We read things differently when they’re on a page rather than on a screen. A study this year found that people reading on a screen tended to skip around more and read less intensively, and plenty of research confirms that people tend to comprehend less of what they read on a screen. The differences are small, but they may explain the persistent appeal of paper. Indeed, hardcover sales rose last year by a hundred million dollars.
For many people, as a number of studies show, reading is a genuinely tactile experience—how a book feels and looks has a material impact on how we feel about reading. This isn’t necessarily Luddism or nostalgia. The truth is that the book is an exceptionally good piece of technology—easy to read, portable, durable, and inexpensive. Unlike the phase-change move toward digital that we saw in music, the transition to e-books is going to be slow; coexistence is more likely than conquest.
- James Surowiecki, “E-book vs P-book“
The article comments on the recent resignation of Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch and the fact that the Nook has lost $500 million last year (“Barnes & Noble’s disastrous bet on an ebook-only future sank the Nook“). Surowiecki points to an interesting stat: 97% of ebook owners still read print books, and only 3% have gone digital-only. On top of that, readers tend to focus better while reading print.
The piece also makes reference to the predictions that the ebook market would follow the digital music market, but in hindsight, that seems an odd leap to make. Music (at least the form that we buy for home rather than see in person) is intangible in nature and therefore suited to whatever medium is most convenient, whether that’s analog or digital. It is also more uniform in terms of format – different types of paper, size and layout that are necessary for a dime store novel, a biology textbook or a photobook, but an mp3 suits a lecture, jazz recording or pop song equally well. It’s strange that people ignored these realities of medium.
That’s not to say that the book won’t go the way of the record. Surowiecki doesn’t mention why readers are more attentive when reading print. Is it the physical sensation of turning pages, the non-backlit contrast, or simply the lack of internet? If it’s the first two, then ebooks only need a redesign to catch up.