Why Printed Books Remain So Popular

IMGP4502Ownership of ebook reading devices exploded by five-fold within three years, as I review in a post for The Objective Standard. That’s an extraordinary development. Still, the growth of ebooks has been slower than I once would have predicted. Although 30 percent of the population read an ebook in 2012, 89 percent read a printed book. Given the relatively high costs of printing, shipping, and stocking a printed book, versus the negligible costs of distributing an ebook, why is the ebook market not growing even faster?

Clearly many publishers push to make printed books the continued standard, at least for now. Whereas the retail price of a printed book covers substantial printing, shipping, and stocking costs, such costs are all but irrelevant regarding ebooks. And yet publishers successfully pushed up the price of many ebooks well above the $10 level. Indeed, sometimes at Amazon I find I can buy a paperback for less than the cost of the ebook.

A large part of the issue here is that marginal costs drop off radically with large print runs and shipping orders. Thus, whereas many small-market books appear only in ebook, the economics of a popular book support large print runs. Plus, of course, brick-and-morter retailers can display printed books, increasing “impulse” purchases.

But I think the publishing end of it is only part of the story. I think there are a variety of reasons why many consumers often prefer a printed book.

Obviously printed books offer a distinctive tactile experience, and, as a bibliophile cousin of mine notes, a good old book also has a distinctive smell. But I think there’s something more important going on.

Although I was an early adopter of e-book technology, I have purchased several printed books of late. Why? I use my printed books for book clubs, book reviews, and research. E-books are difficult to cite, as they often don’t offer page numbers matching the printed edition (or the page numbers do not match precisely).

Often I can remember and visualize where certain content is with respect to the printed page and the page number. With an e-book, the material becomes a constant stream, with no stable relationship to the medium.

Another important feature of a printed book is that I can write notes in the text and in the margins. Although many e-book readers accommodate notations, I have found those systems to be clunky and impractical for my needs.

So, given the current technology, I’m likely to continue to buy both printed books and e-books, depending on my needs for the book.

I also predict that ebook producers and sellers will soon (within a few years) figure out how to overcome many or all of the problems mentioned here. Once that happens, printed books will eventually become about as common as music CDs and vinyl disks are now. At least that’s my guess. It will be exciting to see how it actually pans out.

Creative Commons Image: Kristian Bjornard

3 thoughts on “Why Printed Books Remain So Popular”

  1. Another concern of mine is content ownership. I don’t claim to know how all ebook readers work, but it is my understanding that it is impossible to physically possess the content of most ebooks. For example, I would like to be able to download a book to my ebook reader and save it on a flash drive or a PC with a disk drive or some other medium so that I would still be able to retrieve the content if the ebook content publisher went out of business. I’d like to be able to give the book to my children. I might even want to print it out, or at least print portions of it. I don’t want to just license the content.

    Of course, my concern applies more to some kinds of content than others. If I were just reading cheap novels, I might not care whether I was ever able to return to a book and read it again. But, if it is a textbook or classic literature or some other memorable tome, I’d like to have ownership of it, not just pay to borrow it from an online library (even if I’m supposedly allowed to borrow it indefinitely).

  2. My issues with e-books: 1) Almost every e-book I’ve ever read has some
    type of annoying formatting error, many which are confusing as well. 2) It is
    very difficult to look at a figure and the text relating to it at the same time.
    If you don’t believe me, read: “The End of Time” on a kindle or cell phone. It’s
    hard enough in printed form. 3) I love to flip back and forth throughout the
    book and getting to the right place with the Kindle takes too much effort. Even
    with fiction I like to thumb back and forth to see if the author is consistent
    with his plot (most aren’t). 4) Invariably you hit the wrong button skip several
    pages or chapters ahead and then the ‘sync to furthest page read’ or an
    analogous command takes you to the wrong place etc.

    On the other hand, having it on my cell phone to read when I want to, and being able to down load a book in about 3.5 seconds is a definite advantage as is not filling book shelf after bookshelf with things I will only read once.

    ‘I’d like to be able to give the book to my children.’

    That’s an issue I hadn’t thought of but yes; sharing the book without having to loan out your cell phone or kindle is not possible. Actually, even in the case of cheep fiction you might want to share it with someone you know who likes that kind of book. Although I rarely read a book twice I do agree with you about owning the content.
    The content is actually contained within my Kindle and that shouldn’t change even if Amazon goes out of business. I don’t have to be anywhere near a cell phone network or wi-fi to read the book.

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