E-books vs Paper?

Is anybody else tossing up the e-books vs paper question?

We all want to see our writing in print and hold the finished product in our hot little hands.

But I’m one of those people who would rather see the forest still standing instead. Research the increasing rates of paper usage (particularly in developing countries) some time - in a nutshell we do not have enough forests to meet future demand, therefore paper is going to become hideously expensive. This future will not occur in most of our lifetimes, but how will we look the grandchildren in the eye?

Some of us are obviously thinking in terms of electronic publishing. Why else would we be trying to get our heads around multi-markdown? If our transcript is going to a (paper) publisher anyway, they will have a production department / typesetters on hand to straighten out the formatting details.

What do you think?

I think, in part, that it’s an evolutionary step rather than a revolutionary one. For e-books to become a matter of every-day reading will require both better readers (e-ink and both the Sony Reader and the iRex iLiad are good, but flawed, steps in the right direction, imo), and a generation of those who are comfortable reading on such devices.

Some of us adapt more easily than others. I’ve been reading ebooks on a handheld device for years, but I often get comments like, “How can you read on that? I’ll never give up real books!”

Maybe. There are some beautiful coffee table books out there that will be difficult to replace in digital form, imo, but c’mon - mass market paperbacks? Even hardbacks that are read once and then sent off to Goodwill or the local library? I see those as have no trouble making the transition to digital and sooner rather than later. Production costs alone will probably drive it.

One can hope.

(Though I will say there is a splendid rush of delight when you do hold your own physical book in your hand. :smiley: )

I partly like the idea, but I just can’t see me reading from such a device. My eyes get tired looking at a screen all the time. I think technology of the screen is where it will hang - if they can get screens and fonts that are really muted, don’t seem to glare, and can pretty much recreate that print-on-paper feel, then why not? As a reader, I can think of two things I would love immediately:

  1. The ability to carry around a whole library of hundreds of books with me all the time.
  2. The ability to search for quotes without having to trawl through books trying to remember which author said it and then turning to random pages.

But, I do like books, and bookshops and the whole physicality of print…

One big advantage paper books have that electronic ones don’t is the ease of going from place to place. Say you’re reading along and you want to check back on something earlier in the book - stick your finger in your place and then flip back a few pages. With electronic books you can place bookmarks and whatever, but it’s more hassle.

Plus, without paper books, what would I do with my ultra-cool ‘folded-in-half-Post-it-Note’ bookmark???

I’m just waiting for true electronic ink. Imagine a book, just like your average hardback, with a little com port on the spine. Load in whatever book you want to read, and the pages hold the text without need of a battery - power only needed to change the ink, not to maintain it.

Or the paper that I invented for my 2003 NaNovel :slight_smile:

Pipibluestockin’s point - “in a nutshell we do not have enough forests to meet future demand, therefore paper is going to become hideously expensive” - sounds to me decisive.

Tonight I’m due to attend a discussion about the future of the book with Margaret Atwood, Andrew O’Hagan and others, as part of the London Book Fair. I’m looking forward to be enlightened further.

I have been part of a user trial for an as-yet unreleased e-book device, and I have to say I loved it. It nearly broke my heart to have to send it back to the developers at the end of my allotted test period. Not only could I carry round every book I might possibly feel like reading, but I could read comfortably in bed without having to disturb my husband by switching on the light or turning pages. If it is ever launched as a fully-fledged product, I will buy one (subject only to the cost of book downloads).

The only thing that bothers me with e-books is the inadvisability of reading in the bath!

I think at least part of this question is about whether we, as writers, would want to see our work published in electronic or paper form? Save some trees, etc. I think it would be a practical matter. I would want my books to sell! I need to make a living, and I think ebooks have not yet arrived as an alternative to paper books. I would want to do both, so that those that do read ebooks would have that option. That might save a ‘few’ trees!

I myself just can’t find it in myself to replace paper books with ebooks. I love having reference material in e-form and on my computer. But a good novel, no, I can’t enjoy that in an ebook. I wish I could! I need a book I can literally curl up with and immerse myself in, hold in my hand. Maybe if I grew up on ebooks it would be different.

I also find reading on the computer for long periods of time hurts my eyes! So there’s that too.


I completely agree with you - there’s just something about paper books that feels more comfortable.

Plus, you don’t have to worry about your paper book having a system failure - or getting too close to a magnet - or running out of batteries…

Ebooks are so much easier to pirate, too - but at the same time, I don’t think we can shun new things just because of that. Otherwise we’d still only be able to listen to music when within listening distance of the actual musicians.

There is an intriguing line of argument about e-books here:


Galleycat (they will email daily updates):


Media bistro is worth bookmarking.


Good point. With a paper book, all you have to worry about is that it might eventually fall apart after years of loving use (as has my copy of Dune which I’ve read many times over)!

A special field are excavation reports for archaeology. I am very much in favour of non-paper publications. They are easier accessible from anywhere in the world, the money can be spent on the important work rather than publication, searching is easy etc. And I would like to save the forest. Novels on the other side, I like to feel in my hand when reading.


A few years back I’d say that I could read novels and even non-fiction books on a digital format. But during this last year my tastes have changed and I mainly buy paper books.

Scientific stuff, however, is different. My DTP library has now over 2000 pdfs and I love the ability of making a content search and find what I’m looking for in 5 minutes. :slight_smile:

My main sorrow if that in reality DTP is not specifically done for this. Papers or Skim, for instance, could be a better choice after some development. I’d love to be able to note, highlight, bookmark, organize, make bibliographies all in one place. Kind of like mixing DTP, Papers, Skim and Sente! (And then write in Scrivener, of course.)

My paradise life would be: “mega app to be invented”+Scrivener.

But… reading a good paper novel in bed. Ah, the joy! :slight_smile: Starting at 22:00 and only finishing around 04:00. That is heaven and doing it on the laptop or on the palm is spoiling half the fun.

– MJ

I was going to leap in about the poor screens, but seeing as I do most of my ebook reading on the computer screen, not to mention the thousands, nay millions of hours spent reading and websurfing - I think poor screens is a bit of a moot point.

People can adapt. I have used a very cheap Palm and 1 x 1 inch screen with the font sized increased as far as it will go - but working away through the book is a very tedious business.

Having all my books in one little item is my dream. I get very wistful about it everytime I have to pack up and move house. I’m sure everybody looks at their bookcase and thinks either a variation of “I’m going to die” or “the removalists will kill me”.

Hugh, I’m envious - I would have liked to attend that discussion. Is there anyway you could post a potted report of the discussion?

Probably not, strangely enough. I spent the weekend house hunting and was amazed (and depressed) by how few books I saw. Granted, my own collection is at the other extreme, but all eight houses combined didn’t equal my office library.

They all had very nice TVs, though. Sigh…


Brilliant stuff!

Thank you - my reply was delayed because I stopped to datamine the links (as you do).

I was merely wondering out loud about the debate - I didn’t realise there was a frontline and the blogosphere was burning brightly on the subject.

I just wanted to add that there are plenty of renewal sources of plant fibers to make paper out of - hemp comes to mind - so the industry doesn’t have to use trees, it just does.

I am indeed a great fan of ebooks. I do most of my private reading on a Palm TX now. Though I like to buy paper books and the readability of printed text is still better than on screen I would say I still prefer reading ebooks.
I can handle the Palm with one hand which helps a lot when I want to grab my coffee with my free hand and don’t want to put it down to turn the page. I actually can put the device down without the cover flipping back over the page I am reading which I could not easily do with a paper book unless I broke it’s spine. And I can’t bear the thought of damaging a book. :slight_smile:
Another great advantage is that I can look up words with a single click. English is not my native language and so I often want to clarify the meaning of one word or another. But who wants to get up, grab the dictionary, look up a word, put it back, and resume reading?

Well I guess you might say those are smallish arguments, but they do make a difference to me. I am really putting my hopes in future technolgies to dramatically increase the ebook reading experience further. If I could get a device with a decent postcard sized screen I’d be overjoyed. In the meantime the TX is the best compromise in my opinion. :slight_smile:

The event was a public discussion at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. The panel was Margaret Atwood, Andrew O’Hagan (author of the recently published Be Near Me), Stephen Page (CEO of publishers Faber and Faber) and Erica Wagner (literary editor of The Times), who chaired.

The key message I took from the panel was that the minute an e-book reader that is successful arrives, e-books will be everywhere. Paper will continue for a long time yet, in a “mixed economy”, but e-books may increasingly take over the short-term, merchandising, “commodity” publishing roles where the book itself as an artifact is less important. A lot of the points already made in this thread were also highlighted.

Here are some quotes to give a flavour:

  • “A book is like a message in a bottle, something that speaks very privately to you.” (AO’H)

  • “If we’d been in a discussion like this 2,000 years ago, we’d have been talking about the future of scrolls.” (MA)

  • “Reading a book is the most neurologically active thing you can do, apart from actually enjoying the experience itself, more than TV, a movie, even a play. The experience is going to be more profound when reading from paper.” (MA)

  • “We have to separate the book as an experience from the book as an object… There isn’t an army of people in publishing holding on to the book as an object.” (SP)

  • “Copyright is at the centre of anxiety; it has to be protected.” (SP)

  • “The copyright question is not just a financial question for authors, agents and publishers, but also a matter of quality control… Editing - that is selection and presentation - is a craft, one of the greatest in the cultural world.” (AO’H)

  • “If you believe in the ideas of structure and form, throwing bits on the net is a disaster. The flip side is that new technologies have made the world entirely new… The real problem with technology is the search engine, which is wonderful except when dealing with a continuous narrative.” (AO’H)

  • “Whenever new technology hits, people are afraid of it. For example, reading for women was seen as dangerous because it was believed it would make their brains swell and their reproductive organs shrivel.” (MA)

  • “The key test of an e-book is ‘Can you drop it in the bath?’.” (EW)

  • “What you really mean by a really good e-book is an e-book that is really like a book.” (MA)

And finally, an aside from Stephen Page that I liked:

  • “The arrival of the blog has relieved publishers of an enormous burden. We don’t have to read all that stuff any more.”