Column: E or Tree? Of Books and E-Books

So I thought I already posted my last blog update for the year. Sorry; I’m taking that back. This is the last one for 2014. 🙂

A fellow tech writer asked me for my views on the long-running battle between print books and e-books. This was my response.

(Reposted with permission from 2nd Opinion. You can find the original post here, and it’s also on the magazine’s December 2014 issue. Add ’em up on Facebook, too!)

“E” or Tree?

Why not use both?

by KC Calpo

There are three specific words that I’ve been hearing for years, words that almost automatically get an eye roll in response.

“Print is dead.”

Is it, really? I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway. Give it a few extra decades, maybe.

I admit there are numerous factors that make one think print’s on its death throes. Consumers are gradually shifting to digital reading and becoming more comfortable with staring into screens for longer time periods. Print publications’ sales figures are going down. And writers are more open now to having e-book versions of their work, whether through established publishing houses and outlets, or through self-publishing.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo lead the e-reader charge with the various Kindle and NOOK models, along with Kobo’s Glo and Touch devices — the latter also available through local retail giant National Book Store. The prices for these e-readers range from around P3,500 (for the latest ad-supported Kindle, without shipping cost) to almost P7,000 for the locally available Glo models. Not bad, considering bibliophiles’ total expenses for their beloved tomes go much higher than that.

The three online retailers also have free apps for those who prefer tablets and phablets to e-readers, accommodate digital material from outside their marketplaces, and give writing vets and n00bs avenues to publish their work online. I can also get my (free or paid) e-book/comic/magazine fix from countless places online — including Apple iBooks, Google Books, Project Gutenberg, Open Culture, Flipreads, Humble Bundle, and StoryBundle — and then load them onto my app or device. In the e-reading world, scarcity and location are hardly issues.

These e-readers and apps come with myriad benefits not available to print. I get to have hundreds, or even thousands, of books and magazine titles on one device. There’s also the lower prices of e-books and digital publications, the biggest point of contention in the ongoing war between Amazon and book publisher Hachette. (Edit: War’s over as of November 2014 — days after I sent in this article.) When reading e-books, I can easily search within the text for things I’ve missed, or (as in the Kindle app) look up certain words for clarification. If I accidentally deleted an e-book, I can easily redownload it and sync with my other devices; no worries about losses or damages, unlike the paper variety. When I don’t know what to read next, I can get regular recommendations for other book titles and genres.

More importantly, for e-readers, the e-paper quality has certainly gone up. I’ve seen friends and relatives use their Kindles, NOOKs and Kobos outdoors in the daytime, and keep reading until someone repeatedly calls them back to real life. Of course, there are still some complaints for e-readers, primarily ghosting (where the previous image can still be seen after the screen flashes), lack of responsiveness or overresponsiveness, and warming/overheating during outdoor use. Tablets and phablets normally don’t have these issues, but then I have to deal with eye fatigue and these device’s extra weight.

I’m an ex-paper purist and I used to follow a strict “no e-books” rule, but eventually relented and built up a considerable digital library as well. I’m as comfortable skimming through lines on screen as I am on paper pages. However, it did take me a few years to get on the e-reading train, or become accustomed to it. Digital native, I’m definitely not.

What I’ve always had a problem with is the recurring “just like paper” claim of e-readers. Hell no it isn’t just like paper, so please stop saying that it is. Oh, and both digital and paper have their own associated negative impacts on the environment, so let’s leave that one alone for now, shall we?

Besides the obvious differences in physical material, print and paper get points over digital in other ways. Print publications don’t have to deal with battery life constraints, the sensitive topic of digital rights management (DRM), and the issue of true book ownership. Most e-book purchases are, in fact, payments we all make to become “licensees”. This means we don’t really own our e-books — or have the right to bequeath them to our heirs upon death.

And with “tree books”, we actually get to turn pages and write on them! They’re 100% tangible and lendable, factors that staunch print supporters love to point out. We don’t get word definitions, built-in reading communities or book recommendations, but they’re bearable concessions.

Print and paper are still big here. Major chains like National Book Store, Powerbooks and Fully Booked are doing brisk business through their retail branches, book signings, and event sponsorships. Secondhand stores like Booksale and Books for Less also remain popular; and independent establishments like Solidaridad Book Shop, Bookay Ukay, Uno Morato, Books From Underground, Reading Club 2000, and Baguio City’s Mt. Cloud Bookshop are necessary stops for bibliophiles. We have regular events like the Manila International Book Fair, the Philippine International Literary Festival, Komikon, Indieket, and Aklatan: The All-Filipino Book Fair, with the Philippine Literary Festival debuting this year. Self-publishers can also avail of Books On Demand, ARMVET, or Central Books‘ print-on-demand services for their books and publications. Broadsheets and print mags continue to be preferred information sources, with titles including 2.O Magazine (*ahem*) filling shelves every month.

Beyond accessibility for all, there’s a certain romanticism and rebellion attached to print publications and paper goods. International brands like Monocle refuse to release digital versions of their monthly issues, and the zine scene endures within the creative set. I cringe at the seeming open invite for pretentiousness and hipsterism, but the raging crafts and calligraphy trend has made cool all things #artisanal, #handmade, #handcrafted and #madewithlove. The newfound appreciation for personalized hand-stitched leather notebooks and refillable journals like the Midori Traveler’s Journal help ensure print and paper’s longevity among young’uns born PD (post-digital). Fountain pens and bottled ink are gaining a wider audience too, with Fountain Pen Day celebrated for the first time in the Philippines just last month. (Time to practice my penmanship, then.)

There are also new alliances and connections between paper and digital, and I’m not just talking about publishing houses going into e-books and e-books getting print editions; or magazines going on Zinio, ISSUU or Buqo. Moleskine has partnered with Evernote to digitize users’ notebooks, and with FiftyThree to print users’ digital illustrations onto actual paper notebooks. Bestselling authors J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King are putting out online exclusives alongside their books and e-books. Apparently, authors can autograph e-books now. And people have used fan fiction, online novellas, chapbooks, full-length e-books, and even social media to get print deals (Sh*t My Dad Says is a good example).

Print isn’t dead. Not by a long shot. Instead of insisting on a death that may not come as swiftly as expected, I propose a more conciliatory and experimental approach. Use both as you see fit, and in ways you’re comfortable with. Regardless of the medium of choice, you’ll have to make a few compromises, so one doesn’t really win over the other. What matter more to me are that people keep reading, writing, thinking, and sharing; that readers acquire their books/magazines/comics legally; and that content-makers are appreciated and compensated fairly for their efforts.