Books in All Formats: Where Physical Meets Digital in the Digital Age

I see a lot of debate, both online and in person, about the virtues of physical books verses the virtues of ebooks of various formats. There tends to be two extreme camps, the physical only camp and the digital only camp, with only a few championing both.

Those that hold to the physical book ideal could be likened to being literarily conservative, whereas those that hold to the digital book ideal could be likened to being literarily progressive. This is a matter of old technology verses new technology more than anything.

Consider for a moment a different era. There was a point where all books were hand written, which took a lot of time and effort. Because of this, books, while present, weren’t wide spread. Some printing was done, where a page was created in relief, then printed as a single block. This allowed for a bit more distribution, as multiple books or pamphlets could be printed from the same set of plates. But this, too, was limited, as creating these plates took time.

This changed when a man named Johannes Gutenberg built the first printing press that utilized moveable type. This meant he could much more quickly change what he was printing, and hence print more faster. This technology from the 1400s is what brings us to more modern day, and while the technology has improved, and modern printing is done electronically instead of with plates, moveable type or not, it is an advancement of that original printing press.

We face now a similar revolution in technology, a movement from physical to digital, allowing a much wider range of books to be published, as electronic books are cheaper to self-publish, similarly to the change that Gutenberg’s press brought about. And just as some praised Gutenberg for the progress his press brought and others lamented it, saying it was ruining the art of hand printed books and that the expanding publication resulting from a cheaper way allowing things that no one would have bothered printing before to be spread across Europe, so too is the same complaint lobbied at ebooks.

But why do we insist on seeing them as separate things? Why does one have to be bad and the other good? Why does one have to be lost in order for the other to do well? Most of this is a false dichotomy, brought about by fear of the loss of physical books on one side and the desire for advancement on the other.

And you see the same in the publishing and book selling industry, with local book stores and even some chains going under while online bookstores thrive.

But, I ask again, why does it have to be both?

Consider a similar industry, the movie industry. Digital media is expanding right now with all the streaming of video online, with the ability to purchase electronic only copies at a cheaper price than the physical media, with the digitalizing of old movies. And while you do see a decrease in video rental places and an increase in digital sales, do you see physical media going away? No, quite the opposite. You can now often by a deluxe or collector’s edition that has a BluRay disk, a DVD, and the code for a digital copy. And these sell well, because while people do want the electronic copy, they also like the tangible feel of something physical.

In a perfect world, I’d buy paper books and get a free digital copy as part of it, like you do with many Blue Ray disks with movies. I prefer paper but like to be able to take more with me when space is limited, like to be able to search for my favourite part, and like to be able to pull quotes out to share without having to type them all in, especially if all I have is my phone, so type a long quote into the phone. What would be real neat, and I’d pay extra for it, is a package where I buy the paper book and get both an electronic ebook and an electronic audio book with it that are linked like you can with some audible and kindle books. Lots of options and cool tech get my juices running.

I love audio books when driving. For some reason people look down on reading physical or ebooks while driving, so audio books keep me out of trouble. I’d love a package deal where I get physical, ebook, and audio book in one item. Then I can read the physical book when it works to, ebooks when I’m travelling or forgot the physical book, and audio book when I’m driving or doing something like cooking or cleaning, and if keyed together with the ebook or if I prefer the physical, have someone read it to me while I read along when I desire that. There’s something magical about being read a story while you read along.

It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. If physical and digital were sold as a package as well as individually, many would jump at the chance to have both, and most likely physical book sales would go up. As long as they are only sold as separate things, despite the cheaper cost of digital books, most people won’t buy the same book in both formats, they choose either to buy the physical book or the ebook. Because the ebook is cheaper and instant, many choose it, hence the impact on physical book sales. Providing a way to get both, especially if the ebook is available immediately if the package is purchased online, might save the physical book from extinction.

This isn’t limited to books, of course. Lines can blend, industries can come together. There are some music producers that provide both physical and digital music. This didn’t work well when both were on a disk, because it interfered with things on a computer, but does work better with a redemption code like the movies have. There are also cases of a book and music album being coordinated, where they two are either sold separately or as a package, and the book and music interrelate.

Consider a world where these all come together, a physical book, electronic book, audio book, soundtrack as physical and digital, and a movie, all tied in together as one package. This is possible. Or the technology might go somewhere few expects and surprise us all. We don’t need to limit ourselves and technology by creating dichotomies in order to form an either/or, bad/good type of comparison.

Media is media, regardless of the format. We should focus on the content instead of the the format, and stop the idea that different formats are inherently good or evil.

~Bethany Davis
Caer Illandria Enterprises

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