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print vs. digital

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Cutting off your nose to spite your face

I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I will not critique somebody for their reading format choices. Print has its advantages. Digital has its advantages. And if you happen to be someone who embraces one over the other, more power to you! As long as it brings you joy in whatever you’re reading, I do not care what format you’re reading it in.

That said, I gotta raise an eyebrow at this post on The Digital Reader, which is in turn pointing off to this post on the Powell’s Books blog, in which the author of the essay describes how he tried to solve the problem of what to read while hiking the Appalachian Trail.

His solution was to buy tattered copies of several books he was interested in, chop them up into shorter pieces, mail them to himself at various points along his route, and slowly burn them as campfire fuel to get rid of the weight.

And my answer to this is “wut?”

Because seriously, this scenario strikes me as exactly when I’d want to be carrying a small ereader. There are very tiny ones, like the Kobo Mini. And hell, if you have a smartphone, you’ve got a reading-capable device right there, and most smartphones are going to be lighter than the various ereaders I’ve encountered anyway. For me, the issue here would be whether I could deal with reading on a smartphone for the duration of a hike, vs. reading on e-ink. But if I were in this guy’s shoes and wanting to minimize my carried weight, I’d be seriously considering just reading on my phone. Because I’d have the phone anyway, in case of emergencies. So why not read books on it?

To solve the power problem, you could carry a small battery like the one I’ve always got in my backpack, a Jackery. And to keep that charged, solar-powered hand-cranks are things that exist. (Why do I know this? Because you find out about these things when you live in an area prone to power outages!) Macworld describes several portable battery chargers in this post, including at least one described as specifically useful for camping.

And when you’ve got light, easily portable tech that can solve a problem for you, I can’t see why buying old paperbacks, cutting them up into pieces JUST so you can tape them back together, mailing the resulting hacked books to yourself, and then burning the results as campfire fuel is a superior option. Particularly when it involves destroying books. The essay writer even admits that that gave him some qualms, which he overcame in the interests of cutting down the weight in his backpack. And he handwaved off his qualms as well by pointing out that millions of books get thrown away or destroyed every year.

Which, to me, seems like a really odd justification for someone who prefers reading print over digital. I mean, if you prefer reading print, awesome!

But to deliberately put yourself into a position where, in order to read in your preferred format, you are destroying books in that format, on purpose?

All I can say is, again, “wut?”

Pete Has a Point

Pete Has a Point


I promise, folks, people are not abandoning their ereaders

I’ve seen a lot of articles going around lately like this one, trumpeting how paper sales are soaring and people are putting down their ereaders.

This is really not as simple as this article and others like it would make it seem, for a few very important reasons.

One, agency pricing has been reinstated by the major publishing conglomerates. I’ve posted about this in the past, but as a brief refresher, what agency pricing means is that publishers get to set the prices for their ebooks. On the surface this sounds like a good thing, since it’s a blow against Amazon being so fond of the 9.99 price point for ebooks.

The problem with this, however, is that this means that the major publishing houses now have bumped the prices back up for a LOT of new ebook releases. So we’re seeing a lot of titles coming out with price points like $12.99, $13.99, and $14.99, and sometimes even higher.

Of course the big publishers are going to trumpet print sales rising. It’s in their best interests to keep people buying print books. In fact, they’re specifically interested in getting people to buy hardbacks–because those are still the big things that rake in money for their coffers. They have far fewer fucks to give about digital than they do about print, because the hardbacks are still the things they want to make money on.

But you know what they’re not talking about? How indie digital sales are doing. Which brings me to point two: that this hype going around is completely ignoring the independent, self-pubbed digital market. I point you over here, at, where they’re talking about how there is a strong shift in ebook purchasing over to indie-published and Amazon-imprint-published ebooks.

There’s a real simple reason for this, and that reason is ebook pricing.

As a member of NIWA, I’m in a position to see a lot of my fellow indie writers experimenting with their pricing, trying to find a price point that actually moves titles. The vast majority of indie writers I know sell their titles for way, way cheaper than the big publishing houses do, because they’ve discovered that selling a novel for $2.99, $3.99, or $4.99 is going to get them way more sales than trying to sell at $12.99 or up.

Likewise for digital-first imprints, like Carina. There are reasons my trilogy with Carina sells for $2.99 for each of the three books, and that reason is that that price point has been regularly demonstrated to be way more effective in pulling in digital readers.

Dear Author and Smart Bitches both run regular features on their sites highlighting books that have gone on sale for $2.99, $1.99, or $.99, because the romance genre in particular is full of readers that burn through so many titles that they are eager to snap up books for as cheaply as they can get them.

And this certainly lines up with my own experience as a purchaser of ebooks. As y’all know if you regularly follow me here on my blog or on the social media sites, I buy ridiculous numbers of books every year (as documented on my gosh-i-have-a-lot-of-books tag. I’m very, very grateful that I have enough disposable income that I can in fact afford to buy all the books I want whenever I want them–but I do also have to exercise at least some level of judiciousness in it.

So I am very, very unlikely to buy a book at more than $12.99. I’ll make occasional exceptions, but if a new release I want comes out at that price or above–usually because the accompanying print edition has come out in hardback–then I am NOT going to get that ebook when it releases. I’m just not. I’ll be a lot more likely to buy it later when the mass market version comes out in print, and the accompanying ebook price comes down.

Because here’s the thing. I can either get one ebook for $14.99, or I can get three for $4.99. Assuming all the authors in question write a book that genuinely entertains me for whatever reason, that’s three times the amount of entertainment for a similar price. I and other power-buyers like me cannot ignore this. My income is good, but it is not infinite.

And when those cheaper books are books by indie authors, this is going to fly right under the radar of media sources that still only have fucks to give about what the big names in publishing are doing.

Point number three: sure, Waterstones stopped selling Kindles. But as The Digital Reader points out, this is less of a question of people abandoning digital reading in general, and more of a question of people moving towards reading on general-purpose tablets or on their phones instead.

See previous commentary re: disposable income. If you want to get into reading ebooks, it’s a very legitimate question as to whether you should spend your money on a device that does only one thing–or whether it would be much more cost-effective to get a general-purpose device like an iPad or an Android tablet instead. Or a large phone, for that matter. That way you can still read ebooks, and do a bunch of other things on the same device.

This is a particularly important question if you don’t have much disposable income to spare.

The overall takeaway I encourage you to get from this: if people are buying print books, awesome, more joy to them. Just please don’t make this all about “yay people are buying REAL books”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a digital book may not be in physical form, but I guarantee you, that book is every bit as real to its writer as a book that made it into print.

And for a reader who loves that book? It’s still every bit as real too, whether she read it on her phone or on her tablet or in a web browser.

So don’t sound that death knell for digital yet. It’s not going anywhere. Trust me.


In which Anna speaks up for all types of books

I feel the need to make a clarification on my previous post, which is intended to be more about my general bemusement about not getting the “old book smell” thing rather than a statement about print vs. digital in general. And yet, I’ve already started getting comments from various folks about “I prefer print because…” or “I prefer digital because…” Not just “I prefer”, either. I’m getting words like “aversion” thrown around, too.

Because yes, this is a contentious topic. And trust me when I tell you, folks, that I’ve heard all the various arguments for people’s preferred reasons for reading in whatever format they prefer. Many of them I do indeed adhere to myself.

I like print because…

  • You don’t have to recharge a print book
  • You don’t have to go to the trouble of cracking the DRM
  • You can more safely read it in the bath (though I note I’ve actually dropped more print books than ereaders into the bath water)
  • You can read it when the power goes out
  • A well-designed book IS a thing of beauty and a joy forever
  • If I ever lose my ereader, I still have the backup print copies of books by my most admired authors (the people I buy in both formats)

And I like digital because…

  • It’s way easier for me to carry my ereader on a commute
  • I have lots more books at my disposal on the commute
  • I can immediately start a new book if I finish one partway through my lunch break or bus ride
  • Ebooks take up no shelf space and the number of them I own is limited only by the space on the device
  • There are some books I can in fact only get digitally, like all my fellow Carina authors’ books
  • It’s way easier for me to buy Quebec SF/F in digital form than it is to order the books from Quebec
  • I own so many print books already that I’m chronically out of shelf space, so I pretty much HAVE to buy digital right now

Notice here though how I say “I like…”, not “I prefer…” Because yes, I do like both formats. Both have their good points. Both have their bad points.

And I’d like to ask all of you out there, no matter which type of book you prefer, to be aware of how you present your preferences. I think I speak for digitally published authors everywhere when I say, for example, that it’s hurtful to hear someone say to you, “Well gosh, I’d love to read your book, but I only read real books.” As if that story you labored over for several years to get written, edited, accepted by a publisher, and then edited some more until it was fit to ship is somehow less worthy, less real, than books manifested in paper and ink.

I’m here to tell you, people, to the people that wrote those ebooks and to the people that enjoy reading them, those stories are every bit as real.

Likewise, digital advocates, be mindful of how you present yourselves too. It’s equally hurtful for people who love their books in physical form to hear “you’re behind the times” or “you’re stuck in the past” or “you’re being hurtful to the environment because your books are using paper” or whatever.

Those of you who know me well may recognize the similarity of this argument to ones I’ve put forth advocating against computer or phone evangelism, too. It’s the same principle, really.

Because what it boils down to is, people like what people like. You don’t have to explain it. You don’t have to defend it. Just remember, the feelings of the people who love print are every bit as real and valid as the feelings of the people who love digital, and vice versa.

And as I pointed out in the previous post, books themselves are powerful creators of emotion throughout our culture. Justifiably so.

On that, I think we can all agree!


In which Anna does not get Old Book Smell

I had a lovely little discussion about this on Facebook over the weekend, so I’m pulling this up into its own post.

Time and time again, in the eternal print vs. digital debate on books, one of the arguments I see the pro-print folks put forth is that ebooks can never replace the smell of an old book for them. People describe how it’s a vanilla-like smell, or in some cases brown-sugar-like. It’s a real and measurable phenonemon; it’s been studied! And intellectually, I certainly understand why people connect with it so strongly. It’s also a real and measurable phenomenon that people develop emotional attachments to smells, and certainly, I very much understand how a treasured book creates an emotional attachment.

But the smell thing? That doesn’t happen with me. Mostly, when I smell an old book, I have to fight off the urge to sneeze. Old books smell like dust to me, not like vanilla or brown sugar. Dara tells me it doesn’t happen with her, either. It makes me wonder if there’s a genetic thing going on here, like how cilantro tastes like battery acid to Dara.

Because as far as I can tell, my sense of smell isn’t particularly impaired. There are lots of smells I find pleasurable: tasty things baking, the smell of the ocean, wood crackling in a fireplace, the rosemary-and-lavender blend I like to use in my bubble bath. I do not, however, tend to form emotional attachments to smells. So I’m lacking one of the big factors I see cited on the print side of print vs. digital.

One of the folks in my Facebook discussion said she always thought of Giles in an early episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “I, Robot”:

Jenny Calendar: Honestly, what is it about them that bothers you so much?

Giles: The smell.

Jenny Calendar: Computers don’t smell, Rupert.

Giles: I know. Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a-a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and-and-and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a – it, uh, it has no-no texture, no-no context. It’s-it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then-then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um, smelly.

Me, I always think of the Star Trek TOS series episode “Court Martial”:

Cogley: Books, young man, books. Thousands of them. If time wasn’t so important, I’d show you something. My library. Thousands of books.

Captain James T. Kirk: And what would be the point?

Cogley: This is where the law is. Not in that homogenized, pasteurized synthesizer.

With powerful quotes like this in our pop culture references, honestly, I can’t blame my fellow book aficiandos for being so passionate about books as physical objects. Our culture does value them, and rightly so–though I could also argue that it doesn’t value them nearly as much as it should.

For me, though, the value and emotional attachment is not in the physical object, no matter how good it smells.

For me, Cogley and Giles are wrong. It’s the content of the books, their knowledge, their stories, that create the emotional attachment for me.

That is, indeed, the entire point of a book.


Print vs. digital, addendum

Two different people have brought up to me in the comments on my last post a point which I wished to call out and separately address. To wit, that part of the question of print vs. digital is a question of privilege.

It absolutely is, I agree. That I am able to own not one, not two, but three different devices capable of reading ebooks (my nook, my iPhone, and my computer, and yes, the computer counts) is absolutely a question of my privilege of having enough income to do so. This is me acknowledging that. Since I grew up in a family environment that had quite limited income, I daresay this went a long way towards books being the one big indulgence I generally allow myself. (I apparently lack the usual girly genes involving clothes, shoes, purses, makeup, etc. All my disposable income goes to books, electronic devices, and music.)

I very, very much respect and acknowledge the fact that even though prices on ereaders are dropping regularly, they are still very much luxury devices. Many will not be able to afford better than secondhand prices for books in general, which counts them out of buying most if not all ebooks, and never mind the expense of a device to actually read them on. This is one of the biggest reasons that people who like to read digitally really, really should never snark on people who prefer to read in print.

At the same time though let me point out that the question of privilege is not entirely one-sided here. There’s also the question of health and age privilege; consider for example the oft-quoted scenario of a nearsighted person who finds that reading on an ereading device, and therefore being able to adjust the font size to something comfortable for them, means they can suddenly read a lot more easily than they can a print book. I’ve seen countless people testify to this on various blogs and on Twitter, and a couple of people have talked about it directly to me.

This though was the point of my original post: i.e., that both print and digital readers have very good reasons for preferring to read in the formats they do, and to express the hope that each side will refrain from snarking about the other. As I said in the comments on that post, publishing is going through massive upheaval over not only the formats of books to be published in, but over its ongoing ability to make money in general. Nobody knows how things are going to shake out in ten, fifteen, or twenty years down on the line, although predictions abound. It’s very scary, all around!

One thing though I’m pretty sure we can all agree on: books will survive, in one form or another, and as long as that is the case, there will be people to read them.

P.S. Sorry about comments being disabled on the LJ and DW mirrored versions of that last post. I’d forgotten I turned those off for a previous poll post, and never turned ’em back on! You may now comment on the original WP post as well as its LJ and DW mirrors.


The print vs. digital divide

Y’all want to know the fastest way to get an epubbed author’s blood pressure spiking? Refer to printed books as “real” books.

This got shoved into the front of my brain yesterday when one of my favorite local bookstores linked off to an opinion article written by a twenty-something who was stridently against electronic readers–to the point that they’d confessed to having irrational hatred for seeing other people reading them. One of their primary objections to them appeared to be that they could no longer sneak peeks at what those other people are reading, if they’re reading electronically! They proceeded to wax eloquent for several following paragraphs about why they would never stoop so low as to acquire an e-reader, because they loved “real” books too much. Snarky commentary was made about how e-reader enthusiasts got on this person’s case about “what are you, a Mennonite?” And even the bookstore in question, in their linking to this article, dropped a cute little remark about how they “don’t have anything against e-readers, no wait, maybe a little”.

This makes me sad.

Part of it is of course that as an epubbed author, I’m really tired of hearing the print books getting referred to as the “real” books. This carries the automatic implication that digital books are “not real”. Imaginary. Lesser in value than books that were fortunate enough to get put into print. Which is an awfully cruel thing to say to somebody who labored just as hard to get her epubbed book written as the authors who are in print. I guarantee you, people, that to us epubbed authors, our stories are every bit as real to us as the ones that are put down on paper.

Part of it though is the bigger question of the print vs. digital argument. It’s yet another variation of the “this thing vs. that thing” debate that crops up in every single aspect of our daily lives: Coke vs. Pepsi. PC vs. Mac vs. Linux. Emacs vs. vi. Etc., etc., on and on, with each side espousing the virtues of whatever they’ve committed to and often sneering at the other side, who are clearly not clever enough or intelligent enough to realize the virtues of the Right Choice.

Don’t get me wrong. I get that the digital book is a threat to traditional bookstores, and that indie bookstores in particular, who have been struggling for ages against the bigger chains, are going to hunker down and cling to their print books for as long as possible. But I’m really tired of the print side sneering at the digital side, and vice versa. For me as both a writer and a reader, this loses sight of the most important thing: the story.

You tell me a good enough story, I’ll read it in whatever format is available–print, digital, on the back of a cereal box, in fortune cookies, in tweets, in skywriting, whatever. Seriously, I do not care about the format. I care about the story. Print has its virtues for me, such as the art of a beautifully designed book–Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin comes immediately to mind. It’s also lovely for reading if the power is out, or if you’ve left your Nook or iPhone at home and/or uncharged. And although this makes me sad too with my writer hat on, truth be told, writers still are compensated better for print than they are for digital. I’d love to see that change, but I’m not expecting it to do so quickly.

In the meantime, though, digital also has its virtues. Many folks like how a well-used book will have crinkled corners and bent pages and such, and this to them is a sign of how much the book is loved. For me, though, that’s an irritant. Because I love my books, I don’t want to damage them. And if I carry them around in my backpack on a daily basis, they will get damaged. Therefore, for me as a reading choice, a reader makes more sense because in its protective case, it’ll take a lot more abuse than a paperback or trade will. Never mind a hardback, which is often going to be too bulky to carry around easily anyway.

You tell me a good enough story, though? I will buy you in print and digital. Print to keep the archive copy around, and digital for day to day reading. I am living proof that you don’t have to choose one or the other. I long for the day that publishers will start offering sales of both print and digital for one nice premium price, because I will totally put down money for that.

In the meantime, though, print enthusiasts, I beg you, please don’t look down your noses at the digital fans. Digital fans, same goes for you in reverse. Let’s just all just agree that yeah, each of us will have our personal preferences as to how we like to read, and get back to the important thing that we all have in common: i.e., reading. Thank you!