Somewhat Off-the-Cuff Thoughts About the Print Vs Ebook Debates

I opened the paper this morning to an article discussing the continuing fight for market share between print books and ebooks. In a headline sure to lure in every librarian and avid reader — The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead — the New York Times reports that:

E-book sales fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers, which collects data from nearly 1,200 publishers. Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.

It’s a decent article, though to my mind it glosses over many of the issues around print books and ebooks that librarians are well aware of. The reading landscape is complicated — it’s less a matter of either, or and more both, and. We see it at the Reference Desk when some students are happy to have access to an ebook on their device, while others wrinkle their noses if they find a book that’s only available electronically and ask if there’s any way we can get them the hard copy. In my library our printing statistics are through the roof as students print thousands of pages per week; yes, some of these pages are their assignments or journal articles, but some are ebook chapters too.

Ebooks can be troublesome, frankly, even for those who want to use them. As a library user and a librarian and an avid reader, I’m highly motivated to sign into multiple platforms at my university’s library or the public library to be able to read books on my phone or tablet, but the barriers can seem very high to novice ebook users. Alycia Sellie’s recent article in Urban Library Journal notes the trials and tribulations that students in her library experience when they want to use ebooks (among other topics), frustrations which often “makes them dislike the libraries that offer them.” And even those who are extremely digitally savvy may not embrace ebooks. In my house, with an n of 2, I read both print and ebooks (and the paper newspaper), while my spouse, a software engineer, reads only print books (though the newspaper on his phone).

While I do think the Times article doesn’t delve as deeply into the complexities of print vs. ebooks as it could, I’m glad to see it, and especially glad to see that physical bookstores are seeing a boost in print sales. I also hope that folks who have input into the future of libraries — politicians, funders, etc. — take note before issuing proclamations about the death of print books. The public libraries in my city are booming, and they are full of print books, as are all of the K-12 public school classrooms in NYC that I’ve ever been in. My son, who just started high school, reads only print books at home (his choice) and in school, though he did receive one of his textbooks on CD this year. Kids of all ages read lots — for school and for their own interests — and they may not have access to devices that make it easy for them to read ebooks. I think we’ll be living in our both, and hybrid print/digital book world for a while yet.

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

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