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Paper, please

July 20th, 2010

Amazon just announced that it is now selling more books in Kindle format then the traditional hardcover.
Kindle photo

Of course, the Kindle’s not the only game in town for eReaders. Borders has one, as does Barnes and Noble and of course, Apple.

For anyone who knows my relative addiction to technology (motto: if it is good, it can be made better by adding electricity. If it has electricity, it can be made better by turning it into a robot. If it is a robot, it can be made better by giving it sentience) might be surprised ot hear that I use none of these devices. I prefer paper books. The one that are made from dead trees, that take up massive amounts of space, weigh a lot, and give you paper cuts. They also have a disturbing tendency to burn when there is a fire (of course, a Kindle will melt like butter, but all your books are backed up digital files you can load on a new device, right?)

But, before you hand me a Metamucil and a box of Depends, allow me to share with you why I (a pretty voracious reader) still prefer paper books.

These first four reasons are positive, related to what I feel are real advantages of traditional books, on a personal level

I like the tactile feel
I like the physical weight of the book in my hand, and the physical representation of progress as I turn pages and see myself move through the text. Something about a real book makes it easier to get “lost” and really connect with the author.

I enjoy the collecting
I have way too many books, filling my shelves and overspilling everywhere. These books are a physical manifestation of my intellectual growth, my education, my knowledge. They are portals to amazing fictional worlds that I have visited, or keys to great minds or museums. I like seeing them on my shelves, occasionally paging back through them. Any serious reader with a large library knows the feeling of recalling a favored passage or story that can be triggered just by seeing the title of a book on a shelf.

Real books can be shared
If a friend wants to borrow one of my books, he or she can do so. Likewise, I can borrow from friends. You can’t do this with e-books, which are locked to your own device via software incompatibilities and digital rights management. Obviously, real books can be resold as well. You will never browse an electronic used bookstore, nor pass along a treasured e-volume to a spouse or your kids.

Real books will last forever
You can read books that are hundreds of years old. Acid-free paper, stored halfway decently, will last centuries. Do you think any of the e-books you buy today will still be viewable in even a decade, much less a quarter century or more?

The next five reasons are related to technical limitations of e-books. All of these limitations might be overcome, at least somewhat, as the technology continues to mature.

Print is still higher quality
The iPhone 4 has the best screen of any electronic device on the market, and it is basically approaching print in quality. An iPhone 4 display on an iPad-sized device would be amazing, and it is certainly coming, but it isn’t there yet. And even this amazing screen is hard on the eyes if you stare at it for an hour. Print, especially high-quality print, beats any e-reader on the market, at least for now.

E-books are too expensive
E-books used to be ten bucks, now they are fifteen. Add to that the myriad of weird pricing decisions, absurd “on-sale” dates and geographic and time-based market restrictions on various books, and you can start to get an idea that publishers are their own worst enemy in making sure the things which should be the natural advantage of e-books (any book in print, cheap, now) are not taken advantage of. If a new hardcover comes out, I’d rather pay Amazon 18 bucks (which is discounted) for a physical edition then 15 for an electronic version. No contest. But, if the price were 8 bucks, I would think. Hard. I like paper books, but I also like saving money.

There’s less choice of books
Between the new and used marketplace on Amazon and similar sites, I can buy pretty much any book which has been in print the past several decades, as well as books from countries around the world which may not be available in the US. Due to licensing restrictions, only a small fraction of books are available electronically. E-books are like Redbox movies – fine if all you want are the big hits, but no depth.

incompatible formats, devices, and DRM
DRM means I can’t lend my books to friends or sell them when I am done. Incompatible devices mean that if I develop a collection on my Kindle, and later Amazon decides to stop supporting it (unlikely, but stranger things have happened) – or I decide I like iBooks on the iPad better, I can’t transfer my collection (although I could use the iPad Kindle reader). There’s a ton of incompatible formats in the marketplace, and even the “standards” are not fully supported on all the various platforms, especially when DRM is involved.

ebook readers suffer from the limitations of being electronics
They break, run out of juice, don’t like heat or moisture, suffer glitches and crashes, and can’t be tossed around. A book can really be abused and still be readable (not that I would intentionally abuse my own books, but it is common to buy used books that have been less-then-gently used) but I really don’t want to abuse my iPad.

So, do I ever see myself switching to e-books? They do have some amazing advantages, most obvious the immediacy (start reading right away!) as well as the near infinite storage (not to mention searchability). I’ve already read a few short stories electronically, and it is not a bad experience. I am likely to use iBooks on my iPhone or iPad when travelling, or other times when the convenience of carrying a bunch of books in a small device I already am carrying really becomes important. Otherwise, I’ll take paper, please.

PS: Do you publishers, do you want to win me over – or at least temp me – into the ebook world? How is this for an idea. Similar to how most Blu Ray discs come with a digital copy included at no (obvious) extra cost, how about including an electronic copy of a book when I buy the hardcover?

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