The medium is the message
From time to time I ask my facebook community whether they prefer print books or digital books.
I do it for a couple of reasons — it’s a great way to get people engaged in a discussion (and people can feel very passionate about their preferred medium); and it’s also a great way to demonstrate to soon-to-be authors that there is no single best way to publish.
Often the responses are split down the centre — and sometimes print books edge into the lead.
So, how to publish?
You’re writing a book, it’s almost finished and now you’re moving on to the technicalities. Before you start drawing up your budgets and timelines, you need to make a choice — are you going on-shelf or on-line?
Rather than base your decision on what you think is best, I urge you to spare a thought for the reader.
There are a thousand and one arguments for either option, and if you go with a traditional publisher, you will probably get both. But if you’re doing it alone and you’re weighing the pros and cons, it can seem like a long, complicated list. And it can seem like an either-or decision.
But it doesn’t have to be. Putting costs and practicalities aside, let’s have a look at the aesthetics and the reading experience — because this is where your reader is coming from: what do they enjoy — and what gives a better reading experience – paper or screen?
Print versus digital?
We’ve been told that ‘the brain prefers paper’, and studies in the early 90’s did seem to back this up. People who read on screen read more slowly, took in less of the information and recalled less accurately than those who read on paper.
However, more recent research, such as this study, conducted in Norway, found that readers do not actually experience a noticeably different level of immersion in a book when they read it in digital (ebook) format versus print.
The only significant difference was that those who read the ebook version were less well able to recall and reconstruct the plot in the right sequence.
Aesthetics or science?
Whatever you prefer, your reader may have an aesthetic preference for print or digital (and my totally non-scientific facebook research concludes that you are better off producing both).
And there is also a scientifically supported reason to go with one or the other so that you support your reader’s absorption and consumption of your material.
If your book contains a heavily structured pattern or plot, then you are best to go paper.
However, if the content in your book is information-heavy and relies less on structure and more on overall understanding of key concepts and issues, then digital may be the best medium for your reader.
The comments that I get, and what Lifehacker found when they compiled their audience’s response in the print versus digital debate, is that convenience wins.
Most people (who responded to Lifehacker) said that their preference for digital over print is down to the ability to read anywhere, and especially in short bursts (and some of my readers tell me this as well — checkout queues being a common one!). And the ability to store hundreds of books on their e-reader means they have a full range of reading choices at their fingertips (especially when travelling).
So you definitely don’t want to ignore the digital market — the ebook stands above the print book if you have short sections with informative content and you’re not necessarily relying on a consistent need for attention and immersion.
For non-fiction this is perfect.
Relaxing with a good book
Preference for print (in Lifehacker and also in my research) is associated with the feeling of being able to relax, and truly immerse yourself in a book.
For the great literary novel — if you want to enhance the reading experience, you might be better to go in print.
If your book relies on a complex structure, or is highly visual — heavy on graphics, images or other visual effects, then print may be the right direction for you.
Seth Godin made the print-only decision for his book What To Do When It’s Your Turn. He called it brave — but the research tells us it’s a sensible reading decision.
And every author wants to sell books. If you plan on doing talks and book signings and events around the release of your book, then of course print is going to serve you. There are apps for ebook signings, but somehow that experience of putting a physical book into a readers hand just can’t be bettered.
It’s your choice
Of course, in the end it comes down to your personal choice and preference.
But before you start drawing up figures and comparing numbers, think hard about the medium of your book, and what would best suit its style, and what format will best serve your readers.
If you’re thinking about digital, then think about this:
- Don’t think of your book as ‘just’ an e-book – respect the medium, or you won’t get the best out of it.
- If you’re impatient for publication – that’s great — but good things take time. If your choice of delivery is based purely on hitting the shelves as early as possible, rethink. On the other hand, if timing is crucial, consider going digital first, and then follow up with a paperback or hardback later.
- If you don’t think it’s good enough for the shelves – if you’re worried that you won’t cover the costs of the extra costs of print (design and formatting), then don’t choose digital just because it’s cheaper. Write a better book for goodness sake! Re-edit, tighten, make your book better: a mediocre digital book will cost you more in lost reputation than the extra money to go into print will cost.
If you’re thinking about print, then think about this:
- Don’t be a book snob. If you’re simply a traditionalist and you prefer print because — well it’s ‘better’ then put those feelings aside. Let the message and the format dictate the medium — not your personal preferences. If you want to reach the masses and you know you can do this better with digital, then don’t let your sense of pride get in the way of publishing the best e-book you can.
- If you want to ‘cover all your bases‘; if you’re trying to make sure your book reaches as wide an audience as possible by publishing in every format — again, don’t. If your e-book is good, you’re likely to sell many, many more copies than a print version. Especially if you are self-publishing. It’s hard to get into bookshops if you don’t have the connections. If you’re book is a success, you will end up with a print copy anyway, a little later down the line.
- If your audience doesn’t suit print, then don’t be wedded to it. If you write tech and you just know your reader is all about the latest gadgetry, then serve your book on beautiful digital platter, stand out with design and formatting that fits the medium.
Which will it be?
Whether you choose to go print or digital, spare a thought for your reader, and stay in service to him or her. They are the best judge of which is the right medium for your book.