Where e-Books Fall Short, Print Delivers

Written by  //  February 7, 2012  //  The Library  //  8 Comments

The recent news from Pew Internet that e-reader ownership has almost doubled over this past holiday season makes it tempting to say that print books are not long for this world; after Amazon realized that many e-book readers enjoy browsing for titles in a brick-and-mortar store only to download them on their devices, and then sought to capitalize on such a trend, indie bookstores fought back and claimed a minor victory. Today, many are framing Barnes & Noble as publishing’s last stand against Amazon—it feels as though anxiety and tensions are high as ever.

But I don’t think we need to worry; as with the discovery that vinyl record sales having risen in the past 6 years in a market dominated by MP3 downloads, it’s useful to put considerable thought in where each platform, digital or analogue, excel for each medium—and publishers are going back to the drawing board to see where they can innovate with printed books to keep readers interested.

Some fun is lost in the e-book for those whom find reading to be a voyeuristic experience as I do. In a subway car or at a park, I take pleasure in seeing what is being read around me, for a non-confrontational glimpse at my neighbors’ personalities or interests. Seeing someone read an e-book, nondescript and unrevealing of what’s displayed on the screen, leaves little to the imagination.

Thankfully, where e-books fall short, print delivers.

Recently publishers have tried to refresh the way we consume print books by offering a whole new print format, the Flipback book. The Flipback was designed in mind for the smartphone-toting generation, touting itself as “giving book lovers a real reading experience with the portability of a mobile phone”—as if your mass market paperback were not portable enough—and its being “always fully charged.” The book opens vertically, rather than a traditional book’s opening horizontally, making it easy to hold in one hand, ideal for the subway commuter.

But sometimes it’s useful to look to the past for innovative solutions: reading for the first time The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan (1967) (designed by Quentin Fiore and produced by Jerome Angel) felt life-changing—not just for the ideas expressed by the late media theorist, but for how the book’s design challenged the conventions of reading the printed page. The text, which many would likely find rather dense or difficult to parse, was made comprehensible by visual aids illustrating points made in the book: in one section, the reader was made to hold the book in front of a mirror to read backwards text; on the next page, you must rotate the book to read upside-down. These tricks may seem gimmicky, but actually make for an engaging reading experience that’s pleasing for the eye, and with surprises beyond each page that push the boundaries of print.

Inventory Books, a series of books published by Princeton Architectural Press and designed by Project Projects, takes a lot from The Medium is the Massage; in fact, the latest book in the series, The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan/Agel/Fiore and the Experimental Paperback tackles the work as an example of books produced in the 60s and 70s that paired text and graphic design that “brought the ideas of contemporary thinkers to the masses.” Paging through Street Value, the first of the Inventory Books series—which is less unconventional than McLuhan, Angel and Fiore’s production—I found the use of primary sources like advertisements, imagery and newspaper clippings made the text more accessible as you would expect exploring a multi-media presentation to be.

So, obviously such tactics can easily be re-created in a digital format. But what makes them interesting in book form is the notion of the book as an object in itself, a set-piece with potential to spark, upon its being noticed, conversation—not unlike my love for seeing what strangers read around me in public.

There are a lot of beautiful books being published today, notably Little, Brown and Company’s Malcolm Gladwell: Collected, Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, an assortment of graphic novels and really any issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. I won’t deny that when I’m expecting company I’ll leave out the best books for guests to be impressed by. After all, most books in our home are purely for decoration, no?

About the Author

Niles Junior Bellefonte

Niles Junior Bellefonte is a magnificent literary expert, though only familiar to those whom he allows himself to be known. He holds multiple degrees in English and loves only the written word and straight vodka more than his own self.

View all posts by

8 Comments on "Where e-Books Fall Short, Print Delivers"

  1. Kyle February 7, 2012 at 3:39 pm · Reply

    I rarely buy vinyl unless it comes with a download code to get a digital copy. I look forward to the day when this is the standard in books as well.

  2. Niles Junior Bellefonte February 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm · Reply

    Hey Kyle–good point, I hadn’t considered digital copies boosting vinyl sales. I like the idea of bundling ebooks and print books; yesterday over at the Melville House Books blog there was a post about that very thing, which might interest you: http://mhpbooks.com/49000/is-bundling-ebooks-with-print-books-a-good-idea/

  3. Ace Wellington The Third February 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm · Reply

    I just recently purchased a Kindle Fire but i find it lacking in that essence that comes with a print book. If i had to put money on it, i’d say that the traditional book dies with our generation.

    • Niles Junior Bellefonte February 9, 2012 at 4:53 pm · Reply

      It sounds like you prefer the print book over reading a book on your Kindle; what makes you think the traditional book will die, then? I’ve had my Kindle since Christmas and I still don’t really know how I feel about reading a novel on it (I’ve read two now, and some short stories.) E-readers are awesome for reading longform journalism, I think, which is how my Kindle Fire gets the most use. But I might say I prefer the traditional book more often than not myself.

      • Alistair February 10, 2012 at 3:40 pm · Reply

        I had the same problem – I got a Kindle last fall as a gift and I think I read all of 3 books on it before giving up and using it solely to play Solitaire. My dog actually ate my Kindle, so now I’m debating even bothering to get another one. There’s just something about the feel of print books and knowing that I’m killing TONS of trees that’s more satisfying than the Kindle.

  4. Kyle February 8, 2012 at 5:21 pm · Reply

    Thanks Niles, I’d not seen any real discussion of the idea of bundling.
    Ace: I doubt the physical books versus ebooks battle will go any differently than radio vs newspapers, TV vs radio, TV vs movies, VCR vs movies, et cetera. It is conceivable that the paperback could go the way of the 8-track, though.

    I recently received as a gift a signed hardcover copy of Neal Stephenson’s most recent novel. At three pounds and 1000+ pages, I wasn’t going to be reading it anywhere but at home. But that was going to take longer than I was willing to spend, so I loaded up my phone with the audiobook from the local library for my commute, and a pirate copy of the ebook for when I had a free moment away from home. I made it through the book in a matter of days, and can attest that each medium has a definite niche and I don’t see any of them going away.

    • Niles Junior Bellefonte February 9, 2012 at 4:58 pm · Reply

      Yeah, definitely important to keep in mind which medium has which strengths. Your sort of synesthetic approach of putting them all together is interesting; it’s funny how our technological lives are all about synchronization over many devices (I can access any of my files from my Android phone, Kindle Fire, iPod Touch, work computer and laptop wirelessly and simply) and it seems like the same could be possible with these different book mediums (as you did with Stephenson) yet the market doesn’t yet allow it cheaply AND legally.

      If each can be used together to suit specific situations, one medium need not replace the other.

  5. Special Occasion Bobby February 10, 2012 at 4:19 pm · Reply

    I love the idea of using different devices (even the original product ie. the book) to enjoy one piece of art in varying circumstances. It’s similar to playing a vinyl record at home, but obviously not using the same device whilst traveling. I think we could really incorporate more things into a multi-tiered usage sorta scenario.

Leave a Comment

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

comm comm comm