We Are the Knights Who Say “e!”

Far be it from me to knock e-books. They’re not just trendy, they have some real benefits. And then there’s the dark side…

If you’re serious about writing fiction, whether you’re self-publishing, with a small press, or with one of the big publishing houses, having e-books available for your customers should definitely be part of your marketing plan. Nonetheless, print is not dead. Going strictly with e-publishing and ignoring paper entirely would be a mistake.

Publishing electronically is certainly easier than publishing physical books. The print-on-demand (POD) industry has made it a lot easier for indie authors to produce paper books, but some authors may not see a clear difference between e-books and POD books.

An e-book is usually so inexpensive that it’s pretty much an impulse buy. Plus, instant delivery to your readers! Also, the visually impaired will likely find your e-book far easier to read than your paper book. The type can be made larger or output aurally by a screen reader program.

Setting all that aside, there are powerful reasons to insist on paper books (whether you’re writing them or reading them).

First, longevity. An e-book is a digital file. It can only be accessed and displayed on-screen by software that is compatible with that specific file type. Some companies have been known to upgrade their software in a way that makes old files unreadable — either through short-sightedness or simply to force you to buy stuff again. And some companies go out of business, leaving the users of their software stranded.

It’s an open question whether any of today’s e-books will be readable by your grandchildren 50 years from now. A paper book, even if it’s printed on cheap paper that turns yellow, will still be readable.

Second, you can loan or give a paper book to a friend. Transferring ownership of a digital file is sometimes possible, but it’s a lot harder than just handing someone a book.

Third, you can take a paperback book to the beach. You don’t need to worry about it getting sand in its sensitive parts, and you don’t need to worry that someone will steal your $200 book-reading device.

Fourth, with a physical book you can be reasonably sure that the text is what the author wrote. It’s not just paranoia to suggest that governments (and private entities) sometimes have strong reasons to alter the text of books so as to promote their own point of view. If you download an electronic version of, let’s say, a socialist or atheist manifesto, you can’t be sure that it hasn’t been edited by someone who hacked the publisher’s website. Changing the text of a physical book is pretty darn difficult, so if you buy it in a store you can be pretty sure it’s the real thing.

Fifth, as a writer you’ll have a larger audience if you publish on paper. Believe it or not, there are millions of people in the world who are too poor to own an e-book reader. Millions more are so technologically challenged that the idea of setting up an e-book reader makes them very nervous.

Finally, again speaking to authors here, if you decide to promote your book at conventions, you’ll need physical books to put on the table and sign.

For all these reasons and more, e-books will never replace paper books.

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