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Why an eBook is a book, and why it isn’t

June 2, 2012

Yesterday my friend Jaye Manus, whose blog is indispensable for anyone with a passing interest in self-publishing, and merely incisive and fascinating for everyone else, took off from a remark of Stephen King’s that drew a line (albeit a thin one) between eBooks and real books.

I spent some time thinking about Jaye’s observations, and it struck me the extent to which eBooks and physical books are very different creatures.

An eBook is entirely functional and insubstantial. It exists for the sole purpose of providing a reading experience, one that is often (though not always) superior to that afforded by the physical book.

Its essential insubstantiality gives it several advantages. I don’t have to give it shelf space. It adds no weight to my suitcase. If I want to refer to it again, I don’t have to struggle to remember where I put it. I can call it back in an instant—wherever I am. (I did just that a couple of months ago in a flight lounge in Dubai.)

The physical book is also engineered to provide a reading experience, but it is also an object. I can put it on a shelf to help decorate a room, and take it down at will to admire it. It may be an attractive object irrespective of its contents; I have books it pleases me to own, even though I have not the slightest interest in their contents. I have others I’ve read and know I’ll never want to read again, and nevertheless it would pain me to let go of them….

I’ve extracted the selection above from a much longer post (including much of Jaye’s post, which started the whole thing) on my blog page, A Few Words for Writers. I hope y’all will have a look at it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if your comments wind up being far more incisive and provocative than my post. Lord knows it wouldn’t be the first time…

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  1. juliabarrett permalink

    I’m hopelessly outmatched here, by both you and Jaye. Books, by and of themselves, are icons or iconic in my world. As I’ve said before, the printed word is my holy grail. However, I view ebooks as the ultimate (for the moment) in pragmatism. An ereader provides both virtual shelf space and a reference library.
    But I continue to purchase physical books in addition to ebooks for the very reasons you mention. And I like them. That’s the best reason of all.

  2. Well, Larry, I thought this is one of those subjects my inner Obsessinator had grabbed hold of and decided to chew on. Judging by the responses, I’d say I’m not the only one who ponders such matters. Reading has always played such a huge part of my life. I remember one time I was in the hospital and the nurse asked, “Can I get you anything, honey?” I asked her to find me a book. I am in love with ebooks, for all the reasons you listed and more. The delivery system is far superior to printed material. I used to never go anywhere without a book in my purse. Now I carry hundreds. BUT, I think ebooks can be better. There must be a way to give them more substance by taking advantage of the technology to hit readers in their emotional cores. How to do that? I don’t know. I’ll just keep gnawing on the problems in my own odd little ways.

    Something I noticed about your ebook covers. You talk about branding, but I wonder if there is another factor in play. I’m an auction junkie. If you want to see a crowd go nuts, offer a collection. There is something about a large group of… something, carefully curated, of a type, but each item rare and unique, that triggers lust in buyers. Why? I have no idea, even though collection-fever has struck me time and again. Maybe having similar covers with a strong brand does more than merely offer an I AM HERE visual. Maybe it can trigger collection-fever and fill buyers with the urge to own them all. It’s a theory.

  3. Judie permalink

    When I think of all my KEEPERS – you, William Tapply, Philip Craig, Donna Leon, Diana Gabaldon, Sue Grafton – I don’t care if it’s a hard cover, paperback or e-book. In fact, I’m happy if it’s an e-book because …. have you ever tried to read one of Diana Gabaldon’s books in bed! They weight about 10 pounds each. 🙂 Anyway, I am SO loving ebooks because I can carry a ton of them around and have them at my fingertips. The story, the writing – THAT is what is important to me – and, by far, my favourite experience is an ebook. Books are nice but it’s the story that gets me every time. (Audio books are great for convenience sake, like on a drive or if one wants to do something else like housework or walk etc., but for relaxing and enjoying a book, I’m an ebooks fan.)

    • Lorraine permalink

      Judie: I’m a Gabaldon fan, too. My dogs are SO glad that I have them on Kindle now, because I kept dropping those huge books on them while I was reading. Strangely, I have not hauled my trade paperbacks back to the bookstore, freeing up shelf space and raising funds for more books. Or dog treats.

  4. Judie permalink

    I just looked at the colour covers versus Kindle versions – I use an iPad and thus have colour. It IS a more exciting experience than a Kindle but, again, still more convenient to me than the actual book. It’s the story!

  5. It doesn’t matter to me. it is a fairly new experience reading ebooks and it is practical and convenient and a bunch of other advantages, but I love physical books too and the experience with them is somewhat different. At the end of the day it is all about the story and as a reader I will not subject the story to the mode Im reading it in, but I will subject the mode to the story. Content will always be king.

  6. Jaye, thanks for inspiring the post in the first place. Julia, Judie, Wo3lf, thanks for your perspective. For my own part, I prefer reading books on my Kindle. It’s simply a superior way for me to receive information. But there are physical books I want to own, and thus I buy a handful of favorite authors in hardcover—which makes the experience of reading the books less than ideal. So I can see the day coming when I’ll buy a favorite author (good job there aren’t many of them) in hardcover and eBook—one for the shelf, the other for these aging eyes.

    How’m I gonna pay for all that? Y’all better figure on making regular visits to LB’s Bookstore…

  7. Lorraine permalink

    The cover of an e-book definitely influences my decision of whether I even want to check out the content before I buy. For me, easily discernible and attractive layouts have become an indication of the quality of the writing, too. Thumbnails are my miniature billboards, advance posters for the circus within. If it catches my eye because of a great design, then I think that there’s a good possibility that the writer took equal care with his wordsmithing. Though I must admit, no matter how much I’m liking a cosy mystery, once any character is “shuttering” with fear, I’m done. Because the next thing you know, the Queen is reining, and the horse is dragging his reigns. In the rain, even. 🙂

    The realization that I really do judge a book by its cover is a mite disturbing. Maybe if I looked at the covers as a mere clue to the content. . .

    I frequently look at covers on my Kindle. Maybe I’m longing for a physical book, and this is a way of tricking my mind into believing it’s a “real book.” It saddens me that I can’t let an e-book fall open, gifting me with a little gem on the page. Otherwise, the Kindle has been a godsend because I can no longer handle bigger books and small type. Not to mention that every room in this tiny bungalow is stuffed with books, and I’m out of space. (Well, there’s just one book in the bathroom. But it’s not a safe place for books anyway!) If given the choice, I’d be on the sofa with a Gladys Taber book from the ’50s, a cup of tea, and a spaniel on my lap. Age means compromise, though, and I’m glad that I live in an age where technology will allow me to read comfortably for a long time yet.

  8. Well, I’ve already started buying digitally that which I already own in paper. I have a huge hardback, illustrated, annotated version of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which I love to dip into and looks beautiful on my bookshelf. I also have the same book on my Kindle, minus the annotations and illustrations, for when I simply want to read the stories.
    For me the kindle experience is the same as the paper experience, that is, it’s all about reading. I hope to be able to disappear into the story, no matter how the words that convey the story are delivered to me, either digitally or via printed paper.
    I think there are parallels with the digital transformation in the music industry. When CDs arrived everyone predicted the death knell of vinyl. Although it has become very much a niche industry, vinyl still survives to this day, surviving CDs and MP3 technology. I think the same will happen with books. Hardbacks in particular, but paperbacks too, will survive, and exist alongside ebooks. That’s my prediction, anyway.
    And yes, the Kindle can be s superior way to receive information. How else could I lie in bed in the morning, buy a copy of The Guardian, and have it delivered immediately?
    Thanks for the interesting post.

  9. Lorraine, Ken, thank you both. Very interesting and much appreciated.

  10. Helen Ernest permalink

    Since I have to drive an hour to a bookstore, my Nook has changed my life. I’ve collected Mr. Block’s books for years and now can get the books I’ve never been able to find before. I love my bookcase full of my favorite books but love the idea I can read what I want when I want. For me, a book is a book: hardcover, paperback, audio, e-book. What I truly want is a “good” book.

  11. Ian Stewart permalink

    With the Kobo reader when you put it into sleep or power off mode the cover of the book is displayed on the screen. For that alone I like having a somewhat decent cover on the ebook. I travel a lot and am thrilled that the bulk of my suitcase is no longer filled with a collection of cheap paperbacks that I’ll just end up leaving scattered along my trail.

    • Didn’t know that, Ian. A nice notion of Kobo’s, and perhaps it’ll catch on with other eReaders. And I too travel a great deal, and my luggage is a lot lighter these days.

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