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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Print Books vs. Digital Books

Written by Kristen Zenz

After months of hype, the excitement surrounding eBooks may be dying down. Even though eBook sales jumped 112% in October from a year prior, they posted their slowest growth rates yet.1 These slowing sales leave me wondering if consumers are starting to see through all the publicity surrounding digital books. After scouring through numerous blogs and news articles, I’ve found that no format—print or digital—is perfect, but what are the advantages and disadvantages of both print and digital books? Check out this list of key points you should take into consideration when selecting titles from the two formats for your library.

Availability and Accessibility
Libraries can incorporate new digital material into their collections anytime if purchased through an online digital material vendor. Through these providers, libraries can add eBooks right to their catalog website. Printed materials, on the other hand, while still purchased online, are at the mercy of shipment and delivery.

Unlike books, digital materials never go “out of print.” However, the idea that eBooks remain available indefinitely is a common misconception. Without warning, Amazon has remotely deleted titles like Animal Farm and 1984 from Kindles because the publisher did not have the proper rights. And HarperCollins recently set a license limit of 26 checkouts per title for libraries. After the library reaches the checkout limit, the title essentially expires.2

On the other hand, once you buy a printed book, it can never be revoked. Up until April 2011, rights holders who have eBooks on Google have the ability to pull their books as though the eBook never existed.3 Additionally, Barnes & Noble has been known to delete titles from Nooks if users don’t continually update their software.4 There are still other publishers that do not allow for the circulation of eBooks in libraries at all.2

Whether you prefer print or digital there will always be titles that are not available. It is cheaper and easier for authors to self-publish eBooks, so some have started publishing their work only in this format. However, there are also print books that have not yet been converted to digital, and there’s a chance they may never be.

Initially, eBooks may be cheaper than printed books because there are no printing costs—some public domain eBooks are even free—but eBooks are not always priced lower than their physical counterparts. On, the price for Ken Follett’s eBook Fall of Giants was $19.99, while the hardcover edition was $18. Additionally, the eBook for Don’t Blink by James Patterson and Howard Roughan was priced at $14.99. Amazon priced the hardcover at $14—although the price of the hardcover has since gone up to $16.15.5

To access an eBook, you need an eReader which can cost anywhere from $99 to over $500. Some libraries preload these devices with eBooks and then loan the device. The cost can add up, though, if your library is buying multiple devices. They also may use Overdrive, a downloadable audiobook program for purchase by public libraries, to distribute eBooks. This service requires a single annual participation fee ranging from $600 to $6,000 based on the population of the library’s service area. Additionally, libraries pay per eBook title, which varies in price. These titles are encrypted with DRM and are therefore only usable on specific devices. Patrons are limited to a certain number of copies of the material, and after the 14-day loan period, the files disappear from the device, requiring a new checkout rather than a renewal.

Portability and Storage
eReaders are capable of storing thousands of eBooks on a tablet smaller than a piece of paper. Therefore, libraries can preload readers with whole series or read-alike books. They can also house entire collections on hard drives, thus saving shelf space and allowing room for other resources like audiovisual materials, Internet-accessible computers, Wi-Fi access points, and reference desk materials. However, digital books lack the aesthetic appeal of stacked books and the refreshing smell and feel of cracking open a physical book. Additionally, browsing via an online catalog doesn’t necessarily have the same appeal as wandering the shelves and stacks.

Although eBooks aren’t susceptible to the traditional wear and tear of printed books, eReaders can still be dropped, be exposed to extreme temperatures, or experience data corruption. Additionally, DRM makes it difficult to back up eBook files for future retrieval.

Upgrade and Update
eBooks make it possible to update or correct a single file instead of reprinting thousands of copies of printed books. For example, 80,000 print copies of Jonathan Franzen’s book Freedom were recalled because an unedited version was sent to the printers. All of the print versions needed to be reprinted, while only one copy of the digital version needed updated.6

However, eBook file formats will constantly change due to advances in technology and proprietary formats. While PDF and EPUB are standard formats now, this could easily change over time, risking the readability of certain works that may not be compatible with future formats. While eBooks may need to be copied or converted in the future, printed books will always remain readable.

Environmental Concerns
Printed books use three times more raw materials and 78 times more water to produce than eBooks.7 However, eReaders are not biodegradable like printed books and the incorrect disposal of batteries can wreak havoc on the environment.

Basic functions of digital readers make it easy to alter text and read in low or no light. They have the ability to display motion, change the size and style of fonts, use text-to-speech software, and search for key terms and definitions. Digital books also allow the user to highlight, bookmark, and annotate text. If a book has specific formatting, though, it may be lost when converted to a digital file. Of course, without a charged battery, none of these functions are accessible. However, in spite of recent technological advances, it is just as easy to annotate printed texts without eReaders, as long as you don’t mind marking up your books or making copies. In fact, according to the New York Times, students still cling to paper textbooks in today’s digital age.

Because both formats have their pros and cons, it may be best for libraries to lend material cohesively by bundling print and digital books or providing eBooks as a supplement to print copies. An example of this method is Tantor’s Audio & eBook Classics, wherein the publisher bundles companion eBooks on PDF for over 300 of their classic audiobooks. You can find these titles on Midwest Tape’s website by SmartBrowsing Tantor Audio & eBook Classics.

Do patrons at your library prefer one format to the other? What feedback have you received from patrons and librarians?


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