Bookbanter Column: Ebook vs. Print (April 2, 2012)

I think we’ve all reached the point now where the “e-revolution” is not just coming but it’s already here and doing very well.

For anyone not accepting and getting on the e-bandwagon, you can go and join those who are still fans of a flat earth and disbelieving in global warming.  And for the rest of us who acknowledge that ebooks are here to stay, we may be in various stages of acceptance.

As for myself, I still have yet to own an ereader; however, I feel that 2012 will be the year in which I acquire one. I have only read a small number of ebooks so far, a quantity I’m able to count on one hand, but I also know that this will change, and the prophets foretell of more ebooks in my future.

So with ebooks now vying against print books for sales in the world of publishing, let us take a look at the merits and negative connotations of these two mediums of reading.

While I don’t believe one isn’t necessarily superior to the other, I know there are plenty of spokesmen for each medium; no one is likely to be the true victor, as was the case with say Blu-ray and HD DVDs.

But let’s take a look at how they stack up.

Ebooks
The jury still seems to be out on what is the proper form of this enigmatic word; whether it’s ebooks, or eBooks, or Ebooks, or even e-books.  (I personally am sticking with ebooks for now, since the word we use for books of the audio variety is audiobooks.)    Ebooks have been around for some time.  Stephen King was actually one of the first authors to try this new format, first with his serialized ebook series in 2000, The Plant, which was subscription-based with a new chapter every month, but sadly subscribers tapered off and it subsequently stopped.

The first year of the new millennium also brought the genesis of the first mass-market ebook, also by Stephen King, entitled Riding the Bullet at the modest price of $2.50.  I actually purchased this ebook, which was an average-length short story, when it came out.  It was a PDF with a full color cover and was most entertaining as I read it on the large heavy monitor of my desktop computer in the ancient year of 2000.

Ebooks are now available in a variety of formats, which has only been a relatively recent development; just a few years ago the options and versions were quite limited.  Now customers interested in purchasing an ebook can buy it in: epub format, which works on most ereaders, most ereading apps, and with the free software Adobe Digital Editions; mobi for the Kindle; and PDF, which again works on most ereaders and ereading apps, as well as with Adobe Acrobat Reader.

The wonderful thing about ebooks is how portable and easy to use they are.

You can read them on your computer, your laptop, your phone, and your ereader.  The covers are often the same (or sometimes alternate to the print edition) and in full glossy color.  All software, apps and ereaders have the option of creating a bookmark or saving the page you were last reading, so you can easily return to it next time.  If there’s a table of contents, this will often be hyperlinked, meaning you can speedily jump forward to a specific chapter or a map or the index if you so wish.  For some who are comfortable with reading text on a screen, one can make the point that they read faster this way than with a print version, since the turn of the page is simple and fast, done with the press of a button or the swipe of a virtual page; technically faster than an actual book.

Ultimately, if you want to get a book as fast as possible (if you’re at home) and start reading right away, ebooks are certainly the way to go.  You can usually get the ebook as soon as the book is released (and sometimes sooner); the download will take less than a minute and you can begin reading your favorite author right away.  If you’re using an ereader, the battery life is often good enough for a day or so, and if you’re reading a computer or plugged in laptop you needn’t worry about the power issue; you can just keep reading and reading, as the sun crosses the sky and night falls . . .

Print Books
The written word has been around for millennia, the printed word for over 570 years.  To make this clear right away, and dispel any worriers and naysayers, I fully believe the printed word and the printed book will not become obsolete and disappear in our lifetimes; in fact, I still think it’s going to be around for at least another century or two, and may well remain around for longer.  I believe this in my heart and soul, because as I write this now I gaze up at the seven bookcases surrounding me; the various paperback books on the coffee table and couch; while upstairs is my cold computer and its harddrive of ebooks.

There is a life in the printed book, a magic that will never be reproduced by the ebook.  For every fan of the ebook, there are those greater in number who enjoy or prefer the printed book.

Printed books embody the story they hold within their pages, with the size, texture and smell; the older the book, the more noticeable are these tactile attributes.  As the year the book was printed reaches further back in time, one cannot help but imagine the hands that have held it, the many eyes that have read its words; the smell of the rooms it has been in, and the many lives it has affected.  The familiar image of “curling up with a good book” adds a warmth and timelessness to it, but if one replaces it with the prop of an ereader, the picturesque scene is corrupted.

At the moment the printed word is cheaper than the electronic one.

By this I mean that if you have a book that’s been out for a while that you’re interested in purchasing, you can look online for the ebook version, which will likely be a few dollars less than a new copy; however, a used copy will almost always be cheaper than the ebook.  I’m not sure if this is something that will change in time, as publishers agree to new standards for ebook pricing (because it’s still a very new technology for them), but the publishing world is notorious for adapting slowly and reluctantly; while readers looking for a particular book can go into a used book store — a retail space which is still doing well — and likely find the title they’re looking for and more for a much cheaper price, or they can shop around online on sites like ebay, half.com, abebooks, or even Amazon for lower prices when compared to the ebook edition.

Ultimately, when ebooks and print books are compared together, the latter is the one that feels the more real.  With the runaway world of self-publishing where anything and everything can and is being published online, there is but a single bestseller for every thousand sad excuses for books.  Compare that to a fresh new, weighty hardcover, or a glossy captivating quality paperback, or even the feel of a nice thick mass market . . .

And when you go to that author reading, is it really the same when they autograph your ereader?

If the last five years of the world of books and publishing has shown anything, it’s that one cannot safely predict what the market will be like and what exactly will be happening in a year’s time, or even six month’s time.

Many said ebooks wouldn’t catch on, then ereaders and the revolution happened to take over the published word and change the publishing world forever.  Many have been spouting out thoughts and opinions and predictions: some say the mass market will become obsolete, which is what happened in the British markets; others says the limited and illustrated collectible hardcover will grow and become popular.  And I’m sure there are still those who say ebooks are eventually going to go away and the printed word will return strong and unstoppable, while others say the opposite and the printed word’s days are numbered.

I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen, and the future of books cannot be confidently predicted by anyone, but I am certain the printed word will not die out anytime soon, and as I sit here with the spines of thousands of books looking upon me, I know there’s no place in the world I’d rather be than surrounded by real, printed books.

But them I’m kind of biased.

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