In The Cage: ‘Real’ books versus eBooks

I was recently asked by a reader about my thoughts on ‘Real’ versus eBooks. That was it. The question. No additional information. Just my thoughts. So, being the obliging sort, I thought I’d take a crack at it.

As I explained at the end of Bob Moore: No Hero, my first real experience with eBooks was with the iPad. It was an eye opener in that I experienced a whole world of free eBooks. I didn’t know such a thing existed. I also discovered that I could buy and download “regular” books. In my world, up until that point, books came from one of two places: Amazon or the library. I’d visit Borders or Barnes & Noble (sometimes Books-a-Million) from time to time, but mostly it was Amazon for purchasing books. They were just so much cheaper. And here I come to my first point in the fight between real and eBooks:

Cost

I don’t know anyone that thinks that an eBook and a printed book should cost the same. No one. And yet, when they first started showing up, it wasn’t uncommon to see eBooks with prices similar to hardcovers (not paperbacks, mind you). I would stare at my screen dumbfoundedly. They couldn’t be serious. Surely there is some cost savings from hitting ‘print’ to hitting ‘save’. At the very least there is that. Surely eBooks should be cheaper. The price of a paperback? Maybe. That, I can live with. But $12.99 for an eBook when the paperback is $5.99 or less? No way.

Fortunately, in recent scans of the iBookstore and Amazon, the prices of eBooks have come down. With Game of Thrones getting so much attention from the HBO show, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had jacked up the prices. At this writing, they are $8.99 for most of them – the same price as the paperback. The newest one is $14.99 – expensive but less than the hardcover which is the only paper version out. So, you get a price break on a popular books if you get them digitally (or pay the same as the paperback).

Convenience

This is a bit of two-edged sword for me. If you are a heavy user of technology, an eBook has definite advantages. If you start it on one device, you can finish it on another (especially if you have a device that syncs up over the Internet). So if you have a Kindle, the Kindle app on your computer(s), and a smart phone with the Kindle app, you basically have your book everywhere without having to take it anywhere. On the other hand, opening a book with a business card stuck in it (my favorite bookmark) is quite convenient. No one tells you to turn off your book on a plane, no kids try to see what game you are playing when you take out your book, and you don’t have to worry about the battery life on your book.

One convenience issue that needs to be pointed out is that most of these devices/apps have the ability to highlight/mark/look up built-in. That means that if you are the type that likes to send authors helpful corrections, you don’t have to write in your book. Also, if you come across a word you don’t know, you can usually look it up right in the app so that you don’t have to run to get a dictionary (or, if you are me, try to figure out the meaning from the rest of the sentence). While many will never use these features, they are at least available on eBooks.

Portability

I alluded to this in the last one but portability is a huge issue for many people. Some people really don’t have any need to be online at any time. The just get the base model cell phone (if they ever have one) and still subscribe to TV Guide. These people don’t have email, websites, or a Netflix subscription. They go online once a month (if that) because one of their kids want them to see pictures of their grandkids (or cats, whatever).

On the other hand, there are those, like me, that don’t go more than a few hours without checking email, can’t imagine what life would be like without the Internet, and even work online. For these people, taking a book somewhere is an actual hassle. They don’t have the room. They are too full up with computers, smart phones, and tablets. They don’t have a pocket free.

But, let’s look at this more objectively. If you have a Kindle, you can read your book at the beach or under bright light (the screen doesn’t reflect), but the Kindle doesn’t have a backlight so you can’t read it in the dark. In my mind, the difference between a Kindle and a real book is technophobia. The batteries last MONTHS, Kindles and real books have all the same disadvantages except that the Kindle is lighter and can hold thousands of books. If you live in a major city, you may even have access to a library that will allow you to check out books on your Kindle.

If you have a smart phone or a tablet, you can read your eBook in the dark but the screen reflects so reading outside is out. What you do have is the ability to read your book while your spouse sleeps without having to turn on a light. In addition, you can access your book on multiple devices and you never have to worry about losing it or having your kids destroy it in a fit of, “So I can’t go to the dance tonight? How about I flush your book!”

Get Off My LAWN!!!

I’m going to go a bit blue here. I fucking HATE this argument. Loath it. This is the, “I just want to hold a real book” argument. The, “I love the smell of paper” excuse. I’m sorry, if paper smells that good, just buy a ream and keep it by your Kindle. There is really nothing better about a real book over a Kindle. Nothing. With the Kindle app on every possible device (including your PC and Mac), it has all the advantages of the other eBook apps/readers, plus it has the Kindle device which allows you all the advantages of a book with none of the disadvantages.

Those that refuse to use eReaders or their associated apps are like those that say that vinyl records are better than CDs. There is a reason that progress happens. It isn’t just to fuck with you; it is because we need something better. Vinyl records decay with every play. That means they’ll never sound as good as the last time you listened to them. Physical books are great, but the convenience of eBooks just can’t be topped. That’s all there is to it. You can rail against it but it doesn’t make you any less wrong. If you leave your eReader on a bus, you replace it and re-download all your books. If you leave your book on a bus, it is gone forever.

I own a great number of books. I like looking at them on the shelf; I like re-reading them; I like sharing them with my friends/kids. I’ll probably continue to buy books from time to time. Especially books that display how smart/cultured/cool I am. But that doesn’t change the fact that eBooks are superior. Frankly, I don’t mind the “I prefer real books” argument as long as it is preceded by “I know that eBooks are better.”

And for you dog-ear types – fuck you. Stop it. That’s just mean.

Side note: Some will take issue with my assertion that eBooks are forever (my wife, for one). They say that formats change, businesses go under, technology advances, etc. and you will someday lose the ability to access that book. On the other hand, a paper copy on your shelf can be used no matter what. This is both true and false IMO. True in that technology does change and that paper doesn’t care but false in that books can burn or tear or whatever and I believe that eBooks have reached a critical enough mass that they will be supported for our lifetimes. If not, there are plenty of ways to break the DRM and get them to your newer devices.

From An Author’s Perspective

Obviously, all of the above is from the perspective of the consumer. From an author’s standpoint, there are a few different issues:

Ease of Entry

Want to spend an evening crying? Google “trying to get published” or something similar. Think you have a problem with rejection? Try sending off your manuscript to a publisher just to have them respond, “No thanks, it sort of sucks.” Or worse; have them not respond at all and you never know. We’re talking months…years of this. Often, you are lucky if you hear back from a publisher in six months. Waiting for a year is not uncommon. And during that time you are not supposed to submit your manuscript anywhere else. A general rule of thumb for getting your first manuscript accepted by a publishing house is 10 years.

10 YEARS!!!

Publishing an eBook takes minutes, not years. Sure, you are doing it yourself with all the marketing muscle that entails, but it is out there. People can find it. Then you can let them decide. The advent of eBooks has been a blessing for those that don’t have the constitution for the traditional route.

It has also been an outlet for those, already successful, to have more control over their works. There are more and more examples of established writers going the self published route. Sure, they’ve got the sort of sales and fan base that only working through a big publisher can give you, but they are helping to establish the medium as valid. Which leads me to:

Sea of Mediocrity

Self publishing has been the realm of the desperately vain. “Vanity Press” it has often been called. Self published authors (many would put that word in quotes) are those that refuse to admit that their writing sucks. They refuse. They’ve sent their manuscript off to every publisher on the planet, every agent, and everyone in between. The manuscript has been unilaterally rejected. But their friends and family say it is wonderful (probably because it is easier to say so than deal with the aftermath of being truthful), so they go to Kinko’s or whatever and have it printed out. Then they sell it themselves…mostly to the same friends and family that didn’t tell them the truth in the first place.

Then came the Kindle and the iPad.

Uh oh! Now you are just a few clicks away from sharing your piece of crap manuscript with the world. Or is it?

Cracked.com editor Jason Pargin wrote a story called John Dies at the End which he published online. Just posted it up there for free. I read it when it was online. After 70,000 people had already read the story, he got a publishing deal. And then a second publishing deal. I bought the book…twice (lost one copy somewhere). This is a person that didn’t want to deal with the publishers but still had a quality product. The barrier to entry for getting a publishing deal has kept people like Jason and many, many others out for years. The advent of eBooks has given them the ability to sidestep that barrier. Will they sell as many copies without it? Most likely, no. They won’t. But “some” is better than the “none” they would have sold if they didn’t have the eBook option.

On the other hand, the Sea of Mediocrity argument is valid. There is a lot of just horrible prose out there. Poor editing, terrible plots/characters, tons of “telling” and not “showing”…writing 101 stuff. But, like others, I say, “Let the reader decide.” Better to have a proving ground for authors. If they are good, they’ll rise to the top. When they do, the big publishers can scoop them up. Or not. Their choice.

Get Off My LAWN!!! Part II

It isn’t just readers that are unreasonably opposed to eBooks. Authors that have spent five years trying to get a manuscript through to a big publisher treat eBooks like they might catch something from them. Like self publishing is the ultimate defeat. These same people require their beta readers, family members, and anyone else that might have caught a glimpse of the manuscript on the bus to sign a NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement). They send out slightly different versions to each of their beta readers so they can know which one leaked it if they find it online somewhere. They will post, voraciously, against the horrors of self publishing specifically and eBooks in general.

To them I say, “Seriously, lighten up.”

Self publishing isn’t for you. You’d rather take your manuscript to the grave before succumbing to the evils of Vanity Press. We get it. But that doesn’t mean self publishing and eBooks don’t have their place. My paying job is writing about home theater and high-end audio products and news. You’d be shocked (or not) at how many established musicians and technicians are not only suspicious of, but wildly ignorant about, current technology. They’ve been successful doing things one way and they sure as hell aren’t going to change just because Steve Jobs came out with a new CD player thingie. That’s the same attitude with established authors and those that aspire to become established authors. It’s not for you, fine. But that doesn’t make it evil or wrong.

Conclusion

I’m a self published author that only decided to put out a book because I didn’t have to deal with the years of rejection. So I’m biased. But I think that the evidence is clear that eBooks are a good thing. Even if you couldn’t self publish eBooks, they are better for consumers. If you are the green type, they reduce paper usage. They are convenient, they are portable, and they are forever. I continue to contend that people who “don’t like” eBooks, have never give them a fair shake. For them, the Kindle is probably the best device to introduce them to eBooks. The eInk is sort of like magic. It doesn’t look like a screen – it looks like a printed page. They’ll get that. For the “Get off my lawn” crowd; grow up already. Progress doesn’t stop just because you don’t feel like learning something new – don’t try to stop others from taking advantage of new technology and opportunities just because you had it harder in your time. No one cares how far you had to walk to school…unless you write about it in a free eBook.

6 thoughts on “In The Cage: ‘Real’ books versus eBooks”

  1. Good stuff! The portability thing is what sold me on ebooks (as a reader). I travel a fair amount more than I used to, due to family and work stuff, and until I got an ereader, I was commonly lugging 6-12 books around in my luggage. That stuff is heavy and cumbersome. I dislike having to wait for a device to boot as opposed to just flipping a book open, but that’s a small price to pay when the alternative is carrying an additional ten pounds of dead weight and crowding out my luggage.

    I’ve bought John Dies at the End multiple times, too. Great f’n book!

  2. Thanks Joe. I honestly think that eBooks are still a bit overpriced but they are coming down. I know I would buy more if they were priced the same as a paperback. Instead, many are still priced higher. That really doesn’t make much sense to me.

  3. I agree, Kindle is terrific, particularly for recreational reading, and I use it all the time – but the first time I bought a Kindle version of a non-fiction book (an English grammar refresher) I found the inability to just flick the pages back to something to check it out again frustrating (no, I admit I haven’t spent ages reading the minutiae of Kindle operating). So I simply ordered a separate copy for my bookshelf. Since then, anything with any academic inclination has been ordered as a hard copy only.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. When you are using a book for reference and you need to flip between pages, nothing beats five fingers and a few scraps of paper!

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