Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Pros & Cons of eBooks/eReaders

As with any technological advancement, ebooks and their ereaders have their friends and foes. For those who like ereaders, they are cool, modern and trendy, with the added implication of being an intelligent hipster. For those who don’t like them, they are a sacrilege, the end of thousands of years of the written word and maybe a good time to start chaining books to shelves again before they are all destroyed.
The reality is something else.
My belief is that they are simply different mediums of the same thing. The way watercolors and oil paints are. Or a rock band and a symphony orchestra. You can have both, they compliment each other.
I have a Barnes & Noble Nook ereader which I consider a Godsend, but I am not carting my piles of traditional books to the recycling canter, nor have I stopped buying them. Regular books will always be around, if for no other reason than to support the oversized art and travel books. And those with the glorious National Geographic type photos. I mean, imagine a photo of animals on an African veldt on a five inch screen! Do you know how tiny the gnu would be? That’s also the problem with maps and family trees on ereaders, they become useless in their microscopic size. The Royal Families are confusing enough! And good luck trying to look up something in the index, cast of characters or table of contents in an ebook. Yes, I know there’s a technical way to do it, but reading the directions for that would probably take longer than looking up the actual section would. “Too much bother” is what I often say when I want to search another part of an ebook, which may be more of a comment on my energy level than the difficulties of doing it. Speaking of which, I wonder what percentage of people avoid ereaders because they fear it’s too hard to learn to do anything on them?
As I said, I’m grateful for my Nook, especially when my health problems are acting up and I can’t get to the library in person.Instead, I can download ebooks from the library’s website. This is also handy in bad weather. Another benefit for those with less-than-perfect bodies, is the ability to change the font size and style on ereaders. Now one needn’t wait for large type books, which often come out months or years after the original edition.
Ereaders really prove their worth when reading thick books, such as Bill Bryson’s At Home, which runs to 600 pages. Rather than trying to balance such a door stop like a circus seal, one can read the ebook by holding less than a pound. And consider the convenience of packing just one ereader when traveling, instead of cramming multiple paperbacks in your suitcase. It’s also handier to take along to an appointment, that way you don’t have to be embarrassed about reading a trashy romance in a doctor’s waiting room. Or attract perverts on the bus.
The compact ability is one of the marvels of ereaders, the fact that you can put up to a thousand books on something that easily handled. Do you know how many bookshelves that would take to hold a thousand books? I don’t either, but it’s a lot, I’m sure. Who has time to go to Ikea that often?
There are probably a goodly number of people who, because of the novelty, consume more books on an ereader, than they ever would with traditional books. Maybe because it feels more like a toy or robot controls? This may attract kids, who won’t even have to smuggle a flashlight under the bedcovers, since many models are backlit and can be read in the dark.
One of the best things to come out of the ebook revolution is to give authors more access to the marketplace. Self-publishing is a growing trend, which has a different cachet than the vanity press of old. Dismissing the option is like saying a painter can only be taken seriously if they exhibit in a New York City gallery or a musician must play Prince Albert Hall to be a success. Self-publishing can be used as an adjunct to traditionally published books, or to build an audience. It must be an exciting new outlet for any author.
However, that does bring up one problem, the incompatible formats. It’s an unnecessary complication and can reduce readership when a book is only published in one format. Nooks, Kobo and Sony use the ePub digital style and Kindle uses Mobi; unfortunately, they are not interchangeable. Therefore, an ebook self-published on Amazon will not work on my Nook. Cue frowny face emoticon. The division leads to an unpleasant sense of competition, even among the Book Foxes, we have Team Nook and Team Kindle. It hasn’t ever gotten rough, we are geeks after all. No moments resembling the gang scene in West Side Story, with us wearing glasses instead of leather jackets, snapping the fingers on one hand and clutching ereaders in the other.
But one of the biggest drawbacks of ereaders is the battery, the charges just don’t last that long. I once had a battery run out of juice right in the middle of the denoument in a mystery novel. Frustration doesn’t begin to describe my reaction.
Bibliophiles will always point out that ebooks don’t don’t have the physical qualities of “real” books and it’s true. The sleek ereader can’t compare with the tactile sensations of embossed covers, thick paper, the smell of ink and leather, the flutter of air when the pages are flipped through.
Ereaders and regular books is not an ‘either-or’ situation, they don’t cancel each other out, they just provide more options for reading. And that is why I will always love books, in any medium.

Jackie was given a Nook for her birthday last year and often clutches it to herself with affection.

20 comments on “The Pros & Cons of eBooks/eReaders

  1. Leena
    May 21, 2012

    Lord, the formats. Imagine my chagrin after buying a bunch of e-books on Amazon and then realising there’s no way for me to read them on my device. Money down the drain. I know a lot of people think of Amazon as the great ambassador of the e-book… but from my point of view, they’re only trying to force me to buy their Kindle so I’ll be tied to them forever. Not happy about that.

    For me, the e-reader will probably be mostly for reading the obscure 19th-century works I’ve found on Google Books, and books that are only available as e-books. (As long as they’re available in formats other than the Kindle one…) I also – as an environmentally-minded person – imagined myself reading the e-book versions of mainstream books I have no plans of keeping on my shelves, but in practice, I haven’t done that. I’ve kept on buying paperbacks because it’s easy, the price point is the same, the book is (for me) easier and less painful to read, and I can pass it on when I’m done with it. As I remember somebody saying (Mary, I think?)… there already IS a reading device that’s portable, easy to use, and recyclable. It’s called the book!

    (Then again, I do think eventually the typical mass-market, meant-for-consumption book will become e-only, or at least printed in small runs or as print-on-demand, and only the most popular ones will be widely printed. And if it helps to reduce waste, that’s probably for the best.)

    I also vaguely remember someone on Vulpes, perhaps it was Mary again? bringing up a comparison of statistics about the resources going into a printed book vs. the resources going into the various reading gadgets. It was pretty uncomfortable reading. There are many good reasons to own an e-reader in today’s world, but being environmentally friendly isn’t really one of them.

    I think Rosy’s comments on this old post are still spot on, re: how unsustainable paper production and wasteful printing are likely the real culprits, and not the print book itself:

    (Would be interesting to know if Rosy herself still feels the same about the subject, after all these years!)

  2. Hilary
    May 21, 2012

    Great overview, Jackie! I’m all in favour of seeing eBooks as widening choice, rather than inevitably killing the physical book. I am with you about the limitations of the ebook for certain classes of non-fiction – but some of the problems, such as low resolution charts and figures that can’t be deciphered onscreen, are really just corner-cutting by publishers who haven’t quite ‘got’ it yet, and I’m sure that will improve over time. It had better – I really have the feeling that some reluctant mainstream publishers reckoned that creating the ebook version meant merely digitising the print version, while there are important design and format issues to address.

    In fact, some technical publishers (O’Reilly Associates, one of my favourite publishers ever, notably) are using the ebook format to extend non-fiction content, with links to online interactive material, and online updates. ORA really do get it!

  3. Hilary
    May 21, 2012

    By the way, today’s breaking news in the UK is that Waterstones are making Kindle their preferred device – precisely not what has been predicted since James Daunt took over. I’m just digesting the implications! I am determined to retain my Pollyanna outlook and regard this as a Good Thing. Hope I’ll be right.

  4. Leena
    May 21, 2012

    Come to think of it – as far as environmental concerns go, the specialised e-reader is probably a small one. How many people will even buy one?

    Which makes me think about something else I’ve been wondering about lately. The people who will probably suffer most from the “e-revolution” (sorry, had to put that one in scare quotes; I’m a bit sick of e-this and e-that already ;)) are not the authors who will fight to be seen in a crowded marketplace, or the readers who may find it more difficult to find something worth reading in the same, but the people who are not voracious readers but still read sometimes. Those who check out a book out of the library when the mood takes them, buy a couple of paperbacks for their beach holiday, whose interest in reading waxes and wanes, or simply don’t have the time to read more than a handful – or even just a couple – of books a year. Dare I say it that most people are this way? People for whom reading is not a way of life, but an occasional relaxing pastime.

    If the visions of a mainly electronic future come to pass, these are the people who will have their options drastically reduced.

  5. Christine Harding
    May 21, 2012

    Jackie, I enjoyed reading your post, and Leena’s comments. I’m sure the arguments will rage for many years yet, but, like you, I believe there is room for e-readers and printed books.

    On a personal note I was deeply suspicious of e-readers, then I saw them in action and fell in love, so the family bought me a Kindle for Christmas, and I think it’s wonderful. I use it mainly for 19th century books downloaded free from Project Gutenburg, and it does solve the problem of trying to squash books into a case – plus I’ve been able to adjust the font size. But I still buy printed books (from second-hand shops) and nothing compares with the feel and look of a book with a lovely cover.

    On a wider note I think e-readers make reading more accessible, which (to quote ‘1066 And All That) is a Good Thing. Many young people are more likely to read a book electronically than they are to read the print version. I think e-readers are the most exciting thing since the advent of printed books – and let’s not forget that when printed books first became available in Europe they were viewed with suspicion largely, I suspect, because few people could read and write, so knowledge was power, and those who held that power were not all keen on letting others become educated so they could think for themselves and ask questions that would upset the established order.

  6. Janet
    May 21, 2012

    As a retired librarian, I had some doubts about ebooks, but bought a Kindle, as I travel a bit and its convenient to be able to take several books on that rather than filling up a suitcase with real books. However, I agree with the comments about illustrations on a ebook, also the complications of looking up things, or flicking back and forward as you can in a real book. One thing I think ereaders are doing is expanding the reading public. My son, an architect, was never much of a reader of novels,preferring more geeky stuff, but having acquired a Kindle, has started reading more fiction and also belongs to an ereader book club, with mostly youngish male members. Personally when I travel I also take at least one paper book, just in case the batteries on the ereader fail. I still buy and borrow real, physical books – they have been around for half a millenia, so I don’t think they are going to disappear overnight.

  7. rosyb
    May 21, 2012

    Hi Leena -nice to see you here. I don’t know what I think. I don’t particularly see the argument about less choice. i just think the whole industry is in flux right now and we’re still to see how it pans out. The gatekeepers are crumbling – but perhaps other gatekeepers or sifters will emerge.

    I don’t know about the environmental argument – just reread my own comment back in o8 and I did have a point, didn’t I? 🙂 The way that markets work seems to be to produce endless new gadgets – so yes you’re right on that. Couple of interesting articles linked to there also from Eve and Mary at the time about whether we were over-producing books and the future of the book.

    I think the younger generation isn’t going to have quite the romantic associations with books necessarily that we do. And are more used to reading off the screen. So I have also thought it inevitable things would move that way.

    But here is a recent post, Leens, on books and how they have got bigger Basically I can get excited about old books in their physical manifestion – but few modern ones. Which is a plus for ebooks. But I do like a nice old Penguin for the look and feel of the thing!

  8. Leena
    May 21, 2012

    I don’t think it’s necessarily just a romantic association, Rosy (though admittedly I myself love books as physical objects – with a passion!). I agree that the younger generations will be more at ease with reading on computers and gadgets, and what Janet says about her son reading more fiction now sounds very encouraging. But I do think that the book, as a physical object, represents a different sort of mindset and a different degree of relaxation than any gadget with its infinite possibilities of distraction. (Not to mention the electricity itself – at the risk of sounding like a believer in all kinds of mumbo-jumbo, I know from myself that some people are more sensitive to it than others.) Then again, computers and the internet have already changed the way the human mind works, so perhaps that sort of mindset and relaxation are simply becoming obsolete? Something for the privileged “downshifters” to enjoy…

    As for the environmental angle… the thing is, I feel like if the human kind were more reasonable, we should be going in the opposite direction. The printed book might not be particularly hi-tech, but trees are a renewable resource, and paper could be produced and used responsibly – it could be environmentally friendly and cradle-to-cradle in a way that mining, for example, will never be. Admittedly I don’t know much about any movements within the electronics industry to make it more sustainable – I do hope they exist and are developing fast, because I know resistance is pretty much futile at this point.

    The technology and its effects are obviously here to stay; the internet is what it is, and frankly it’s astonishing the e-book took so long to take off properly. If you think about it, the e-book is what the internet is all about, as much as videos and music. You can’t find the sheer convenience of it all. I don’t really lament the change, as it brings as many new possibilities as it does challenges – and like said, resistance is futile. But I suppose if I were the Supreme Overlord of the Universe, I’d do things differently.

  9. Leena
    May 21, 2012

    And games, of course! (Re: what the internet is “all about”…)

    I don’t know how I missed that comments thread about the size of books, Rosy! It’s fascinating. I’ve been noticing a lot of bizarre discussions about file size in the e-reading community, by the way: how a mere x kB is not enough value for $5.99 or whatnot, when you can have as much as y kB for $2.99. And so on. But I suppose the whole thing is still so new that such suspicion is more understandable (or is it?).

    I must admit, though, that I personally have a strange fetish of preferring the hardback versions of long books. Big paperbacks make my skin crawl, the way their spines bend and crack… argh. And for some reason I can’t bear the thought of reading such long works as e-books; I like the reassuring physical presence of all those pages, telling me where exactly I am.

    I like the way antique books were divided into several hardback volumes, but that might be a bit too much to ask nowadays…

  10. rosyb
    May 21, 2012

    I think talking of experience when reading is such a subjective thing. We do have associations with childhood or relaxing times or whatever. So it is impossible to know if the more “sterile” experience of reading off an ereader might be associated with all those relaxing times and childhood happiness etc for the younger generation that printed books have been in the past…was merely the point I was trying to make.

    I actually quite like the ability to get away from the screaming advertising that the printed book seems to go in for now. Not to mention terrible covers…

    And I have – lately – been thinking of getting rid of a lot of books. Reducing it just to favourites and art books. And geting rid of all those “oo this looks like it could be interesting one day” books that every ten years I take off the shelf to consider giving to Oxfam and go “ooo this looks like it could be interesting” and replace it on the shelf for another decade.

    I don’t know. How writers can ever make any money when audiences want free or very low cost books is a big issue with ebooks. But that’s been a growing issue for a while across the whole publishing sector.

  11. sshaver
    May 21, 2012

    I’m a book-ite, but I admit that ebooks can also be a blessing for older people with impaired vision. Alas, neither my parents nor I can figure out how to get “text to speech” to work on their Kindle….so many buttons….

  12. annebrooke
    May 21, 2012

    As I’ve tried four times to post a response, I hope I manage to succeed this time! Just to say I do agree with you, Jackie – there’s no competition between ebooks and paperback and I love both. Anything that widens the choice of how to read something gets my vote. Besides I don’t much mind how a story and a set of characters comes to me – I just want to read, and I don’t care how I do it! 🙂

    I don’t honestly know why everyone thinks they have to take sides. It’s a mystery …

    Oh, and the e-reader is really good for us younger folk who have eyesight issues too! 🙂


  13. Alan Cleaver
    May 21, 2012

    There’s a discussion on Radio Cumbria tomorrow (Tuesday May 22) at 9.20am on ebooks. They have invited me to take part (not sure why!) as I’ve been involved in real books and ebooks. I will of course be cribbing extensively from Jackie’s excellent article and the many useful responses 🙂

  14. Ian Thonney
    May 22, 2012

    I have been a passionate book buyer for over thirty years and when the e-reader came along I was sceptical and somewhat fearful – real books face enough challenges as things are! I have had a nook 1st edition for 18 months and still have a love hate relationship with it. The e-ink screen is friendly to reading but the formatting can be atrocious and tables/graphs etc are mostly a total failure, with bits falling off the side of the screen and being way too small to read. Strangely enough images and b & w photos do quite well on the screen. My main gripe against e-ink e-readers is the size of the screen – a 7 or 8 inch screen would be preferable.
    I have looked at e-books on the i-pad/nook tablet etc and although they are very pretty, the lcd screen really is not friendly for long reading.
    BUT…having a large number of books on a single book-sized device is amazing and great for travelling, being at work etc. And there are a lot of books that I do not need to have physical copies of, but which I do want to own. If a book is one that I think I will love (and these are many – new and old) I will want a real copy. Poetry fails on the e-reader totally, for this it’s only good for reference and in extremis. But this leaves a lot of workaday books that I no longer need to find shelf space for and books that I may not feel I can justify 15-18 dollars for, but will buy for 8-10 dollars.
    This process is fascinating, and I feel less apprehensive about the future of the book than I did a year or two ago. A vast amount of garbage is printed – and this will no doubt decline and reappear as e-books with hugely less waste. Perhaps the printing of good books, well-designed, well-printed and bound will rebound…
    Secondarily, what do people here think about online newspapers? I read the New York Times largely online and The Guardian entirely online (religiously bought it for decades in England, now living in California). I miss the ritual of the paper newspaper, and the easy sharing in the household. But I do not miss at all the many pounds of newspaper recycled each week.

  15. Leena
    May 22, 2012

    Rosy, you’re probably right about the younger generations and their childhood memories. Though undeniably the technology itself does do something to out brains too, so… who knows. And I’m guessing that little children’s board books and picture books are ones that aren’t going anywhere, so perhaps the quaint relaxing associations will still be there for printed books? It’s hard to comment on the experience of someone who has “always” read on electronic devices, and I’m not really trying to do that, either… but it’s still fascinating to ponder what the technology itself does to the experience and how it changes reading habits. Whether e-reading does anything that computers and the internet haven’t already done is another matter. Probably not.

    What kind of screaming advertising do you mean? Blurbs, etc? Are there more terrible covers now that there used to be, I wonder? I’ve bought a lot of physical books lately (to grace my shelves – I’ve yet to read them, of course) and most of those have had lovely covers, but that may have been a mere coincidence.

  16. sharonrob
    May 22, 2012

    I read The Guardian almost entirely on my Kindle and I love it – I get through much more of the news that way than through a physical format because I don’t have to fold the page over several times to get to the item I want. At the same time, the Kindle screen is a lot more reader-friendly than anything my PC can offer as there’s no glaring backlight and I can read where and when I want rather than having to sit at a desk. Sharing the paper isn’t an issue as my OH has his own Kindle and can download the paper onto it every morning. In fact, we have our own ritual in that I generally download it for him as he gets breakfast started. As he says though, there are downsides – you can’t wrap used cat-litter in your Kindle and it’s probably not a good idea to squish flies with it;-)

    Like many other readers, I don’t see e-readers and physical texts as a binary choice. E-readers are excellent for some things – conventional novels, especially fat ones can go everywhere with you, while a print copy might have to stay at home. As I have problems with my tendons, I would have struggled with the paperback copy of Wolf Hall, to the extent that it would have marred my pleasure in it and that would have been a pity. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine how the e-book format would work for graphic novels. I don’t think that Tamara Drewe (Posy Simmonds’ take on Far From The Madding Crowd) would be impressive on a six-inch screen. The illustrations would be cramped, the continuity would be lost and most makes of e-reader don’t carry colour graphics.

    We have offloaded a lot of paperbacks since we got our Kindles, mainly to charity shops, but also to individuals, family, friends and even complete strangers, who are more than gratified to be given a free book by someone who they’ve never met before and will probably never see again. Also, my favourite coffee shop has a shelf for donated paperbacks and a few of ours have gone there. It’s not entirely altruistic; we get to claim some shelf-space back. However, we still have tons of books, many of them as yet unread, or not available in Kindle format, so for us, it’s not either/or.

  17. kateinbrussels
    May 22, 2012

    I have such a visceral revulsion against e-readers that is largely based on their look: they’re just lumps of plastic! Hideous aesthetics in almost every way: touch, look, smell, the lot. (I already had a warm-up splutter on Anne’s post of today).

    However, even if the next Steve Jobs designed an e-reader that is actually a desirable, tactilious, designery, must-be-seen-with object, I still wouldn’t want one because I read all day on a screen: I don’t want to read for pleasure on one as well. My eyes don’t like screens much at the best of time, but reading screens is an essential part of my job. I research print history and grade student essays online, I edit books and write my own on screen. I communicate with friends and family and colleagues on screen because hardly any of them live in the country I currently work in. I read the newspaper on my laptop because I can’t buy it where I live in a print version. I look up pretty much everything to do with running my life, catching a train, booking a ticket, on screen: it’s very efficient. But. Ma eyes hurt!

    I want to read a book for the quiet colours of its pages that don’t flicker, don’t rely on a battery, don’t get corrupted, don’t disappear because their time limit has expired, and can be read by any pair of eyes without worrying about format. From a professional point of view, as well as following personal interest, I don’t think ebook versions of any 19thC or later books that I might want to read (am currently glutted with Ivy Compton-Burnett for instance: my husband went shopping in Hay for me) preserve the paratextual matter. Hah! Big word: it means the adverts, the inscriptions, the (terribly important) publishing data, the Also In This Series lists, the Other Books By This Author lists, and the scribbles in pen and pencil on the endboards by previous owners and sellers. I love and need all that stuff and want to keep it, and I don’t think e-books do. I can’t see a downside to printed books on paper, except fire and water, and I don’t believe e-readers do too well against them either.

  18. rosyb
    May 22, 2012

    “However, even if the next Steve Jobs designed an e-reader that is actually a desirable, tactilious, designery, must-be-seen-with object, I still wouldn’t want one because I read all day on a screen: I don’t want to read for pleasure on one as well. My eyes don’t like screens much at the best of time, but reading screens is an essential part of my job. I research print history and grade student essays online, I edit books and write my own on screen. I communicate with friends and family and colleagues on screen because hardly any of them live in the country I currently work in. I read the newspaper on my laptop because I can’t buy it where I live in a print version. I look up pretty much everything to do with running my life, catching a train, booking a ticket, on screen: it’s very efficient. But. Ma eyes hurt! ”

    KAte – much sympathy with not loving lumps of plastic but just to say that reading on an ereader is very very different to laptop. It is not flickering and sore on the eyes. In fact I think it can be less sore on the eyes than print on white paper that can jiggle about a bit for this reader. I would suggest it is illuminating to take a look at one and try it out – it’s not what you think, really.

    The people I have met who adore their readers the most are commuters. I can understand that entirely and the reader can transform the travelling experience.

    Leena, I have many huge grotequeries of books on my shelves. I really love the old books I have and very rarely feel the same affection for new ones with their cracking glue and thick paper and massive door-stopiness. And covers are awful these days. I was looking at a few the other day and thinking how much I prefer older covers. I don’t think they scream genre so much. (decapitated female bodies for historical, queasy comic-book fantasy for Gothic, high heels and bubbly glasses and pink pink pink for anything aimed at women. I think kids’ book covers can be great though.

    But maybe I’m just a fogey.

  19. Catherine Czerkawska
    May 22, 2012

    Predictably – since I’m publishing on there – I love my Kindle! I was a little sceptical until the moment I first took it out of its box. It was a gift and it was love at first sight. I think it is a beautiful device – well designed, sleek, light, and so NOT just a lump of plastic any more than a book is a bundle of paper. (I like my paper books too!) For starters the screen is gentle on the eyes – quite unlike this laptop screen. I can change the font size. I have carpel tunnel syndrome which means that even paperbacks give me pins and needles when I try to read in bed – hardbacks are downright painful – but this never happens with my Kindle. The battery life is vast. I have a case with a little LED light, so I can read in bed without disturbing my husband – it’s a bit like reading by torchlight under the covers when you were a kid. And if I fall asleep when I’m reading, it will quietly switch itself off and when I switch it on again, it will be at the page where I fell asleep. And if, as happened to a friend of mine, a dog eats your Kindle, (or you drop it in the bath!) Amazon will send you a new one and all your books will be waiting on that cloud for you. What’s not to like? I use it all the time, when travelling, when at home, for classics, old favourites, new novels, short stories. It’s simply another and very convenient medium for the written word. I don’t like distractions – and this offers no distractions to the world of the book – perhaps that’s another reason why I love it. I also think that casual readers may well read more rather than less with the advent of e-readers – the coming generations don’t have our suspicions of technology. And older casual readers will probably do what they already do in their thousands: buy their books in charity shops as cheaply as they can. Finally – as a writer – I have to say that commissioning eBook covers for my novels myself – and liaising with artists – has been one of the unexpected joys of publishing to Kindle, for me.

  20. kirstyjane
    May 24, 2012

    Lovely piece, comrade J — and a fascinating discussion. A really great opener to the e-books feature. I am reading with interest and wishing I had something more intelligent to say.

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This entry was posted on May 21, 2012 by in eBooks, Entries by Jackie, Theme weeks and tagged , , , .



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