A Tale of Two Books: Digital Versus Print

On: October 19, 2010
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About Isobel Gorman
Isobel Gorman is an alumni of the MA in New Media at the University of Amsterdam. She also studied at the National College of Art & Design (NCAD) in Dublin, Ireland where she graduated with a BA in Visual Communications and History of Art and Design in 2001. She received a First Class Honours for her graduating thesis ‘Second Skins’ which dealt with the rising phenomena of Multi-player online gaming. An extract of this thesis was published in the NCAD anthology ‘Thought Lines 6‘. Isobel currently runs a digital design studio and lectures at the Dublin Institute of Design.


Imagine the scene, it’s Christmas, little Billy rushes downstairs and throws himself on the presents under the tree. He reaches out and snatches up what he thinks is the new Larry Botter book and rips off the paper in a frenzy … but what’s this! It’s a *bleep* eReader, not Larry Botter and the Snark of Wisdom! All hell breaks loose, he wanted the limited edition by May. K. Howling, now how’s that supposed to happen with an eReader!

With works of fiction, we are taken on emotional journeys through the compelling power of storytelling. For many people this intense experience instills a great love or passion for not only the story or content, but also for the physical conduit of the experience itself. How many readers do you know that collect works of a particular author, treating the books as if they were precious treasures. For these people, the physical book itself becomes a portal to a certain sentiment or feeling. The printed book can, as such, be said to possess an aura or become imbued with a certain mystique, and over time the book can age which adds to this sense of nostalgia. How will new books fare in the transition to the digital dimension? What will replace the desire people have for collecting certain series of books, first editions, limitied editions, signed copies for example? Or will eBooks do away with the printed version? What about the licensing of books, will we be able to digitally ‘lend’ a book to a friend?

History has already seen a long evolution of the book – from cuniform stone tablets, Chinese woodblock tablets, papyrus, illuminated manuscript to printed versions that has been around since Gutenberg’s first bibles were output from the printing press in 1440. The eReader may look to be the next step in the evolution of the book and one that brings it into the digital age, however, there are quite a few issues with the transition from print to purely digital form. While the eReader, at this stage, is perhaps more suitable for academic or technical content I think the full transition to digital for fiction and art books will not be so rapid. There are a number of factors, both technically and culturally, which impact on this digital shift.

At present, the most obvious benefit of the eReader is that you can upload a number of books onto it at any one time. Students rejoice, instead of dragging a bag the weight of a small elephant to Uni they can now bring extra sandwiches. Actually, strike that, at over $100 for the cheapest eReader it’s not every student that can afford to own one. Another problem that may arise with the advent of the academic eBook is the issue of licensing. What’s to stop students from trading books? Will the school, university or educational institute share eBooks? Is strict Digital Rights Management (DRM) control really the best solution for these virtual products? This matter is still in hot debate. However, according to online retailer eBook.com (DRM) means that all books sold cannot presently be transferred.

…you promise not to reproduce, transmit, make available, adapt, modify, frame (by whatever means), link to, forward, create derivative works based upon, distribute, disseminate, sell, publish, sublicense, or in any way commingle the Content with other third party content, do any other act of copyright, or otherwise use any of the material on the site without first obtaining the written permission of eBooks.com (corp@eBooks.com), or unless specifically permitted by the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) or similar copyright legislation.[1]

The beauty of regular books is that we can borrow, lend or resell them without fear of legal entanglement. However, digital book formats can be downloaded from anywhere there is an internet connection which makes access to them more convenient, particularly in the educational sector where instant access to specialised knowledge may be required. The benefits of eBooks for academic use are many i.e. no printing costs, shipping fees or waiting for delivery. Academic and technical eBooks can also be used for quick reference from any location with your eReader. At this stage however, eReaders like Kindle only display in black and white so it is still not ideal for eBooks which may require colour display. Asus announced this year that they plan to enter the market by offering a full colour eReader with 6 inch screen, Wifi and 122 hours of battery life. The price is yet to be decided but we can assume that it will be very expensive given that it uses cutting edge OLED technology.  eReaders are undeniably becoming more sophisticated and with the advent of colour displays on the market older models will no doubt become more affordable.

Currently the eReader is restricted by monochrome display and their relatively small size. While this may be sufficient for most academic or works of narrative fiction, it cannot possibly seek to satisfy the needs of other segment in the publishing sector i.e. art or photography books. For more illustrative books where the emphasis is on displaying predominantly visual content or more abstract concepts, problems will certainly arise. There are also special print formats for limited editions that require more specialised and tactile printing processes such as embossing, foil or leaf etc. In my opinion this niche area will continue to produce printed books for the forseeable future. This segment is more fine art and craftsmanship or presentation is emphasised over mass-distribution. Perhaps they may also create eBooks but these may be supplementary or secondary to the original art books.

Another issue we encounter is children’s books. Very young children learn by interaction and as such require a more tactile approach to early learning. These books cannot become digitalised at this stage – how would a pop-up book or the fabric book work in a non-tactile eReader? Of course other children’s book could be fun in a digital form, particularly in the future when the eReader becomes more interactive and sophisticated.

Finally, let us come full circle to the issue of the author. How will digitalization impact on their craft? If the music industry is anything to go by, piracy is a major issue that could cost the author the fruits of their creative labour. According to CNNTech.com, Dan Browne’s ‘The Lost Symbol’ sold more digital copies than hardback. However, pirate copies of the novel were available to download for free within days.

On Amazon.com, the book sold more digital copies for the Kindle e-reader in its first few days than hardback editions. This was seen as something of a paradigm shift in the publishing industry, but it also may have come at a cost. Less than 24 hours after its release, pirated digital copies of the novel were found on file-sharing sites such as Rapidshare and BitTorrent. Within days, it had been downloaded for free more than 100,000 times.[2]

Unlike musicians, authors can’t exactly counter this growing problem by going on tour and earning an income through live performances and selling merchandise. This issue highlights the urgent need within the eBook publishing industry to come up with more innovation and open-minded solution.

In conclusion, while there are many benefits to purchasing eBooks, including instant availability, reduced content cost, portability and ease of access there are still many issues that impede the speed of the transition to digital format. These issues are piracy, licensing, tactility, current eReader technological limitations (display and size) and in the case of some genres the emotional attachment people have to the printed book. In the end, as technology evolves many of these issues will no doubt be resolved quickly. Perhaps we will see new generations of children who will become equally attached to next generation eReaders, as for myself, I won’t be buying one anytime soon.


Image by Yanieck Mariani (Creative Commons License)


[1] http://www.ebooks.com/information/customerlicense.asp

[2] http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-01/tech/ebook.piracy_1_e-books-digital-piracy-publishing-industry?s=PM:TECH


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