Sometime in April 2010, I read my first digital book on an iPad. In a fit of irrational exuberance, I decided from then on that I would no longer read paper books.

I didn’t really plan for that decision to be binding, or even bear out in reality. But that’s exactly what happened: over the proceeding two-plus years, every book I read was made out of bits instead of atoms.

The streak came to a halt a few months ago, when I tagged along with my wife to her favourite bookstore, and I noticed this little baby on their discount table:


Jeffrey Deaver’s new book, Carte Blanche, is a mass market paperback with a subtle difference: its shape was a golden rectangle, and dammit, it felt really good in the hand. Seven bucks, a James Bond novel by a new, authorized author, a light summertime read… okay, let’s give this a shot.

So what we will have here is a review of a book. Not any particular book, but the book — that paper artefact that people have been enjoying for hundreds of years. Because I was experiencing it anew for the first time.

The Trouble with Atoms

Nicholas Negroponte’s book, Being Digital, has been a terrific influence on my appreciation of the 21st Century. In particular, his notion of the difference between atoms and bits is quite evocative, and I’m delighted that he has made the whole book available online for your enjoyment (ironically, I have a lovely hardcover edition on my office bookshelf; in my defence, the book was purchased before 2010). Go read that page and come back here.

Atoms are the things that you hold in your hand: this wad of paper and glue and ink; that composition of metal and glass and lithium. To get them, you have to pay someone to move it in the real world: put it on trucks, airplanes, container ships. They have to be laboriously and expensively manufactured.

Bits are instant, ever-changing, and moving them is virtually without cost. They can be configured however we dream them to be. It’s not just software, not just the data that the software runs. It’s the interaction mechanism with information, and its possibilities are endless.

So we agree that the subject of that photo up there is a bunch of atoms, and the information you’re reading now is a collection of bits. The book you see in that picture will never display different bits, whereas your computer, or your iPad, or your Kindle, can always be reconfigured to show you different bits.

If you ever want different atoms — like a new book, or a new computer — you have to go out and get it. Compared to getting new bits, it’s a total hassle.

So when I approach a review of the traditional paper book, it’s from this notion of the book as a physical artefact, and the real-world problems it presents, vis a vis its electronic counterpart.

Physical Appreciation

I can’t deny the physical attraction of a paper book. When done right, it’s an incredibly evocative object, and especially for those of us of a certain age, it’s easy to confuse books with their purpose. The paper book is a story. The paper book is information. But it’s not, and the tension between the thing and the stuff it contains is the subject of a great deal of hand-wringing.

I feel certain that paper books will never die. Unlike such things as vinyl records and VHS cassettes, or children and grandchildren will have no problem identifying one in the wild. But my experience with this paper book has convinced me, more than ever, that these books will become a more rarefied object, something to be lavished attention upon, perhaps.

But for the most common cases — a trashy novel, a political or sports bio, the next instalment of A Game of Thrones — I think we’ll be reading those electronically. When the information is meant for consumption, we’ll do it as cheaply and easily as possible. When we want the experience of handling the information — think of travel books, cookbooks, memoirs, beloved literature — there’ll always be a place for that physical artefact.

Carte Blanche isn’t in that latter category. It’s an ideal candidate for electronic consumption.

Pros and Cons

The book’s physical properties were also its limitations. While it was a pleasure to appreciate as a discrete thing, the reading experience itself left some aspects to be desired. Here’s a short list:

  • The very first night I started the book, it happened I was at the cottage, where there is no reading lamp by the bed. I had to get an LED lamp, which made for a very uncomfortable reading experience, juggling this paperback and light source.
  • The book was never where I wanted it to be. Having left it on my bedside table at home, I’d want it the next day while going to the bathroom, say, or taking a break from work. My iPad is always with me, because I use it all the time, and so my current book would be with me too. Not so with this paper thing, that only has the one use.
  • People talk about how a paper book is such an ideal reading interface: you can’t argue with the resolution of the print, for example. But I often find paperbacks in particular to be difficult to read. In an effort to preserve the spine, I don’t open the book as widely as others might; subsequently, the text in the inside margins can be tough to read. The paperback is also a two-handed device; an iPad can be propped up and held with one hand, which I often appreciate.
  • Once I’m done with the book, it’s no longer of any use to me. This is the worst part, to my mind. It’s possible I’ll read this book again, but it’s not likely. So what now, I’ve got to store this block in my house forever? It wasn’t that great a book to deserve that kind of pride of place.

The paperback isn’t an entirely bad thing, though. I noted some benefits:

  • It’s lighter than an iPad, though it’s heavier and more awkward than a dedicated piece of reader hardware like the lovely Kobo Reader.
  • It can be readily lent out. This, to me, represents the biggest advantage of paper books. If I tell my dad about this book, I can just give it to him for a time. Or forever. And he can pass it on to a friend. In my family, it’s not uncommon for a book to make the rounds of several family members. The use of DRM in electronic books makes this impossible, practically speaking.
  • It announces to house visitors or fellow beach denizens (for example) what kind of book you read. People like to have shelves full of books that tell of your erudition, or your pedestrianism. Whether you stock Kant and Proust, or King and Crichton, says something about you. On an iPad, all my books are stuck in my iBooks app. And while I’m reading, it’s just a wall of text; nobody will deduce anything about my reading choices. Except that it’s probably something nerdy.
  • You can read it outside with ease; in fact, a book is better enjoyed outdoors. On the patio, at the beach, on the dock at the cottage… it’s great to have a paperback. An iPad sucks at being outside. But this factor doesn’t weigh too heavily on me, personally. I’m a giant nerd, so I don’t spend a lot of time outside. But it bears mentioning.
  • You don’t need electricity to read a paper book. Like the outdoor issue, I’m not really swayed by this factor, as my iPad rarely dips below 50% charge, and I’ve structured my life around having powered docking cables everywhere I go. But, should the Apocalypse arrive, it would be nice to escape to some Bond action in between bouts of crapping my pants over the hordes of zombies out there.

Hey, look at that: five items in favour of the paper book, and only four opposed! That must mean the paper thing is better, right?


Postscript: A Word About Cost

Given what I said about bits and atoms, there’s an expectation that digital books should be less expensive than paper ones.

But, in a farcical twist that defies all common logic, it’s actually more costly to buy the bits rather than the atoms. At least, on Amazon:

Screen Shot 2012 08 15 at 1 24 01PM

So why is that? Publishers aren’t in a rush to open their expense reports to tell us, but I think there are a few factors at work.

Books have a ton of fixed costs that occur regardless of how the book gets produced: author royalties, publishing staff salaries, marketing costs, editorial and design work come to mind.

A print-ready file for the printer is a different kind of deliverable than an ePub document (the kind commonly used on iPads and Kobo readers), and those cost money to produce as well. But where things diverge is the next step: a printed book needs to be transmitted to a printer, which then expends huge resources to produce a run, which is then sent throughout the world to stores and warehouses.

A digital file is uploaded to a server, and there’s no additional cost to sell one copy or one million.

We’re told rather defensively that the printing and distribution process adds relatively little to the cost of the book, and I don’t have much trouble believing it — after all, none of us pay the actual environmental costs of enjoying a global supply chain. But I still think that electronic books can be considerably cheaper for a publisher to produce. As publishers — no early adopter of technology, to be sure — get better at this, they’ll be able to drive those production costs down.

For now, it feels like we’re the victims of a political struggle, as the publishers fight a rearguard action to keep us addicted to atoms. They’re terrified that lower prices will bleed them dry, in the belief that sales volumes will remain the same.

I don’t believe that. If book publishers embrace the future, they can find ways to drive down the production costs, drop the prices and multiply their sales. We’ve seen it already with Amazon’s direct publishing program, which lets individual authors set their own price. Phenoms such as Amanda Hocking have made millions from 99-cent books.

That feels like the future, and I look forward to publishers embracing it.