Please note, before I begin: The title of this piece is not “Why you should like ebooks.” It’s “Why I like ebooks.” I’m both amused and irritated when questions of subjective taste get treated as arguments about morality or character or the well-being of society. So I’m both amused and irritated when people insist that ebooks represent the decay of all that is truly beautiful about reading — and when people insist that people who prefer paper books are out-of-touch fuddy-duddies who need to get with the times.
That being said: I do have a personal preference for ebooks over paper books — so this piece is a bit more of a pushback against the “Ebooks are destroying literature!” crowd. I like ebooks. Unless a book is an art book or has a lot of illustrations, I almost always buy books in ebook form if I can. I think this is a reasonable preference. Here’s why — and also, here’s why I understand that some people feel differently.
Plus, I love being able to flip back and forth between my books, depending on what I’m in the mood for — the serious novel or science book at the beginning of the long plane ride, the light familiar comfort book at the end of a long day. That’s also true when I’m at home, but it’s even more true when I travel. I’m something of a promiscuous reader — I often read more than one book in parallel. And I don’t always know what book I’ll be in the mood for when I’ve finished the last one. Ebooks make this a non-issue.
Immediacy. I love, love, LOVE the fact that, with an ebook reader, I can buy a book the minute I hear about it. Ebooks mean that I’m not wandering into bookstores asking the clerk, “There was this book I heard about a few weeks ago, I don’t remember the title or the author, but it was something about feminism and pop culture, or maybe the history of female characters in pop culture, or something like that, it had a writeup in the New Yorker, or maybe it was The Toast.” With ebooks, I can buy a book the minute I hear about it. (This is also dangerous, of course — being able to buy books on impulse means buying more books — but this is at least somewhat mitigated by the fact that ebooks tend to be less expensive.)
Storage. Our apartment has limited space, what with it being a space in the physical world that does not have a wormhole to another dimension where we can store an infinite large library. It’s nice to be able to buy books without worrying about the fact that our bookshelves are full and the piles of books on the floor in front of our bookshelves are starting to topple over.
Books don’t have to go out of print. With print books, if a publisher decides that it’s not worth doing a second or third or tenth printing, then once they’ve sold the first five thousand or fifty thousand or five hundred thousand or whatever — that’s it. No more copies. Publishers have to decide ahead of time how many copies of a book they think they’ll sell, and there are economies of scale involved — it costs a certain amount to do a print run at all, of any size. So if they don’t think they can sell enough to make another print run worth it — that’s it. No more copies.
With ebooks, once a book has been published, there’s no reason for it to disappear. Once a book is out there, it doesn’t cost the publisher any more to “publish” another thousand copies, another hundred copies, another ten copies, another copy.
(Slight tangent: I wonder how this is going to change the publishing industry, when and if print books are obsolete and all books are ebooks. I wonder if publishers will be more likely to take chances on quirky books or untested authors, when the investment is lower because they don’t have to sink money into a physical print run.)
Privacy. I like being able to read porn in airports, and not worry about who’s noticing the fact that I’m reading porn. I’m sure other people feel the same way: about porn, atheist books, queer books, romance novels, any number of kinds of books that people sometimes want to keep private. (Although there is a flip side to this, which I’ll get to in a bit.)
Heaviness. Seriously. Do you ever have that thing where there’s a long book you want to read, but you just can’t face the thought of lugging it around, and reading it in bed at night seems like a chore? I love the fact that with ebooks, long books are exactly as easy to physically manage as short ones.
Reading at night without a light. With my ebook reader, I can read at night without having to keep a light on. This makes it easier for Ingrid to sleep.
Adjustable type size. As I get older and my eyesight gets shittier, I appreciate the fact that literally every ebook I own can be a large-type book if I need it to.
Looking up words. This isn’t that big a deal, but it doesn’t suck: I like the Dictionary feature of ebooks. I like that when I’m reading, and I encounter an unfamiliar word, it’s super-easy to look it up.
Ecology. This is the closest I come to an argument that ebooks are actually objectively superior and all other people should use them (although again, I’m not actually making that argument). Physical print books have more of an ecological footprint than ebooks. Printing them means cutting down trees; shipping them around the country takes gas. Ebooks do have an ecological footprint — you have to make and ship the ebook reader, you occasionally have to replace it, and you have to keep it charged which takes electricity — but it’s not as much as the footprint of paper books.
Finally, and very importantly:
This is a different angle, obviously — it’s why I like ebooks as a writer and not as a reader — but it’s not trivial. And it does have relevance to why I like ebooks as a reader.
Self-publishing is much, MUCH harder with physical books than it is with ebooks. It’s easier now than it used to be, with the advent of on-demand printing — but it’s still not easy. Ebooks have made self-publishing a much more low-cost, low-risk venture. Once you’ve taken the time to actually write the book itself — which is obviously not trivial, from an author’s point of view it’s by far the biggest investment — the investment is pretty low. Paying a formatter, paying a cover artist, whatever you want to spend on promotion — that’s it.
And once you’ve factored in the initial investment of time and formatting and whatnot, the margin is pretty good. (With self-publishing on Kindle, authors keep 70% of the cover price on sales in most regions — WAY more than standard royalties we get from even the most generous print publishers.) Plus, see above, about how books never have to go out of print. You can keep bringing in income from a book, years after it’s been published, without having to worry about your book going out of print.
And that’s made it easier for writers to make a living. Specifically, it’s made it easier for writers to make a living, or at least part of a living, if we don’t have huge mainstream appeal, but we do have a healthy readership in a particular subculture (like, oh, say, just to pick an example completely at random, organized atheism).
What’s more, it means that writers can decide for ourselves whether our books have a market. When I was first trying to get Why Are You Atheists So Angry? published, I was told by several of the big publishers that (a) books with the word “atheism” or “atheist” in the title wouldn’t sell; (b) books with the word “angry” in the title wouldn’t sell; (c) I didn’t have a big enough platform to effectively promote it.
I knew this was bullshit, on all three counts. I was right.
Self-publishing means that writers don’t have to convince a publisher that our books are marketable, and that it’s worth the investment of a print run. It means that if we know that our blog post about atheist anger went super-viral, if we know that our YouTube video about atheist anger went super-viral, if we know that every time we give our talk about atheist anger it gets met with wild applause, if we know that there are a whole lot of people in the atheist community who want their anger validated and who want to explain that anger to their friends and family — for that matter, if we know that the atheist community, you know, exists — we don’t have to beat our heads against the wall at the ignorance of the Big Five publishing houses. We can shrug our shoulders, scoff at how out of touch they are, and just do it ourselves.
This is good for me as a writer. And it’s good for me as a reader. It doesn’t just mean that I can make a living as a writer. It means that I can read books by other writers who didn’t need to find print publishers for their work — because they were able to self-publish.
That being said, there are things that I like about physical print books, and that make me understand why some people prefer them.
Bookshelves. I like going into people’s houses and browsing their bookshelves. It gives me a sense of who they are, and it gives me ideas about things I might like to read. And I like it when other people come to our house and look at our bookshelves: it gives them a sense of who we are, and gives them ideas about things they might like to read.
There is a solution to this that I’m considering. I’m considering getting one of those electronic picture frames, those devices that display a rotating gallery of images — and putting book covers from our ebook collections on it, and putting it in our library, so people who visit can browse our ebooks, just like they can browse our shelves. It might be more trouble than it’s worth, though — I’d have to either figure out a way to automatically update it when we buy new books, or update it by hand every so often. It’s certainly not as easy as sticking a book on the shelf and having it go in the gallery — but it would be better than nothing.
Reading in the bath. Has anyone tried those ebook waterproofing doodads? Do they work? I like to read in the bath; it would be nice to be able to read whatever book(s) I’m currently reading, and not whatever book I’m willing to get wet.
Something resembling permanence. It scares me to think that, if modern civilization collapsed and were then re-built over hundreds of years, any book published only as an e-book would probably be lost. Books that were printed as physical books might get saved. We can read things today that were written in ancient China or ancient Rome. If those things had been published only on some ancient version of ebooks, we probably wouldn’t be able to.
Thoughts? Do you prefer one book format to another — and if so, why? If possible, please frame your responses in terms of your personal preferences, rather than Why Everyone Else Should Like The Same Format I Do And Anyone Who Doesn’t Is Just Plain Wrong. Thanks.