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.

All the News, In Print

My household recently started getting the print edition of our local newspaper again. I know what you’re thinking: Really? Print? In 2014? When everyone in the house is fortunate enough to have a device on which they could read the electronic version (if they were so inclined)?

I’m old enough that I’ve spent most of my life getting the news from a print newspaper until relatively recently. When I moved into an apartment with friends halfway through college, ordering up daily newspaper delivery made it seem like we were truly adults despite a diet consisting mostly of boxed mac and cheese. My partner and I kept getting the paper delivered when we moved to graduate school and jobs, even as the paper got somewhat smaller and slimmer. And then it suddenly seemed like too much — all that paper to haul downstairs to the recycling every week, especially on the weekends, with sections we didn’t even read. The newspaper website had the same content and didn’t cost anything, so we canceled our subscription. Eventually the paywalls went up so we bought a digital subscription.

And there we stayed until recently. About two weeks ago, to be exact. What changed my mind? My kid is finishing up middle school this year, and I wanted to see if he would pick up and read the newspaper if it was left physically around the house. He could read it digitally, as do my partner and I, but he doesn’t. We tell him about big news stories, and he sometimes has to find a newspaper article or editorial for school, but that’s about it for his encounters with the paper. And since we don’t tend to watch the news on TV, he doesn’t have any regular exposure to news other than what he seeks out (while he reads a lot online, he tends to gravitate more to video game news than current events news).

It’s been really interesting to go back to the print newspaper. Some things I’ve noticed:

  • I now read or skim a larger number of articles than I used to when I read the paper solely online, and in (some) sections that I often would more or less skip. But that also takes longer, and the result is that I typically can’t get through the entire paper at breakfast and have to leave some sections for the evening.
  • It’s much, much easier to browse through the newspaper in its physical form. This is good for my kid, because his science teacher has requested that he and his classmates each find a science article in the paper every week. The images are better too — there are more of them, and you don’t have to click to embiggen like on the website (which often means I don’t take the time for that click).
  • In general I hate advertising, but I appreciate the ads much more in the paper paper than online. It seems like there are ads that don’t make it to the website — mainly political ads — which is interesting. And the juxtaposition of news and ad content can be fascinating: my favorite was a recent story about New York City’s “poor doors” — an awful proposal for separate entrances in apartment buildings with both market-rate and affordable housing — right across from a full-page spread advertising a new luxury building. I know these kinds of contrasts occur on the website too, but I find it easier to tune out the ads online so I guess I don’t notice them as much.
  • Some of the non-news content that the paper (still!) runs was a complete surprise. Weather I can see the value in, though it seems like the weather’s so changeable now that even printing the forecast the night before could be of limited use. But TV listings! For all of the channels! Movie times! At all of the theaters! Who knew they’re still in the paper? I’ve been racking my brain for a use case for those listings — it seems unlikely to me that there are folks out there who’d only have access to or would rather get that information from the print newspaper.

All of this means that I’m suddenly finding myself very nostalgic for the age of paper newspapers in our academic libraries. I know they’re impractical for a whole range of reasons (so I’m not really serious about their return), but I do think they’re better for students in a number of ways. Yes, our students can browse and search the websites for their local newspapers, and they’ll often get the full text and at least some of the photos that accompany the article. But they lose the context provided by the layout of the physical page and the section and location in which the articles appear. And if they use a library database to search multiple newspapers simultaneously they’ll get lots of content but even less context: no images, and no visual cues as to what audience the newspaper seeks. I can’t imagine that print newspapers will ever come back to academic libraries, but I wonder what we can do to bring the positive aspects of the print experience to our students’ use of online newspapers?