Reader Friday: Are Physical Books Like the Dodo Bird?

In a post titled “What makes books different…”, industry observer Mike Shatzkin posits that physical books may not be going “the way of the Dodo” as some suppose.

First, writes Shatzkin, a print book “has functionality that the ebook version does not. Quite aside from the fact that you don’t need a powered device (or an Internet connection) to get or consume it, the book allows you to flip through pages, write margin notes, dog-ear pages you want to get back to quickly, and easily navigate around back and forth through the text much more readily than with an ebook.”

Second, “the [print] book has — or can have — aesthetic qualities that the ebook will not. Some people flip for the feel of the paper or the smell of the ink, but you don’t have to be weirdly obsessed with the craft of bookmaking to appreciate a good print presentation.”

So what is your view of print versus e? What do you think the future holds for our old friend, the physical book? 

23 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Are Physical Books Like the Dodo Bird?

  1. I think “analog” books’ll stick around for those reasons you list, but I also like the physical feeling of a story’s progress as the weight of the pages shifts from right to left.

    And you can keep reading one during take-offs and landings.

    Oh, and who whould use an e-reader as a doorstop? Not that I’ve ever done that… just saying’…

  2. I have spent a fair amount of time mulling this over, both from my own perspective (I’ve been mostly reading e-books since 2002) and from opinions I’ve read or heard.

    I haven’t read the linked article (although I will) but those snippets make me think this is someone who doesn’t understand how ebooks work. I can “dog-ear” a page to easily return to, flip through pages, and even take notes (although I’ve never used that particular feature, in print or otherwise) all from every ebook app I’ve ever used (even going back to the old Peanut Reader on the Palm Pilot). I expect that, as time goes on, ebooks will become even better at these types of things. Power and internet connections have never been an issue either. Theoretically, they could; they just never have.

    The “aesthetic quality” argument doesn’t hold much water for me. I love the smell and feel of print books. I grew up with them. As a youth, I spent most of my paper route money at the bookstore and I often haunted the local library. But, that nostalgia only exists because that’s what I associated with the joy of the books I read. In reality, once I really get into a book, I forget the container and get lost in the content. If I don’t, the book really isn’t worth reading. And the convenience of an ebook outweighs the nostalgia of print by far.

    I rely on (non fiction) ebooks as part of my career. Using a dedicated subscription service, I am able to obtain the latest (sometimes even works in progress) books instantly on my computer. The print versions are slower to get and much more expensive.

    There are some books I have found which don’t work well as ebooks. Those are the ones in 2-column PDF format that are usually poorly bookmarked and cause delays when turning pages because of all the graphics and other layout-centric details. But, that’s because the book was made to be printed, and that particular industry hasn’t figured out how to correctly build their materials for electronic devices.

    I don’t think that print books will vanish. They may shrink quite a bit over time. There are reasons, valid market-driven reasons, that will keep them going, but the ones listed are just nonsense (in my not-so-humble opinion).

  3. Shatzkin must not have checked out the latest ereaders. You can make notes, place bookmarks, jump to a specific page, or search. I’ve even seen some emulations where a virtual page appears to ‘flip.’ The latest Kobo reader is comparable to the weight in hand of a paperback or less, and they really got the ergonomics right. Nice and tactile. The battery lasts forever. I hear they’ll be shipping a waterproof version soon. Not too many waterproof print books on the market.

    I suspect that some books will continue to be released in special collectible print editions far into the future. (Just look at the auction prices for signed first editions!) But hey, we managed to get over the look and feel of stone tablets and sheepskin scrolls when we moved to bound books on paper. I suspect the younger generation won’t have any issues moving to all digital.


  4. Paper will be around for a while, though it might move into the luxury category. Ebooks have a couple of inherent flaws. First, you don’t actually own the book. Second, sharing is restricted to similar platforms. My SIL uses a Nook, I have a Kindle. Third, electronic devices need a steady power supply, something that Americans take for granted. They shouldn’t.

    Those are just day-to-day concerns. You also have the potential for virus releases that will destroy equipment, the potential of an entity meddling with the text to alter meaning, and my personal worst fear, Basil’s enthusiastic ‘helpers’ creating an accidental EMP blast that renders electronics relics. I do hope that Basil has kept the fissile materials under lock and key.

    • Those may be flaws in the strictest sense, but do they affect the market (which is really what this post is about)? Like I said above, I’ve read hundreds of ebooks over the past 12+ years, and I haven’t run into any of the issues you describe. They certainly don’t impact my buying decisions. I suspect this is true, and will continue to be, for many people.

      The power argument reminds me of the High School I went to in the early 90s, which replaced the old Apple ][e lab with typewriters because, “What will you do when the batteries run out?” When the power goes out at my house, I’m likely to pull out my phone and read a book, because it’s backlit (no need to try to read with a candle or flashlight) and has plenty of juice.

    • I’ve run into situations where I can not gift a book through any of the retailers in digital form because I was doing it to persons overseas. I sent paper, instead. That is a market effect in action. Similarly, giving books to someone who does not use an ereader, or prefers paper (as I do) affects the market.

      I purchase paper copies of books that I intend to share with friends and family – I can loan them as often as they are returned.

      Amazon demonstrated years ago what can happen to your stored book on the kindle if they decide to remove them. It will be repeated.

      The power argument is an interesting one. You have far more faith in the status quo than do I. We live in the most peaceful and safe period in the history of the world. How long do you think it will last? Devolution can happen in a shockingly short period of time, usually with the eager assistance of the population as in the case of Venezuela most recently. The presumption that life will remain the same or get better is just that, a presumption.

      How long will your back-lit ereader last after a Hurricane Sandy event? A virus that takes down the internet? Or, since we’re pulling a good chunk of power generation off-line to meet EPA particulate standards, if we start going into rolling blackouts?

      All are possibilities, and in the event of hostilities, with Russia or China, for example, an engineered collapse of the internet would be their first order of business as it would cripple us economically. That, btw, would be a great thriller idea. I should write it down – though I think there was a sci-fi short story years ago along those lines.

      I’m not arguing against ereaders. They have their place. Like everything else, paper included, they have their limitations.

  5. I’m not sure why, if I purchase an ebook, I would not ‘own’ my copy. I’m not renting ‘software in the cloud’ when I purchase a book, I’m buying a digital copy and storing it on my local devices. (No, I don’t use Amazon.)

    Yes, with electronics, there’s always a potential for viruses (and it’s why we all do offline backups, right?). Does that mean that an amputee should stick with a wooden leg because of the potential for someone to hack a bionic replacement that has superior functionality?

    There are already prototypes for clothes that use a variety of means to generate sufficient power either from the wearer or the environment to keep portable electronic devices running without input from the power grid.

    If you want to worry, focus on the issue of file type incompatibility. This is what worries places like the Washington State Digital Archives, which stores all the state’s governmental digital records. What happens when a platform or a software system is deprecated for something newer, bigger, faster? All the old file formats become obsolete, and when you have millions of records stored, porting all those forward is a real pain. Likewise, what will the preferred format for ebooks be five or ten years from now? Will there still be devices capable of reading the formats I purchased two years ago? Who has responsibility to update the formats? If the work has digital rights management, it may not be possible for the end user to convert it to something newer.

    If there’s an EMP pulse that knocks out all electronics, we’ll have much bigger issues than not being able to read our favorite novel.


  6. I have had a Kindle for several years and buy lots of books on it. I love the ease of it for traveling – so great to be able to load 20 books and not have to pack them around.

    That said, more and more lately I’ve been returning to paper books. I just enjoy the experience more and seem to get more deeply in the story when I hold a paper book in my hand. I like being able to easily flip back and forth to reread sections, without the click, click, click business.

    Kindle reading always seems to lead to more distractions for me. Plus it reminds me all the time I am reading a book – the pressing of buttons, the whole screen thing. Much easier to lose myself in the story with a paper book, though I can’t fully pinpoint why.

    Any story I love that I read on Kindle and want to keep, I buy a paper copy. All my beloveds are in paper.

    So I like both — but if I had to only pick one, it would be paper books.

  7. I think both e-books and traditional books are here to stay. I love my Kindle. But I also love my physical books too. Television didn’t replace radio; however, most families don’t sit around the radio in the evenings like they did in the past.

    Today I posted about why I love my Kindle.

    Books aren’t Dodo birds. But nor are they eagles.

    I believe good stories will continue to soar–but not paperbacks.

    Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

  8. Personally, I like to have all my books in print as much as possible. Sometimes I’ll buy a straight ebook, but if I like the book, I’ll usually buy print copies of it. I like the feel of a book and the smell and I like holding it in my hands. It just feels more PERMANENT to me, really.

  9. My readers prefer a paper book, although some have bought both versions. Personally, I love a paper book, but I do download digital non-fiction.

  10. I think both have their plusses and minuses. Novels and other books that I would generally read straight through without flipping back and forth are best as ebooks for me. Books that I flip through and quickly move back and forth in, like cookbooks or textbooks, are still better in print for me. I don’t think one format is better than the other, just different.

  11. I still don’t own an electronic reader or a TV cable service. And I have collected enough books to keep me busy over the next five years so the computer is more important to me than I-phones which I also do not own. There is no name given to my writing condition but it is not writer’s block. I do enjoy paper books however as there are flashes in bright colors from a line or may be a paragraph I would like to reread for their values of a different way of looking at a string of words. I do enjoy your blogs, so please continue. I guess I mainly worded what hurts worse, dropping your E reader or a paper back book in your face while reading at night?

  12. Due to the portable nature of my Kindle and the ability to read in low and bright light with it (Kindle Paperwhite), and Amazon’s too-convenient “One-click” feature, I find I’m buying more and more books on my Kindle.

    But I still love a good print book and always buy craft-of-writing books (especially those by our own James Scott Bell) in trade paperback, as I do love to mark them up, write in the margins, flag pages, etc., for future reference.

    I see myself continuing to use my convenient Kindle but also buying print books for many years to come!

  13. First of all, who the heck is making notes in the margins and dog-earing pages?

    Print all the way. I love the chance of downloading ebooks and, of course, selling them, but I much prefer print. A print book on the shelf yells out “Read me!!” ebook, not so much. My ebook collection is growing larger than the one I have of print books, but the print is what I will read first.

  14. Print books will never go away. Similar complaints were made back in the day, before writing was common and everyone had to memorize stories and facts and such. Those who memorized massive tomes and repeated them throughout the countryside, bards, storytellers, seanchai, etc, probably considered a person less than smart if they had to write it down because they couldn’t remember it. So writing in itself would cause a loss of memory skills as far as they were concerned. I’d quote some relevant facts at this point…but I can’t remember them….have to look it up.

  15. On another note, I once took an information archival class that talked about how to save written information for long periods of history and one of the points the instructor made was that electronic data has at most a 30 year life span in whatever technology it is saved in. Before that time elapses, the data needs to be transferred to the latest storage system or it will cease to be readable. The only knowledge we have of the Egyptians and other civilizations are what was written in stone. Even their paper is mostly all gone. How different might there society have been from what we imagine based on those sparse writings? Makes me wonder, as our society goes more and more digital, just what will actually be available for archeologists a few thousand years from now. Will they look back and find just a handful of surviving school books and some porno magazines and thereby make assumptions of our entire culture based on those findings?

  16. I don’t think print books are going away. Readers just have more choices now with print books, ereaders, tablets, cell phones. One can use all or one device or method. I tend to read print books at home but take my Kindle and/or iPad on longer vacations.

  17. I don’t think a physical book will disappear–I hope not. I’ve discovered there are sometimes problems with e-readers, times when you’re stuck and the next page won’t turn, etc. However, I read both but prefer a physical copy I can include in my library. copy. The only advantage of e-book is the reduced cost. Frances from Pen and Patience.

  18. I like the e-reader now when I still want to read at night and my husband wants to sleep, but I have not lost the love of holding a book and flipping the pages. Last year, I bought a book on Kobo and was half way through when I was compelled to buy a hard copy to finish the book because I had enjoyed the story so much. I think and hope that there will always be room for print books.

  19. I really do love books. At first it was a physical attraction. I’d sit in the library and look in wonder. We had hardly any books in the house. Why? Dunno. Then I had trouble reading. Yet, oddly, there was a special attraction that a book had. Picture books and the huge Life Magazine I liked. I learned to read from the graphic panels in comic books. And I picked up something about “story” during the process. I worked in the junior high school library. Mostly I repaired spines. By then I could read just fine. One long wall in my writing library is packed with books.

    But eBooks have totally knocked my socks off. I’m just mesmerized by how easy it is to obtain them and to preview them. Having worked in the data world most of my life, it’s really a double pop to discover that I can write and publish eBooks from my laptop. Not to mention building websites to promote the books. Huh. And then there is this worldwide community of writers out there I have discovered. A woman in France can send me her eBook and I can do a beta read or an edit and send it back electronically in a flash.

    Somehow, it’s all this electronic stuff that has collided in my head in a whole new way. I remember the time I let my dad type his name on the computer screen and how stoked he was to see that.

    My mantra is: Buy books often! [electronic and paper]

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