Online vs Print: The Digital Age of Books
The feel of the paper, the flip of the page, the texture of the cover, why would anyone want to read from a screen at the expense of this tactile experience?
Well, according to recent market data, approximately 1-in-5 book buyers prefer the screen, and for reasons a plenty.
Ebooks, still a relatively new invention gaining popularity in the past decade, have carved their way into the book marketplace, and are not going anywhere soon. While print books still remain a popular medium for those accustomed to physical copies, ebooks prove beneficial for key demographics, and many publishing companies are taking notice. As with anything, there are both advantages and disadvantages. In the case of ebooks, however, the advantages appear to be outweighing the disadvantages and it is predicted that ebook popularity will continue to grow and outpace print books in the future.
Brief History of Ebooks
Before delving into the advantages and disadvantages of ebooks, here is a quick history of ebooks in the American marketplace.
The first ebook was created back in 1971 by Michael Hart. Hart typed up a copy of the Declaration of Independence and uploaded it to the internet with six people downloading it. Realizing the potential of this new reading format, Hart created project Gutenberg (named after Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press). The goal of his project was to turn public domain books into ebooks and upload them to the internet.
As Project Gutenberg continued to grow, the first ereaders were released in 1998. Portable devices such as the Rocket eBook and the Softbook made ebooks easily accessible and revolutionized the way ebooks were used. Instead of having to sit at a desktop computer to read, one could take their book with them on the go.
The market for ebooks also began to grow as more people became familiar with them. In 2000, Stephen King’s novel Bag of Bones was offered exclusively in the ebook format, drawing even more attention to ebooks. People who once thought they would never read ebooks were now buying the digital version of King’s book.
In the late 2000s, ebooks’ popularity continued to grow and competition between companies in the electronic and book selling businesses continued to rise. Companies such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple began releasing their own ereaders.
In 2011, Amazon hit a new record: Ebooks outsold print books, with 105 ebooks sold for every 100 print books. No one predicted that this would happen as quickly as it did. Today, ebooks make up about 20% of publishers’ revenue.
Advantages of Ebooks
The first advantage of ebooks is their relatively low price. Research conducted by Mintel in 2014 states that 23% of book buyers think that print books cost too much, and 31% of ebook buyers say they prefer print books, but they by ebooks because they cost less. For example, at Barnes & Noble, a paperback book of the widely popular The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, has a list price of $10.99, while the Nook price is $7.99, with the Amazon Kindle price being $2.99. That is a discount of almost 30% and 73% respectively.
The second advantage of ebooks is that they aid readers with special needs. Older readers (aged 55 and older) have found reading much easier on tablets and ereaders due to the adjustable font size, which gives them the ability to read faster with much less frustration. Dyslexic individuals also benefit from ebooks. According to one study, dyslexic readers reported that reading on tablets and ereaders was much easier than print books due to the adjustable font size and paragraph spacing, which translates into fewer words per page. With fewer words on a single page, dyslexic readers can concentrate on small sections of words at a time. This ultimately results in faster reading and better comprehension.
The third advantage of ebooks is their interactivity, especially in children’s books. Images, videos, and games now supplement the text in ebooks. Publishers, such as Harper Collins, see these interactive elements as the future of the publishing industry. Attributable to a young generation of tech-savvy readers, interactive and multimedia ebooks will adapt to the rapidly-changing digital landscape in which children will develop and learn.
The fourth advantage of ebooks is their equalizing factor. Before ebooks, big name publishers controlled who could publish their work. Nowadays, many indie authors and publishers can create, design, and publish their work online, catering to niche markets or to fulfill their creative goals. According to Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords (an indie ebook distributor), indie authors will make up a larger percentage of the book marketplace at the expense of large publishers. The new marketplace benefits indie authors, as indie titles experience swifter distribution, greater creative control, and substantially higher royalties. Over time, indie authors will gain professional publishing skills, making their work identical to that of a large publishers. As Andrew Albanese, senior writer and features editor for Publisher’s Weekly writes, “I also believe that the major publishers are seeing more competition from indie ebooks…Amazon has a million titles accessible, many of which are free or very inexpensive.”
Disadvantages of Ebooks
Despite the advantages as mentioned above, ebooks do create some unique problems for users.
Firstly, the internet connection via ereaders opens the door for hacking and pirating. Knowing that people can hack into an ereader, consumers may return to print books and avoid this problem altogether. Additionally, with a connection to the internet, there are also privacy concerns with companies collecting data on users.
Secondly, not all ebook formats are compatible with ereaders. Depending on the file type of the book, the ereader may not allow the ebook to be read. Consumers may be put off if their ebook cannot be read on different digital formats.
Thirdly, ebooks cause issues in educational settings. Some critics assert that when schools begin equipping students with ebooks, inequality arises as some students do not have the technology to access ebooks. Additionally, as schools provide their students with more technology, they do so at the cost of laying off teachers, libraries, and increasing student-teacher ratios. According to David Wees, an education specialist and mathematics teacher at The Reflective Educator, writes, “Many [publishers] expect schools to pay individually for each copy of the ebook, requiring schools to purchase an ebook multiple times if they need to share it with multiple students simultaneously…some publishers even expect the ebook to expire after a certain number of uses, requiring school libraries to repurchase books.”
Finally, environmental concerns are the fourth disadvantage of ebooks. While many believe that ebooks are better for the environment because they are not composed of paper, arguments have been made for the opposite. The materials used to make ereaders, on which ebooks are read, are not eco-friendly and often end up in landfills. Paper used for books, on the other hand, is typically grown on farms with the sole purpose of being harvested for paper.
The Future: Online or Print?
With nearly a decade of market data and research, it is possible to make predictions for the future concerning ebooks. According to industry experts and leaders, ebooks face a future filled with indie authors, innovation, and online marketing. Despite these advances, however, print books remain the go-to option for most readers.
Amazon will continue to flood the market with inexpensive, digital titles as indie authors gain skills to publish professional-grade content. The future of ebooks appears to blend multimedia elements with traditional books, satisfying a consumer base composed of digital natives. As more consumers spend time online, social media and other online content will become crucial ways in which authors, publishers, and consumers interact. As many industry leaders have planned, the future of book publishing will focus on digital campaigns. For example, Harlequin’s Publisher and CEO Donna Hayes says that her company is focused on, “Search and discovery and the use of robust metadata, building our brand digitally and enhancing our reader relationships with…interactivity.” Politics and Prose reflects a similar sediment, as the company is building awareness through online seminars. Harper Collins Children’s Books have also forged into the digital space through blogs and social media, giving the company audience insights. As ebooks become more accessible, promotional efforts will dive deeper into the digital world, and partnerships with bloggers and online reading communities will increase.
Against these innovations into the digital space, print books remain the most popular reading medium. According to the Pew Research Center, most U.S. adults have read a print book (65%) compared to ebooks (28%). This may be attributable to older readers remaining loyal to print books, the reading medium with which they grew up. The tides are changing gradually, however, as approximately one third of readers aged 18-49 have read an ebook, compared to about a quarter of readers aged 50-64. As publishers continue to cater to children (who are now developing in a digital age) via multimedia books, the numbers of readers who will read an ebook are expected to increase.
The future of books, much like other forms of media, appears to be heading in a digital direction, as a growing number of consumers are digital natives.
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