E-books versus tree books: a false dichotomy

Books

Tree books are dead. No, wait, e-books are dead. E-books are e-books and tree books are tree books and never the twain shall meet. Loyal paper book readers will never read an e-book. Converts to e-readers will never pick up a physical book again. People fight to the death over this. TO THE DEATH!

Really, if you believe the press, it all sounds like an even pettier version of the Montagues and Capulets biting their thumbs at each other. But, while I know several diehards who wouldn’t know how to turn the page on a Kindle, and I’m sure there are a few e-book zealots who have pulped all the paper books they’ve ever owned, most of the serious readers of my acquaintance flick between paper books and e-books without a second thought. Why argue about formats when you could be, you know, reading?

As a reader

For me, it comes down to practicalities. On the most obvious level, if a book was printed in 1995 and nobody’s thought of releasing it in e-book format, then of course I’m going to read the hard copy. Or if it only exists in electronic format, then it goes on the e-reader.

In fact, the format in which I choose to read a book often depends on where I am when I decide I want to read it. At work? I’ll probably pick up a paperback in one of the station bookshops on my way home. At home? I’ll download it to my Kobo. If I’m standing in a charity shop, slightly bored and wondering what to read next? I’ll get the most interesting looking thing on the shelf.

Still on the theme of convenience: these days, most of my reading time is on the train, so the question of size becomes important. If I can’t fit it in my handbag, it’s probably not going to get read. And yet… I read War and Peace this year. I’d attempted it a couple of times before, but the physical copy is so big and so bulky, and it’s so easy to lose track one’s track among the various plot themes, that I never managed it. Having it on the Kobo (free from Project Gutenberg, I might add) I was able to just keep plugging away, a couple of chapters every day, until I got to the end.

On the other hand, if I’m going somewhere damp (the bath, for example, or northern Spain), I have no desire to risk an expensive piece of electronic equipment. As it happened, all the books I took to Spain with me came back in the state in which they left, and I’ve never dropped a book in the bath, but there’s always a first time.

In short, I tend to read books in whatever format I have them, and to obtain them in whatever format suits me at the time. Whatever makes it easiest for me to read, in fact.

When you dig into the debate, it often comes down to nebulous feelings about what the experience of reading should be like, and an aesthetic appreciation of the book as an object. Which affects my choices some of the time, but not always.

I’ve finished 45 books so far this year. 11 were e-books. 7 were hardbacks. Of those hardbacks, two were the family copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and three were John Buchan thrillers in the Nelson edition, which I’ve been collecting. I had no particular connection to any of the other hardbacks, or to any of the paperbacks, as objects. Indeed, some of them I read specifically to see if I really wanted them taking up space on my shelves, and now they aren’t on my shelves any more.

People talk about the smell of books. I’ve never quite got this. In my experience, old books smell of dust and possibly damp, and new books smell of solvent or nothing. But then I don’t have a very good sense of smell, so this argument doesn’t do much for me.

Books can be lovely things. They can also be hideous. (My photo above doesn’t do justice to quite how hideous the cover of Mulligan is.) To be honest, so long as the loveliness or the hideousness doesn’t get in the way of my reading the story, I don’t care.

As a writer

Similarly, I really don’t mind which format somebody chooses to read my book.

In pure financial terms, e-books make me more money. I can charge half the price for an e-book and still make twice as much as I would from the sale of a paperback. (Which is why the high price of a lot of mainstream publishers’ e-books is annoying, because I know what the mark-up is. I’m unlikely to spend more than about a fiver on an e-book, unless I’m really desperate.)

On the other hand, I miss out on the phenomenon where one of my readers says to one of their friends, ‘You might like this one,’ and lends them their copy. And the one where the friend of one of my readers, having a sneaky nose along their bookshelves, sees my book, thinks, ‘oh, that looks interesting,’ picks it up and starts reading.

Why should I care about that? you might well ask. Or, indeed, why am I not up in arms about it? I don’t make any money off that.

No, not immediately – but it means that another person has heard of me, has had the opportunity to see if they like my writing. My book doesn’t get into libraries or bookshops, so I’m reliant on this sort of interaction to spread the word. And anyway, since that’s the main way that I’ve discovered authors whose work I love, it feels a bit off to whinge about it. I very rarely buy a book by an unknown author at full price, and I don’t believe that many other readers do.

Anyway, maybe they then buy their own copy. Or maybe they nick the copy from their original owner, who buys a replacement.

You never know.

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2 thoughts on “E-books versus tree books: a false dichotomy

  1. I bought your book as an ebook, because that’s mostly how I do buy new books these days. (Obviously, I can’t buy secondhand ebooks, so I still buy those as paper books.) And then I bought a paper copy as well, because I wanted to lend it to someone.

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