what the kindle taught me about my reading habits, and why the print novel will never die (maybe)




I once had an argument with my ex-husband (okay, we had many arguments, but that’s not the point) about the future of traditional publishing: within five to ten years, he declared airily, print publishing would cease to exist.

No way, said I, because people still like and need the physical, the tangible. No matter how digital our world gets, we still exist within flesh-and-blood bodies that crave satisfaction of the senses. And there is a sensual component to reading, as any book lover will tell you: the heft of the book, the cut of the pages, the dolphin-skin feel of a new glossy hardcover, the eye-candy pleasures of the cover art.

Plus I love to read in the bath. Who wants to take something electronic into a bubble bath?

This argument happened over ten years ago. My ex-husband wasn’t right, exactly, but maybe he was just off by a decade (or less). Publishers are scrambling to figure out how to survive (ie: profit from) the new digital reality. There is still a generation of readers who probably won’t accept an e-reader unless you jam it into their cold, dead hands — or at least that’s what they think. But there are generations rising who live and breathe the digital air and might look askance at anything that can’t contain a hyperlink (“Wait a sec, how the hell can I click on this? You mean I click and nothing happens?“). They are the future, not us.


I love my Kindle. I carry it around in my bag like a chihuahua (except it doesn’t bark, which is good). It wasn’t always this way. I resisted buying one for months. When it did arrive from Amazon, I let the box sit around the house unopened.

I love books, and when I say that I mean book-as-content and book-as-thing-on-shelf.

Now, when I buy a book, I face a decision: do I want it as physical object, or do I want it on my Kindle?

When it’s strictly informational reading, it goes on my Kindle.

When it’s a book by a favorite writer, or looks like a deep, rich read, I buy it in print form. Usually hardcover.

Last book I put on my Kindle: PERSONALITY NOT INCLUDED (Why Companies Lose Their Authenticity and How Great Brands Get it Back) by Rohit Bhargava.

Last book I bought in hardcover: THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE by Orhan Pamuk.

If I read a book on my Kindle and fall in love with it, I buy hardcover versions for my shelves. (I did this with Twyla Tharpe’s THE CREATIVE HABIT and Hugh MacLeod’s IGNORE EVERYBODY).


So are there any insights I can glean from this?

There are different types of reading. Which is pretty much stating the obvious, except there seemed less reason to do so when they all got delivered in the same print-and-paper package.

There is informational reading, when you are consuming the words for no other purpose than to learn something.

And then there is the kind of reading that hits on an emotional as well as intellectual level. You become immersed in a well-crafted emotional experience (a.k.a. “a novel”). You learn by identifying with the characters and living vicariously through them. The author takes those characters — and you — on a journey.

Book-objects serve different purposes. First, they are the journey; then, after you’ve absorbed their contents, they become a souvenir of that journey. They are emotionally charged mementos. It makes you feel good to have them on your shelf, to remind you of where they took you. People will get rid of clothes they no longer have use for, but books they’ll keep forever.

You can mark up digital books, you can show passages to friends, and e-readers will eventually have social and sharing elements to equal if not surpass those activities in real life.

But digital is not a thing, and when I love a book I want to have it as a thing. Digital is transient. Digital can take you places, but it won’t leave behind souvenirs. A file in your archive doesn’t count.


As any booklover knows, you are what you read (and want to be what you want to read), which is one reason we’re always checking out each other’s bookshelves.

We use objects as touchstones of identity, we see ourselves reflected in them and angle those reflections at others. Books, by their nature, are some of the most powerful touchstones around. As ebooks become more and more the norm, the book-objects you choose to spend money and space on will say even more about who you are, or who you want others to think you are.

Besides, you can’t use digital to line the walls of your warm, cosy study.


I don’t believe print will disappear.

I believe that ebooks will rule, and traditionally published novels will be the minority. I suspect that the latter will be published with increasing sophistication and artistry, in order to be true ‘objects’ a reader might want to collect, and to set them apart from books printed-on-demand. The old school of filter first (via agents and editors), then publish, will turn into ‘editorial curation’: announcing to the reader that this is the best of the best. Traditional hardcover will signal prestige – the best fiction, the best writers – and writers who get published this way will form a relatively small exclusive club.

Ebooks will be the norm, but this won’t happen until the right (and inexpensive) e-reader hits the market – probably still several years off. If print publishing is about the best, then digital publishing is about volume: publish first, then filter. Readers will rely on trusted sources to point them to the good stuff, and some of those sources will become the most influential people in the industry. Online Oprahs.

Mass-market paperbacks will disappear entirely.

The writer, meanwhile, will struggle with the same questions as today: how to get good, and how to get noticed.



Jan 27, 2010

13 comments · Add Yours

There was a piece in the NYT recently about how kids are now spending all of their waking hours tethered to an electronic device of some kind or other. The authors of the study were updating earlier work they did, in which the number of hours a day spent in this way was around 12, and they commented at the time that they couldn’t imagine kids spending any MORE time connected. In the latest study they admit they were wrong. There’s no reason for these kids to set foot in a record store, a movie theater, or a bookstore. They seem completely comfortable consuming art on their phones.

I also read somewhere that one consequence of iTunes is that the market for live performance of music has exploded. Once a money-loser for bands, it’s now the only way to make real money, and supply is creating demand. That product — live music — is now differentiated in a way it never was back when the big investment was buying an album. I wonder if physical books might, at some point, by virtue of their rarity and expense, become MORE valued as luxury goods and as markers for erudition, or good taste, or high income.

Is there a product which has already gone through this transition? I can’t think of any, but there must be one. I’m referring to an experience-oriented product that has been made extinct (or more rarefied) by technology.

It’s been quite some time since I walked into a Blockbuster, but it strikes me that they might a window into the future of bookstores. The last time I rented a video from Blockbuster, they were in the process of converting more than half the store into a video gaming center, where you sat down to play.

It will be interesting to see where the collapse of book publishing will get the biggest push — from the supply end or the demand end. The profits in e-books are extraordinary for everyone. Publishers created value for themselves by restricting access to bookstores for authors; now that Amazon has dismantled that barrier to the marketplace, it’s hard to see publishers hanging on to such a high-cost business model for much longer. I predict that the first e-book exclusive will be Stephanie Meyers: her market base is comprised entirely of people who consume all of their media electronically. Adults can buy a Lulu-produced whatchamacallit — book, I guess it’s called — through her website (or her publisher’s, I suppose, although I don’t see what use they’ll be).

I’m waiting until the Kindle gets a proper browser. The tipping point for me will be when I can surf the web as easily as I do with my laptop. I buy so few books these days that it’s hard to justify the expense just for books; the tipping point will be when I can stream movies and read blogs/web surf. Books lost their talismanic/fetishistic qualities for me quite some time ago — about the time I had to move forty boxes of them three times in one year, then discovered that they were worth less than $1 a piece in the marketplace.


I saw this on boingboing the other day…an indy album you can buy online, but they also had a designer make an actual red vinyl record, beautiful printed cover, etc.

I wonder if books will ever go that far, where they become truly limited editions.


I’m thinking the prestige element to having a published book is up in the air. When the mass of internet folks can vote en masse by what they like, is prestige really all that? I could see this aspect being claimed by some other process, indeed it may already have happened.

But souvenirs–that to me seems like a likely scenario. Physical mementos are declarations of status and loyalty. I’m not so sure files don’t count as things, its all a matter of perspective. But being able to turn a file into a thing, “using the matter replicators” as it were sounds like a place for a toll-booth.


I think I agree with your point of view but I don’t really have a good sense of WHO buys books and what they are buying. I am a whore for novels but I think nonfiction (think business type content) books are a much bigger market and those types of books are not the kind of deep, rich books we want to touch and hold and read again and again. Well, at least for me they are not!


Not for me, either. I actually put very little fiction on my Kindle.


As someone who’s boxing up and donating books right now and dealing with the question of what to do with them, I hear you on that…

I wonder about bookstores…to survive they’ll have to engage people and provide some kind of experience you can’t get online…I know Vroman’s in Pasadena is really working to build a community (they bus people to the LA Times Book Festival, etc.)…I’m losing interest in Borders, Barnes & Noble: the big boxy stores that provide volume & discounts you can get online anyway, so why go (not for the ambiance…)? But there’s an independent bookstore in Venice I just love, for the early-edition books but also for the design of the store, the art in the back, the neighborhood, etc. It’s unique.

I think you’re right on Meyers.

And the e-reader thing — yeah, the first mass-market e-reader will be some inexpensive multi-purpose thing — or maybe kids will just grow up reading on their phones, who knows.


I actually have fantasies about collaborating with an artist to do some kind of book-as-object with a limited print run…


But popularity and prestige are not quite the same thing. (And I think the most popular ebooks will get published in hardcover anyway, if someone thinks they can make a profit that way.)

Publication will be less about ‘publication’ (which anyone can do now) and more about filtering — I’ll go to Publisher X because I know they’ll have found the high-quality books of a particular genre that I like so I don’t have to search through the oceans of content myself. Who has the time?


God, I hope you’re wrong. But I fear you’re not. Especially about mass market paperbacks. I LOVE those little buggers!

I agree that yes, for the foreseeable future (hopefully the remainder of my life), books will remain as physical objects. You’re right—there’s nothing like being surrounded by them in your home.

Hopefully someone will come along with an e-book reader that somehow mimics the physical reading experience of holding a book. Not sure how this would happen, but I bet someone’s working on it. Apple’s iBooks, announced in conjunction with the iPad yesterday, is a step in the right direction.


True, prestige is a euphemism for “the popularity that matters”, which depends upon maintaining an exclusive club everyone wants to enter. The mere act of getting a book from thought to object isn’t going to qualify anymore, it’ll just be taken for granted. So the goal posts will have to be moved–and that means redefine what a “true book” is.

The thing is, everyone can also create their own club (that’s what tribes are all about), which means enforcement might be a little difficult. Not that it can’t be done, mind you. For example, people could very easily return to seeing p(aper)-books as a luxury item or art object on a sliding scale–hard bound, collector edition, hand-crafted paper and ink between gilt gold. If a movement constellates around that it could be prestige to be someone worth paying for, in a Dolemite kind of way.

Then again, the system for finding the books you like already exists in a primitive state. Your friends are your filter. That’s what building your “Leonardo DaVinci Workshop” formula is all about. Drawing the people to you that matter and letting them get you in touch with what matters. In a “I’m not going for the best, just going for what’s mine”, 2Unlimited sort of way. Aggregators are going to have to come up with tools that facilitate that.

We have plenty of time, just no reason to waste it. If someone reaches me in the right way, I’ll make time. There’s more stuff out there than ever before and more than I could ever read. I’ll find the right stuff, but the people who lend me a hand with that, yeah they get respect.

Anecdote time. I was in Books-A-Million today looking for a particular bunch of manga. I was like, “well there’s like authors X, Y and Z whose blogs I read today. I’m down to two books in my queue, let’s see if any of their books are here. I couldn’t find any of them (I looked for Bloodangel). If they’d had one of those Espresso printing machines I’d have waited. I walked out of there (without either the manga or the impulse buy ideas) and I thought to myself, “Books-A-Million is the worst bookstore in the world, I hope they go extinct.”

That doesn’t mean I’ve given up, it means Publishers and Chains -1 and people I couldn’t get +1. And I’m not saying this is a bad process (I enjoy treasure hunts that build over time, I have my own ways). But for me, the question is two fold: Do people want your stuff (can you get their attention in a meaningful way) and can they get the stuff when they’re ready (with as few barriers as possible)? The system doesn’t deliver that–they don’t want people buying what they want!


Dude, I have been thinking some of the same things. I see the huge advantage of a Kindle vs. a stack of informational books. But I think books are going to be around as long as there’s something about them that you can’t get in a Kindle, that people will pay for.

I still buy physical CDs because I like the packaging and the souvenir aspect of it, and I will still buy the books I care about. But they should really take a hint from CD industry and include access to a digital copy with the purchase of the book, so we don’t have to buy things twice.

Bookstores may end up more indie and selective instead of huge and all-encompassing–I can’t wait for that to happen. And I for one will not miss mass-market paperbacks. =)


the digital/ephemeral vs the analog/permanentish is a long standing trope interestingly of scifi writing. philip k. dick for example has stories of people living in virtual reality that don’t realize it (total recall) or who may be androids but not realize it (do androids dream of electronic sheep?).

each new type of device (tablet, papyrus scroll, book, kindle, ipad) is a technological innovation that does not entirely replace the feel of what came previously in how it is used. but perhaps there will one day be an electronic device that is so sensorily perfect that it is more intimate, more wondrous, more convenient than the book, the same way the book buried the scroll. if the technology is completely immersive (tied into ones nerves) than perhaps it could feel more real than the real thing, the way a movie on a screen feels more poignant than regular life.


I suspect that the latter will be published with increasing sophistication and artistry, in order to be true ‘objects’ a reader might want to collect,

Exactly what I’ve been saying since I got my Kindle. My reading material is divided in just the same way yours is – informational? Kindle. just-for-fun? Kindle. Anything that would have me miming crtl+F? Kindle. Stuff I love and want to keep forever? Hardback.

I downloaded LJ’s copperbadge’s Nameless in PDF, but I didn’t read it until the hard copy was in my hands because that means BOOK to me :) I own a lot of my favorite books in both formats – I read the paper ones at home, and the Kindle ones on the road….and I’m always grumpy that the Kindle versions has the words in the wrong place on the page :D But my Kindle has 2 different covers, a beautiful skin and gets treated with utmost gentleness – I’m just hitting middle age and am right between the digital and the paper generations.


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