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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Is a book really a book anymore?

Last week “the DocuMentor” from ZDNet asked a few curious questions in a blog post titled, “Should we come up with a new term for books?” Specifically, the writer asked:

Is it time for a new term for e-books? Or do we continue to lump both print and electronic versions of published works into the same category, even though they are becoming two different beasts?

This got me to thinking. Perhaps this person is on the right track: maybe the reason for all the kerfuffle about ebook pricing is because we’re trying to treat ebooks as we do their print counterparts, and they are just not comparable.

An ebook in a print book library

Source: Commons.Wikimedia.org

So what are the differences between ebooks and print books? There are the obvious ones, such as video, hyper-linking, embedded definitions and commentary. But there also those we don’t tend to notice: such as the fact that an ebook is useless without an accompanying device to interpret and display the ebook data. Or the cruel reality that I can’t simply hand over my ebook to a friend to borrow when I’m finished reading it.

The latter two differences suggest the superiority of print to digital books. But, of course, there’s also something to be said for being able to carry your entire library with you wherever you go, and to read the same copy of a book across multiple platforms—your computer, your tablet, your phone—all without losing your place.

With these considerations in mind, the overarching question is, how do we appropriately structure pricing between formats for the same title? The value of a book is not exactly what it used to be: the new medium of transmission, digital, has certainly blurred the definition of what a book actually is. Is the book a mere physical object, with the words being the primary, and separable, component? If yes, perhaps we shouldn’t refer to ebooks as books, but something entirely different.

And with so many diverging opinions, how can publishers, authors, and retailers come up with a long-term solution for ebook pricing? We just don’t know how this is going to play out. We’ve already seen ebook sales surpass printed sales. Will that trend continue until print is no longer of substantial value to most consumers, or will the year-over-year increases eventually dwindle? With generations of readers growing up consuming less print and more digital media, will the benefits of the printed word seem a little more lackluster as the years go by?

I’ve asked a lot of heavy, seemingly unanswerable questions here, but allow me one more important one. What is more valuable to you: a print or digital copy? Personally, I still maintain that my printed books hold more value than my digital ones. I’ve accepted, however, given the changing trends in reading habits, that my opinion may evolve in coming years.

Once the value of various formats becomes more defined, I think a concrete ebook pricing strategy will become more apparent. But until then, it doesn’t seem feasible for anyone—be they Apple, Amazon, publishers, or the Department of Justice—to give the final say on how ebooks should be priced. I would love to hear other people’s ideas on what we can do in the meantime.

One comment on “Is a book really a book anymore?

  1. Pingback: Print v. digital or print + digital? « appazoogle

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This entry was posted on May 21, 2012 by in Culture, Opinion and tagged , .

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