« Editorial

The Objects of Our Obsession: On the E vs. P Debate

I hope that we can tone down some of the vitriol and the need to take sides in the e vs. print debate.

By M.J. Rose

Author MJ Rose

Author MJ Rose

Passions run high in the e-book versus print argument. Why? E-books are just a delivery system, like mass-market paperback versus hardcover versus trade paperback. Right?

Wrong. Electronic versus print is a much more emotional argument. But why?

Since ancient times there have been books of one sort or another. Whether written on papyrus, stone, clay, parchment or rag paper, books have been physical objects that changed amazingly little over the centuries.

Once could argue that what the reader experiences holding a book has not evolved much since man first took an instrument to stone in possibly 7,000 B.C.E. But for the sake of this argument lets use the 1st century A.D. as our start date. That’s when the Chinese invented paper and texts were created via wood blocks and bound together.

Since then, for the last 2,000 years, paper books have been the preferred delivery method. Until digital books started to show up in the 1990s, there simply hadn’t been anything broken with books and no reason to reinvent this particular wheel.

In fact I even remember being at BookExpo America in Chicago 2000 when an Amazon spokesperson threw a paper book across the aisle of a full auditorium to make the point that books didn’t break but er-eaders would and weren’t needed. “Long live the book!” he called out as publishers, booksellers and librarians cheered and clapped.

This object called the book has been objectified over time. Books not only offer information, stories, dreams and knowledge, they decorate our homes, our coffee tables and our shelves. Many people define themselves and are defined by the titles they have in their library or take out of the library or carry around with them.

Put into this context, the anger and vitriol and hysteria about the e-revolution becomes somewhat easier understand. Our object is being altered and changed so quickly we have almost no time to adjust.

In fact, when it comes to culture and education, it’s possible that there hasn’t been anything in our lifetime that’s changed as quickly or as drastically as books.

The book biz is often compared to the music biz, so let’s use that comparison since many liken the shift to digital books as similar to the shift to digital music.

Where it’s not similar might be where the explanation lies.

For centuries there were only live musical performances. The first phonograph wasn’t invented till 1857. Then, for the next 32 years, people played music on a variety of cylinders until the industry adopted lateral cut disc records in 1889.

For the next 100 years those records, imperfect as they were, dominated. Discs scratched, broke and wore out. Compared to the bound book, there is no comparison. As a delivery system, records weren’t perfect but they were how people played music.

In the late 1970s, tape began to take over the music industry. 8-tracks and cassettes proliferated. These new forms were also flawed, but they were versatile which added to their popularity because in 1979 portable personal entertainment was launched with inventions such as the Sony Walkman.

In the 1980s yet another delivery system was introduced — CDs. Less flawed than tape, they dominated the market until the end of 20th century when digital downloads, first introduced in 1993, started to take off. By 2005 they had taken over.

So from its inception to a period approximately 153 years later, people adapted over and over and over to different methods by which to listen to recorded music. (Including since 1907, listening on the radio which hasn’t changed at all.) There was never just one delivery system. And all of them had flaws.

Since 1970, listeners have had more than 30 years and at least four steps to move from the 153-year-old analog system to a digital one.

But readers are being pushed to move from a 2,000-year-old paper system to a digital one in less than five years without any intermediary steps at all.

I hope we never become an all-digital society. I have books in every room of my house. At the same time my career got its start back in 1998 when I was the first ebook author to be discovered on line and picked up by traditional publishing. I read equally between electronic texts and paper. I will always want to buy a paper copy of my favorite author’s work and put it on my bookshelf. But at the same time I don’t buy mass-market paperbacks – or throw away books – anymore. For those, I’ve moved to digital.

What I do hope is that we can tone down some of the vitriol and the need to take sides and understand that we simply haven’t all have enough time to accept the shift from paper to an even 50% digital market.

Some of us are feeling a loss that doesn’t seem logical and can’t be explained rationally. I don’t think paper book lovers need fear. Traditional books have qualities – the same qualities that make us love them – that digital will never replace. Like tangibility, the collecting aspect, and the way you can look at a shelf and know someone by what she reads… etc.  So even if digital becomes the dominant form, and even though digitization is happening dizzyingly fast, paper will persist.

Maybe those who embrace ebooks with fervor and passion need to understand that not everyone can go quietly into the night. And also understand that night never has to come for e-books to flourish and shine.

International bestseller, M.J. Rose (The Book of Lost Fragrances, Atria 2012) was the first author to self-publish an e-book and be discovered online in 1998 when the Doubleday Book Club and the Literary Book Club and then Simon & Schuster bought her novel Lip Service. Twelve traditionally published novels later, she still occasionally self-publishes. Rose also is the founder of the first marketing company for authors, AuthorBuzz.com, and one of the founding board members of ITW.

SURVEY: How Much of Your Book Consumption is Digital?

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14 Comments

  1. h.s.
    Posted May 8, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    This object called the book has been objectified over time.

    What does this sentence mean?
    The people who read and care about books–regardless of format–also care about language and meaning.
    In your hurry to reassure “everyone” (as if “everyone” were very, very worried) that “e” vs. “p” shouldn’t make them too anxious, you betray an indifference to the writing and thinking skills that have carried the reading culture forward for thousands of years.
    Good luck to you!
    The rest of us will go on reading without ever once paying attention to the platform or device. We will focus on the content, not the container.

  2. Posted May 8, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Indeed, the move is happening very quickly. Like you, I utilize both formats. There are some authors who simply must end up on my wooden shelf. Those I collect and share. The books on my e-reader are no less entertaining, but they may be a new-to-me author or a novella. This time in the publishing world is both scary and exciting. I look forward to sipping my coffee and watching the progression! Great post, M.J.

  3. M.J. Rose
    Posted May 8, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    H.S – with all due respect my essay is not an argument about the quality of the writing. I’m an author -I am anything but indifferent to the quality of the writing. This essay though wasn’t about writing but rather delivery systems, which continues to be a discussion among many people who love reading .

  4. Posted May 8, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Great post. Indeed I hear people argue as though they’re words may work to destroy either printed matter or ebooks. They are two delivery systems. I use both–ebooks when traveling, printed books at all other times (because it is more pleasurable for me.) As long as readers keep buying both–both will be around.

    When television came, people thought movies were dead. When cable began, people thought networks would disappear. Change brings fear; but it also bring vast improvements. As a fast reader, it’s a pleasure to visit my mother-in-law without having to carry a separate suitcase of books. As a lover of hardbacks, it’s a pleasure to be able to see them all around my house for remembrance of joy past, after the reading is gone.

  5. K G Larsen
    Posted May 8, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry, but the author was only stating a fact – some people DO use books to decorate their rooms, and though the years, the form in which we read these stories has changed. Her writing was aimed at the form itself, not he content of books.

    Having said that, I am an avid reader and was a collector of books – in paperback form mostly. Since the introduction of e-books, I’ve bought my very own Nook and have filled it (well, still filling) with e-books. While I do love seeing the real book’s cover (yes, that is very important to me!), I’ve found that the convenience of the e-Book outweighs any argument I’ve heard. No matter where I go, I have access to literally hundreds of books right there at my fingertips and it fits right into my purse on my iPhone using my Nook app…or I just grab my Nook and take off to where ever I’m going, confident in the fact that I carry my WHOLE library with me so I can read any of them at any time. I also have issues with my hands and hold a real book can cause a lot of discomfort – not so with my e-books.

    I still pick up published books to read, however, it is rare. But, no matter the form, my books transport me and I have no trouble jumping into the world my story has created. I just prefer E over P!

    By the way, I read “The Book of Lost Fragrences” and loved it!

  6. Posted May 8, 2012 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Until digital data can be proven to last hundreds of years, we will still need paper books. Also there is a certain freedom with paper books because they can be bought and sold or shared between individuals–no third party necessarily controls delivery. Paper books are not subject to moment by moment monitoring. Nor are they subject to changes in content overnight, vulnerable to loss of electricity, reliant on the stability of the electromagnetic field or whispernets, etc. I know these scenarios are a bit dystopian (I love dystopian fiction), but the things I adore about digital — the immediate delivery, the convenience of storing a personal library, the lower cost, the ease of publishing, the explosion of choices– come with certain temporal and technological vulnerabilities. I suspect we’ll need both paper and digital formats to safeguard our knowledge and literature for future generations. If only Google could have recorded the library of Alexandria! But then, on the other hand, you’d want paper books if the electricity were to go out for more than just a few days!

  7. Posted May 8, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    MJ, great post. Hmm e vs p is a great question and we’ll still probably be asking it in the next millennia.
    For me it will always be a book over my nook which I have only for the evil necessity of my reviewing job, books are much more than table or shelf decorations, it’s my own version of protesting all those book burnings and banning of the past plus it’s the physical feeling of it in my hand. I also have many treasured signed copies, now MJ how will you sign an eversion of your next book for me. Now it’s very true that the e-pub revolution has introduced us to so many voices that may never have been heard especially in this new era of minimalist brick and mortar publishing, but some of those voices are also a turn off when they can’t even use spell-check let alone an editor.
    I think the two will comfortably co-exist especially after the publishing industry solves all the distribution and copyright problems they can’t seem to agree on right now and the e-book will have it’s niche but the Nook will still sit on a real bookshelf next to real books.
    I also have enjoyed The Book of Lost Fragrances (in hardback) and all of MJ’s releases (in paper form )

    Deb

  8. Posted May 8, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    The argument is not about E vs. P, that just distracts from the content and our interaction with it. The passion we have for print is not just nostalgia it is function. Just like with records vs. digital music files we overlook the compromises we have been willing to accept. With books the choice is whether or not the text is is part of the primordial metadata pool of the internet, infinitely searchable, manipulatable and accessible like electricity – a utility of knowledge. Or if it is siphoned, captured, encased and separated from “The Great Metadata”. Printing text on paper and binding it in leather creates an artifact just like saving xhtml and css into a zipped file or an App that pulls data off the web and downloads it onto a restricted device in constant need of resyncing and managing . This captured content still needs tools to distribute and manage it whether library or brick and mortar store or ebook and app store.

    The mistakes we are making are not because we must choose between print or digital they are because we are focusing on devices and formats. Publishers spend too much time trying to publish to a device when like 8-track tapes the dazzle of a new device hides the critical compromises and sacrifices that make it “less” than what it was supposed to improve on. In our rush to embrace the shiny promised technological future we forget it is about the content and our interaction with it.

    With documents we focused on formats and devices and were focused on how to get the xeroxed piece of paper we just made to someone on the other side of the country faster than the mail thsu spawning the fax machine which delivered a poorer quality xerox which in itself was a poorer quality version printed document. We spent years putting tissue thin faxes in file folders only to pull them out months later to find they had faded away. The best way to avoid the loss of the information was to make yet another xerox of the fax. Until very recently we would think nothing of emailing or texting someone to ask if they got our fax. Now we even sign contracts by clicking a box on a website. We went from printing and publishing to broadcasting.

    With music we used to sit in our room deconstructing songs replaying over and over great guitar solos or transposing the lyrics or skip cuts we didn’t like by quickly moving the needle. With cassettes we had to fast forward or rewind it wasn’t as easy but then we didn’t have to flip the album and we could play our album in the car. But then 8 track were supposed to be an improvement but we couldn’t rewind or fast forward at all and often songs songs ended up getting cut in half as they switched tracks. CDs still didn’t let you fast forward or rewind but at least the sound quality was much better and it allowed your computer to also become a stereo. The iPod which was basically a flash drive with an earphone jack. We forgot that music is not a file but sound that comes out of speakers and because of that we traded the lush sound of our stereo speakers for earbuds. Apple distracted us from the beauty and revolution of the digital music file in order to sell us transistor radios. We only recently have begun to realize that it isn’t about reinventing the transistor radio its still about getting the music to our speakers easier not about files to devices. It is not about publishing a digital music file it is about broadcasting that music directly to the speakers nearest you whether they are your computer, your headphones, your car or your exercise bike. Spotify and Pandora, streaming radio stations in mexico and podcasts from someones mother’s basement can be accessed form the web and delivered to any device with WiFi or 3G connection. Still with all this transition of music to digital the easiest and fasted way to replay a section of a song is to pick up and move a needle from vinyl. Only when we think of it not as a record but instead as on demand radio do the compromises become improvements.

    There will always be things a print book can do that we compromise on with an eBook. But when we look at ereaders and tablets and cell phones and TV screens on our refrigerator not as books but as screens that allow us access to the great universal streaming content library of the internet, accessible as easily as changing the channel on your TV then the compromises become insignificant.

    The debate in publishing shouldn’t be about E vs. P it should be about Publish or Broadcast.

  9. P.C.
    Posted May 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Re: E.vs.P:

    Frozen pizza vs. the cozy neighborhood pizza parlor
    Do the supermarket’s ultra-convenient, centrally-located, completely mechanized frozen food aisles really “threaten” real-world eateries?

    Does an e-book reader really compete with a tattered hip pocket chapbook?

    The e-book is as every bit as inviting and convenient and useful and profitable as frozen food (notably found at the heart of every supermarket’s floor plan). But, really, should restaurants and farm stands and snack bars and pizzerias and five-star dining rooms fear market share encroachment from mechanized “delivery systems”?

  10. Vicki VanValkenburgh
    Posted May 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I’ve pretty much converted entirely to digital reading, but I still have great affection for paper books and hope they are still produced long into the future. And I think they will be. What I do mind is being asked to subsidize the higher cost of producing and distributing paper books, which appears to be a fairly common phenomenon across the industry.

  11. Posted May 8, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    P.C. I love your comparisons

  12. h.s.
    Posted May 8, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    With all due respect, M. J. Rose, what you wrote is not an essay. It’s a blog post, with all the lightness attending to that format. There’s a difference. And real readers know the difference.

    The language in both blog posts and books needs to be clear, so that readers understand your point.
    Clear writing = clear thinking.

    And I’m still wondering what that sentence means.

    Thanks for your time.

  13. Posted May 8, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    A story is a story no matter where you put it; no matter how you come upon it, no matter how you read it; it is either a good story or a bad story, period. You can publish a book with a fancy cover and a thousand pages and a four-line poem, read online, might affect you more because it was good and the book was not.

    Keith G.

  14. Posted May 9, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I think there are many great things about ebooks. They allow for adjusting font size and are lighter/easier to handle than a lot of paper books, which lets avid readers continue to consume books even when their eyesight starts to go and their hands get arthritic. They are also wonderfully convenient for travel and they do take a burden off the trees of the world.

    On the other side of the argument, I love paper books. I love the feel and smell of them. I love the rustle of the paper as you turn the page to continue your adventure. I love the fact that they are disconnected from the electronic world. I also like going into someone’s home and learning more about them by perusing their shelves. Finding titles you have both read gives you a stronger connection.

    In my office, I am surrounded by books. When I am stumped in my work, I often glance over at my shelves and my eyes home in on a title I loved. It sits there, reassuring, like an old friend and comforts me with good memories that help me get moving again. I don’t know that ebooks can ever offer that kind of experience.

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