Digital vs Paper Books

Quite by accident, last week I fell into re-reading William Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer. I’d chanced across a pirate online edition of it on Project Cyberpunk and before I had time to make a conscious decision, was too far into it to escape before the end. I actually have a paper copy of it, but wound up reading the whole thing on screen really without thinking.

And that did it for me. It will be really hard to go back to books on paper after this. Here are some reasons:

  • Postural ergonomics: instead of holding the book up in front of my eyes, or sitting with my neck bent for hours, it’s right there in a comfy position in front of me.
  • Visual ergonomics: as you read a paperback, you are forever adjusting it to get the best light onto the left or right page. Text disappears down the middle where the spine bends it – unless you break the spine so the book starts to disintegrate. My screen is flat, and backlit. One caveat to my enthusiasm here, I’m using an LCD screen with a digital interface to the computer. I would not be saying any of this if I was still on CRTs.
  • Browsability: this is the most oft-cited reason not to read on screen, but my experience was the opposite. Want to track a particular character through the novel? Try that with a paper book and either it takes forever, or you skim and perhaps miss something. But just about all computer programs have ‘find’. (As an aside, I had copied the book into Amar Sagoo’s brilliant Tofu. If I start to type any word, the cursor automatically jumps to the next instance of it.) I found myself browsing themes far more than if I had been using a static version of the text.

However, ebooks have been around for quite a few years now. How come they have not taken off? You can explain it partially as cultural inertia, but I would offer you three factors that I think are key:

  • Books are status symbols: visit a man with intellectual pretensions and you browse his bookshelf, if only out of courtesy. The books we choose to own make a strong statement (speak volumes?) about our place in our community. We need to develop new ways to display our taste.
  • Ebook software is misconceived: I am thinking about PDF here because I have no experience of the other ebook formats. PDF puts a printed page on screen. It is very good for stuff you really just want to print out; Chalkface uses it for that the whole time. But its determination to faithfully represent the printed page renders it utterly inflexible. The ideal format, in my opinion, is plain text. It is the easiest to format for different screen sizes, shapes and resolutions. It is the easiest to search, index, or otherwise manipulate.
  • Misplaced fears by publishers: Publishers fear that if they let digital copies of books out into the wild, they will breed out of control and no-one will pay to read any more. Given that the roof over my own head is dependent on customers paying for books, my instinct is to agree…except that it doesn’t work that way in practice. I know, because Chalkface sells digital copies of our books, and sales are going up, not down. Provided the publisher’s prices are reasonable, most people are prepared to pay for the convenience of supply that we offer. The only exception is high-profile, extremely popular books such as Neuromancer. And, as we have seen above, they have escaped already. (I am deliberately ignoring the DRM argument here, btw, because I think it is irrelevant.)

Non-fiction is steadily moving online. Often you don’t notice because it has already evolved so much interactivity that you no longer recognise it as a book. But there are also online books that are clearly books – here’s an example. Fiction will take longer, but I am now convinced that it will get there. And I will be reading a lot more as a result.

Update: you may already have seen that Google has got into a fight with some publishers over its attempt to make all (paper) books searchable online. Here is what Tim O’Reilly, a far more successful publisher than I, has to say about it.

Publishers have been stalling for years in getting their content online. Now [Google has] have a model that will take us in new directions, and they want to stop it till they can figure out how they will be the ones to profit from it.

Tim’s whole post here.


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