eBooks vs Physical Books: the Importance of Choice

Choice, not conflict: why libraries need both physical, and eBooks, to deliver their missionseBooks are often portrayed as being in conflict with physical books – the modern versus the traditional, function versus experience, and (more or less openly) Amazon versus bookstores and established publishers.


Sales figures are regularly analysed for the relative trends. Partisans of physical books cite numbers from the big publishers, which tend to show increased sales of hardcopies making up for a fall in eBook sales.


Amazon’s tax practices, and recent stories about fake eBooks on the site potentially being used for money laundering have provided further ammunition for those who seek to paint eBooks as a ‘bad thing’. Others point out that once independent eBook publishing (much of which runs through Amazon) is included, the eBook market looks a lot healthier (see also this Quartz piece).


A recent study (paywalled) from the University of Arizona, based on focus group studies, provides interesting insights looks at user experiences and attitudes towards eBooks, aiming to establish at the micro level (rather than the macro, whole-of-market level) what may underpin consumers’ behaviour.


To Have and Not to Hold?


A key finding from the article concerns the difference in people’s feelings about owning digital and physical books, or rather that there is a much stronger sense of ownership of physical objects. It underlines that reading an eBook feels more like ‘renting’ than buying, more like a service than a good.


For the respondents, much of this was linked to subjective responses. Holding an object in your hands does create a greater sense of connection, and the study makes a lot of the touch, feel and smell of a physical book. The importance of memories of children’s books, for example, also plays a role.


But it also cites legal issues. Of course it is true that digital works are services, which are licenced rather than bought. Increasingly, works are held on third-party servers, and readers’ devices hold no more than a temporary copy. Digital materials are licenced, rather than bought.


Yet the fact that contracts and technological measures affect what users can do is also at the fore, with the impossibility to lend, give or sell books to friends and others meaning that eBooks feel less valuable. Certainly for libraries, the tough (and often confusing) restrictions around eLending consume considerable time and effort.


There is nothing subjective about this – it is something decided by publishers of eBooks (be they an independent writer working through Amazon or a traditional bookseller). And so it is something that can be changed.


Competitor or Complement?


The article suggests that there are two ways forwards for eBook publishers – either to accept that eBooks are different, and to make more of the possibilities offered by digital (i.e. multimedia), or to try and make eBooks more like physical books.


In a (controversial) interview on the subject, Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry described eBooks as a ‘stupid format’, and effectively argues for the first option – bringing eBooks closer to other multimedia experiences. This may well provide a response to the ‘attention wars’ which seem to be pitching different forms of entertainment against each other – who gets the biggest share of people’s free time?


As for the second option, the study suggests further physical adaptations of e-readers, or the possibility to scribble notes in the margin as changes that could help. What the study doesn’t mention (at least in the available press materials) is that maybe more could done at least to tackle the legal constraints on eBooks, not least in order to make it easier for libraries to lend books.


Of course it doesn’t necessarily need to be a binary choice.


As the study shows, current eBook formats do seem to work for people who simply need the basic functionality of the digital product (lighter, compatibility with DAISY readers, possibility to magnify text), and do not necessarily need or want multimedia.


Moreover, they also have proved valuable for non-traditional publishers. A shift to ‘richer’ formats may imply greater costs, which would reverse the trend towards reducing the costs of such independent/self-publishing, harming diversity. Clearly improving licence terms would make this access easier, and potentially more valuable to buyers.


It is also the case that people’s preferences will vary according to their personal situations, what they are reading, the time of day, and other factors. Given libraries’ focus on best responding to readers’ needs, being able to lend books in whatever format works best for readers, in all their diversity, is the key.


For libraries, therefore, the idea of a competition between eBooks and physical books is perhaps unhelpful. Choices as to formats should be made by readers, not by libraries or suppliers as far as possible. Libraries and suppliers, together, can do best by readers by making this choice as real and easy as possible.

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