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.


  1. The genre I like the most, sci-fi, seems to have all the authors going for trilogies and/or books with a LARGE number of pages, say, 2.5-3″ thick. These are VERY hard to hold, bulky to carry, and next to impossible to get at libraries in the written order. And these books in paperback or trade — well thickness says: forget it!

    Ebooks solve all these problems.

  2. I wish I could remember the name of the survey or the organization that conducted it, but I want to say about a year ago there was at least one survey (or study, maybe) showing that people tended to start reading a lot more after they acquired their first e-reader. That was definitely the case with me, at any rate. And that was largely due to the fact that, as Chris pointed out, I had my Kindle with me – in my bag – almost everywhere I went.

    And when I eventually broke down and got a smartphone, I then had an e-reader with me *literally* everywhere I went, even when I left my Kindle at home. I’ve gotten a ton of reading done while doing things like waiting in line at the post office and waiting for the subway, and I now see others e-reading in those weird little pockets of formerly lost time as well.

  3. this is a very good point, and one that i’ve experienced myself. it’s just like music: there was a time when i would happily spend a saturday afternoon roaming up and down the aisles of a local record store. i don’t have that luxury of time (or money!) any more — a few taps to buy a song i heard that i liked, or to explore a new band, is much easier, more time and cost-effective to me, and ultimately i keep up with music and find new things much more so than my friends who are still standing by their CD and vinyl collections.

  4. Convenience is the key difference between print and screen books. One way to define that convenience is to notice that a print book displays only a single title and cannot display many books. A screen reading device will not only display various books, it can also display various libraries and various book stores. So the convenience of e-books is immense.

    Screen books are even more convenient than that. Purchasing utilities, reader reviews, and community book discussions are delivered quickly without any need for physical transaction, travel, or arrival on time. The whole system of ebook delivery is very convenient, free and instantaneous and we can add to all this the continuing advances of quality, navigation and connectivity of screen book display while the devices themselves are ever more attractive and efficient making up-grading enticing.

    Finally the convenience of ebooks contrasts with print books in an even greater way. Ebooks increase book reading strategies and opportunities resulting in more books read and read more quickly. Screen readers zoom through books and purchase more titles than print readers while they also manage to keep plenty on hand ready for any opportunity to read. Convenience is the key.

    As we become adapted to screen book reading and convenience of ebook delivery it will be difficult to recall why print books were used for so long.

  5. A point which I don’t believe anyone has addressed is that with e-books, the reader controls the font size. Anything can be a large print book which is a blessing to those of us getting older. While I can still read most books in print, I do not find the font size comfortable for sustained reading, and thus there is no choice unless the library happens to have a large print copy.

  6. I have experienced the same as Dan – ebooks brought on a resurgence of reading in my life. Ebooks are always ready for reading anywhere I have my smartphone or iPad handy. My eyes appreciate the option to increase the font size in ePub/Kindle books, and electronic books can also have PDF versions with beautiful typesetting.

    Granted, it’s currently a lot easier to “flip” through paper books, so I prefer ebooks for reading consecutive pages from front to back (e.g. books like novels, rather than technical books)

    And I’m admittedly an electronics gadget fan – I consider just about anything more fun when it can be done with an electronic screen.

  7. If people who prefer ebooks buy more books, I wonder how much of that is because they are replacing print books with ebooks. I know I’ve been doing that, but generally only when the price is comparable to a used book.

  8. Interesting piece, but there are several reasons why print still matters. I have decided to give up one eBooks for now. I started reading them in the early days on my Palm Pilots, and never stopped. Through every iteration – Palms, PPCs, smart phones, EReaders, Tablets. They are fine for wha t ey are, but the market has destroyed the joy.

    First, I found out how much I missed persuing books on the shelves of book stores. No web site can give that experience.

    Second, I had it when I saw that B&N listed over 11 million recommended titles as best sellers to look at on their web site. Really? Skip THAT idea.

    Third, B&Ns lack of real committment to readers/tablest/eBooks is scaring me – I lost many books in MS format years ago with them.

    Further, I don’t need to carry every book I own wherever I go, one at a time is fine for me.

    Yet more.. charging worries drive me nuts. EReaders are OK, but if you use a tablet or phone you have to be careful or it will drain awfully fast. Who needs that worry?

    Pricing? Forget it. Ony $1 less for an eBook over printed version? And if I order online print version $3 less than many an eBook? I give up on the procing thing!

    Too many books in the house? Donate, take a tax break, help those who can’t afford a book. Or use the library and support their mission.

    It was a fine market to be part of until the big players messed it up. In the end, I found out I missed my old fashioned printed books, and the journey to discover them. So our NOOKs are gone, and the almost 400 eBooks I have will be kept for posterity. Until this market is fixed, I’m enjoying the old fashioned way. And that’s OK!

  9. Discussions of comparative characteristics of screen and print books should recognize that there is no inherent tether between these. The reality is that screen and print books each have their own advocates, sales trends, markets, discovery facilities, dedicated devices, access utilities and prospective roles in book transmission overall. Increases in one does not mean decline of the other. Screen and print books do not even offer a good binary; busy readers use both. Go ahead and compare the functions and receptions of different book formats, but don’t assume that they are tied in some linked relationship.

  10. It is kind of sad, really. I truly hope that print books don’t vanish off the face of the planet before my time. I am not against technology, and I realize that change is all that is permanent. However, it fails me how people don’t realize the extent to which staring at a screen for hours together could hurt our vision. I understand that they are “safe screens” and all that which adjust brightness and proclaim to be safe for the eyes. However, end of the day, a screen is a screen. I also believe that one’s concentration and attention tend to be less focused when reading from a screen. I wish I could cite some studies to back that. There is just something about an electronic screen that makes us want to skim through rather than read.

    It will be a tragedy if ebooks eventually replace print books; a tragedy for our health, and a tragedy for the habit of reading.

  11. i don’t know… i disagree, Sinduja. for one, i’m sure print books aren’t going to vanish completely, and i for one don’t want them to. i’m fine with print being the medium for things that are worthy of the cost, and really most casual reading material just isn’t — but it’s perfect for pixels.

    as far as screen reading damaging our eyes, i just don’t buy it. we’ve been watching and reading off of screens for decades, easily, and there hasn’t been an entirely blind or vision-damaged generation yet. as far as attention goes, i think there may be a learning curve happening… but i am sure humans can adjust. we’re just in a transitional period. the ease of information transmission is exploding right now, and we’re just overwhelmed a bit by it all. we’ll figure out how to handle it, i’m sure.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail