Paper books vs. e-books: I still can’t decide

I’m late to e-readers compared to some of my friends, but over the last couple of years I’ve been slowly increasing the quantity of books that I’ve read electronically. However, I’m nowhere near giving up on paper books.

The 2010 data from the Association of American Publishers shows that we’re still far from the tipping point. Despite impressive growth in e-book sales, the data shows that paper book sales aren’t yet decreasing, and that as of 2010 e-books hold a 7% share of total sales and a 5% share of units sold. It’s clear to me paper books are still going to be produced and sold for many years. However, in twenty years, I suspect paper books will no longer hold the majority of the market.

2010 data from American Association of Publishers for paper sales vs ebooks (graph by Stephen Mack)(click to enlarge)

It’s clear that e-books are growing fast; the same AAP data shows that e-book growth is over 1,000% a year, and a Harris poll released in September 2011 showed that e-reader ownership increased from 8% to 15% in one year. (Smart phone growth is helping a lot with that.)

Here’s my dilemma.

Paper Books Digital Books
Advantages Advantages
  1. I’m used to this format
  2. You can read them in the bath
  3. Loan them to a friend or sell when done
  4. Can buy ’em cheap at used bookstores
  5. Easier on my eyes
  6. Much easier to be given as a gift
  7. That new book smell
  1. Can read them anywhere, as long as I have my phone with me
  2. Ability to carry dozens/hundreds of books in my pocket
  3. Instant gratification when buying a new book
  4. Always remembers my place
  5. Ability to search
  6. Easy definitions of unfamiliar words
  7. On smart phone, built-in nightlight for reading in darkness
  8. Many free titles that are in the public domain
  9. Can enlarge the font if my eyes are tired
Drawbacks Drawbacks
  1. I lose them sometimes
  2. Gotta have bookshelves to store ’em
  3. Heavy when moving, adds to “stuff”
  4. They came from trees; have to be printed & shipped, using energy & fuel
  1. More expensive than paperbacks typically (but often cheaper than hardbacks)
  2. Repulsive licensing arrangements
  3. Restrictive DRM
  4. Unclear if I will lose access to purchased works in the future or not (what if Amazon or Apple go out of business?)
  5. Format wars
  6. Remote editing or removal from the mothership (e.g., the Orwellian nightmare)
  7. Often no universal page number reference
  8. Uses up my battery
  9. Can’t read during on a plane during take-off and landing

I’ve never had a paper book crash on me and require me to reboot my brain to continue reading. So there’s that.

For now, I’ll continue to experiment with both, and usually pick whatever format is cheapest for the titles I want to read.

5 Responses to “Paper books vs. e-books: I still can’t decide”

  1. Merrilee Says:


    Your data is a little out of date. I think we’ve tipped. Take a look at the new poll from Pew.

    If you don’t have an ereading device, you might consider picking one up, and also seeing what you can borrow from your public library, which has tons of titles for you to choose from. I have a Kindle Fire. It was cheap, I’m happy with it (and the screen is good enough for me to watch movies on — not ready to spring for an iPad or more pricey tablet yet). I was quite skeptical about having an e-reader, but I can honestly say that I’m reading more (tons more) since buying it in November. And that’s saying a lot.

  2. Rich Thomas Says:

    You could do both. Read some books via ebook and some via paper books. You can still buy a used paper book if you own an e-reader.

    I like my Kindle. I have been reading the Hunger Games on the Kindle and it is pretty good.

  3. Louis Gray Says:

    I switched to digital only a while back and it’s been great. No more clutter, and you can get to them from your laptop or any device. Much cleaner.

  4. Scott Says:

    I’ve read my Kindle in the bath. It fits perfectly into a quart-sized ziplock bag, and I can still turn the pages. If you’ve ever known the tragedy of a soggy paperback, you might even list this one as an advantage over traditional books.

    Another e-book advantage: the pages don’t flutter when reading in windy places. Not a huge issue, but one I’ve been grateful for once or twice.

    Yet another e-book advantage is that they are much less awkward to read when one is laying on one’s side in bed.

    My personal strategy is to read most books on the kindle when available, and own my favorites in traditional format for more permanent archives (read, attractive bookshelves) and easier lending. I think each medium still has something to offer.

  5. ChuckvdL Says:

    I personally find an e-ink/e-paper reader just as easy if not easier (since I can adjust both the font style, margins, line spacing, and font size on my nook) on the eyes than reading paper. a Far better device for the job than a tablet or smartphone. Battery lasts for a month or more, can read it in sunlight..

    And great tip above re the ziplock, had not thought of that.

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