I find it hard to believe I am writing an article about the pros and cons of printing paper books. For over a decade we have been hearing about e-books and debating whether they would ever take off and win an audience. Even a couple of years ago, the jury was still out, but with the advent of the new Kindle and Nook and other e-readers, I can firmly say that I believe e-books are going to remain a major part of the publishing industry for years to come, if not forever.
In the last year, a new trend has started where I’ve actually seen authors produce only e-books. Granted, most of these authors are self-published and publishing their first book. They may not have the money to print paper books, or they simply do not want to risk the costs of printing on paper when producing an e-book is so less expensive. It’s hard to believe that a few decades ago a person would have spent tens of thousands of dollars to self-publish a book. By the beginning of this century, print-on-demand had reduced that cost to just a couple of thousand, or even just in the high hundreds. Now, producing an e-book might cost you only a couple of hundred dollars, or you could even do it yourself and just have the cost of your time to produce it. You can then sell it without ever having to do anything more-no printers, no printing costs, no delivery or mailing costs.
But are e-books really books? I’ve heard various publishing experts talk about how we are now in the information age, and we are no longer selling books but selling information. That’s a good point to make because e-books do not resemble books. Granted, e-readers like Kindle and Nook try to give the perception still that we are holding some sort of book, but it’s a different feeling to hold a plastic electronic device compared to paper that is pleasant and yielding to our touch. I still like the feel of a book better, and I think e-readers still have some bugs to be worked out, but I have to admit that the low price, the convenience of storing multiple books on an e-reader, and the speed of delivery are all preferable over printing paper books.
So is it no longer worthwhile to publish paper books? I know at least one author who has gleefully told me, “No more paper books for me.” But all I can say to that is, “Hold on. The paper book hasn’t died yet.” Maybe in ten years it will be dead, maybe sooner, but it isn’t dead right now. I think authors should continue to print paper books in reasonable quantities. I would recommend smaller print-runs-perhaps only 1,000, or 500, or even 100 books-just what you think you might be able to sell in a year or two and not beyond that, and then reassess whether you want to continue printing on paper. You need to be very realistic and savvy about how many paper books you can sell so you don’t end up with a basement full of paper while your e-book sales continue to climb, but a need for paper books still exists.
Here are some reasons why paper books are still a good idea. First, they are relevant to an author’s marketing strategy. If you plan to connect with readers only online, perhaps you don’t need this advice, but to produce only e-books is to alienate a good percentage of your audience.
Face-to-Face Interaction: Many readers like to connect with the author whose books they read. If that were not true, we wouldn’t have book signings and poetry readings and all manner of author events. Yes, perhaps a reader can connect with the author by sending him a Facebook message, and in some senses, the Internet has made author-fan connections much easier. But meeting someone online can never compare to meeting someone in person.
When you advertise a book release, it’s one thing to say “Go to Amazon to buy the Kindle edition.” It’s another thing to say, “Joanie will be signing books at Beauchamp’s Bookstore on March 8th from 3-5 p.m. Granted, we all know that book signings do not draw crowds. You’re often lucky if three or four people show up. But then there are always people who happen to be in the bookstore who stumble upon you. You might think you can still make a personal appearance, but if you don’t have a book to sell, people may be less inclined to come to meet you.
Autographed Books: Along the lines of book signings, people like autographed, personalized books. Readers like to meet authors because they think authors are celebrities. Even people who are not readers are often overcome by an author’s perceived “celebrity” status and will then buy a book. I can’t tell you how many times I have had people say to me, “Wow, you’re an author” or “I never met an author before” and they say it with awe in their voices. These people do not want solely a reading experience. They want an in-person experience. They want to feel something exciting has happened to them by shaking hands with a famous author, and they want a memento of that experience by carrying away an autographed book.
Aesthetics: Granted, your book’s first edition may never become a collector’s item, and yes, we all feel we own too much stuff so it’s nice to have e-books that take up no space. But many of us love books for themselves. We collect first editions. We buy books we have already read just because we want the feeling that we own that book. We love the artwork of the covers and we want those books sitting on our coffee tables and bookshelves simply because the sight of them gives us pleasure. There is something so very aesthetically pleasing about the look and feel of a book, and book lovers know what a pleasure it is to see rooms filled with bookshelves, and all those enticing book spines in multiple colors with dramatic titles staring at them, holding secrets to be discovered and hours of reading pleasure.
Browsing for books in an online store just isn’t the same as going to the bookstore. Yes, it’s faster and easier to shop online, but if you really, truly, want to browse, you go to a bookstore. Going to a bookstore is like going to a movie, or going out for coffee. It’s a pleasant past-time. You can’t get that feel from an e-book, and you certainly can’t collect that feeling from an online bookstore. Maybe we’ll get that feeling when someone invents the virtual reality bookstore that we visit wearing special eyeglasses so we feel we really are in a bookstore-hey, I should invent that-but until that time comes, the physical bookstore will retain its charm.
Gifts: Can you see the excitement on Christmas morning when you all gather around the Christmas tree with your iPads and then check your email to find little messages saying you’ve been gifted electronic books? Boy, that just takes the festivity right out of gift-giving. Would you really give an e-book as a gift to a loved one? Perhaps if you live on opposite sides of the country from one another, but if you’re going to see that person on Christmas morning, isn’t a paper book wrapped in colorful paper a better token of affection and Christmas spirit?
E-Book or Paper? The Final Decision: To sum up my argument, we will have a need for paper books for years to come-at least until those of us who grew up loving paper books have departed this world. You certainly want to consider the longevity of your book. You want it available to future generations who may be raised on e-readers and never know what it is to read a paper book. A paper book can “go out of print.” So far, I haven’t seen evidence that an e-book can-although doubtless we’ll have to get newer e-readers.
So keep in mind that people still want to feel that human connection to the author-a paper book provides that connection in ways an e-book cannot. A paper book is more than the words on the pages. It becomes a gift, a token of affection, a symbol of meeting the author, a family heirloom. Somehow, I don’t foresee Grandma leaving her e-book collection to her grandchildren, but what about that family Bible, that first edition collection of the Anne of Green Gables series she enjoyed as a child, or that tattered and worn because much loved copy of Mother Goose that she used to read to you? Those are books you keep and treasure for a lifetime.
You can dismiss my argument for paper books as all sentiment if you like, but as an author who wants to sell books, don’t forget that humans are sentimental. Give them what they want. They may want the convenience of e-books, but they also want the sense of a human connection that a paper book offers.