing for the heart on a digital screen. They belong between eager fingers and in front of shining, excited eyes. Opening these books for the first time is like opening a Christmas present, and is just one of those experiences that can’t yet be replaced (and, I don’t pretend to know the future, but arguably never will be.)

These books that I’ve described above — they’re the predictable ones. Where my dilemma sets in is with fiction. “Does a bestseller automatically lose value as a print book?” I ponder. “Does it just make more sense to buy it at the lower price point?” “Will I want to read it more than once? If so, I should probably buy the print version.” “But what if I don’t know yet — what if the book surprises me and I end up loving it.” Then I want a print version. So I can pull it off my shelf and show someone the cover of my favourite new book. So I can lend it to friends who I love recommending books to and they can enjoy it too, front to back. So I can have the experience of owning a physical representation of the content that willed my heart to tears, made me laugh out loud, or helped me achieve that beautiful melancholy that sets in on rainy days, where we contemplate more than how long our commute to work or school will take, and what we’re really made of in the grand scheme of things.

Am I romantic when it comes to print books? Most definitely (as if I had to answer that for you at this point.) Does a book lose value in digital version or is it just in our minds? Does the lower price point automatically make us think —this is worth less to me than a physical version? It’s the same content, the same author, and it even comes from the same place. In terms of book production it skips just one step — going to a printing house to be made. Made. And maybe that’s the difference that really resonates with us. In a world where words can so easily be spewed out like vomit into the internet ether, we’re taught to treat words on screen as something of less value. Something popular and common, with a negative connotation. Something worth a glance, not a long read in a windowsill on a rainy day.

Some of us have got over this hurdle and don’t see the difference. Some of us never will. Maybe it’s an ego thing — we like to show off a big shiny shelf of classics to those who walk in so we seem smart and classy and civilized. Seem so. But are we really? I know for certain that I’m a book collector. I haven’t even read half of the books on my shelf and yet I sit them there like a prized possession. Just waiting for the day I can fill a room floor to ceiling with books so I can walk in every now and then and just scan the shelf. Yes, I want that beautiful Beauty and the Beast library for my own.

It’s somewhat of an addiction, somewhat of a hoarding behaviour towards print books that we’re facing in publishing today. It’s a stand-off between those who refuse to touch digital books, who “can’t stand” to read off a computer screen, and those who couldn’t care less if they have a single hard copy of a book in their home: books take up too much space and they can have the equivalent of a library on a device the approximate size of one 5×9 hardcover.

So who’s right in this battle of the books? I don’t pretend to know. We’re in the middle of a revolution and the industry can only pretend to be ignorant of it for so long. Which brings me back to the fact that I’m constantly faced with both a print version and a digital version of the same book and left to decide which I’d rather have. Perhaps the answer to this dilemma is that we, the book industry, should make these hard decisions for the consumers.

As the gatekeepers of the industry we have long since thrown away our power to choose what version best suits the readers of its books. What we, within the industry, and you coming into it, should be asking ourselves, is if we have the power to choose what people read, why do we not have the power to choose how they should read it? And why should this not change based on the genre, the experience, and the content of the book? It’s no different than fashion designers telling us what’s in style one season to the next, or movie directors deciding how to show us a film (3D? Imax? 48 frames per second?) Yes, genres like fiction pose an obvious difficulty in this case, as does the fact that reading books resonates with people as a particularly sensitive experience — one not to be messed with; one that has shaped who we are today. And maybe the marketing data just hasn’t caught up yet. Maybe we’re still figuring out how to measure how people like to read. Maybe people are still trying to figure this out for themselves. But in the meantime, we need to re-learn our confidence as an industry and stand up to the challenge so that next time I want to enjoy a book I don’t have to have a philosophical conversation with myself about which way I’d rather read it. Am I a lazy consumer, and is this yet another problem with society and my generation today? Maybe. But, maybe democratizing the process of book publishing is only killing the enjoyment of reading itself.