If you have an e-book, what reasons might there be for buying a printed copy? That’s one of the questions given thoughtful consideration by Gaby Wood in last Saturday’s Telegraph in an article called ‘Reading the Future’ (Review Section ppR24-R25, sorry no online version right now.) It’s accompanied by a cartoon from the brilliant Matt showing an elderly gent standing next to a wall full of bookshelves with nothing on them except a single e-reader. ‘This is the library,’ he says to his guests. ‘Ouch!’ Devoted e-book fan that I am, the article and the picture raise some issues that have been creeping up on me for a while.
Our attachment to physical books is more than sentimental, it’s ingrained in our cultural psyche. This means that although I might not have bought any new printed books in a while (in fact since I was given a WH smith voucher last spring), I’d still hate my house not to contain any at all. Not that I own a vast number (I was brought up to use the library!) but I’ve had some of them a very long time and they each hold particular memories, not just of the book but also where it came from and the time or times when it was read. If through the years their numbers diminish (as a result of spring cleaning, injudicious lending or just old age) will there come a time when our house, or maybe our children’s could be book-free zones? For a generation in which book ownership was a powerful social indicator, this is a scary thought. But on the more personal level, how can we be reminded of what these books have meant to us if they have no physical presence? Gaby Wood quotes a colleague – a book is a souvenir of itself. Exactly.
But does a digital object really require a physical counterpart? Wood makes some comparison with digital photos. I myself persist in printing out my favourite photos each year, partly as a last-ditch back-up method but also to satisfy that need for the physical memento. But others probably use a digital photo frame which allows them to mount a display without printing anything out. I inadvertently installed a desk-top gadget that does the same thing – displaying my own photos in a random order – quite pleasing actually to be reminded on a February Monday of that trip toSouthern Europe two years ago . There are already ways in which we can do the same for books. Lots of bloggers display favourite reads on a sidebar or have feeds from book retail or review sites, keeping those novels from last year or the year before on the edge of our vision and within the borders of our consciousness.
So much for our work-space, but what about our lounge, hall or bedroom? Instead of a book-case, a slideshow of virtual book-covers marching across a screen? Gaby wood thinks we’ll always crave the physical object and comes up with another suggestion. ‘The e-book is the event, the book is the merchandising’ i.e. we will buy only those books we truly love and pay significantly more for them. Which begs the question, of the books I’ve read in the past year, how many would I want to own as physical copies? Off the top of my head, maybe three or four spring to mind. Of these (all bought as e-books) half were ‘bargains’, the others were the same price or near enough as the printed version. Would I really want to pay more? Or will publishers start to think about new pricing models? In the new scenario perhaps the e-book (mass sales) might be noticeably cheaper, encouraging us to splash out o a p.o.d. version of those we have loved. Or shall I root around charity shops, not for books I’d like to read but those I’ve read and would like to own?
I’m getting ahead of myself. It will be a long time (will it ever happen?) before everyone owns an e-reader. Maybe by then the mist will have cleared. Right now I think readers still don’t quite know what they want and publishers (big six, small publishers, indie authors) are all groping around in the dark. Let’s hope not too much is lost along the way.
Some recent favourites, incase you were wondering.
6 thoughts on “e-books and p-books, or how to furnish a room”
Some very-thought provoking comments here, Alison, and ones to which hadn’t crossed my mind before. A bookless library, empty shelves…. a dusting hater’s dream and booklover’s worst nightmare. Must be a book in there somewhere. Thanks for making me sit up and think.
Hi Kit – in fact the article is now online at
it covers a few other e-book related topics too – all very interesting.
Do you know, I struggle with the same issues. I am a very recent convert to e-books, and am an e-book-only author myself at this time. I have fallen in love with my Kindle, but there’s one thing that’s nagging me apart from not having a paper copy ‘souvenir’. Which is… when you pick up a p-book, every time, without fail, you glance at the cover, and the cover builds an identity of the book for you. Kindle (at least, can’t speak for other brands) is missing a trick by displaying random screen savers rather than, say, the cover of the book you’re currently reading. That, to me, is one of the hardest things and biggest disadvantages of e-books. I have to make a conscious decision to go and see the cover; and with new authors, I have to make a conscious effort to remind myself of their name while I’m reading. That impedes the book’s identity building in my mind. Just a thought from a book lover… X Great feature, thank you!!
Hi Nicky – yes, I agree on the cover thing, and since no one knows what you’re reading (some people like this privacy feature!), the book misses out on publicity. I think we need some magic that makes the outside of an e-reader reflect what’s curently being read.
My other bugbear is that although I have got used to judging how far throuh a book I am as a precentage (!) I still miss knowing how long (big!) the book is as a whole, I suppose to know if I’m tackling a blockbuster or near-novella. I assume the file size gives it away, but don’t think I’ll ever be able to judge a book by its kilobytes!
TOTALLY agree. Although, to be fair, Amazon.com offers an estimated page number for Kindle books and I have had a couple of e-books that had page numbers with them, even though I couldn’t see them while reading. Haven’t quite found out how to make that work yet… But there is something about holding a hefty book in your hand and knowing that you’re in for hours and hours of reading pleasure… Still, I like my Kindle. (Split reading preference disorder?)
Oh, have never found that estimated page feature – must look more closely! Do you think that’s based on average pbk pages? Kindle screenfuls would presumably vary depending on text size.
(Best not to worry and keep reading!)