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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Printed books are to e-books as movies are to television, or printed books are to e-books as VHS is to DVD? More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word

by John MacBeath Watkins

From Nicholas Carr, a fascinating study comparing printed textbooks to reading text on computer screens. Here's Carr's take on it:

The most illuminating part of the survey came when respondents were asked to explain their preferences. The answers suggest that while students prefer e-books when they need to search through a book quickly to find a particular fact or passage, they prefer printed books for deep, attentive reading. "E-books divide my attention," said one undergraduate. "Paper ... keeps me focused and away from distractions that may arise from computer usage," said another. "I have some difficulty paying careful attention to long passages on my computer,” said another. "Reading on the computer makes it harder for me to understand the information," said another. Commented a graduate student: "I am a better reader when I have the print copy in front of me."
Go ahead and read the study itself, as well.

As some of the comments on Carr's post suggest, there may be better technologies for e-books than the ones explored in this survey (or an earlier one by the University of Washington.) But my own observation from years of doing business in Seattle's University District is that students use the devices most convenient to them, which means that if they need a laptop to write their paper, that's probably what they'll use for most of their research, and if they only have their phone with them at lunch, that's what they'll do their reading on. Having to carry another device with them to do their reading on might still have advantages over carrying books (especially in terms of the weight they must carry -- shouldn't physics textbooks, at least, have antigravity devices?) but they are an extra thing, just as a book is.

There are also advantages for publishers, who have expended a great deal of effort over the years trying to make sure students can't get by with used copies of their books, coming out with new editions every couple of years to make sure the students won't be on the same page as their professor if they buy an earlier edition. Think of how delighted they could be if they could make textbooks "expire," the way e-books from the library do, at the end of each quarter. School books would be more expensive, of course, and students couldn't refer to their textbooks in later years, but the war on sellers of used books would be won.

The question, really, is this: Is the transition to e-books more like the transition from radio to television, in which case the printed book will continue to have an audience, or more like the transition from VHS tapes to DVDs, where the new technology for transmitting the experience is the important thing.

What will determine this is partly how different the experience is. Radio and television are different enough that there is room for both, and more interestingly, movies and television are different enough that movies theaters have survived.  I think the question is whether books are like movies, and the experience of them in book form is as different as the experience of movies in a theater is from watching movies on a television screen.

Certainly, an Easton Press edition with leather binding and gilt-edged pages is a visual and tactile experience quite different from reading a book on my phone, and probably different enough for Easton Press to survive the transition. But the studies Carr refers to may indicate that a Norton Critical Edition may also be a different enough experience to be valued as a different experience than an e-book.

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