Paper or pixels? Which book format do you prefer?

I’ve been writing books for 17 years. In that time, I’ve watched the publishing industry change pretty drastically.

With the popularity of the Kindle and the iPad, we’ve reached an inflection point that’s pretty much equal to the change from analog music (LPs and tapes) to digital formats, first on CD and then in downloadable files.

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about the issues of analog and digital publishing lately, trying to figure out ways to make my books more digital and less analog.

To help with my thought process, I’d like your input. Are you still interested in books as an information source? If you use digital formats, which ones do you use and why? If print editions went away, would you shift to digital?

Amazon recently introduced a new initiative of shorter digital products called Kindle Singles, which it describes thusly:

Less than 10,000 words or more than 50,000: that is the choice writers have generally faced for more than a century–works either had to be short enough for a magazine article or long enough to deliver the “heft” required for book marketing and distribution. But in many cases, 10,000 to 30,000 words (roughly 30 to 90 pages) might be the perfect, natural length to lay out a single killer idea, well researched, well argued and well illustrated–whether it’s a business lesson, a political point of view, a scientific argument, or a beautifully crafted essay on a current event.

Today, Amazon is announcing that it will launch “Kindle Singles”–Kindle books that are twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book. Kindle Singles will have their own section in the Kindle Store and be priced much less than a typical book. Today’s announcement is a call to serious writers, thinkers, scientists, business leaders, historians, politicians and publishers to join Amazon in making such works available to readers around the world.

Would you be interested in shorter books (with smaller price tags), in digital formats only?

I welcome a candid discussion in the comments section here. Apologies in advance if my spam filters hold your comment for moderation. I’ll be making a special effort to release comments as soon as possible after they come in, but if you’ve never commented here those filters will probably block you.

I’m also tinkering with the site design today, so don’t be too surprised if you see pages that look a little off.

Update: A quirk in the design of this site makes it harder than it should for you to see what others have already said. To start at the beginning of the comments thread, click here. And then please add your comments!

33 thoughts on “Paper or pixels? Which book format do you prefer?

  1. Digital is the future; but there are several issues unresolved in the “business model” / DRM morass!

    lending of eBook/eMagazine
    lending libraries (public and/or private)
    eBook exchanges
    portability of eBooks/eMagazines between devices
    color vs. monochrome (battery life, photo, maps, charts, etc.)
    transfer of eBooks/eMagazines (gifting, inheritance, etc.)

  2. I vote for shorter pieces in digital format. Kindle is my preferred reader for digital articles and books. I can read material on my computers, Kindle or iPhone and they all sync to each other. It is quite convenient and likely to grow even more so with time.

    I plan on buying a tablet, likely an iPad v2 w/in the next 6 months and that will further cement my move from paper to pixels.

  3. I’m in favor of more specific topics that yield shorter books. Say a book on Windows Media Center could yield for more information than an entire book on Windows 7 that just included a section on it.

    Paul Thurrot has talked about on his podcast how larger books sell more because customers feel they are getting more content, even though it may not be more valuable. I think shorter books will force brevity and allow for more specific books which include more detail.

    And I’m all for digital copies. I find them much easier to search through and I don’t mind reading on the screen.

  4. As a consumer of digital content for instruction, I like short and to the point. In particular, a longer work must have searching as good as the Web, plus highlighting / note-taking.

    Actually, as a creator of digital content, I’d rather blog than write a book (don’t tell my publisher), despite the opportunity to present more content organized as I like it.

  5. Books on technical topics are in kind of a unique situation. For example, if I’m troubleshooting or working on Exchange, I don’t refer to a book to find my answers. I go to Google and search for answers. A fictional novel on the other hand would be a great read on the Kindle, iPad or whatever digital means I choose to consume it in. Plus there’s the added short life of the information contained in the technical books before it becomes outdated. I mean, even Windows Vista Secrets is out of date…

  6. Hi Duke,

    I fully support your statement, whereas I also recognize a few more issues:

    flipping though content (an eBook or similar) before purchasing
    transfer of content in a secure (hacker proof) reliable way

    On the other side carrying books or magazines while traveling is a nightmare.

    Clearly voting for eMedia!!!

  7. I have vision issues, which means the Kindle is the only way I can read, and read I do (using the larger font ability of the Kindle). But the Kindle is not good with visuals. So for me, it is a mixed baf.

    I do love my Kindle, but computer books are tough on the Kindle.

  8. Duke has the right general problem space for the moment. Though in the digital realm I don’t think exchanges will ever happen…. it’s headed the way of the DVD in that regard. You have a license to use it, but no right to do anything else with it. Likewise, the idea of anything for a right managed book above an individual will just about be non-existant, since as far as I can tell nobody’s interested in that part (and those that are, ala Google’s scanning, get sued by those that aren’t).

    That said, I bought a Nook because it supported EPUB (even if it IS, like a lot of other players, based on Adobe Digital Editions). I side load a lot of free content from the web and enjoy the access to free stuff when I want it. I liked the Sony’s, but their bookstore at the time stunk in comparison.

    I’d point out a couple of additional issues:

    content display among devices of even the same form factor still varies widely. You can set preferences as an author, but I can override them generally and make your work look like junk even though to me it might be more readable.
    There are basically two dominate platforms in WebKit rendering and Adobe Digital Editions (see Liza Daly blog at and the rest of her blog for lots of interesting stuff on e-book authoring.)
    I think some technical books would hold up well to small sections as individual prices (like the Java Power Tools book I’m reading at work where each chapter is about a different open source tool like SVN, Continuum etc.) or by the whole for cheaper… but screen shots or technical material in anything other than wiki-ish like ‘code’ sections comes through pretty poorly on monochrome anyhow.
    For more cohesive software books however, it would be hard to segment them I think… who’d buy one chapter of a ‘How to use Quicken’ book for example?
    Most OCR books (like those from Google) stink. They are too long to be constantly proof read and many of them frankly aren’t. I gave up on them for the most part. In your case if you own the source material in something flexible, you’d be in a better position.
    Make sure you chapter your books correctly if you do it so they get exposed in the UI of the reader for jumping around without having to return to the TOC. Long books that don’t have it are frustrating.
    For Adobe based devices you COULD go secure PDF, but my experience with PDF on my Nook has been less than stellar. Reflow in general stinks and lots of larger PDF files just fail to load entirely.
    EPUB, from what little reading I’ve done on it, is still a highly evolving standard and is in many cases very light. Seems most of the vendors have added things (like limited HTML5 support in Apple and Amazon for instance)… can you say IE3/Netscape part duex?
    I’ve yet to see a book where you could by a ‘subscription’ so as the author updated things or made fixes you’d get the new one/info automatically. You can get something like that with periodicals, but not sure what the programming differences are to know if making a book a ‘periodical’ is an option.

  9. I like the idea of shorter books. But I also like tables, pull-outs and anything else that allows for complex technical ideas to be presented more clearly. I think short-form and longer-form electronic books are preferable for technical books. When it comes to entertainment reading, I prefer the larger-sized paperbacks and hardbacks.

  10. I prefer digital. I’ve been reading eBooks since my original iPaq came with Microsoft Reader back in 2001. Moved to MS Reader on my Tablet PC from 2005 to 2009 and now my current device is a Nook which I picked over the Kindle because I felt it offered more options with the ePub format. That format also allows me to check out books from our local library.

    As others have said, drawings, figures, etc. aren’t necessarily the best on these devices but to me it’s a small trade off for the ability to carry reference manuals, reading material, etc. on one small device.

    I only wish there was a reasonably priced service that would allow me to trade in all my existing books for their eBook counterparts so I could have everything on my device and fewer bookshelves around the house.

  11. I’m in the overwhelmed minority here. If I’m reading for my own benefit or for recreation I much prefer a hard copy than an ebook. It is much easier on my old eyes and I don’t have to keep jumping back and forth because I’ve blown up the image so large that it doesn’t all fit on one screen.
    I do use ReadPlease a lot for online information but that really isn’t as good as reading the information for myself. I have the e-versions of all of the Inside Out books on my computer, but if I really want to find something out I’ll head for the printed version.
    By the way, I also like LPs and they are available in stores again…… 🙂

  12. I’ll be honest and say I still prefer a paper book for most uses; less so for technical references nowadays, with the growing prevalance of multiple-monitor systems (the last thing I want to do when working on the computer is switch back and forth to the reference material).

    Still, paper books can be easily previewed in a store, taken from place to place, don’t require power (at any point, except for perhaps the light to read them by), given to others, can be easily annotated/marked, and are somewhat less “fragile” – if I spill a drink on my book, the damage is less than if I do the same to my laptop. I don’t currently own any kind of tablet device, so I cannot speak for what they add to the mix at this point; perhaps the day will come when the price differential (between an eBook and a paper book) becomes compelling enough for me to consider one. Digital content (on my PC) adds one very unique feature that a paper book lacks – search. Automatically updating content could be an interesting possibility, if implemented properly.

    I think that digital content, as a rule, should be more concise, so by necessity the authoring process may vary. Shorter, more focused content (at a lower price point than a massive reference tome) may indeed be the future. However, I strongly believe that such content must be purchasable in some usable/transferrable format (just as a paper book is), not licensed or otherwise controlled.

  13. “Book” here includes print and digital. I’m very likely to try to find information on a new technical topic in a book from a trusted author before trying long-form web pages. Likewise, I’m likely to try a book before the web to solve a problem…if the book is silent then it’s off to a trusted corner of the web.

    In the past year, my book preference has switched from print first to digital first. I bought Windows 7 Inside Out as a book (which came with digital, and I’m now likely to use the digital as reference). I ordered Office 2010 Inside Out as print, canceled, and bought digital. I’m likely to prefer digital going forward.

    A book (any form) should be long enough to contain the information–but seemingly print doesn’t work that way any more. (It used to…I have many Kindle Singles size books in my collection–which goes back to the 1950s.)

    But all the above aside, what I want in a technical book is good writing and accurate description. I can deal with either print or digital to get that.

  14. Pixels of course. Paper is going out, the sooner the better for me. I can’t stand paper anymore, it’s such a big waste… Wasted trees, wasted time/effort lugging it around, wasted space in the house, impossible to “search” it etc. I’m sure it’s pretty obvious to everybody by now 🙂

  15. Are you still interested in books as an information source?

    Yes, but increasingly I’m buying digital books. I’m buying digital books for three reasons:
    1. search-ability
    2. space
    3. price

    With paper books, I’ll read them from cover to cover once, then they become reference books.

    If you use digital formats, which ones do you use and why?

    PDF. Any format is fine with me provided the format is going to be readable 10 years from now.
    I also want the ability to be able to print out pages, so I can read them “offline”. And scribble notes are over them.

    If print editions went away, would you shift to digital?

    Definitely. All my future computer books are going to be digital, when I can get them.

    On price, lets look at “Microsoft Office 2010 Inside Out”, as an example.
    $54.99 for the printed edition.
    $43.99 for the electronic version.
    $74.73 is the cost for the printed copy, landed in Australia.

    The challenge for authors, if they provide DRM-free books, is finding enough honest people to buy their books. As opposed to obtaining them for “”free””.

  16. While digital seems to be the trend and I will likely embrace it for short stories or magazine articles. I am still in favor of print. Curling up with a good book in front of the fire place or reading in the bath tub won’t be replaced by digital. I think my age is showing!!

    Ralph Walker

  17. Generally: Pixels please.

    Short books for Kindle: Sounds like a great idea to me.

    A big IF added: IF it’s possible to share the book between the Kindle device and the Kindle software on my computers. At the moment, this is possible with books, but not with newspapers and magazines – for those, you have to decide which one to use. That’s one of the reasons i’m very rarely buying newspapers or magazines for the kindle.

    Especially books on computers and technology should be readable on both portable devices and the computer screen.

  18. Paper, no doubt. You can smell it, look it, right’t. Exist for centurys and besides the pixels i have no doubt that a book it will be always a book. Makes part of you, of your story, your felings, your memories. Pixels are nice but it will never replace a paper book.

  19. Personally I prefer pixels, but I understand that it is not ideal for everyone. For one-off quick reads like a pulp novel that you read once and never touch again, ebooks are ideal.

    For more long-form works, I don’t see paper books going away anytime soon, but will definitely move to a print-on-demand model.

    However, perhaps authors who publish books such as yourself Ed could make use of the “Singles” model to publish chapters in advance of the finished hard copy. Therefore, anxious readers could “follow along” as the book is written. Early adopter readers could buy in early and receive a discount on the final hard copy. You could even have them “beta test” the book by helping out with edits – much like the news has moved online and can be corrected instantaneously.

    (Note: I’m not an author, so I do not know how this will fit in with many writer’s creative processes – especially fiction with rewrites, tweaks, etc.)

  20. Ed, very cool idea. In my experience, I’ve found that pixel articles often get my attention far more than paper ones. That said, I think that I often read less of any one work digitally than I do if it were on paper. So shorter works would be a terrific idea.

    Also stemming from the couple of comments already, and my general observations I believe that we’ll need to see another generation or two of people before true digital media takes off in dramatic measures. I’ve not owned a Kindle or such device yet. I do the majority of my digital reading via PC, and a bit on my iPhone. I’ve used a Kindle, and like it. But, adding “Another battery powered device” (stated very sarcastically) would not appeal to me at all. Tablet based machines have a little more appeal, but only a little.

    The right mix of device and situations just hasn’t been met yet IMHO. It might take a very special device, though it has arrived for some in the Kindle or iPad, et al. Or it may mean a complete change in lifestyle for the general public. Most likely a combination of the two.

    Anyhow, the biggest change I’m sure would be in the publishing trends of those who provide the materials. Basically: Build it and they will come…

  21. Ed, you know I buy your books in digital versions because I have eye problems and reading them on my iPad gives me the means to enlarge font size, bookmark, annotate, and never lose my place in the book. I an also enjoy your work on my iPhone. The Kindle is great, save that it isn’t backlighted. But for younger people, without eye afflictions, the Kindle does pretty much the same. And now the Galaxy Tab is still another reason to go digital. I would think, too, that the price of a digital download could be less expensive but more profitable for the writer, if it i done right. Last, let me mention that digital books can be read to the sightless, thus providing an excellent service and broadening the markt for extra sales.

  22. I’m just beginning to enjoy digital books, and, given time, will probably prefer them to paper if only for the fact that take up no room in comparison.

    For me to really embrace them, though, will require more value than I presently see. I notice that ebooks are cheaper, but not that much. When you consider the huge costs that publishers will not have to bear in paper and ink, digital formats should be a LOT cheaper compared to paper.

    DRM is another issue entirely. Needless to say, I’m not a big fan of it, and I refuse to believe the argument that it’s necessary–Those who will steal will find a way regardless.

    Currently, I use Aldiko and Kindle on my Droid phone. I like them both, and especially value the ability to export PDF file to epub format for use in Aldiko. It’s nice to be able to read anywhere without carrying more stuff.

  23. I greatly prefer paper books for recreational reading. Easy portability is one of the main reasons. I can simply put a paperback in my pocket as I travel.

    I don’t have any additional expense for an electronic reader or computer to read the book. If I happen to put my book down in a public place, I have a much better chance of finding it still there when I look for it. I also don’t have to worry about having a power source available for charging a device.

    A paper book is easily bookmarked with a piece of paper or – heaven forbid – a turned down page. If I search for a previous section, I prefer paper.

  24. Some random thoughts:

    I bought a Kindle planning to use it for travel, and ended up falling in love with it, so all of my pleasure reading is now on Kindle. But it doesn’t lend itself well to searching or browsing, so for tech books I would think its utility would be lower than for front-to-back reading of a full book. Also for tech, there might be times when one wants a bigger screen to look at diagrams etc.

    Charlie Russel’s SBS book included a PDF of the full text. I copied that to my PC and used it much more than I ever did the printed book – primarily because I could access it any time and from anywhere, without having to carry around a big, heavy print book. I think that for tech books, PDF would be my preference.

    I’ve (briefly) used an iPad and a couple of different Windows tablets/slates. Too big and heavy for doing a lot of reading, IMO. Kindle is much better in this regard, but if you need a laptop anyway, PDF on the laptop is a great option. And if Kindle wins the format war, there’s always the Kindle app for any device you can think of.

    I have long thought that there are a variety of topics, particularly in tech, where people don’t want to thoroughly understand the technology. They just want a simple “how to” document to walk them through the necessary steps. IMO this is the perfect application for Kindle Singles – “How to configure BitLocker Encryption in Windows 7,” “How to implement secure wireless” – that type of thing. I’d rather pay $5 for a good 3-page how to than $60 for a 125 chapter, 10-pound book where I only want the same three pages. Some of these tech topics have tens of thousands of pages of information on TechNet or wherever, making it very difficult to find the short bit you need for your project.

    IMO at $140, people can afford a Kindle for their tech books and “Singles,” even if they’d rather read print books for other topics. (Actually I believe we Kindle owners are supposed to call them “dead tree books,” while looking as if there’s a bad odor in the room).

  25. I prefer paper for recreational reading and digital for tech manuals. Searching through 500 pages is a lot easier on the computer than with a printed book.

    On a side note, a lot of successful sites and bloggers have been selling “singles” for quite a while now., Crystal Reports Underground, Lockergnome, all offer or offered digital “books” for sale in small sections that cover different things.

  26. Paper without a doubt.

    Two reasons not given by others: I can be pretty sure that my book will still be readable many years into the future – books still available to us go back hundreds of years but will Kindle v.374 still be able to read a book created in Kindle v.1? Secondly, once I’ve enjoyed the book I can give it to others to read and even donate to charity.

    As a rather more elderly person with a decent library of favourites I would resent having to pay a second time for something I already own. I can buy a CD (yes I still like to own a physical symbol of my music) and put it onto MP3 or phone etc. to take with my wherever I go. I don’t have to buy it again!

    A poster in another blog suggested another disadvantage of pixels. If you mislay your book you are only out for the few pounds/dollars but if you mislay your Kindle you are not just out of pocket for the cost of a new Kindle, you are out possibly thousands in lost DRM files.

    Ed notes that books might go the way of LPs. The move to CDs provided better quality and other benefits (although it’s interesting that sales of LPs remain) but Kindles, etc. only provide an alternative method of reading. To each his/her own, but I pray that books will continue to be available for a long time to come.

  27. I love ebooks, but I do miss paper books. For me, here are the pros/cons:

    ebooks much easier to read (for my aging eyes – high contrast, adjustable font size, backlit)
    less (no) packaging for digital format, and no wasted paper on the shelves
    never lose a book – the books will always be there in the cloud.
    ebooks far easier to carry (ever tried lugging a cert book around on the subway?)
    paper books are just easier for me to do a quick search. Flipping to a page take a few seconds and feel natural
    I can lend a paper book to a friend. DRM sucks, which means no more book lending (legally)
    is it just me, or do ebooks (kindle) seem shorter than the same paper books? Just feels that way. Like a Reader’s Digest condensed version, or something…
    honestly? I miss cover art. That’s just something I identify with a good book. Kindle books really haven’t had it, but .pdfs generally do.

    All in all, I think the ebook pros far outweight the cons, and I am sure I will still buy paper version when necessary, or for a treat.

  28. I prefer electronic, but I haven’t made the jump to digital books. There’s the price hurdle of buying a Kindle (or some other unit). Then you have to bring it with you to read it (too large to just pocket it). There’s the hassle of buying it. There has to be a better and more convenient way of paying for content.

    My preference is a true convergence device. You can buy the best screen on the market that fits in your pocket. You specify the memory size, the operating system, telephone service, and other apps. Then bring it where you need to go.

    Mobile devices need to be integrated into a single device.

  29. Paper vs digital? Depends somewhat on the content but more on the time, place, and purpose of use.

    Longer than short form, shorter than long? In fiction they used to be called “novellas” and in non-fiction “monographs” — I’ve got examples of each on my bookshelf, although the novellas are usually included in a larger collection.

  30. My favorite format is trade paperback sized books. They are cost effective, durable, portable, tradeable, and easy to read in a variety of lighting conditions. Books don’t break when drop them, they don’t have batteries that eventually permanently-die, and they aren’t tied to a digital format that may become obsolete in the future.

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