A Book by Any Other Name…

Sep 22, 2011

From the very beginning of the ebook revolution, the reactions of people in the publishing industry were split. Some saw ebooks as the next big thing, and others looked on warily, wondering if these new fangled contraptions would cannibalize an already shrinking market. Today, both groups are being proven correct: overall sales are down but ebook sales are the highest they've ever been. 

As an editor, my first introduction to digital books was actually as part of the traditional printing process. Over the past few years, I found paper was being used less and less for submissions, galleys, and proofreading. I received electronic versions of the manuscript at various stages and could then email pages to an author for changes rather than mail hard copies, with a quicker response time, and big savings on overnight shipping costs. (And you better believe some of my colleagues resisted those changes as vehemently as they've resisted the ebook.) I've even started editing online, using Microsoft Word and Track Changes rather than a trusty old red pen. The electronic manuscript I work with is in essence an ebook, even though it will eventually be sent to a printer.

Still, the mere thought of ebooks strikes fear in the hearts of some readers. "But...but...I love my paper books! I love the smell, the feel (the taste?) of real books! Digital will kill them off, therefore I hate ebooks!" they lament. But could the progress of digital, or anything for that matter, ever kill off the paper book? I really don't think so.

Not everyone wants to read on an ereader or tablet--or at least not all the time. Coffee table, art, and gifty-type books by virtue of their format will always exist. Plus, it's still pretty hard to gift wrap an ebook, and a gift card can be a little impersonal. Part of me hopes that ebooks might actually raise the cachet of paper books. What are the books that you'll be willing to spend the extra money for in paper? Will publishers spend more on better paper, covers, and overall design for some books?

While not a physical entity unto itself, an ebook is still, in some ways, more physical than other forms of eContent. Ereaders are selling in the millions. (Market research and analysis firm IDC estimated ereader sales topped 12.8 million by the end of 2010. It also estimated almost half those sales were Amazon Kindles.) In one sense, an ebook becomes physical for as long as it exists on the reader. A bound paper book, while a physical object, also has its own ephemeral nature--the story. I may read the same words but what I take away from the story may be very different than your interpretation. In type or bytes, it's still the voice of the author that really matters.

What do you think? Is an ebook less of a "real" book than a bound paper book? Does reading on an ereader negatively affect your reading experience or even the story itself? Or do you prefer ebooks, whether for the (sometimes) more attractive pricing or quick availability through digital downloads? Or is a book still just a book no matter how you read it?

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