When Is a Book a Book?—the Reading Experience

These days I own two eReaders, a Kobo and a Kindle (three, if you count my iPhone, but I don’t read books on it).  At WordFire Press we’ve put up over sixty titles of my backlist novels as well as some by Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert, Doug Beason, Bill Ransom, and others. Most of them are eBooks only, but some are in print editions. (For the record, the eBook versions sell orders-of-magnitude more copies than the print editions.)

At coventions or book-signings, when I mention my eBook habits or our publishing efforts, I often receive a defensive, even vehement response.  The comment is usually something like, “I don’t like eBooks. I want to read a real book. I like the feel of the paper in my fingers, smell the binding, enjoy the heft in my hands.  I want a tactile response when I’m reading!”

I don’t disagree.  When I want to enjoy a good novel, I prefer a solid “real” book, usually a hardcover, most especially a fine leatherbound edition with gilt edges and tipped-in illustrations.  I love the smell and the feel.  Last fall, my novel Clockwork Angels (a steampunk fantasy based on the new Rush album) is a perfect example. Published by ECW Press, it has full-color illustrations throughout, a lovely design, nice heavy paper, a great dustjacket.

But there’s something I enjoy even more than the look and the tactile sensation of a good novel—the story, characters, setting, plot, descriptions, dialog, and prose. That’s the real reason why I read: to experience what the author wrote, not worry overmuch about the “delivery system.”

I also listen to unabridged audiobooks, letting a good narrator tell me a story when I’m not able to read the words on a page.  Over the past twenty years, I’ve done virtually all of Dean Koontz’s novels that way.  I love the Navajo mysteries written by Tony Hillerman, but I don’t want to experience them in any way other than through the rich, gravelly tones of George Guidall as narrator; Guidall’s voice and Hillerman’s novels are inextricably connected in my mind.  I just finished Robin Hobbs’s City of Dragons in audiobook, and now I’m on Dan Simmons’s Flashback. That way I can “read” while I’m on a long drive or when I work out in the gym—in other words, times that I can’t hold a book in my hands.

The music industry has changed. Most people listen to MP3s on their iPods, and I love my iPod, especially when I’m travelling.  At home, though, I have a large CD library. I prefer to have the physical object, and I especially love the CD booklet, the lyrics, the photos of the band members, even the credits.  Some music purists will only listen to vinyl LPs.  I have a friend who still swears by 8-track tapes.  My main respect, though, goes to the artist and the music, regardless of the player I use.

Because I like to “read” any chance I get, I will dive into a book…and keep reading it by alternating the same novel across all formats.  I recently read George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, which I bought in hardcover.  I read the physical novel when I could sit at home and hold the volume, but I also found my place and listened to the audiobook when driving or working out, and then when I had to leave on a trip I took my eReader in the computer case and kept reading while I was on the road.  (You try holding a three-pound tome in the tub without wrist braces!)

EBooks are here to stay, and eReaders will change style, size, resolution. Audiobooks are a growing format with an increasing audience of people who might not otherwise read printed novels.  Fine physical books will always be in demand.

So don’t get too uptight about the format you use to read a book—all I care about is that you read.