Matt Yglesias has a snarky column today about how the printed book is an obsolete technology whose only plus is “a nostalgia-soaked experience”.
He mentions some advantages of e-books (quick access, less bulky), but fails to think about any disadvantages. Here’s a few:
- Low resolution. I read a lot on my computer, but it’s still a fraction of the resolution of print, and it’s bad for high-res graphics: comics, maps, diagrams, art books.
- Screen size. Not a problem for reading a novel, but a double-page spread can provide a lot of information, and it’s just not the same thing to thread that data through the small screen of an e-book reader.
- Price. I don’t have a Kindle because I can’t afford one. At $199 for a color Kindle, it’s a significant loss if you lose it on a trip or drop it in the bathtub or whatever. There’s much less sense of loss if you misplace a printed book.
- Eyestrain. Print is still the most comfortable way to read long texts. (If you don’t think so, wait till you have middle-aged eyes.)
- Reliance on dubious megacorporations and changing technology. I’m still using books I bought 40 years ago; Random House can’t do anything to interfere with my enjoying them, plus the NSA is certainly not checking which parts of what physical books I’m reading.
Edit: Alert readers Carsten and JDHarris offered two more points:
- It’s easy to put several books next to each other, hard (or at least very expensive) to do the same with e-readers
- Books will never stop working mid-story because you forgot to plug them in last night
Searchability works differently for e-texts and physical books, and each has its advantages. I’d hate to have to consult the OED in physical form: it’s way too big, and some types of searching (e.g. by language) would be impossible. On the other hand, a book you know well, as a physical object, affords quick access you can hardly even define for an e-book. You can flip immediately to a dog-eared page. You know that a certain passage is this far into the book, top of the left-hand page. You can make marks on the edges to point to often-consulted pages, and make notes in the margins which themselves become searchable by riffing the pages.
Plus, I’d say a bunch of people agree with me, because my print sales are pretty healthy. For the LCK, this year, my sales are 57% print; for APAF, 42%. Given that the print book is twice as expensive, I’d say that indicates that people still find the format valuable. It’s probably significant that for the novel, the majority prefers the Kindle: genre books are a good match for e-books.
Yglesias is no doubt correct that print books are not likely to be a growth industry. But print is far from disappearing, and people are going to continue to make money off it. Especially that Jeff Bezos fellow.