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breadmachineIs there an e-book backlash? A couple of polls have come out, one on the UK side of the big pond and the other in America, professing to indicate that most people still prefer paper books.

The one from the UK is cited in an article in the Sunday Times, which I couldn’t read since it’s paywalled, but a summary on the Mobileread forum gives the pertinent details. Asked which they preferred, 17% said they preferred an e-reader and 65% paper books. 32% of those polled owned an e-reader. The provenance of the poll is unclear. (There are also a variety of smell-of-books quotes from authors interviewed for the article, but those are of little consequence.)

The US poll came from respected telephone pollster Rasmussen Reports, and reports that 75% of American adults would rather read print books, 15% prefer e-books, and 10% are undecided. There were a number of other questions in the poll as well, concerning where people shop for e-books and how they usually read books regardless of their preference, but only the statistic on e-book preference is above the paywall cut. A pity, as it might be interesting to see those figures, and googling to try to find other news coverage of the poll doesn’t produce any useful results. (Found via Slashdot.)

So, does that mean e-books are passé, and we might as well all give up and go home now? Not really. We’ve always known that a lot of people don’t like e-readers. Now, it’s possible some of those who said they prefer print books haven’t actually tried e-readers, so they don’t know for sure yet, and they could be converted. But in the long run, it doesn’t really matter.

It reminds me of an anecdote my parents like to tell about bread machines, those gizmos that combine an oven, a bread pan, and spinny paddles to knead the dough so all you have to do is dump the ingredients in, push some buttons, and come back later to a fragrant loaf. They hadn’t wanted to get one because they made their own bread from time to time, and hand-made bread is often superior to what bread machines turn out.

But then they realized that it was relatively rare for them to want to go to the trouble of mixing, kneading, and baking anymore. “But people with bread machines can always have fresh homemade bread.” They can even have it ready and waiting for them first thing in the morning when they wake up, thanks to the machine’s timer. Maybe it’s not as good as the kind of bread that takes personal time and effort, but it’s much better than no fresh-baked bread at all. So they bought a bread machine, and have happily enjoyed fresh and easily-available bread ever since.

By the same token, people who read print books can always find some excuse not to go to the bookstore or library and get more, and if they order from online by the time it gets there they might not even want to read it anymore. But with an e-book reader, buying a new book is only a few screen taps away, and you can carry your whole library in your pack or pocket. When it’s that easy, e-reader owners might even buy some books just because they’re good deals and not actually ever go back and read them. This means that e-reader buyers are likely to buy a lot more books than print readers, meaning they’re going to wield market power out of proportion to their numbers. (It would have been interesting to see some of the other Rasmussen results. I’ll bet they’d show whether I’m right.)

Update: On The Digital Reader, Nate Hoffelder makes the inverse point to mine. I suggested that people who prefer e-books buy more books, and Nate quotes a survey showing that people who buy more books prefer e-books.

So, the joke might be on those people who stick with print. They might enjoy old-fashioned reading more, but I’ll bet that, on average, e-reader owners get to do a lot more of it.

 
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