Choosing between a Printed and an Electronic Book

IMG_0404Last Saturday, The Wall Street Journal published an article with a title that caught my eye as being both strange and obvious: “Don’t Burn Your Books—Paper Is Here to Stay.”

It seems strange to me because I can’t, for the life of me, see why anyone would burn his/her books if paper were going away. In fact, if we woke up tomorrow morning and there were no more paper to be found anywhere, I would suspect that one of the last things people would do would be to burn their books.

What would be the purpose of that Fahrenheit 451 experience? If paper disappeared, would people say to themselves and their friends, “We can’t have any more new paper books, so let’s get rid of the ones we already own. No reason to keep these old relics around.” Instead, wouldn’t we treasure those paperback and hardbound books even more than we do already?

This headline also seems obvious to me because paper is here to stay, including paper books, which was the real subject of this article with the headline that made the reader guess what the story was going to cover.

The first sentence of the article stated without any sense of humor or satire: “Ever since Amazon introduced its popular Kindle e-reader five years ago, pundits have assumed that the future of book publishing is digital.” And the first paragraph concludes with: “By 2015, one media maven predicted a few years back, traditional books would be gone.”

Really? I wonder who these poorly informed pundits and this media maven are and why they made such a large leap from reality because aScreen Shot 2013-01-09 at 5.20.05 PM
company introduced another electronic device on which people could read books—as they could already on computers and smartphones.

I wonder if they ever looked at history to see how correct the “experts” of the day were when they pronounced, for example:

  • The end of radio when television was introduced. I bet most of us still listen to the radio a few times a week, especially when we’re in the car;
  • The end of vinyl when CDs came out. Those who cherish the pure sound of music on vinyl never switched to the new format and now are responsible for a growing number of albums becoming available in that format;
  • The end of CDs when digital downloads were introduced. Today downloaded music accounts for only about half of all music purchased in the United States;
  • The end of newspapers when it became cheaper and easier to publish the news online. A quick look at the driveways on any early morning reveals that the residents of almost every home in the neighborhood subscribe to anywhere from one to three newspapers a day.

The apparent reasons for this article is that after several years of increasing e-book sales, the growth has slowed considerably, and the sale of e-book readers has actually declined, while the number people reading their books electronically seems to have stalled: Only about 30 percent ofScreen Shot 2013-01-09 at 5.36.46 PM those who regularly read books read at least one e-book in 2012, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

Clearly what’s happening here is that the printed book is not going to be totally replaced by its electronic cousin anytime soon, if ever. Instead, these two ways for people to satisfy their desire to read will live side-by-side well into the future, as some people prefer to read their books on paper, and others choose to do so on an e-reader, tablet or other device.

Our household represents this split between paper and electronic readers. I fall into the first category; my wife into the second.

Of the many books I read in 2012, none was electronic. I have nothing against the e-book and, in fact, find the experience to be okay, neither really good nor bad. But somehow, when I think about getting a book to read, it always seems preferable to get a book printed on paper—whether it’s a new one, (heavens, no) a used one, or one from the library. The numerous books I read last year, including those by and about E.B. White, those about pioneer airmail pilots, and the books of essays by William H. Gass, all seemed to want to be read on paper.

On the other hand, Jane never considers reading a paper book. Every book—and there have been many of them—she’s read for the past two years have been electronic.

And now at the beginning of the new year, we are continuing to stick to our reading patterns. My first book this year, was The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which was given to me by a friend as a Christmas present. (By the way, I doubt that she ever thought about giving me an electronic copy of this book.) I liked the book so much that I recommended it to Jane. But she had no desire to read it on paper. Instead, she spent $9.99 to buy an electronic version that she can read on her newest e-reader and her iPad.

The two of us—like many others—will long support both the printed and the electronic book.

The Unsuspecting E-Book Reader (Part 2)

(To read part 1 of The Unsuspecting E-Book Reader go to http://wp.me/p2jyvn-eN.)

A recent Wall Street Journal article discusses the growing trend for e-book devices to capture all kinds of private data from unsuspecting readers. According to the article, “Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books.” That data may be beneficial for retailers, publishers, e-reader makers, and even some writers, providing information to use for determining what kinds of books, at what lengths, with what video, audio and graphics added, might be bestsellers in the future.

Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild and writer of Presumed Innocent, The Burden of Proof, and a half dozen or so other books, is one writer who likes the idea of knowing more about what his readers want. He says, “If you can find out that a book is too long and you’ve got to be more rigorous in cutting, personally I’d love to get that information.”

Personally, I wouldn’t mind giving it to him. But I don’t want my e-book gadget to grab it secretly, without my knowledge, when I think I’m reading his book for pleasure, when I’m unknowingly participating in data collection about all I do, think, and feel while reading that book.

Analysts say they are learning important things about the reader from those data. I’m sure they are. But I’m not so certain that what they think they’re learning isn’t wrong, or that from it, they’re not developing incorrect conclusions.

What, for example, did they really learn from my having read the electronic version of Stanley Fish’s nonfiction book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One? And from my highlighting a number of sections and making a number of notes throughout the book?

Maybe they came to the conclusion that I care about sentences and writing. That’s true; I do.

But maybe they now think I’m a high school student having trouble with writing and am looking for help; so they’re recommending that the publisher put out a number of writing books aimed at that demographic. They’d miss the mark by a wide margin here.

While reading that book, I highlighted a section noting that in an Oscar Wilde novel a character explains why he doesn’t like memoirs. Wilde says, “They are generally written by people who have either entirely lost their memories, or have never done anything worth remembering….” Maybe from my highlight, they’ve determined that I’m over the hill and am quickly forgetting everything, and that I want to write my memoir before my memory is totally gone. They’d be wrong on a couple of accounts here, but I can’t remember which ones.

Recently I bought a used paperback book from Amazon for only about $3.95. (It was no longer in print. Why else would I be buying a second-hand book?). Had this book been available in an electronic version, and I’d bought it for $3.95, would the analysts have determined that I’m cheap and want to buy only cheap books, and then suggested the publishers cut their prices significantly?

What would they decide from my marginal notes in printed books if I made such comments on an e-book? Sometimes I just draw a single line beside a whole or partial paragraph; if it’s really important, I might draw two lines. Sometimes I just write a letter or two with no further explanation: “B,” “S,” or even “SS,” rarely “BS.” Sometimes I write long sentences; in others I just put something like, “App to B.”

Clearly, the analysts would be calling in the codebreakers to help figure out the key to what I’ve written. Surely, they would be thinking that getting this key to my notes would help them sell more books.

I doubt that it would.

A publisher’s goal is to sell—sell!—books. An author’s primary goal, as I see it, is to write a great book—whether a novel, a nonfiction company history or anything else—that tells the story he or she wants to tell in the way he or she wants to tell it. Later comes trying to sell it and make money. The reader wants to have an enjoyable experience and maybe learn something just for the fun of it, or perhaps to use that new knowledge for something beneficial.

But the reader does not read to have an intruder take private data, and then come to conclusions that could very well be wrong and misleading or, in any case, are made from information they should not have taken in the first place.

The Unsuspecting E-Book Reader (Part 1)

When you read a printed document, you take part in a private two-way conversation with the writer, a writer who has written a novel, a story, a poem, even a company’s white paper or bylined article, making his or her meaning as clear as possible, yet leaving it open to your interpretation. That’s the way it should be: just you and the writer, with no one intruding or listening in.

Such conversations, however, are no longer private if you’re reading a book on your electronic reader, whether it’s one from Google, Barnes & Noble, Amazon or Apple. Now, somebody is secretly noting not only the kinds of books you’re reading but how long it takes you to get through each one, whether you stop reading before the end, and what you highlight or bookmark on the pages (oops, I mean the screen) as you go through it.

Although I find the hard-and-inflexible and appliance-like feel of these electronic gadgets distasteful, I like using e-readers for the most part. We have both the Kindle and the iPad. On each, I quickly can get the feeling of reading a book, not hesitantly questioning whether the device is missing something important to the reading experience.

I don’t care for the smell of most printed books, so I don’t miss that about them when I choose an electronic book over a printed one. They smell stuffy to me. And I’ve never been a fan of old, dusty, used books, even though I’ve always thought it would be nice to have a collection of rare editions—new, rare editions, I would prefer. And I don’t like the idea of not knowing who owned a book before me and where it’s been lying around for the past number of years.

When reading printed publications, I like the feel of paperbacks more than hardcover editions. I like their flexibility and usually their size. But mostly, I like the way they feel inviting, as if they’re asking me to come in for a conversation and a cup of tea.

Last week, though, I bought a hardcover book (it’s wasn’t available in a paperback or electronic version) that had a great feeling. The paper was a pleasing off-white, with a slight tinge of green, not stark and jarring; the pages were comfortable, thick with just a slight texture; the spine lay completely open without a push, leaving the pages flat, not curved, for easy reading on my desk.

But the e-book works well for me, too. At least, it does until I think about some third party participating in my reading; some third party trying to figure out if I fit in to the demographic the publisher wants for the book; some third party more concerned about whether it can learn something from me beyond whether I’m enjoying the book, something that might help him help sell more books tomorrow.

(Read Part 2 of “The Unsuspecting E-Book Reader” at http://ow.ly/cuP4P.)