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A tale of two media: Despite the iPad, traditional books aren't going anywhere.

A few days ago I was in London having drinks with a novelist and a literary agent. We discussed the pros and cons of the iPad as a book reader and how the iPad as a medium and its iBookstore affects the reading public. The novelist and agent gave me their impressions of the device and how it will, if at all, change the way readers consume books. We also spoke about Penguin's ideas to reinvent books as apps and discussed my previous article on the subject along with the notion that some people in the tech world think that the iPad and iBookstore will kill traditional books.

Our conversation got me thinking: I normally read about 50-60 books a year in paperback format, but I had owned my iPad for a week already and had yet to try my favorite pastime on it. So I decided to compare how reading the same book in paperback would compare with reading it on the iPad. In order not to bias the medium I was reading it on by already having discovered the story on another device (and thus being a little bored with it on a second reading that so closely followed the first), I decided to read one novel -- every other of its chapters on the iPad and then in paperback.


The novel I read was the paperback edition of Julie Myerson's Something Might Happen (iBooks/paperback links). I decided to let random chance choose if I should start chapter one on the iPad or on the paperback. The coin landed on heads: iPad won. In order to conduct a fairly thorough reading experiment, I chose to read the novel on each of its mediums in locations where people normally read novels: their home, on their commute (trains and planes), and in parks and cafés.

The chapters I read in paperback (in all locations) was an experience one would expect from reading in that medium: comfortable, easy to use, immersive (immersive in how books should be -- by using your brain power, not by throwing audio and video in your face). The iPad however, was another story.

In my flat, I enjoyed reading the novel on the iPad more than in any other location (why, I'll get to in a moment). One thing I love about ebooks on the iPad is the in-text dictionary look-up feature. This is something the iPad will always have as an advantage over traditional paperbacks. I sometimes come across a word I don't know while reading a book. It's much handier to be able to look up the word on the same screen as the text as opposed to having to grab a dictionary or my iPhone to look it up while I'm reading a paperback. I also like the bookmarking feature. Though bookmarking has long existed in paperbacks (when you dog-ear a page), bookmarks excel on the iPad's ebooks because they allow you to do two useful things: highlight a word or block of words (much like you might highlight or underline text in a paperback), but the iPad also displays a bookmarks Table of Contents that list all your bookmarks and the date you bookmarked them.

However, when it came to actually reading the ebook, the iPad's advantages as a medium to consume literature began to pale. The iPad was relatively heavy and large (compared to a paperback) in my hands and the swiping and tapping to turn a page soon became tedious. A normal paperback edition of a book is roughly half the size of the iPad and slips snugly into a pocket while traveling. Even when the book is opened, it's still smaller than the flat and hard surface of the iPad. Though resting the iPad my lap resolved the weight issues, most people do not read books by lying them on their laps. Most people read books lightly grasped in their hands, or even laying down in bed. There is no way to "lightly grasp" the iPad and when you hold it for an hour while reading, your hands feel the strain.

Another big issue I had with reading the ebook chapters was that, since they were on the iPad, I was always tempted to navigate away to check an email, browse the web, or look for another book on the iBookstore. This short attention span of mine only existed while I was reading on the iPad and not from the paperback, which means it wasn't the story's fault that I was so tempted to navigate away. The iPad is a wonderful device that cries "touch me", and that's what I constantly wanted to do while holding the iPad -- touch, swipe, IM, check email. Push notifications from different apps didn't help the reading experience either.

Let's leave home and move on to another place where people read books: on their commute. Being in London, I did what most commuters do: I rode the tube. Forget about resting your iPad on your lap to read, your knees get bumped too much from the constant flow of commuters entering and leaving the train. Your only option is to hold your iPad in your hands, like you would a paperback. Now when I say "hold" what I really mean is "grip." This is where a huge drawback of the iPad becomes apparent. That drawback is called fear.

When I read the paperback on the tube, not once did I worry about hanging on to my paperback for dear life. A $7 paperback book is a pretty low target for a thief. A $500 iPad out in the open on a crowed train, on the other hand, is prime theft material. The reading experience goes down dramatically when you need to keep an eye on the people walking past you. Think I'm being paranoid? The New York Times reported in April that smartphone theft increased 70% year over year in Boston and 65% year over year in Washington DC. Those aren't pickpocket thefts either -- they're snatched-out-of-your-hands thefts. The iPad is a larger and easier-to-snatch device than a small smartphone, especially when you're reading it on a crowded city train, and the constant awareness that you must keep an eye out for potential theft detracts from the reading experience.

So, we've left home, taken the train, and walked a few blocks to the park or café. Again, with a paperback, it slips nicely into my back pocket while walking -- something the iPad cannot do. Previous issues I noticed with the iPad as a book replacement also apply here. Like at home, in a café you will be holding the iPad in your hands, which gets tiring, and like the train, you feel a need to keep one eye on your surroundings, though, admittedly, there is much less fear of theft when you're in a café than on a packed commuter train. Should fear of theft keep you from using your iPad in public? Of course not. But it is an extra strain that you don't have to worry about while reading a paperback or while reading your iPad at home (which is one of the reasons why reading an ebook in my flat was more enjoyable than reading it on the train or in the café).

I want to address another point. I've had people tell me that they've "read more books than they ever have before" since they got their iPad (to them, I would like to point out that reading the free Winnie-the-Pooh book that comes with the iBooks app doesn't really count). They also say they love carrying their entire book library around with them. Their last point is something I discussed with the novelist and literary agent. Similarly, the agent loved his Sony Reader because he could throw the twenty manuscripts he needs to read over the weekend on it and take them anywhere with little effort -- quite a space saver. My point of contention when other people say this library-in-your-hands feature will destroy paperbacks is that, unlike the agent who will commonly read sections from twenty different novels in a weekend, your average reader reads one book at a time.

There's a reason books are primarily sold as stand alone editions and do not bind the first four chapters from five different novels into a single volume -- because most people will not read two or more stories at once. Novels typically involve multiple story lines, characters, and settings; at best, reading more than one novel at once will distract from the stories of the novels, at worst, doing so will confuse the reader outright. So while carrying your entire library with you is nice, once you begin a book, chances are you'll see it trough to the end and not flit from one novel to the next. Besides, the average person takes two weeks to read one book. Books are not like music, movies, and magazines -- they take much longer to consume. Unless you're on a round the world trip, there's really no reason to have your entire library with you because you won't be using it.

After finishing my read of the novel on both mediums -- the iPad and the paperback -- I am more convinced than ever that the iPad and its iBookstore will not usurp traditional print editions. A paperback is just a too versatile and easy device to read from. It's cheap and replaceable and takes a very low level of care to keep it in working order. It's much lighter and the page turns flow more naturally in your hands than page swipes do on the iPad. Also, a paperback offers no distractions from the printed words. Despite my love for the traditional medium, I do want to say that I love the iBookstore. I use it now to browse for books I think would be interesting and use the "Get Sample" feature to explore the first few chapters. If I like what I read, I'll purchase the print edition from Amazon or at my local bookseller.

Now, before I get any angry emails, let me state emphatically that I love my iPad (I'm currently writing this article on it on my flight back to Portugal). It's an awesome leisure device. I love browsing the web on it and even love reading magazines and comics on it. But I can do those things comfortably because reading a website, a comic book, or a magazine article does not take the length of time and the concentration commitment that reading a book does.

People will read books on the iPad, and I'm glad for that. The more people who read, the better. But digital books will not put paperbacks out of circulation. There's room for both mediums. But, unlike MP3s that replaced CDs, the original medium for the novel is still the superior one in both form and function.

[Image credit: Spykster]

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