As I sit down to write this blog, my ebook reader sits comfortably in my bag, enjoying a fairly successful career as my content provider. It should be pretty proud of itself. I turn it on and am given the key to my own library. It is huge – or at least, as big as the circuit board allows, which only means it will get bigger – and can be symmetrical and forged of marble, with intricate parquet flooring, or cosy and oak-panelled, with plush carpets and art-deco lamps. In this library, I sit in my chair with a cup of tea and a biscuit, and all is quiet and calm. I don’t even have to move! Next book? Sure, right this way, all with the click of a button. How much longer do I have left? 12% – not long to go, I think, as the remainder of my journey is quantified. My target is set and peacefulness washes over me as I soak up the story in my very own grand library. Okay, so maybe that bit’s in my head. But that’s why we all read, isn’t it?
And then there’s my classic, traditional print book. Hardback or paperback, they’re reliable (except, perhaps, when I lay it face down on a soggy towel on a summer holiday), they’re sturdy, pleasing on the eye and above all else, they’re tangible. Yes, I know the ebook reader is a physical thing too, but there’s something about print that, for me, simply provides a better sensory experience. I rub my hand over the gloss or matte finish of the cover, marvelling at the embossed title. I tilt the cover back and forth in the light to catch the sparkle of the embellished foiling. I smell the pages. I flick through them, and allow the blurred words to whisper read me, read me excitedly as I get that beloved feeling of anticipation that comes with the start of every new adventure. From then on I embark on said adventure, turning the corners of the pages as I go, and when I’ve soaked up the very last sentence, I place it on my shelf, and allow it to serve as a reminder of the time we shared together.
Whether you choose print or ebooks, they both have their pros and cons, and there seems to be a growing rift between the two platforms. So I have to ask: is it war? Or is the divide imaginary?
Initially, I’m inclined to say WHO CARES? As long as we’re reading, right? As smartphones and tablets become increasingly ubiquitous, I see more and more kids tapping away artfully on their iPads and updating to the new iOS, so it seems only sensible and forward-thinking to encourage the spread of the ebook for the new generation. But alas, there are many who do care, and publishing houses would have to be right up there on the list of those who do.
Why? Well we want to know what people are most likely to buy. Whilst money does, of course, keep us in business, I believe that we and other publishing houses alike would say that first and foremost we exist to produce and sustain great literature. In this way, wanting to know consumer habits and needs comes to the fore, and we ask ourselves questions like: who do we want to read this book? And when we ask ourselves why we want people to read our books, more often than not, we say because it’s a great book! At the heart of the venture is our love of great literature.
I appreciate that, as readers, you and I want to buy books at a reasonable price, so if I can get a book at the cheapest price possible, I will. But as a consumer, I buy a book because I have faith in the story. Where this faith comes from depends on a huge number of factors, like: where I buy the book, the cover, the author, the title, the blurb, the first paragraph and so on, but ultimately, I’m looking for quality. The issue of price is, for me, a distribution and retail issue. Is said store selling it a pound cheaper? I’ll go there then. When it comes down to it, price is not the only deciding factor.
So what weapon is quality wielding in this apparent battle of formats?
Perhaps it has something to do with the published seal of approval. Perhaps the divide is less ‘ebook vs. print’ and more ‘self-published vs. published’. If the best quality at the best price point is really what the consumer is looking for, the right book (published or unpublished) at the right price will, regardless of format, certainly do the trick. Wouldn’t it? But let us be certain that publishing exists as a business for a reason, and in the nature of good business, publishing houses are looking for the best quality literature in our (the reader’s) best interests. Why? Because we all love it, and if we love it, it sells. If it sells, we stay in business, and if we stay in business, we can simply continue to love great literature. As a result, we may earn a living, feed ourselves and our families, and may go to work in the knowledge that we are contributing to the production of a great art form that millions around the globe hold dear to their hearts.
On the other hand, we have the self-publishing industry. Fantastic! A platform through which people can write and publish their texts for little or no cost, available for the world to download if they so wish. This is the beauty of the internet: it gives us all a voice and the tools with which we can have our say, and I wholeheartedly respect that. Let the doors to new work and new audiences open, and may they stay open. So why does self-publishing enter the battle? Well it seems that many are all too eager to categorise print with publishing houses, and ebooks with self-published authors. Whilst the majority of self-published works are made available for ebook download, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the publishing industry works hard to have the consumer believe that these titles aren’t worth reading! In fact, the majority of ebooks sold in the market have in fact been produced by publishing houses. So what’s all the fuss about?
It’s not so that we can maintain higher prices for print either. The publishing industry involves a huge amount of cost, and even though we’re producing more books than ever before, authors are still barely able to make a living on their hard work. Generally, profit margins are slim, but price points are set so that we, the readers, benefit from a sustainable and healthy literary culture. We’re not trying to pit print vs. the ebook. If anything, we’re trying to promote both.
Let me return to the matter of quality. If the consumer wants a good read, then the platform divide becomes, in this way, irrelevant. George R. Martin’s Game of Thronesstill grips me to the very end on my ebook reader and in print. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is still devastatingly good, regardless of the reading experience. The words are the same on both formats, so when I’ve found the right read, quality won’t make me choose between ebook and print. In this way, we can safely say that self-published or published, I have chosen the book for me. So what else influences my decision?
Okay, so let us return to cost. If I can download The Hunger Games through my ebook reader for half the price of print, and I use and enjoy (albeit in different ways) both reading experiences, then I’ll unsurprisingly go for the cheaper option. In this way, cost has chosen the ebook, but my demand for quality still pervades. I’m not saying that self-published books fall short on quality (I haven’t read every one, so it would be impossible to think so for sure), and of course I have read terrible published books, but you can’t declare cost the winner when comparing published works with self-published works. This war comes down to the right reading experience at the right cost, and not cost, or quality alone.
So, we keep coming back to the reading experience. My ebook is convenient, lightweight and perfectly readable. Sounds like a winner, right? Well, it’s not as easy as that folks. Let’s take a look at print for a second.
Like the ebook and self-publishing industries, published books open the doors to great literature and new audiences, and we should never restrict that. Bookshops and libraries are cultural treasures and are, for many, the only outlet for buying and renting books. Do I think that digital production helps lessen the stress on deforestation? Absolutely. Overproduction is a threat, but can be managed responsibly. If we can overcome that and still give millions access to the books that enrich our lives, then I say let’s do it.
So why go digital? Ebooks are great, published, unpublished, whatever takes your fancy. Go get the book of your dreams. They too are a fantastic outlet for the production of great literature, and are in many ways, a whole lot more convenient. So while convenience pervades, and cost does factor, the print industry is certainly not dead.
Whether you believe that eventually all materials things in the universe will be digital or not, let’s all stop trying to wage war between the ebook and print, and accept that we all have preferences. Hardback, paperback, ebook, whatever. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, their quirks and their charms, but each act as crucial outlets to entertainment and creativity. To damn one would, in my opinion, irresponsibly damn the other. Let’s wave the flag of both ebook and print. Let’s open the doors to great literature everywhere, and call an end to this phoney war.