5 Reasons E-Books Don’t Beat Paper Books (Yet)

Posted: June 15, 2011 in books, culture, current events, misc, technology

There’s no question that e-books are here to stay.  In the three and a half years since Amazon.com first unveiled the Kindle, Amazon’s e-book sales have now surpassed traditional book sales.  The New York Times reports:

Since April 1 [2011], Amazon sold 105 books for its Kindle e-reader for every 100 hardcover and paperback books, including books without Kindle versions and excluding free e-books.

However, John Abell recently wrote an interesting piece for Wired.com on why e-books still have some progress to be made before they totally supplant paper books.  The author doesn’t subscribe to the “ambiguous tactile argument,” which Al Mohler provides a good example of when he writes,

The physicality of the book is important to the experience of the book itself. The arrangement and order of the words is supreme, but the appearance of the book and the feel of the book in the hand are also part of the reading experience.

However, Abell still thinks e-readers have a few important limitations.  In his article, he notes five ways in which e-books (currently) fall short in comparison to traditional books, but notes that if we fix these problems “there really will be no limits to the e-book’s growth”:

1) An unfinished e-book isn’t a constant reminder to finish reading it.
E-books don’t exist in your peripheral vision. They do not taunt you to finish what you started. They do not serve as constant, embarrassing reminders to your poor reading habits. Even 1,001 digital books are out of sight, and thus out of mind. A possible solution? Notifications that pop up to remind you that you’ve been on page 47 of A Shore Thing for 17 days…

2) You can’t keep your books all in one place.
Books arranged on your bookshelves don’t care what store they came from. But on tablets and smartphones, the shelves are divided by app — you can’t see all the e-books you own from various vendors, all in one place. There is simply no app for that…

3) Notes in the margins help you think.
It’s not enough to be able to highlight something. A careful reader wants to argue with the author, or amplify a point, or jot down an insight inspired by something freshly read. And it has to be proximate to the original — a separate notebook is ridiculous, even with a clever indexing system that seems inventable but is yet to be invented…

4) E-books are positioned as disposable, but aren’t priced that way.
This one is simple, and also easy to oversimplify since people still have to get paid. But until e-books truly add new value, the way Hollywood did with DVD extras, it’s just annoying to plunk down $13 for what amounts to a rental. E-books cost virtually nothing to produce, and yet the baseline cover price, set by publishers, is only fractionally below the discount price for the print version of new releases…

5) E-books can’t be used for interior design.
Before you roll your eyes at the shallowness of this gripe, consider this: When in your literate life you did not garnish your environment with books as a means of wordlessly introducing yourself to people in your circle? It probably began that time you toted The Cat in the Hat, trying not to be dispatched to bed during a grown-up dinner party…

Annotations are important!

Point 3 is most significant in my mind.  The ability to annotate the books that I am reading is extremely important, and current e-books and e-readers do not offer a viable way to do this.  However, I am confident that this feature is all but inevitable, and will eventually prove more efficient and valuable than the annotations that we scribble (often illegibly) in the margins of paper books.  I mean, let’s be honest – the small white space around the text of a paper books isn’t the best medium for truly engaging with an author’s thoughts.  You simply need more room.  Additionally, I look forward to the day when I can share my e-books with friends, full of my highlights and thoughts (for an example of what this might look like, check out openmargin).

I also think that point 5 has some merit (although I did roll my eyes at first).  After thinking about it for a while, I do agree that this is one thing we must consider in our (inescapable, in my opinion) move toward e-books.  However, I don’t think this is an insurmountable problem.  We simply need to think of new ways to display our books, rather than just relying on wooden shelves stuck to our walls.  We already do it with sites like Goodreads, LivingSocial, and aNobii (each with Facebook and Twitter integration), and I think digital “showing” and “sharing” will ultimately prove much more effective than the “traditional” way we display what we read (aka the bookshelf).

What do you think?  Do you agree with Abell that “[paper] books are legacy items that may never go away, but have been forever marginalized as a niche medium,”?  What other limitations/problems must e-books overcome?

  1. Justin Burkholder says:

    Hey Matt,

    I’ve got a Kindle, and the most frustrating deficiency that they have is that they are difficult to reference. So, when I’m going through a book with a student I always buy hard copies because they are easier to flip through. I’m guessing that falls under point 3, but seemed like a good addition.

  2. Matt Tully says:


    Makes sense. Until e-readers become truly ubiquitous and extremely intuitive to use (and I think they will), I think paper books will still be widely used for precisely the limitation you mention. That’s why I’m excited about sites like openmargin.com that place a strong emphasis on bookmarking, annotations, and sharing. There is so much more that could be done…

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