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Thursday, 10 March 2011

eBooks V Paper Books: Pros and Cons.

There has been a lot of recent discussion in the press about the effect of ebooks on the production and dispersal of paper books. It seems that sales of physical books have fallen whilst electronic versions are increasing. Could cost be a factor here? Most hardbacks are priced at around £18.99, whilst a good many ebooks come in at around £2.99, or less; in fact, many are free. Obviously, the cost of the ereader is a factor, but that's a one-off purchase and has the advantage that it allows the buyer to store many volumes. Barnes and Noble report that they sold over 1,000,000 ebooks on Xmas day alone! And it's estimated that between 3 and 5 million ereaders were activated in the week following Xmas. On the other hand, the top selling paper book apparently sold 1,225,456 copies during 2010.
The New York Times recently announced that it will carry a weekly list of ebook bestsellers in fiction and non-fiction.

A new French study has predicted that by 2015 (that's just 4 years away) 15-20% of readers will own a digital reading device and 25% of books will be sold in digital form.

In the latest issue of The Society of Author's quarterly, The Author, member Stewart Ross mentioned that he'd asked a question of children in several schools he'd visited. The question, 'Would you prefer to have all your books on one electronic reader or as lots of separate paper books?' elicited an overwhelming choice from the children for the former. And it's clearly the case, from a great deal of research recently concluded, that the younger generation are very much in favour of ereaders.

Last week, I decided to see for myself, and bought a Kindle. I'm a traditional reader and have read thousands of books presented as printed works between hard and soft paper covers. Like many, particularly older, readers, I love the feel, smell and appearance of the paper book. But, to my surprise, I have enjoyed reading on the Kindle screen. It has an ink system, which has the advantage, over back-lit systems, that it can be read in any light and doesn't suffer from dimming in harsh sunlight. So, it will be ideal for those holidays in the sun, when I generally take five or six books with me. The device can store up to 1600 volumes. Many classics are now available as free ebooks, a lot of modern writers are either publishing their own work through providers such as Smashwords, at very low prices, and some traditional publishers are beginning to realise that they cannot expect a reader to fork out the same money for a digital copy as they would for something printed on paper, so their books are also reducing in price.

There are, of course, disadvantages to the ebook: at present, few of these devices allow for colour illustrations, for example, though some do. The screen size won't allow the usual number of lines per page and this makes the reading experience different, though not necessarily worse. The feel of the device is odd; the single sheet of plastic feeling solid in the hand. Pages are turned by either stroking the screen or pressing a button. And, of course, there is none of the sound of paper in motion (though, some devices have this as a sound effect), none of the smell associated with an old volume, none of the feel of the luxury binding in leather that so much enhance the experience of reading from a 'real' book. And, of course, for those who love the covers and dust jackets, there are none of these: the cover picture doesn't appear on the Kindle, only at the point of sale, or, if you upload the free Kindle to PC software from Amazon, on that program's index screen.

But, it is easy to enlarge, or reduce, the font size, so the reader can arrange the text to suit his eyesight. The device keeps the reader's place without a bookmark and has an easy system for finding any individual book stored. There are covers for the devices that render them more friendly to the hand that holds them. The Kindle also permits the user to highlight passages, such as quotes, and to store these in a separate place for future perusal and use. One can also make notes; a very useful device for those doing research. It is possible to subscribe to magazines, newspapers and blogs, and, with the 3G enabled devices, to surf the web.

Environmentally, the paper book clearly has the disadvantage of tree destruction, though many publishers are using either recycled paper or paper from sustainable forests. The waste and pollution caused by paper making is also a factor here, as is energy use. For digital readers the problems include the use of toxic chemicals and probable exploitation of cheap labour in the developing nations where these things are made. But, many of the electronic components can be reclaimed and recycled.

My own work has been published in both forms. Breaking Faith is available as a paperback (POD) and an ebook via Smashwords and on Kindle. And my own anthology, Ten Tales for Tomorrow, is available through Smashwords for all platforms and on Kindle. So, I have experience, as a writer, of both systems. The MS for Breaking Faith had to be edited and brought to publishing standard before it was published in paperback form, so converting it to the necessary format for Smashwords was a relatively simple, if tedious, task. The short stories in Ten Tales for Tomorrow, were a mix of previously published and non-published work, so the MS for that had to be compiled, edited and made suitable for conversion. Again, this was a time-consuming but relatively simple task. I also took on the task of compiling, editing and designing an anthology of short stories for my writing group A Sackful of Shorts by Hornsea Writers took a little more work than my own collection, as I had to convert stories from 13 different authors, many of whom don't use the standard format or employ different word processing packages. Nevertheless, the finished product is a good read and, I believe, well presented on both Smashwords and Kindle. I intend, in the near future, to compile more anthologies of short stories, since mainstream publishers seem reluctant to embrace this very popular genre. If you would like a little introduction to the topic of conversion, please see my earlier post, Kindle – the Process of Publishing Your Ebook.

I've come to the conclusion that I'll continue to read 'proper' books but will do a lot of reading on the Kindle as well. Far from feeling a need to support one method above the other, I think both have their place in modern society. Many, I know, will resist the technological route for a long time, whilst others will embrace the ereader with enthusiasm. Whatever your personal choice, it's worth considering that both ways of reading have their positive sides and both have their negative aspects. I believe, for anyone who reads in any real quantity, both methods of experiencing the written word have their place and I suspect the arguments pitting one against the other are unnecessary and false.

But I'd love to hear what you all think.

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