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How Important is Print?

Posted by hlinfield on January 18, 2013 at 10:40 AM


There is so much written about the publishing industry that I’m not sure any one opinion can be considered to be more prevalent than another: ‘Ebooks are destroying the traditional world of publishing,’ versus ‘Ebooks are transforming for the better the traditional world of publishing.’ ‘99 cent ebooks are the way to go’ versus ’99 cent ebooks are a definite no-no.’ ‘The world of print books is at an end,’ versus ‘Print books will never die.’


My first novel, The Truth about Dandelions, was published last year in electronic format, which I was very happy about. There were minimal upfront costs, no shipping fees or long waits for delivery, and no waste, that is, no books were printed and then left to sit languishing in an unopened box. More people than I had expected had e-readers. Everything was great.


But if it’s true that the world of print books is coming to a close, why do I feel more like a real author now that my novel is available in paper form? Is it just my age? I’m well into my 30s and didn’t even know what email was until I was in university. I did research papers using real books in a library. I even know what the Dewey Decimal System is.


Do twenty-somethings and teenagers like the feel of a real book in their hands as much as I do? Do they love to smell used books? Do they like how the different spines look on a bookshelf? If it exists in paper and ink in front of them (as opposed to however things exist online) doesn’t it seem to them more concrete, more substantial, more REAL?


I’ve wondered if my preference for print material lies in its longevity. Electronic books seem almost ethereal, as if they only just exist, that at any moment they could simply vanish into thin air. Science-y people (smarter than I) claim that nothing you put online ever really goes away, and so my thoughts must be wrong. Yet the electronic world changes so quickly. Will ebooks that exist now still exist in a hundred years? I suppose the good ones will be reformatted to fit the new technology, just as my copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was printed, not in 1891, but in 2003.


Sometimes I think of that scene in The Time Machine where the traveler, in the future, finds all the old books. The innocent Eloi don’t even know what they are and when he picks one up it disintegrates in his hands. Obviously neither electronic nor print is permanent. Neither goes on forever, just like the universe apparently. (So those science-y people tell me.)  


So why then do I feel more excited about seeing my book in print than I did about seeing it on an e-reader?  Yes, I like to look at books on a bookshelf, but it would be dishonest to say I actually care about that.  Yes, I like the feel of a real book in my hand, but I’ll admit that lately I’ve been using my kindle more than print books. And yes, I like the smell of a used book, but I can’t say I’ve ever really noticed the smell of a newly printed book. Surely my preference for print books isn’t just because I’m an old fuddy-duddy. (See, I’m so old I use terms like ‘fuddy-duddy.’);)


No, I think there’s one more reason: history. The idea of holding your real book in your hands carries with it a thousand images of all the ‘greats’ holding their own books in their own hands. Not to compare myself to them, but when I hold my own book in my own hands, I will be able to imagine Charles Dickens or Charlotte Bronte or F. Scott Fitzgerald or even Danielle Steele holding their novels in their hands and breathing deep sighs of satisfaction. It’s a moment that simply cannot exist with an electronic book.


In concrete terms it may not be a lot, but I think in the minds of a lot of writers, it’s enormous. If, as many argue, the world of print books is dying, I think there will be a lot of authors, both struggling and established, who will be wearing black on the inside for a very, very long time.

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