Ebooks have been around for a long time. I have friends who read exclusively on their phones, computers, tablets, or dedicated e-reader devices. The driving force behind ebooks seems to be convenience: you can get the book faster, it adds nothing to the weight or bulk of your luggage, you won’t forget to bring it along, you can adjust the print size to your comfort level, and you’ll never lack for something to read when your lunch date is late.
With all these advantages, why does anyone choose a print book?
Speaking solely for myself, there are plenty of reasons. A major one is that I’m from the “out of sight, out of mind” contingent: when I’m looking for something to read, I scan my bookshelves without even thinking about opening my digital library. Another is the aesthetic experience, especially with a paperback that falls open softly in my hand, as familiar and comfortable as a well-worn sweater. Some love the new-book smell; I’m especially fond of the distinctive scent of old, slightly yellowed pages. Plus, having a book tucked into my bag means that I can pull it out, read a paragraph, and put it back in the time it would normally take to log in and open the e-reading app. (This is especially useful when I have no idea how long the wait time will be.) Along the same lines, there’s a certain sense of superiority that comes with being able to keep reading while the flight attendants are telling everyone to shut off their electronic devices.
Perhaps the biggest reason is the sheer tangibility. A book I can hold in my hand exists. I can turn it over to read the back cover, because it has one. I can make pencil notes and markings, and later flip through the book to find them again because I know where on the page to look for them. I can tell how far I am from the end, which means I know whether the current scene is part of the hero’s journey or whether we’re closing in on the climactic moment. A physical book can be inscribed as a gift or signed by the author. (Anne Lamott once told me she’s frequently been asked to sign someone’s Kindle.)
With my unquestionable bias in favor of print, my current dilemma comes into sharp relief.
My Brother, Romeo is a novella. I’m still editing, but my best guess is that it will end up being around 19,000 words. In the pre-ebook era, my publishing options would have been extremely limited: either write a few more novellas and publish them as a collection, or allow it to languish in a drawer. Some small publishers released freestanding novellas, but often they were classics a the house had decided to reissue, such as The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway, or Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville.
That was then; this is now. The ebook format could have been designed specifically for novellas: so much less expensive for both publisher and reader, and no worries about that tiny little book being overwhelmed on bookstore shelves by two-inch-thick epic novels on either side. Digital-first imprints abound, and digital-first has become digital-only for many works. Amazon launched Kindle Singles ten years ago, and the format is still going strong. A year later, literary magazine Ploughshares launched its popular Ploughshares Solos, publishing fiction and nonfiction prose works ranging from 7,500 to 20,000 words. Even my brilliant cover designer agrees that for My Brother, Romeo, publication as an ebook is the way to go. Plus, with all the platforms and retailers available, I can sell an ebook literally anywhere in the world.
Publishing a print edition of My Brother, Romeo would be expensive even if I could design it in such a way that my print-on-demand service would accept it. (It won’t; I’d need to find someone else to print it.) The price I’d need to charge in order to show any kind of a profit would likely more than anyone except a few close friends would be willing to pay, especially if paper shortages and delivery logistics continue to plague the publishing industry. The lion’s share of sales would undoubtedly come from ebooks. There’s no practical reason to create a print version of this novella.
So why am I even considering a print volume?
Because even with all this logic, I still harbor the irrational feeling that if I can’t put it on the shelf, it won’t be a “real” book.
I know how silly I’m being. Twenty years ago when I went on a one-week vacation to Captiva Island, I lugged a a ridiculously heavy suitcase containing a dozen books because after all, you never know what you’ll feel like reading. (Luckily, weight restrictions on suitcases weren’t nearly as stringent in those days.) A few years later when ebooks became popular, my first thought was, “That’ll be great for traveling!” Then, I bought a Kindle when my then-pastor announced that he was changing the version of the Bible he’d be using in his sermons and I figured the e-version would be much easier to carry back and forth to church. (I was right. One woman brought in her new study Bible, and the thing was enormous.) I downloaded batches of free classics; my Kindle library includes the complete works of Jane Austen, Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Miserables, and all the books in Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did series which I loved as a ten-year-old but had never been able to find all of.
Real books, all of them. No question about it.
The difference now is that as ebooks, they’re affordable (free, if you like). They’re also much more convenient. I began reading Les Mis on the train when I was visiting a friend in Pennsylvania years ago. Trust me, there’s much more to this incredible work than what you see in the play or the movie. Still, if the only available version had been in print (1,232 pages), I doubt I’d have lugged that doorstop of a book with me.
The bottom line is that I need to set aside my irrational personal bias and recognize that in current times, a great many readers actually prefer ebooks. Certainly this was the case during the pandemic lockdowns when we couldn’t enter bookstores, and it continues to be true for all the reasons I’ve acknowledged. I need to adjust my thinking to respect and accommodate my readers’ preferences.
Besides, digital-first doesn’t have to mean digital-only. Maybe if My Brother, Romeo sells thousands of copies, earning back all its production costs and making a tidy profit, I’ll invest some of the profits in a commemorative print edition. More likely, once My Brother, Romeo is published, I’ll print the pdf and the cover, bind them together, and place my little print copy on the shelf in my living room, next to State v. Claus and my collection of anthologies that include my stories.
The best of both worlds, as it were.