About ten years ago, I made the switch from print books to ebooks. I’d been excited about the idea of e-reading since my early teens, so when the right device finally came out in mid-2010, I got myself a Kindle and read Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story.” Although the experience wasn’t perfect, for me the pros outweighed the cons, and I stuck with it.
I still do all of my book reading using e-books, but a lot has changed over the past ten years. So here’s my review of what’s to like, dislike, and contemplate about e-reading in 2020.
Before getting into details, let me set some ground rules. This is mostly about books, and to a lesser extent other long form content. Not tweets, facebook posts, nor the majority of other digital content. I know “books” is a fuzzy category, and it gets fuzzier all the time. But I’m mostly talking about the kind of thing you spend dedicated time reading, not something you stumble across and skim when you get bored at work. And I’m talking mostly about words. Not books that are mostly about illustrations (let alone music or video), not cookbooks or technical books with intricate formatting or illustrations, but the kind of thing that basically boils down to a long series of words that you read in some reasonably predictable order. And lastly, I’m focusing on books in English, because that’s what I read.
And one quick disclaimer: I do work for an ebook seller, although I’m writing here on behalf of myself, and not on behalf of my employer. I can easily document that my preference for ebooks began long before I started working in this area (although you’d have to have access to my Amazon purchase history). A longer disclaimer is at the bottom of this article.
So here’s how I see the pros and cons. Bear in mind that some of my pros might be your cons, and vice versa. And we may also disagree on which items are really important. But I’ll do my best to cover all the bases, even if you might sort the lists differently and/or come to a completely different conclusion.
Here are the things I count as wins for ebooks (although some of these have aspects you’ll see reflected in the list of cons).
- The form factor. Print books can have all kinds of physical issues. On my long list of gripes over the years: hefty hardcovers, trade paperbacks that are tricky to hold open with one hand, mass market paperbacks printed too close to the spine, low-quality paper, poor font choices, low contrast ratios, paper or edging that makes it tricky to turn pages, and bindings that crack and set your pages free. This was often problematic when I commuted by train (some books I simply couldn’t read unless I got a seat). Although some print books are well produced, you have no control – you get whatever the publisher of that book chooses for you. My e-reading devices have also been far from perfect (see “Cons”), but for me, they’ve been better than paper.
- Fonts. Control of the font, including both the typeface and size, is a powerful capability. Even when I was much younger and had perfect eyesight, I often had issues with too-small or just inappropriate typefaces in print books. Today, even though my reading glasses make small fonts reasonably comfortable, my eyes perform differently at different times of the day. So that control is a big deal. Related options, like adjusting the margins or inter-line spacing, can also help make for more comfortable reading. Sometimes you don’t have as much control as you like, but it’s still better than nothing.
- Reading in the dark (or in dim light) is easier. Over the first 40 years of my life, I tried all kinds of book lights and flashlights, and never found an arrangement that was really comfortable. I’ve always found uneven lighting on the page really distracting, which is not good when you like to read in the middle of the night. My first Kindle had no light, so it was no better (although at least the book light clipped onto every book just as easily). But now that most e-readers have built-in illumination, it’s a complete non-issue. My tablet’s backlight is uniform and can be adjusted for both brightness and (to some extent) color. I use a feature that automatically adjusts the color at night, and while it’s not perfect, it’s much easier to adjust than anything I found with print. Many people like to read in night mode (dark background, light text), which is obviously not possible in print.
- Portability. I’ve probably never read more than 3 or 4 books on a trip, but before 2010, I always packed a bag of books for travel. I no longer have to think about it, although I do usually fiddle with my library a bit before a trip.
- Turning single pages can be easier. I know it sounds ridiculous, but this really used to aggravate me with some books. Some common tasks (quickly flipping to the previous page to check something, and then back to where you’re reading) are actually smoother with tablets/phones than with print books. E-books have their own quirks, though, so you’ll find this in the “Cons” section too.
- They don’t take up space or accumulate dust. If you tend to acquire books faster than you can read them, as I do, this can be a real problem. I live in an area where real estate is expensive, and there’s no place in my house for the 50+ boxes of books I’ve shed over the past decade.
- Searching is easy. This seems obvious enough.
- Note taking. Annotations can be longer, clearer, and can be read, revised, and found easily without resorting to tape flags. When reading nonfiction, I often want to revisit and edit my annotations later. With ebooks, it’s also really easy to highlight a few words without interrupting your reading flow too much, and then add your thoughts later (which I prefer doing with a real keyboard). And at least in principle, it should be easy to turn them off when you want to be undistracted by your previous notes. There are also some cons, see below.
- Built-in dictionaries. It turns out there are still many words I don’t know. I’ve always been reluctant to interrupt my reading to look something up in a print dictionary, and the idea of always carrying one with me is particularly unappealing. With e-books, no matter where I am, I can consult the dictionary with minimal interruption to my reading flow.
- Always with you. If you’re able to read on your phone, and you always have your phone with you, then you always have your books with you. Even if you don’t read as fluidly on your phone as on other devices, phone reading may be preferable to nothing. I don’t read on my phone often, but it’s definitely saved me a few times. And honestly, once I get reading, I’m not really thinking about the device.
- Instant delivery (whether for yourself or as gifts) is very convenient. This applies equally to samples of books you’re thinking about reading.
- Virtual bookshelves. With print books, each physical copy of a book that you own can only be in one place. Ebooks can be in multiple “collections,” “shelves,” or whatever your e-reading product calls it. You can even have samples of books you don’t own on your virtual shelves. As of this writing, I have 14 custom shelves that I use to keep track of most of my e-library.
These are the top things I think could use some improvement.
- The screens haven’t come along much. I love reading on my tablet (a nice IPS LCD screen), and I’ve been pretty happy with e-ink devices in the past. But many people dislike LCDs, and the slowness of e-ink screens can be an issue. Everyone has their own preferences, but the perfect screen has yet to be invented. More on this below.
- Flipping through a book quickly is not great with e-books. With tablets, this is arguably a fixable issue with the software, while with e-ink devices, it’s a hardware issue – e-ink screens are just too slow to riffle the pages. Even if you just want to glance at the previous page and then return to where you are, e-ink can be irritating. Tablet-based readers have made a lot of strides in this area, so it’s not as bad as it used to be. And you can often do well with search instead. But as of today, I still call it a win for print.
- Similarly, flipping back and forth is a lot easier in print. If you’re reading a book where you’ll often need to consult a glossary, the list of dramatis personae, or two bodies of text meant to be read in parallel (as in Nabokov’s Pale Fire), this is easier in print. I hope software improvements will someday fix this.
- Some types of books are not well suited to e-reading. Books that are presented side-by-side (e.g., some Shakespeare editions) are trickier to present well as e-books while still allowing flexibility with font sizes. Depending on the specific book and e-reader, long footnotes can be awkward (think Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine or Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman). This also may improve with better software.
- You don’t own your books. You can only share your ebooks in some narrow circumstances, and almost never give them away. The books you buy are only yours to use for as long as your account with that service exists (although I’m optimistic that Amazon and Google, the two services I use most, will be around for a while). Because the books are tied to the vendor, if you use multiple e-reading products you can’t see all your books in one place (unless you want to keep track of your virtual library via a separate service). Depending on your habits, this may be a deal-killer or a total non-issue.
- The selection of ebooks is very good by some standards, and has certainly improved over the past 10 years. Virtually all newly published books are available as ebooks, as are the overwhelming majority of older books that most people have heard of. But the more esoteric your tastes, the more you’ll find missing. More on this below.
- Formatting. Although it’s getting better, formatting errors and awkward typesetting are more common in ebooks than in print. Many older books have errors from when they were converted to e-books using OCR. This is a fairly narrow win for print (I once bought a hardcover that was missing most of the punctuation). But traditional publishers continue to do a better job with typesetting for print than for ebooks.
- Note taking can also be worse on e-readers. If you’re making enough annotations that you wouldn’t consider reading the book without a pen or highlighter in hand anyway, and the advantages I noted above don’t really apply to you, then you might find print better for this purpose. You also can’t doodle in the e-reading products I use.
- Showing off your library. Some people like having a physical library to show off, to spark conversation or even just to impress their friends. I don’t throw many parties, and reading for me is a solitary, not a social activity – no one cares what I read, nor should they. But if having a library to show off is important to you, ebooks will offer no help.
- E-readers need to be kept charged. I don’t feel like this is a huge deal, especially since my phone has trained me to keep on top of these things. E-ink readers have great battery life. But it’s an issue.
- The lost physicality of books. Some people feel like not having the familiar smells of old and new books, the feel of a book in their hands, or a delightful cover, really detracts from their reading experience. To me, the idea that Jane Austen loses something if not read on parchment in a leather-bound deckle-edged faintly musty volume is ridiculous. 100 years ago, I’d have made the same argument about electric lights and the smell of paraffin. But some readers really miss the physical experience of books, and never warm to the comparatively antiseptic experience of e-reading. If that sounds like you, e-books may not be your thing.
- Cost is a mixed bag. Depending on your reading habits, this might be a solid “pro” or a solid “con.” I discuss the cost of the books themselves a bit below. But for now, I’ll just point out that the readers themselves cost money, and although there are some great options below $100, depending on your preferences you might end up spending more than $200, before you buy your first ebook. And the devices don’t last forever.
In the remainder of this article, I’ll discuss a few topics in a little more depth.
Getting the Most Out of Your Reading
Will you get more out of your reading in print?
This is a complicated subject, and there’s a lot of misleading information floating around. I care very deeply about getting the most out of my reading, so if there were good reason to believe that I’d get more out of print, I would at least consider going back. Fortunately, I do have a background as a research psychologist, and I’ve read some of the relevant literature, so I feel like I can get to the bottom of this. I’ll give you my high-level take on the subject here, and go into more detail in a separate article.
The bottom line: although there is evidence that under some circumstances, reading comprehension is not as good on screens as on paper, the evidence is largely drawn from people reading under poor circumstances that you can easily avoid. So here, in brief, are the bullets to dodge:
- If the idea of e-reading makes you uncomfortable, or just feels unappealing, don’t do it.
- Read on a quality device that’s as comfortable for you as a paperback would be. In my view, this excludes desktop computers, most laptops, larger tablets, and smaller phones. I personally find an 8-inch tablet with a good IPS LCD screen to be perfect, while my wife prefers an e-ink Kindle. Choose what’s most comfortable for you.
- Don’t read on a device that will distract you. If you ever stop reading on your device in order to do something else on that same device, that’s a big red flag. E-ink readers are often best from this perspective, because they are not great for much other than reading. With tablets and phones, you’ll want to turn off notifications (visual, auditory, and tactile). But if simply knowing that you have other apps readily available will distract you, your phone is probably a poor choice.
- Don’t e-read things that don’t work will in this format. PDFs (generally designed for printing) and books with lots of illustrations or tables can be extremely poor on e-readers, although they may work well on larger tablets.
- Avoid using software not designed for immersive reading.
- Don’t give up too quickly. If you haven’t read a complete ebook before, it may time to acclimate yourself. Pick some lighter reading for your first ebook or two.
The available science on reading really doesn’t speak very well to what you can expect if you follow these fairly obvious rules. So while it may yet turn out that e-reading suffers in comparison to paper, it’s also possible we’ll eventually find out that the reverse is true. If I had to bet, my money would be on e-reading, because the freedom to optimize presentation (typeface, font size, illumination, contrast, heft) has no analog in print (although print-on-demand may eventually change this to some extent).
Distraction is one of the most oft-cited reasons why people might have trouble reading on screens. Basically anything other than an e-ink reader can present distractions, and there are certainly some people who would be unable to focus on reading just knowing that their favorite game or text messages are just a few clicks away. Apparently there are studies showing that merely having a cell phone in view, even if it’s turned off, can be distracting.
And then there are people like my daughter, who occasionally misses texts and phone calls because she’s reading a book on her phone. I’m the same way.
Of course, distractions can strike when you’re reading in print too. Your phone doesn’t stop buzzing just because you’re holding a paperback. My biggest two distractions – my family, and wandering thoughts – are no more distracting in one format than the other.
I may not be the best guide here – I don’t consume social media or have many distracting apps on my phone. But I still do most of my reading on a tablet that I use for almost nothing else.
I do understand the predicament of people who are more easily distracted. If you’re the sort of person who needs to constantly check email or Twitter or whatever, and any electronic device will do, then e-reading isn’t for you (and you probably can’t have your phone with you when reading in print either).
The Cost of (E)Books
You might think price would be a big win for ebooks, since they don’t have to be printed, shipped (multiple times), stored, or shelved. Though serving e-books from the cloud has costs as well, that cost is comparatively miniscule. But for various reasons, including the unrelenting efforts of the traditional publishing industry, the consumer cost for ebooks is surprisingly complicated. I’ll just run through a few simple scenarios, focusing on the cost to the book purchaser, and ignoring questions about whether the products, viewed holistically, are really comparable. Bear in mind also that I’m thinking about the US, where I live, but I know things are even more convoluted in other parts of the world.
- If you would normally buy a book new in a bookstore, just for yourself, ebooks are typically cheaper, although not universally so.
- If you would normally buy some or all of your books used, or borrow from friends, ebooks are more expensive. There’s no such thing as a used ebook (although you can often find great deals), and sharing outside of your immediate family is generally not allowed.
- If you borrow books from libraries often, you can do the same with ebooks, and the cost is the same (free), although the selection and availability may differ dramatically. I’m not very expert on this.
- If you like independently published serial SF, romance, manga, or similar, and don’t tend to lend or borrow, ebooks are often cheaper. Pricing that would be impractical for print (e.g., first-one’s-free, subsequent volumes under $5) often works great for indie ebooks.
- If you like to read the classics, whether for school or for recreational reading, ebooks are much cheaper. Although it can take some effort to find a decent edition, they’re out there, and they’re mostly free (works written before 1925 are generally in the public domain in the US). Bear in mind, though, that for works not originally in English, recent translations will still be protected by copyright.
- For schools that normally re-use books for a few years (5-7 years is typical), ebooks will usually be more expensive than print. This is because you can’t usually license an e-book for repeated use with multiple readers. So if a paper book costs $20 and can be used by five students on average, the ebook would have to be priced under $4 to win out on price.
Screens Are Still Not Perfect
Broadly, the two options here are e-ink readers (e.g., Kindle, Kobo, Nook, Onyx) and LCD tablets (e.g., iPad, Kindle Fire, basically all tablets). I’m including OLED screens in the latter group, even though it’s technically a different technology. Here are the major considerations:
Does it feel like paper? E-ink does, LCDs don’t. Some people dislike reading on LCDs for long periods of time.
Can you read in sunlight? E-ink is perfectly readable in sunlight, very much like paper. Good LCDs are great in all but the brightest direct sunlight, but still not as pleasant as e-ink. Cheaper or older LCDs are unreadable in direct sunlight.
Is weight an issue? E-ink readers can be ridiculously light, often lighter than any print book. Book-sized LCD tablets (~8 inches) are still pretty light, but more variable. They are often heavier than mass market paperbacks, and some models will be heavier than some trade paperbacks (depending on the number of pages and quality of the paper).
Do you care about pictures? Illustrations lose more on e-ink. Although color e-ink now exists, it’s not yet widely available. LCD tablets are color, and often have better resolution than e-ink displays. Better resolution also helps with clean font rendering.
Can you riffle the pages? Although it’s sort of possible with LCD, I don’t think the software is really there yet. With E-ink, though, the page-turning slowness makes it painful.
“LCD” is actually a family of display technologies. The cheapest LCDs tend to be a bit shimmery, and to my eye, unpleasant. IPS LCDs are much nicer than earlier LCD technologies, and OLEDs are nicer still. Cheap LCDs also have poorer resolution and brightness.
There are definitely things to prefer about E-ink, and some people do find LCDs unpleasant for long reading sessions (although I often wonder if they’ve tried good LCDs). My current tablet has an 8” IPS LCD screen, and I have no such complaints. But there’s still room for a screen that combines the best of e-ink and LCD: paper-like; great in sunlight; color; fast to update; and great battery life.
I occasionally stumble across gaps in the ebook catalog – older books that are not available as ebooks on any platform, usually because the demand would be very narrow. The gaps are fewer and fewer, but they will always exist, similar to the way you can’t stream some older music and movies. The more esoteric your reading tastes, the bigger this issue will be.
On the other hand, there may be older books (more than 100 years old) that are only readily available as ebooks, via Google’s massive archive of scanned books. Though these tend to be of mostly academic interest.
There’s no law that you can’t switch back and forth between ebooks and print, and many readers do so. I personally find the conveniences of e-reading so overwhelming that I’ve never been tempted back into print. It bothers me a little that I’m letting ebook availability dictate what I read. But just a little. In reality, I have such a massive backlog of great books to read, and there are so few gaps that I care about, that I haven’t had a strong desire to read anything in print for a long time. And ultimately it’s not much weirder than what I was doing with print – reading what I had on hand or happened to find in the library or bookstore.
Much to my surprise, I’ve discovered that, despite my slowly worsening eyesight, I can still read very comfortably and immersively on my 6” phone screen, even without reading glasses (though it’s better with them). My phone doesn’t buzz or interrupt me when I’m reading, so although it does have a few more apps on it than my tablet, it’s actually a pretty good reading device. If it’s important to you to get audible and tactile notifications for texts, instant messages, email, or whatever else, then this won’t work well for you. But if you’re more like me, it’s not at all difficult to make your phone a peaceful place for reading. The only drawback that I can see is that, with the smaller screen, you have to turn pages more often than with a larger reader.
During my first 40+ years on this planet, I never got the knack of making sure I always had a book with me, and would often get stranded without one. But now I’m almost never without my phone, so even if I didn’t think I’d have time or opportunity to read, I always can.
Authenticity of the Reading Experience
Many of the negative things I’ve read about e-reading imply that it’s a less authentic reading experience; that e-readers don’t care about books or reading in the way that committed print readers do. That the physicality of books is not just a preference, but something anyone with a true appreciation of literature would regard as essential.
This viewpoint strikes me as unnecessarily hateful. However, I’m not sure any form of argument will sway someone who holds this belief. So I’ll just have my say and be done with it.
When I read, what’s essential to me is the set of words in the book and how they’re arranged. In the past, I’ve admired pretty covers and well-bound volume (though I’ve owned few). I also like cool summer breezes, a comfortable chair, and a tall glass of iced tea. But I’m not that sympathetic to the idea that they’re particularly important to my reading. When I’m actually reading, I want all of that to get out of my way. With e-books it does so at least as well as print ever has.
If you feel differently about your own reading, that’s totally fine – just feeling that way makes it true for you. But if you feel that my appreciation of literature is lesser because I read ebooks, then we probably can’t be friends.
I miss bookstores, but only a little
I used to spend a lot of time in bookstores. Often I’d just browse, but then every now and then I’d give in and bring home a bag full of books. I don’t like to visit bookstores as much now, because I feel guilty about browsing when I know I won’t buy anything. I do miss it a bit, but I also have to remind myself that vast majority of bookstores I’ve ever visited have been terrible. Huge generic chains, or idiosyncratic bookshops that are never quite my flavor of idiosyncratic.
That said, ebook storefronts have never quite given me the same browsing experience I always enjoyed in bookstores. I feel like this is a fixable software issue that has been improving, just not as quickly as I’d like. These days, I find fewer books via ebook stores, and more from references from my other reading. And maybe that’s okay.
What about things that aren’t books?
Some kinds of writing don’t demand focused reading, and for those we should all be happy to skim as needed, reading on our computers, only rarely venturing beyond the fold. But sometimes you encounter an article online that deserves a little closer attention. For these, I’ve been a long-time user of a great app called Pocket, which makes it easy to collect and consume online articles in a distraction-free manner. There’s more to say about it than I can squeeze in here, but I’ll just note that for me, it works for me a lot like ebooks: it’s far from perfect, but it has a lot to recommend it over the alternatives.
The ebook format has also made it much easier to publish and distribute things that have not had great outlets in the past. Although the “book” in “ebook” suggests a certain weight, an ebook can technically be as short as a single page (or even no pages at all). Essays, flash fiction, short stories, novelettes, novellas, can all be published singly as ebooks. Although most of these already had some avenues for reaching readers via periodicals, and sometimes they would find their way into collections, the ebook market makes it easy to distribute and sell them independently, alongside longer works. When published in this way, they become a permanent part of the catalog – less ephemeral than most magazine articles, easily consumed in the same ways as any other book.
The Bottom Line
Optimizing your reading to make it a regular habit, and as immersive as possible, is well worthwhile. If you’ve been curious about ebooks, I hope the foregoing will give you the confidence to give them a shot. But I’m just as happy if you weigh your options and stick with print. As long as you’re reading.
Although I do work for an ebook seller, I want to emphasize that I’ve been a devotee and advocate (fanboy, if you will) of e-reading since long before I started working in the tech industry, and long before I started working on ebooks. I took my current job because I’m a strong believer in the value of ebooks, not the other way around. And I do still use three different e-reading products, not just the one I work on.