Stop the Presses! No More Paper Books

Guest Post by Irene Watson

As e-books become more and more popular, the question of whether or not they are a fad seems to have been swept aside. It is clear that e-books are here to stay, and now the question becomes whether paper books will survive. Authors and publishers need to make hard decisions about how they will publish their books. Here are some thoughts on whether it is still worthwhile to print books.

I find it hard to believe I am writing an article about the pros and cons of printing paper books. For over a decade we have been hearing about e-books and debating whether they would ever take off and win an audience. Even a couple of years ago, the jury was still out, but with the advent of the new Kindle and Nook and other e-readers, I can firmly say that I believe e-books are going to remain a major part of the publishing industry for years to come, if not forever.

In the last year, a new trend has started where I’ve actually seen authors produce only e-books. Granted, most of these authors are self-published and publishing their first book. They may not have the money to print paper books, or they simply do not want to risk the costs of printing on paper when producing an e-book is so less expensive. It’s hard to believe that a few decades ago a person would have spent tens of thousands of dollars to self-publish a book. By the beginning of this century, print-on-demand had reduced that cost to just a couple of thousand, or even just in the high hundreds. Now, producing an e-book might cost you only a couple of hundred dollars, or you could even do it yourself and just have the cost of your time to produce it. You can then sell it without ever having to do anything more—no printers, no printing costs, no delivery or mailing costs.

But are e-books really books? I’ve heard various publishing experts talk about how we are now in the information age, and we are no longer selling books but selling information. That’s a good point to make because e-books do not resemble books. Granted, e-readers like Kindle and Nook try to give the perception still that we are holding some sort of book, but it’s a different feeling to hold a plastic electronic device compared to paper that is pleasant and yielding to our touch. I still like the feel of a book better, and I think e-readers still have some bugs to be worked out, but I have to admit that the low price, the convenience of storing multiple books on an e-reader, and the speed of delivery are all preferable over printing paper books.

So is it no longer worthwhile to publish paper books? I know at least one author who has gleefully told me, “No more paper books for me.” But all I can say to that is, “Hold on. The paper book hasn’t died yet.” Maybe in ten years it will be dead, maybe sooner, but it isn’t dead right now. I think authors should continue to print paper books in reasonable quantities. I would recommend smaller print-runs—perhaps only 1,000, or 500, or even 100 books—just what you think you might be able to sell in a year or two and not beyond that, and then reassess whether you want to continue printing on paper. You need to be very realistic and savvy about how many paper books you can sell so you don’t end up with a basement full of paper while your e-book sales continue to climb, but a need for paper books still exists.

Here are some reasons why paper books are still a good idea. First, they are relevant to an author’s marketing strategy. If you plan to connect with readers only online, perhaps you don’t need this advice, but to produce only e-books is to alienate a good percentage of your audience.

Face-to-Face Interaction: Many readers like to connect with the author whose books they read. If that were not true, we wouldn’t have book signings and poetry readings and all manner of author events. Yes, perhaps a reader can connect with the author by sending him a Facebook message, and in some senses, the Internet has made author-fan connections much easier. But meeting someone online can never compare to meeting someone in person.

When you advertise a book release, it’s one thing to say “Go to Amazon to buy the Kindle edition.” It’s another thing to say, “Joanie will be signing books at Beauchamp’s Bookstore on March 8th from 3-5 p.m. Granted, we all know that book signings do not draw crowds. You’re often lucky if three or four people show up. But then there are always people who happen to be in the bookstore who stumble upon you. You might think you can still make a personal appearance, but if you don’t have a book to sell, people may be less inclined to come to meet you.

Autographed Books: Along the lines of book signings, people like autographed, personalized books. Readers like to meet authors because they think authors are celebrities. Even people who are not readers are often overcome by an author’s perceived “celebrity” status and will then buy a book. I can’t tell you how many times I have had people say to me, “Wow, you’re an author” or “I never met an author before” and they say it with awe in their voices. These people do not want solely a reading experience. They want an in-person experience. They want to feel something exciting has happened to them by shaking hands with a famous author, and they want a memento of that experience by carrying away an autographed book.

Aesthetics: Granted, your book’s first edition may never become a collector’s item, and yes, we all feel we own too much stuff so it’s nice to have e-books that take up no space. But many of us love books for themselves. We collect first editions. We buy books we have already read just because we want the feeling that we own that book. We love the artwork of the covers and we want those books sitting on our coffee tables and bookshelves simply because the sight of them gives us pleasure. There is something so very aesthetically pleasing about the look and feel of a book, and book lovers know what a pleasure it is to see rooms filled with bookshelves, and all those enticing book spines in multiple colors with dramatic titles staring at them, holding secrets to be discovered and hours of reading pleasure.

Browsing for books in an online store just isn’t the same as going to the bookstore. Yes, it’s faster and easier to shop online, but if you really, truly, want to browse, you go to a bookstore. Going to a bookstore is like going to a movie, or going out for coffee. It’s a pleasant past-time. You can’t get that feel from an e-book, and you certainly can’t collect that feeling from an online bookstore. Maybe we’ll get that feeling when someone invents the virtual reality bookstore that we visit wearing special eyeglasses so we feel we really are in a bookstore—hey, I should invent that—but until that time comes, the physical bookstore will retain its charm.

Gifts: Can you see the excitement on Christmas morning when you all gather around the Christmas tree with your iPads and then check your email to find little messages saying you’ve been gifted electronic books? Boy, that just takes the festivity right out of gift-giving. Would you really give an e-book as a gift to a loved one? Perhaps if you live on opposite sides of the country from one another, but if you’re going to see that person on Christmas morning, isn’t a paper book wrapped in colorful paper a better token of affection and Christmas spirit?

E-Book or Paper? The Final Decision: To sum up my argument, we will have a need for paper books for years to come—at least until those of us who grew up loving paper books have departed this world. You certainly want to consider the longevity of your book. You want it available to future generations who may be raised on e-readers and never know what it is to read a paper book. A paper book can “go out of print.” So far, I haven’t seen evidence that an e-book can—although doubtless we’ll have to get newer e-readers.

So keep in mind that people still want to feel that human connection to the author—a paper book provides that connection in ways an e-book cannot. A paper book is more than the words on the pages. It becomes a gift, a token of affection, a symbol of meeting the author, a family heirloom. Somehow, I don’t foresee Grandma leaving her e-book collection to her grandchildren, but what about that family Bible, that first edition collection of the Anne of Green Gables series she enjoyed as a child, or that tattered and worn because much loved copy of Mother Goose that she used to read to you? Those are books you keep and treasure for a lifetime.

You can dismiss my argument for paper books as all sentiment if you like, but as an author who wants to sell books, don’t forget that humans are sentimental. Give them what they want. They may want the convenience of e-books, but they also want the sense of a human connection that a paper book offers.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find  reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.


Posted on May 20, 2012, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. While I do enjoy the convenience of storing several books in one small place, the speed of delivery, and the cost effectiveness of an ereader, it will never replace a paper book for me. There is something about the way the book feels in my hands, to hear the scratch of the paper as you turn the page, the paper and ink aroma that wafts up…I could go on but won't. I enjoy both, but if I had to chose between the two, it would be paper every time.

  2. When I read an article about books, paper or hardcover, I remember that scene in "Time Machine" where, when he goes to the future, the lead character (don't remember his name) swipes his hand across a shelf of books and they turn to dust. Then he puts a disc on a disc reader and learns what's going on.I personally don't have an e-reader, but there is no doubt e-books are the future. I just hope paper books don't turn into dust or i might not have anything to read.Richard

  3. A print-on-demand book doesn't have to cost the author much more than the ebook does, only the cost of a professionally created cover. Some authors are capable of doing that themselves. And POD books mean that space in the basement for the books awaiting buyers can be kept free for what truly belongs in the basement. So why would any writer insist upon ebooks only?

  4. I recently did a survey over on my blog on how people read, and the results were an overwhelming 90% for e-book AND p-book. Very few said they read only e-books and similarly most people who follow my blog seem to have acquired some sort of e-reader. I thought this was hugely interesting.I'm just in the process of publishing my latest manuscript, The Englishman, as an e-book. Though I wasn't planning to produce any paper copies, your post has made me rethink that perhaps I should pay to print just 100. When I worked at a bookshop, signed copies and author events were hugely popular.Sorry, this became a rather longer comment than I intended!Helena

  5. Irene, I really think hard copy books will be as popular as Ebooks, because I think the audience loves books. For me I love them and need them around me. Our founding fathers did write the "constitution" and other well written documents that will always be such a treasure. I agree that the cost effectiveness is better with ebooks and hope one day to write my own. It is nice to see such a variety on the topic of ebooks vs hard copy books!

  6. Print runs have been falling for a whole decade, and the eBook has only been with us about 5 years. Publishers take fewer risks but demand more shelf-space in hoping to get a hit. It's a lot like breakfast cereals, do you really think that people need 8 kinds of Cheerios and Cheerios knockoffs? It's all about Kellogg or Post or whomever grabbing the most shelf space and therefore the most consumers dropping those pricey boxes of wheat flour and sugar into their shopping carts.

  7. A really good article. I prefer a paper book but now find so many e-books available. Our library has also gone to e-books as well as paper books. With an e-book, I can take more than one book with me however, a paper book does not run out of a charge like an e-reader.One of my granddaughters has claimed all the family books my mother and aunts had, with messages or their names, years ago. She is able to have her college books on her e-reader that reduces the cost and not so many books to carry. I do the book reviews and I find the paper books "stare" at me to be read more than the books on the e-reader. Both have a role for readers.

  8. Stephen V. Masse

    While it's true that print books may be going the way of vinyl records, it is important to remember that music cds were once thought to be the living end of the recording world until mp technology and sound streaming came along. But the stampede to electronic books and recordings reflects a sense of convenience: you can pile more recordings on an iPod, more books on a Kindle or Nook reader, and have better portability. The experience of electronic sound may be cleaner, but the sense of vibrant "whole acoustics" that is only available on vinyl will always be sought by a visible minority. Same is true for paper books. I do the bulk of my reading on an electronic screen of some sort, but when it comes to reading for pleasure, a paper book is the only way. As a writer and publisher, my instincts lead me to make both print and e-books available for the foreseeable future. This is especially true for children's books, which I would always publish in paper first. I would like to think that the trend toward audio-visual hyperstimulation in so-called interactive e-books for children is a fad more than a revolution. Something in a child's forming brain doesn't co-create the story when all the work is done by the electronic device. Just saying. . .

  9. I have to agree with Stephen about the need for paper versions of children's books – especially picture books! Children love books. They like to hold them and turn the pages themselves. They like to take them with them to bed, so that they can read them – even before they can read. They stuff them in bookbags to take on trips – they are like old friends. Somehow, I don't see many parents giving toddlers a kindle or iPad – without a lot of adult supervision. (I didn't consider having amy of my books available as eBooks until they were availble in color…Illustrations are such an important part of picture books – hence the name!) I am happy to have my books available in all versions available – but my first choice, and greatest source of sales, will always be the print version.

  10. Wow… I can't get over how quickly e-books went from 'cool new technology' to 'primary source for books'. As an author of both children's books and paranormal/historic/romance, I see where both types of books have their place. My children's book is interactive/personalized/educational, so it won't work as an e-book until such time as a child can import pictures and write on an electronic screen. Having said that, our local school system has stopped buying school books for the high school level students. Instead, students are issued Nooks. Because this program has been a great success, I can see a time when the lower levels of education might also adopt nooks instead of paper books for instruction, but we're not there yet.As for my paranormal series, e-books are not selling as well as paperbacks (at least not yet), largely for the reasons you outline in your article. I sell more books following historic presentations or at book-signings than I do from people just stumbling upon my book on Kindle or Nook, etc. People still seem to enjoy having a signed copy and chatting with me about upcoming titles. Therefore, at any given moment, I usually have about 100 books on hand in a spare bedroom closet. I don't see that changing anytime soon.

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