Print Books Versus eBooks? (We're Asking the Wrong Questions)

By: John Parsons

print books versus ebooks we're asking the wrong questions royle printing

I’ve written many times on the relative virtues of print books versus eBooks. It turns out, I’m not asking all the right questions—and neither are publishers. Print and digital are usually seen as separate channels. They complement one another—Harry Potter book fans tend to watch Harry Potter flicks—but seldom work together as a hybrid media experience.

These thoughts prompted me to try something different. I imagined a situation, as my new Kickstarter campaign explains (, where a printed book can serve as a single point of reference to guide the digital experience. For lack of a better label, I’m calling it a “multi-book.”

Cal Poly Professor Emeritus Harvey Levenson and I first discussed this idea in connection with the next edition of his popular book, Introduction to Graphic Communication. We talked about using QR Codes, but dropped the notion quickly. QR imposes onerous requirements on page designers, and are generally limited to a single, typically disappointing web experience.

Our “multi-book” experiment attempts to answer a big question: Can a print/digital book hybrid can be a positive, symbiotic experience? Successful or not, the project also raises questions for all information and entertainment publishers.

Ask Better Questions

First, we need to know the reasons why print is intrinsically a good thing. It can’t just be that we’re used to it, or the fact that we like its tactile properties. Print has to provide real measurable benefits. Here are some basic questions. (Cue the many additions from my friends in the printing industry.)

  • Does a printed book require technical expertise on the part of the reader? Other than basic literacy, normal vision, and the ability to turn pages, the answer is no. Print books are low-impact when compared with their digital counterparts.
  • Can a printed book stand on its own, independent of an online connection or an external source of electricity?Certainly, yes. There must be available light, but otherwise a print book doesn’t need outside help.
  • Does a printed book have a good, commonly understood user interface? After centuries of “UX development” for books, the way we interact with them is pretty well settled.
  • Can printed books serve as an “anchor” for guiding a digital experience? If we admit that digital has a role (see below) then we owe it to ourselves to discover how a low-impact medium like print can leverage the more volatile world of digital media.

Dealing With Disruption

On the digital side, there are also some important, and largely unasked questions. We all know that digital media is more immediate, searchable, and infinitely revisable. (More on that later.) What we may not be considering is:

  • Does digital media need a common guide or point of reference? There are umpteen different ways to find related content and combine it in meaningful ways. That may be the problem: too many digital options and too many ways to sow confusion. Our project is based on the premise—still unproven—that a printed book can serve as that stable, low-impact launching pad for digital.
  • Will users be willing to download a mobile app to access digital content? This was one of the many reasons QR Codes failed: app downloading was a bridge too far. Our project does require you to download Ricoh’s app, but there’s another important factor: If the printed medium is inherently more valued and long-lived (i.e., books, not grocery flyers), then users are far more likely to go through the download process one time.
  • Is a hybrid print-digital approach right for every book? We’re optimistic about using this for education and training, where related digital content is more plentiful. Other types of books would dictate less—or at least different types of digital content. They would also need different types of digital engagement—like audience development venues for a trade book author or publisher.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. (Better still, I’d love your support on Kickstarter!) Either way, it’s going to be an adventure.

Author: John Parsons

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