Saturday, February 27, 2010

Paper or Plastic: Is an ebook still a book?


Reading paper books is an emotional experience for which many of us have developed nostalgia. We remember our Dr. Seuss books, our early school readers, our library adventures, then the teen years and really ranging into our individual tastes. Right now, most of us did that with paper books. Ten years from now? I think not.

My first music of my own was a scratchy Rod Stewart vinyl LP I found in a dumpster (yeah, we were poor and didn't have much besides my dad's old-school country 8-tracks). I have a cassette tape of that scratchy vinyl LP, and that is my version of the experience--right down to the skip in the middle of "I'd Rather Go Blind." Even if I hear the song on a CD, my brain puts in the skip, because that's the way I know the song. If I sing it to myself, the skip is in there. That's my experience and my nostalgia.

Have you ever tried to play a vinyl album for a kid? They think you're nuts. Some people get fighting mad over the very idea of ebooks, as if this were Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." Paper books are "real books" or "true books," they say. Yet they still call CDs and iPod downloads "records" or "albums," the same name they used when the format was a large vinyl disc. And music wasn't harmed in the least. In fact, most of us who aren't crotchety old fuddyduds will allow that music is vaster, broader, and more experimental than ever because it is more easily shared and experienced.

I remember in the 1990s when a few Chicken Littlers were warning about the death of paper books. I laughed at them. I remember in the early 21st century when writers first started wondering about whether they should protect their electronic rights. The industry laughed at them. On Christmas Day, Amazon sold more ebooks than paper books. I'm not laughing anymore. I am selling ebooks. And I am writing books with the expectation that they will be ebooks. And I am planning the long arc of my remaining career with the intention of staying "in print" and viable. And passing that to my heirs for the life of copyright. It's not only realistic, it's stupid not to do it.

And, as with the ease of music proliferation because of technological advancement, I see reading returning to the working class. You know, those people who can't afford $25 books and can barely afford time to read them because they are busting their chops to feed and house a family. A $2 ebook they can read in small chunks, and the convenience of carrying around 1,500 books at all times, will get more people peeking "between the pages."

Since I became interested in this issue, my research has shown that Kindle, Nook, and other ereader-device owners not only buy and read more books than they ever have before, they are trying genres and subject matter they never would have picked up otherwise. One man on the Kindle Boards hadn't read a book in 30 years because of visual impairment. Because he can now blow up the text size, he has read four books since Christmas. Teachers are taking their Kindles into classrooms and making reading cool again. Kids already have their own personal devices and are used to them. That's their nostalgia.

Publishers are trying mightily to stem the tide because they are invested in an old model in which they control and dole out content and lock up writers' rights for as long as possible. It's a central and overlooked element of the current ebook pricing wars. That's a side issue for readers but it's going to become critical if you believe the author is why we buy books, not the physical means or channel through which the story travels.

I fully appreciate those who defend the smell of pulp and ink, the tactile sensation of pages, the brilliance of a four-color paper cover and foil-stamped title logo. Many book bloggers fiercely defend paper books and most won't review ebooks at all. But if you look closely, the blogging phenomenon took over the role of "real newspapers" in reviewing and announcing books, to such a degree that many bloggers now are on the reviewer lists of major publishers, and obviously have a vested interest in preserving the current model because they are getting cases of free books. I don't blame them for not reviewing ebooks, because then they are left with nothing but the experience, and everyone loves free stuff. Already, there is a new model developing in which ebook bloggers may be readying to take over for "real book bloggers."

I love paper books, and I believe they will be around for the rest of my lifetime. There will still be bookstores, but they will be specialty shops and antiquaries instead of mainstream commerce centers. How much money have you spent at your local indie bookstore lately? Can you even find an indie within a two-hour radius? Here in my small university town, we have one indie bookstore and one specialty store that sells vinyl records. We no longer have a store that sells CDs, and only one chain video store. Are vinyl records the only "real music" or VHS tapes the only "real movies"?

I still have plenty of paper books. Some I keep because of nostalgia. I look at the object and feel that same attachment as I would with the old Rod Stewart album if it were still around. Other books I give away, but I still have the experience of the story. The "paper book" object is separate from the "book" experience of the story. Objects are ephemeral and paper crumbles to dust. The experience endures. The story lives on.

Scott Nicholson is the author of eight "real books" and six "fake books" (er, ebooks). Some of the real ones have the same stories as the fake ones. The difference is the "real books" have often been declared out of print by the publisher and removed from store shelves, so his dedicated readers must take extreme measures to find them, including prowling garage sales and stealing from the library. His ebooks are easily available and cheap. The Skull Ring and The Red Church are two such cheap books at under $2 each. But, as the commercials say, the experience is priceless. Visit Scott at
and Write Good or Die


Erik Williams said...

Stolen and posted on my blog. I put you as a "guest" blogger to ensure you received full credit. Hope you don't mind. If you do, I'll pull it down.

Dark Intruder said...


Yet again, great post with great points. I chuckled at the statement at the bottom about dedicated readers scouring the countryside for your out-of-print paper books. I went through that ordeal last year!


Miranda said...

Seriously, the library says my books always get stolen...

Erik, you're welcome to the post, as I've scattered it around the country!


cpolkinhorn said...

I, too, love the smell of pulp and ink but I LOVE my Kindle reader. Yes, Yes. Yes. Christa

Anonymous said...

I may go old school and print this and hand it to people spouting off about how they will only read "real" books. Generally I ask them "how many books have you read this year (3 or 4)? Do you want to see the 27 I have read along with the 590 on my TBR pile I have right here in my purse?"