For Everyone Who Believes the Print Book Experience Is Just Too Good to Replace

I work in the publishing industry, where most people have a very personal and nostalgic connection to paper-based books. We value the organic and intimate feel of the paper … the thousands of years of history of the paper book format … how much better a “real” book feels than an electronic book.

This mindset isn’t limited to literary/publishing types. I know an IT director who sits in front of a computer for 12 hours a day who says he’ll never prefer e-books.


Remember what the first personal computer looked like?

Remember what the first video game looked like?

Remember what the first cell phone looked like?

Remember what the first iPod looked like?

And here’s what an early e-reading device looks like:

We’re witnessing the earliest stages of digital books. It’s not going to stay like this for long. I promise something will come along that will make you set aside your nostalgia for the paper book.

[Argument variation: When does an e-book stop delivering a “book” experience? This article in ShelfAwareness argues that digital presentation alters our experience of a story, though I don’t think it alters it in a *meaningful* way unless we’re talking about interactivity, social media integration, and other interruptions/dynamics that stop us from reading the text in an isolated, focused way.]

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27 thoughts on “For Everyone Who Believes the Print Book Experience Is Just Too Good to Replace

  1. Meredith

    I bought my Kindle so it would make reading manuscripts easier on me. Computer screens kill my eyes and my back. I fell in love immediately. No, I never intended for it to happen. No, I wasn’t looking to replace my reading experience. But it happened. It’s not the same experience, but it’s wonderful in its own way, kinda like having that second child was. It also makes reading easier on me. I can read while I cook since I don’t have to prop the book against anything. I can read while I work out since paperbacks and some hardcovers made this impossible. I can change the text size to fit how tired my eyes are when I sit down to read. Now, when given the choice I always choose the ebook.

    The biggest downfall is the battery. It sucks when you sit down to read only to discover your battery needs a recharge. And that’s about all the negative I can find.

  2. Perri

    Great point! I can’t see using an e-book now but who knows. Those pictures make a good point. Hard to say where the technology will go from here. Probably in a different direction than we expect. (I do, however, still appreciate a good game of Pong.

  3. Elizabeth West

    No way. I won’t give up my paper books, because they don’t need batteries. I don’t require any extras to read them, except maybe a candle at night. I really don’t want an expensive reader that I can’t take into the bathtub. One slip and there goes $400. Some of my books I loved when I was younger, and I searched for them for years before finding them used. I bet they aren’t on a Kindle or a Nook.

    I do love my computer and gadgets, though. I can read websites all day long. So I’ll welcome new technology and still keep my books. One doesn’t have to usurp the other.

  4. Heidi Lokey

    I’m one of those people who love having an actual book in my hands. But I don’t shun the e-book either, and eventually plan on owning a Nook or Kindle. For me, its mostly a matter of convenience. Sometimes, I just can’t wait to read a book and don’t have time to get all the way across town to the bookstore so I download it. If its a really great book, one that I know I will want to read again, I’ll go buy the book when I have time, for my bookcase. I want my daughter to grow up around actual books to encourage her to just pick one up and go read.

    I will agree with previous poster, Michael, about putting school text books in e-book format. In this last semester of college, I had to pay $763 in books. If purchasing them in e-book format lowers that by even just half, it would be a big savings for students.

  5. D. G. Hudson

    @Theresa – re whether anyone would pay to read her blog on Kindle. Perhaps if you have loyal followers, they might, but I wouldn’t pay to read anyone’s blog (not even 1.99)when so many are free. IMO, this is a bad precedent for the average blogger. (and a good way to cull your readership when the privilege of reading your blog costs them money out of pocket)

    I would avoid blogs that charge — I could order a book instead.

  6. D. G. Hudson

    I remember all these devices, which though clunky initially, and requiring high maintenance, gradually insinuated themselves into our daily lives. They grew on us. Some of us resisted. When they became more affordable, and user friendly (i.e., Windows instead of DOS)most of us gave them a try. Cell phones now are outlawed while driving (in Canada) due to the high number of accidents by people of all ages–from grandparents to the younger ages trying to text or talk.

    Sometimes I like being disconnected from the ‘grid’, but I do like having the convenience of so much choice via the internet, and being able to research information so easily. I am attached at the hip to my laptop, but I still write longhand at times. I love books, and always have since I first discovered libraries and reading. So no matter what format they’re in, I’ll still be reading. I’m not the type who has to have every new techie toy on the market, I just wait for the devices to prove themselves, then I make my choice. We do plan to buy a reading device when we think the price is what we want to spend. I’ll keep my printed books, though, so perhaps they can be treasured or auctioned off as antiques in the future? A very interesting post, Jane.

  7. Michael

    <sigh…> I, for one, am really tired of the "I love the way books smell" crying/whining. Seriously, it’s not as though anyone is burning all of the books already in existence. Libraries and used bookstores are chock full of books in every city. So by all means, go and smell to your heart’s content! Maybe we can come up with a spray bottle as well! Like the new-car smell people actually pay for: old-book scent!

    I am thrilled with every technological advance of e-books, and e-book readers. I see my daughter carrying 40+ lbs. of books in her backpack and I am elated by stories of charter schools which are using iPads to replace all textbooks and notebooks. No more shamefully out-of-date textbooks for school-children. No more ridiculously overweight backpacks. I have no nostalgia whatsoever for the printed book. I don’t need the weight, the dust, the smell, or the bulk.

    I let go of my collection of hundreds of cd’s and cassettes in place of mp3’s. Book reading devices have advanced, people. The Greeks were stamping our characters on stone cylinders… then, what, scrolls, books, printing presses, print-on-demand. Now we have simply "on-demand". Skip the printing! We don’t even have to ship them anymore.

    And don’t think for a second that I lack a sense of nostalgia. I do own books, and I even own a collection of rare LP’s! I adore them – but I’m glad no one is making them anymore. We have high-quality, higher efficiency designs now.

    And not to turn this into an environmental discussion – but considering that 98% of the books printed each year don’t even earn back their advance!? Most of them get pulped. So why waste a natural resource like this? It’s ludicrous!

    My opinion is that books should earn the right to be printed. If there is enough demand, then by all means print them. But printing hundreds of thousands of books each year, the VAST majority of which get sent back to the publisher because they don’t move… this is absolutely inane. This idiotic model is why the publishing industry is in ruins.

  8. Malena

    Jane, the pictures make a valid point. We are in the infancy in the ebook world. With ebook covers you can get a leather bound book cover that smells and feels the way you want. I waited for the iPad because I love design and thought kindle failed on look and feel. Also wasn’t crazy about my nook experience but both would suffice. The nook covers provide great personalization. I’ll always have full bookshelves in my house, too though. I’ve found the reading experience to be equally pleasing using the apps versus the paper books. Story still rules.

  9. Perry

    That certainly poked the hornet’s nest. I think it’s clear that there are at least 3 markets out there.
    people who read ebooks and don’t read paper
    people who read paper and won’t read ebooks
    people who haven’t make up their mind

    The market will determine how books are produced in the future. It remains to be seen if both paper and e will survive. I will point out that you can still buy CDs and non-electronic games.

  10. Ani

    Exactly what I’m thinking, Becca!

    The reading experience is immersive with books because we are using three of our five senses. With e-books we are using three, maybe four if we are using Kindle’s "Voice to Text" feature. Sure, one could argue the more senses that we use, the stronger the associative connection our brain is going to build with that experience. The stronger the connection, the more nostalgia.

    However, it’s how we use the senses with the technology versus an printed book that is the key here. Current technology makes the act of book reading feel sterile. I use the computer every day and I’m used to pointing, clicking, and skimming when I’m reading. With a book, I actually slow down, read, and think because I have to put more effort into flipping the pages. I also just can’t go back and do a quick search on a keyword or easily scroll back to a part that I want to read again, so I have remember what I’m reading a little more. My sense of touch feels plastic, with a book there is the texture of paper. Kindle has the audio advantage, but the voice doesn’t quite sound human and has a hard time with some of the words.

    Finally, it is how the words are generated. With a book, we know there was an effort put forth to make what we are holding in our hands. The author who wrote the manuscript, the editor who caught the mistakes, the graphic artist who designed the cover, and the publisher who took the cumulative works and printed the final product. They are all real people and we can see a part of them in what we are reading. With an e-book, how do we really know that it wasn’t some program that wrote the book by putting together phrases that made sense based on a few entered parameters? Until technology can build that trust and also feel not so sterile, I, for one, am going to prefer a real book, even if the technology is more convenient.

  11. Becca

    that said–i’m not against e-books. i just don’t think an e-book is like an updated version of a book. it’s an electronic.

    as long as they make BOTH I’ll be happy. People can enjoy their electronic books maybe with some sort of electronic signatures, and I’ll have my home library and when I want an autograph the author can pick up a pen and sign it on paper.

    I don’t want a UPS style signature. Or to have them sign a napkin.

  12. Becca

    Really? You are going to make e-readers smell like paper? I love having an ACTUAL bookshelf. I love the feel and smell of paper. I hope paper books never go out completely. I love having the PAPER signed in the BOOK by my favorite authors. It’ll never be the same. Not saying it’s all bad, but you can’t replace a paper book with an electronic reader.

    That’s like saying we don’t need paper anymore now that we have computers. Even after all these years, we still have both. And some prefer paper for certain things.

    Comparing an old computer to a new computer is not the same as comparing an e-book reader to a paperback. You can compare an old e-book reader to a new one. Or an old paperback to a new one. But when you try to compare e-book readers to paperback books, you are comparing apples and oranges. They may both be fruits, but people still have preferences.

  13. Sandy

    It’s funny, I was just reading about the history of computers. We’ve come a long way! I agree with the comments about the experience of holding and smelling a paper book. I love libraries for this reason. However, I also LOVE going to the movies, but spend much more time watching movies at home via Netflix, etc. I’ve come to realize that I love consuming stories and contents in many forms, such as digital books, podcasts, audiobooks, serialized fiction, etc.

  14. Christina

    As much as I’m apprehensive toward e-readers, you bring up some great points, Jane. Who would have thought that the iPod would revolutionize listening to music as it has done? Although there are still some of us obsessed with our vinyl collections, we also covet our portable music players and still manage to find a balance between them.

    As far as books are concerned, I saw a woman perform a great monologue the other day. She was talking about being on a first date with a guy, they go back to his house and at the point where she’d normally scour his bookshelves to see what books he’s into and what kind of person he is, she couldn’t find one single book—only a kindle on his coffee table. Not being able to sneak a peek discreetly, she was left only with the knowledge that his guy is someone who has no books and only a kindle.

    My point is sort of the same as Dolly’s as far as not every change is for the better. Why would we want to deprive ourselves of the tactile experience of a book? I understand the value of an e-reader for portability, but for e-readers to replace books entirely? Does a book really need to be improved upon? Will we all spend the rest of our lives staring into one glowing rectangle after another? Because isn’t reading a book on an e-reader just a simulation of reading a book?

  15. Jane Friedman

    @Dolly (and all) – I wonder if you’ve ever tried reading on a current device (using e-ink)? It is not a black font on a white screen.

    However, a discussion of the devices (or the experience of reading on them) is rather immaterial or irrelevant. Things are changing too fast to base one’s opinion on what exists today.

    People think reading on a "gadget" (or anything other than paper) is somehow an inferior or tarnished experience. How is this notion formed? What does it matter how or where the words appear if the reading experience is immersive? Certainly when we read a book, we are not thinking about the paper it’s printed on?

  16. Tom M Franklin

    I’m an IT Director, too — for a University Press. Since starting here 5 years ago I’ve promoted the idea of changing our paradigm from producing Books to producing Content, Content that can then be parsed out into any variety of formats. The printed and bound folios are just one format, but it’s one that many of the older staff here were (are?) particularly wedded to.

    That having been said, I borrowed the Press’ Kindle when we first bought one. I used it for a weekend and liked being able to access free first chapters from Amazon but I also found the process a bit clunky. Laying down in bed and reading the Kindle just didn’t "do it" for me.

    And that’s okay. If I’m a bound folio pages kinda guy, that’s fine. That’s just part of who and what I am.

    I still promote the idea of a publisher as a Content publisher first and formost. I’ve pushed XML from Day One and we’re moving steadily in that direction. We have lots of our titles available in libraries as PDFs and for sale at Amazon and Apple, with a multi-media version of one of our books (video and music) coming out very soon. I’m excited to be a part of that transformation of the idea of what constitutes a "book."

    That having been said, I also still own — and listen to — my albums on a turntable as well as my mp3s on my computer.

    fwiw, I don’t see the eBook replacing the bound, printed book any time soon. Certainly not in my lifetime. I do expect the younger generation to become more and more accustomed to accepting the idea of a "book" as content displayed on a digital reading device and for textbook publishers (college textbook publishers, primarily) to embrace the medium.

    There’s room in the world for bound books and for eBooks, just as there’s still room for my LPs alongside my CDs and mp3s.

  17. Dolly

    Just because we get better gadgets it does not mean they replace the experience of reading paper books. I love computers, but I hate reading e-books, and I would never switch to them. Every book is different – it’s size and cover and texture. For my favourite books, I can recognize what they are with my eyes closed, because I know the feel of their covers so well.

    Not to mention that a bunch of e-books saved on e-reader, black font against white screen does not have the same aesthetic appeal of stacks of books around the house.

    It’s also got nothing to do with opposing technology or opposing change, but it’s a fact of life that not every change is for the better. Or at least not in everyone’s opinions.

  18. tom g

    I disagree. Look at all the other, various forms of story-telling that have failed to kill the enjoyment of reading a good, paperbound book over the years: radio, TV, movies, cable, video games, etc. E-books might enhance the reading/story-telling experience of some people, but it will never totally replace/kill off the act of sitting down with a printed book and reading.

  19. Bill Cameron

    Believing something, strongly or not, doesn’t make it so. And reducing someone who disagrees with you to one half of a simplistic dichotomy does nothing to support your case.

    No need to respond. I won’t be back.

  20. Jane Friedman

    @Bill – Your comment is a shining example of a strong belief I hold, which is: There are 2 groups of people in the world: (1) Those who feel empowered by change and look for the opportunity in it (2) Those who feel victimized.

    Taking the stance of victim is so much less interesting, and relinquishes the power you have.

    By all means hate the gadgetry and argue to your grave against it, but don’t cry victim.

  21. Bill Cameron

    Just because gadgets get slicker, more feature-laden, more available, and more ubiquitous doesn’t mean our lives are improved.

    The negatives associated with all the technology you list before the Kindle are potent enough and compelling enough to suggest that the inevitable onslaught of cheap, hyper-designed e-Readers will only contribute to the degradation of the human experience in exchange for marginal convenience.

    Take the personal computer. Yes, they a much cooler now in many ways, and profoundly more powerful. I couldn’t be offering this Luddite screed without them. And yet what are the costs associated with them? Because of the onslaught of personal computers and the internet, as workers we are expected to be dramatically more productive and dramatically more accessible than we were 30 years ago. Our personal lives are increasingly intruded upon, to the point where we put our digital lives ahead of our analog ones. The financial outlays associated with our obsession with being digital citizens take up more of our incomes, and yet people are more stressed, less satisfied, and less fulfilled in their lives with each passing year.

    Same with cell phones. Yay, they’re smaller and more capable. We can watch movies on the bus and text photos of our naughty bits at a moment’s notice. True, there is some utility associated with being able to get in touch with others when we need to, yet as a society we’re becoming people who are most comfortable with a layer (or several layers) of digital text between ourselves and our friends and loved ones. You can see the social fabric fraying under the weight of this technology. The answer surely isn’t to add to the mess.

    Digital music players mean we can take our music collections with us, and also make it easy to keep ourselves closed off. Video games become a replacement for reality, one in which we can explore revenge fantasies and rage. Maybe they’re cathartic, or maybe they just make us more aggressive.

    Don’t get me wrong. I use a computer, a cell phone, and a digital music player every day. I play video games too. But all this tell me is that I’m a victim of all this ubiquitous, over-marketed technology too. I really don’t see the necessity of beating down my love of old-fashioned printed books in favor of yet another electronic device which will ultimately cost far more to all of us than the charge to my credit card.

  22. Jessica Spengler

    For me, it’s not the digital books that bother me. It’s the concept of not holding a real book, with real pages, in my hand. The smell of a book, the feel of flipping through its pages, of throwing it across the room when the story makes you angry or scared – those are the things that make reading a real experience.