Ebook, Used Book, or New? The Choice Reflects A Range of Values

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Choice of book format reflects a range of personal and social values.

Choice of book format reflects a range of personal and social values.

The other day I walked past a used bookstore. My eyes fell on a dog-eared paperback of Shelley’s Frankenstein. If I purchased and read the copy in the window, I wondered, would my experience be the same as it would if I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg and scrolled through the book on a computer?

Perhaps the story would feel the same. But it occurred to me that choosing a book is more than selecting its content. A range of values is embedded inside the choice: ebook, used book, or new? Or should I walk around the corner and borrow the book from the library?

What kind of differences does a book’s format make? For one, the medium makes a difference to the author’s livelihood—or in this case, the wealth of the estate of the author, Mary Shelley. For several of those formats (used book, library loan) Shelly’s heirs wouldn’t see an additional penny. Does it matter if the creator of a book is compensated for every person who reads it? It certainly matters to living authors who are trying to earn their keep with their writing.

It also makes a difference to the reader’s wallet. Each format carries a different price tag. The format makes a difference physically—carrying a hardback is a bigger burden than downloading the ebook on my smartphone. The economic status of each reader is built into each format choice—spend $29 plus tax on a hardback or get it from the library for free?

The choice of medium also makes a difference to the environment. A new book requires paper, shipping fuel, and heated or air conditioned storage. Think about the toll on the environment of each leg in that process. An ebook isn’t completely guilt-free. It requires electricity. And though a used book doesn’t need new raw materials, but it still needs to be moved and stored.

The book’s format also has a sense of temporal permanency built into it. If I think I’ll read it soon, then never again, a library book is the right choice. If I think I’ll read it slowly, or later, and want to have it handy for a reference, buying it used or new is right. If I want to read it immediately—even faster than going into the used bookstore and waiting in line—I can whip out my phone and download it in an instant.

Going forward, do I want to share the book with others, or keep if for myself? Do I want to read it aloud to a group of kids or read it in bed without turning on the light to disturb my partner? Each of those lifestyle choices flash through my mind as I consider the format.

As we enter a new phase in publishing, the digital phase, many cultural implications go into the formats through which we deliver content. Sure, Amazon and its convenience is helping to fuel the growth of ebooks. But our society’s way of life, as well as our personal values and the way we use our time, go into the choice of format.

Maybe in the past, the value of a book equaled the messages written inside and not much more. But now that we have so many ways to access that content, it seems that the value of a book is something more than that.

When media theorist Marshall McLuhan stated “the medium is the message,” he meant that in addition to the meaning of the content of a story, there is also meaning in the ways stories are delivered. Now that ebooks have been around for a few years, it’s clear to see that their growth is not only due to the innovations of a single powerful company. The values of our society and each of us as individuals also contribute to the rise of ebooks, libraries, used bookstores over a brand new paper book from a bookstore, indie or chain.

Used bookstore image via Shutterstock.

5 thoughts on “Ebook, Used Book, or New? The Choice Reflects A Range of Values

  1. Marilynn Byerly

    Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN is out of copyright. That’s why you can find it on the Gutenberg site. If a book is out of copyright, that means the estate of the author gets nothing from the transaction.

  2. Angela Addington

    What about the value of a book as an art object…the tangible feeling (substance) of the printed book on paper, to feel, to hold, to become absorbed in when read. Many creative professionals take great thought and care into creating a book – the cover design, font choices, paper… do we value their contributions to the story and the final product… does that make a difference in what we choose to read? It does to me.

    1. Beth BaconBeth Bacon Post author

      Good point, Angela, thanks for commenting. Designers definitely contribute to a book’s experience. The “object value” of books is important to many. I wonder how that will change for a new generation raised on ebooks?

    1. Beth BaconBeth Bacon Post author

      Hi Derek: McLuhan introduced the concept “the medium is the message” in his 1964 work Understanding Media. In this book he argued that that our communication media and, in fact all technologies, influence what we say and do (the message). Later, in 1967, he wrote The Medium is the Massage to expand on the idea and discuss the lulling effects of mass media (the massage). Fascinating stuff! Thanks for contributing.



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