Advantages And Drawbacks Of Both Paper And Pixel Books

The Long Room in Trinity College Library ca. 2001 Dublin, Ireland
The Long Room in Trinity College Library ca. 2001 Dublin, Ireland

Almost everyone has heard of e-books by now, even if they haven’t bought one.  But readers are still resistent to them, which is a shame.  They have their drawbacks — but so do paperbacks.

As a fiction freak and avid reader of both pixels and paper, I’ve built a list of pros and cons.  E-books have advantages you may not have thought of.  And paperbacks have their downside.

Paper Books (Paperbacks, Hardcover & Pod/Trade)

Advantages (rumoured and fact)

  • They look pretty, and irresistable, on the shelf.
  • You can tell how much of the book is left to read at a glance.
  • You can re-sell them to second-hand bookstores*
  • Great covers!
  • Usually flawless editing.
  • You can shop for them from your desk.
  • In bookstores, you can dip into the book anywhere you like to sample it before buying, including <shudder> the end of the tale.  (Yes, there are folk out there that will read the last page ahead of time!)
  • Well-made books with lovely covers and beautiful paper are a joy to hold.  They’re almost too precious to read.

Disadvantages (whinges included)

  • They take up huge amounts of space on the shelf
  • They weigh a ton
  • They collect dust and can grow mildew in the wrong climates
  • You can’t adjust the font to suit reading conditions.
  • You can’t auto-scroll
  • You can’t read in bad lighting conditions.
  • you can lose a book if you don’t “file” it correctly on the shelf.
  • People are always failing to bring back borrowed books (it’s a cliché for a reason)
  • It’s easy to lose your place
  • Nearly all books, except for the skinny ones, need two hands to be read.
  • Not all books published are available as paperbacks.
  • They’re more expensive than the e-book version.
  • All paper books are 50,000 words or more.  Your favourite author’s short stories won’t hit print until there’s enough of them for a whole volume.
  • Everyone on the bus/train can see what you’re reading.  (Think of some of the more lurid covers out there these days….)
  • Buying on-line means waiting for the postal service to bring it to you, which could be anywhere up to several weeks – and you have to pay postage on top of the price of the book.
  • If you’re a devoted reader of a single genre, then knowing where you are in the book (half-way through, nearly done, etc), tells you when to expect certain events (the happy ending, the big break up, the huge cliff hanger), and you’ll find yourself waiting for them to happen.  It can destroy reading-for-enjoyment.
  • Have you noticed, lately, that the ink used in some paperbacks smears and smudges as soon as you touch it?


Advantages (rumoured and fact)

  • Dozens, even thousands, of books can be carried with ease.
  • You can always have a book with you.
  • They line themselves up alphabetically.
  • They don’t collect dust or mildew.
  • You can adjust the font to suit reading conditions.
  • You can auto-scroll.
  • You can hold the book with one hand.
  • You can read in the dark.
  • You can usually tell at a glance how much of the book is left to read.
  • e-books are cheap.
  • You can buy short stories and novellas as stand alone “books”
  • Great covers!
  • No-one can see what you’re reading unless they lean over your shoulder.
  • You can shop for them from your desk.
  • Instant impulse fulfillment.  You can go “ooooh!”, buy it, and be reading it inside five minutes.
  • If you’re a very savvy reader, and understand a genre inside out, then not knowing where you are in the book (half-way through, nearly done, etc) means that you can get lost in the tale, and events that you would normally have anticipated by how far along you are in the book can now catch you by surprise.
  • If you ever do manage to “lose” a book, you can find it again by using your device’s search function.
  • Most of the on-line bookstores keep a copy of every book you buy on their servers, from where you can download it as you need it.  So even if you do manage to wipe out your entire collection, and your back-up, you can still retrieve your library from the bookstore itself.
  • Often, e-readers come with an in-built or attachable dictionary, which means you can flip over and check what that bizarre new word really means (Koontz, for instance, is a master at dropping in words I’ve never heard before!)

Disadvantages (whinges included)

  • If you run out of batteries, you can’t read.
  • In some formats, fonts like italics are badly represented.  This depends upon the publisher’s preparation of the ebook.
  • You can’t always tell at a glance where you are in the book – depends upon what style of ebook reader you’re using.
  • Not all books published are available electronically.
  • Not all ebooks published are always available in the format you want.
  • Editing from some of the smaller publishers can be hit and miss.
  • It is possible to accidentally delete a book (which is where sensible back-up procedures save you).

And finally…

The number one reason many devoted e-book readers buy paperbacks is because they want a copy for their keeper shelf – one that will last.  But there’s danger in that thinking.  Paperbacks simply do not last forever.  There’s flood, fires, pet cats, inquisitive kids, vandals and thieves.  Even if you avoid all that, the book itself will yellow, the pages grow brittle, the glue dry up and eventually the book becomes too fragile to handle.

And then you could get caught the way I did.  I moved countries and was forced to sell my entire collection of precious keepers.  The money helped me move, but ten years later, I’m still trying to replace some of those hard-to-get titles!  (Desmond Bagley springs to mind).

If I’d had my collection as e-books I could have bought them with me, or emailed them ahead of myself, or even burned them to disk and mailed them ahead of me.

With sensible back up storage, and the permanent storage of your books at the bookstores where you bought them, there’s no reason an electronic keeper collection won’t last forever.

* * * * *

There are readers who say they simply prefer “real” books because of the feel and weight and reading experience.  Often, this is just another way of saying they want to stay with what is comfortable and known to them.

Most of the disadvantages of e-book reading are a result of the newness of the species, and will eventually be ironed out as publishers and devices catch up with the print media in standards and reader expectations.

E-book reading takes a bit of adjustment to your thinking and habits, but it is well worth the effort, and you don’t have to give up paperbacks altogether.  As some titles are only available as either paperbacks or ebooks, it pays to get comfortable with e-reading.

If you’re already an e-reader, the next time someone objects about e-books, whip out this list and let them see what they’re missing out on.

(*Selling books to secondhand bookstores is a subject for another day – one that has its own set of pros and cons).


First appeared on Stories Rule, October, 2007


Tracy Cooper-Posey © 2007. Cannot be copied or distributed without permission, or without this copyright notice attached.


Scroll to Top