Hardcover, paperback or e-book?

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 22, 2012 - 8:08 PM

The most important impact from digital devices like Kindles and Nooks is increased reading in all formats.

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It was muggy in March, so the solstice Wednesday may have seemed anticlimactic. But it's officially summertime. Which means that, unofficially, it's also beach-reading season.

If you're like one-fifth of Americans, you just might leave the paperback behind and pack an e-reader along with the sunscreen. That statistic, and many more in an exhaustive Pew study that was released in April, shows just how mainstream e-reading has become.

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) backs up Pew's poll with net sales revenue data. In a first, e-book sales ($282.3 million) surpassed "adult hardcover" books ($229.6 million) for the first quarter of 2012. "Adult paperbacks" (often best-sellers or classics printed in paperback) still accounted for the most revenue ($299.8 million), while cheaper checkout-line style "adult mass-market paperbacks" came in at $98.9 million.

The rise of pixels over print has been accompanied by an increasingly intense cultural conversation about the technology's impact. Sure, other media have recently undergone rapid change. But few of the transformations kindled the kind of angst or anger that some have expressed over e-books. Few, for instance, fretted when TVs slimmed down while fattening up their images through high-definition resolution.

Maybe it's because the technological metamorphosis e-books bring is so significant. In fact, "It's a pretty big watershed," said Jeff Rathermel, the executive director for the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

"We would need to go back to the 15th century in terms of the development of commercial paper mills and advancement in printing if we're talking about it from a standpoint of distribution and the amount of people impacted by it."

Given that historical context, and the center's celebration of books arts (whose stated mission includes "to advance the book as a vital contemporary art form" and to "preserve the traditional crafts of bookmaking"), Rathermel might be expected to rue the rise of e-readers.

Instead, he said, "I'm perfectly fine with e-books. I think there's a difference between the book as object and the book as a container of information."

He later added that, "It depends on what the experience is supposed to be. We're interested in the total physicality of the book -- the materials, the illustrations, the paper, the typography, the design, the feel, the weight. ... We're looking at all of those material concerns in relationship to content."

He's not the only one looking. In spite of, or perhaps because of, e-readers, 30 percent more people have visited the center in the last 18 months. And far from Luddites, they're often the rapid-adapting tech generation.

"All of these designers who are just spending their time on a computer are really kind of yearning for something that has a more immediate and tactile response," Rathermel said. "There are book artists and designers and typographers who are working at making the e-reader experience more interactive to further stimulate that physicality that you have with a book."

Old forms and new also coexisted during music's fast-tempo switch from albums to cassettes to CDs to digital devices. Sure, many enthusiastically embraced the iPod's modern media miracle of portability and individuality. But even Apple founder Steve Jobs listened to vinyl at home because of its superior sound quality, musician Neil Young told NPR.

A similar sort of sorting-out process might be taking place with books. AAP's sales data indicates that while "adult paperbacks" remains the top category, sales declined 10.5 percent since the first quarter of 2011. Yet despite the 28.1 percent rise in e-book sales, sales also rose 2.7 percent for "adult hardcovers" -- the most traditional category and the one richest in the "physicality" that e-books lack.

Publishers are adapting.

"The old-timers have told me that the same sky-is-falling argument was used when publishers launched the trade paperback format," said Andi Sporkin, AAP's vice president for communications. "The interest in reading is not a happy accident to publishers: They go where the readers are, and readers wanted portability."

Rathermel isn't worrying, either. "In my field, I get tired of people being harbingers of doom for the death of the book. If anything, I see it as a real renaissance, and the celebration of the material and tactile," he said.

The optimism is warranted. The most important data point Pew portrays is that "those who read e-books report they have read more books in all formats." In fact, the average e-book reader reports reading 24 books in the past year, compared with 15 books by a non-e-book reader.

Anything that increases reading, which is such a profound media -- indeed, human -- experience, is a good thing.

Just try not to get sand in your e-reader.

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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