What if ebooks had come first?

I like to read books. I always have, and I expect that will continue for the rest of my life.

But I’ve changed in my reading habits a lot over the last few years. Now I read far more ebooks than print books, and I listen to audiobooks as well. Most recently I’ve started exploring graphic novels, mostly digitally on my iPad.

When I talk to people about reading ebooks (usually novels), they either hop excitedly foot to foot inquiring about the Kindle titles I love or they scrunch their faces as though tasting bitterness in their old-schoolery while proclaiming they prefer print books.

Why the polarity? Why do people love one or the other?

Why ebooks are better

They’re sometimes cheaper (not always).

They’re easy to get on release day, or any other day. They’re always available and never out of stock.

You can bring (and read) hundreds of them anywhere without lugging anything you wouldn’t already have (phone, tablet, etc.).

They’re not heavy (ever try to read a Brandon Sanderson hardcover?).

They’re not lost in a basement flood, they can be archived, and they can’t be stolen by literate, opportunistic ruffians in the coffee shop.

You can share your notes (even voice notes!) with a social network.

They can synchronize across devices, and with audiobook narrations.

You can adjust the type and screen to account for your failing eyes, the brightness of the room, your font snobbery, and the colour you want the “paper” to be.

From a publisher’s/distributor’s point of view, they require no storage and no shipping; that is, no per-unit cost. They can therefore maintain a back catalogue into perpetuity at no additional cost. Books can even be updated to correct typos, improve covers, and so on.

Why print books are better

You can share them easily.

There is no question that you own it, and you’ll always be able to read it.

You can write in them with a pencil.

They work when you’re out of power.

You can leaf through them quickly, which is helpful for some times of reading.

You can’t change the type, colour, or where stuff is on the page (that’s a good thing).

They don’t depend on screen resolution to look good.

But what if we had had ebooks first?

But of all the reasons people list for preferring print books, the one I hear most often isn’t such a “logical” reason: it’s just that people “are used” to them. It’s almost an argument from nostalgia.

I think if we’d had ebooks before print books the market would be different.

People buying print books would be incredulous at the delays (“You mean I can’t just click the button and start reading?!”), and at the limitations of the format (“I can’t embiggen the font!”). They would feel cheated at only being able to have a small number in their bag at once.

But print books would still have their place, because they truly are better at some things. They’re better when you need to look at a series of charts. They’re awesome for marking up. They are locally very shareable.

Sometimes digital text is later produced in print formats. For example, a series of blog posts might be sold as a paperback book (even while remaining free on the web). Or an ebook is successful and then has a print run. This is often to hit both markets, I’m sure, but sometimes it’s because a text is better represented in print. The authors whose books are published with gorgeous covers, creamy paper and stitched signatures revel in the work of art they were a part of. They may love the pagination, or how they were able to choose the font to evoke emotion instead of relying on Caecilia.

I love that there is a market for both, and I’m sad that many books will never make it into my digital library because of a publisher’s retention of rights without the will to digitize. I hope that authors and publishers will make both forms available to us, and I’m happy that print-on-demand will make it reasonable to do so without many of the costs of warehousing and shipping.

If ebooks had come first we would still have both forms, but more people would think more kindly of them.

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2 thoughts on “What if ebooks had come first?

  1. I agree a lot of people (most in my opinion) don’t like change. I remember reading a quote from a newspaper stating that electrical light was a fad & soon people would return to candle light.

    With that said there are things I miss about print books but I haven’t read one on probably over 2 years!

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