Paper or Screen? Musings and conundrums

This week brought news of a major publishing sale – and a reason for it that at first seemed odd to me.

Publishing giant News Corp. is buying Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s consumer books division for $349 million as demand for printed reading material skyrockets.

Houghton Mifflin’s HMH Books & Media book division — publisher of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Curious George series of children’s books — will be operated as part of News Corp.’s HarperCollins book publishing arm.

The deal comes amid a resurgence in book sales due to the pandemic … Last year marked the best year for print book sales since 2010 as the COVID-19 shutdowns turned Americans, especially young people, into readers again.

A resurgence in print book sales?  Not e-books?  I see far more people looking at the screens of their smartphones during the day than I see reading a physical book.  Are they not reading e-books on those instruments?

The reason for the purchase became clearer later in the report.

The deal will give HarperCollins 7,000 backlisted titles from authors like George Orwell (“1984,” “Animal Farm”), J.R.R. Tolkien (“The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings”), Robert Penn Warren (“All the King’s Men”), Margret Rey and H.A. Rey (“Curious George”) and Virginia Woolf (“Mrs. Dalloway,” “To the Lighthouse”).

Ah, yes.  With a best-selling backlist like that, the deal becomes a lot easier to understand.  HarperCollins isn’t buying HMH for its new material, but for its breadth and depth of old material that still sells well.  It’s investing in the past to make money in the future.

Nevertheless, the question remains:  why are many of those older titles described as selling well in print, but not mentioned in e-book format?  Most of them are now available as e-books.  Is it that people’s memories of them are in print form, so they want to go on buying them in print form, something solid and heavy to hold in their hands, rather than more ephemeral-seeming electrons on a screen?

I’ve seen a large number of recommendations among the “prepping” community to build up a library of print books, against the day that the electricity supply is either intermittent or simply not there any more.  Thus, one will still have something to read, and a reference source for important subjects.  That’s all very well . . . but I recall moving from Tennessee to Texas a few years ago.  With my wife’s ruthless helpful assistance, I threw out something like two-thirds of my library (well over 3,000 books), including a couple of hundred I’d brought across the Atlantic when I immigrated to this country more than two decades ago.  It was like pulling teeth, but it was necessary, purely because the bulk and weight of my library had got completely out of control – so much so that many of my books were in a storage unit due to lack of space in our home.  As my irritatingly rational beloved spouse pointed out, if I couldn’t get to them anyway, why keep them?

The process of paring down wasn’t pleasant, but it had to be done.  To me, one of the biggest advantages of e-books is that it avoids this necessity.  Literally, you can carry a library of thousands of volumes in the palm of your hand.  Yes, if the power supply goes the way of all flesh, you won’t be able to access them;  but I suspect, if that happens, you’re going to be far too busy foraging for food, and dealing with life without any electric appliances or powered assistance, to worry about time to read!  Not very long ago in historical terms, free time to sit down with a book and read was the preserve of the monied classes, who could afford to hire servants to do the donkey work.  It simply wasn’t possible for the average Jane and Joe like us.

So, back to the sale of HMH to Harper Collins, with its reported emphasis on print sales.  Over the past five or six years, since paring back my physical library so savagely, I’ve bought far more e-books than printed volumes.  (When I’ve bought the latter, I’ve usually sought out good-condition used copies rather than new ones, because the prices of the latter are too often ridiculously high.  In fact, with mainstream publishers deliberately pricing their e-books close to their print editions [completely unjustifiable in economic terms, as their production costs for the former are minuscule compared to the latter], I’ve often chosen a used paper book over an e-book [for a much lower price], and then discarded it when read.)  Only for books that I know (or find out through reading them) are worth keeping will I spend the money to buy a new copy, and then it’s usually an e-book to avoid the build-up of physical volumes once more.

Even with that, about once a year I have to go through my physical library (still numbering well into four figures) and turf out excess books.  I do so by refusing to buy more bookshelves, thus forcing myself to keep my books inside the shelving space of my existing units.  That way, if I want to keep a paper book, it’s got to be important and useful enough to justify getting rid of another book to keep it.  When weighed in that sort of balance, it’s easier to keep things under control.

However, my e-book library is under no such constraint, and has grown a lot bigger.  That begs the question:  when I die, what happens to all my e-books?  I don’t have most of them downloaded – they’re in my Amazon Kindle library, somewhere in the cloud.  I’ll have to make sure my heirs have my password, to download those they want before Amazon takes notice of my demise and locks it.  Is that even legally valid?  Can I leave my e-books, in my name on, to my heirs?  I don’t know.  Besides, I think Amazon somehow codes my downloads to the device to which they’re downloaded.  If I (or my heirs) copy one of my downloaded files to another device, will it still work there?  Can my Kindle reader software (without which the e-book file alone isn’t much use) be similarly transferred?  I have no idea.  (I guess it’s time to experiment!)

So, back to the conundrum.  Are print sales increasing at the expense of e-books?  If you’re a voracious reader with space constraints, as most of us are, that makes no sense.  Is it that publishers would like readers to buy more paper books, so they can charge higher prices?  They’re already pricing e-books far above their actual cost of production, so I’d have thought they’d want to sell more of them so as to make greater profits.  As for publishers’ backlists, is one of the attractions that many of them don’t have e-book publication rights (because they weren’t specified in older publishing contracts), and therefore the print publication rights are more valuable?

What say you, readers?


29 thoughts on “Paper or Screen? Musings and conundrums

  1. Simply put Trad Pub and those invested in it have at the least an intense dislike of e-books as their existence flies in the face of the traditional business model, ie the Publisher takes the raw unformed clay from an author and molds and shapes it into a salable product. E-books make it possible for indie authors to do it all themselves and offer to market what they believe in their hearts must by definition be an inferior product. They were not involved so this must be so.
    In a nutshell, if we ignore the boogeyman, belittle his existence, deny his influence then surely he must go away.
    I’m betting e-book sales are through the roof, but if we don’t talk about it it never happened.
    As for prepping, I will point out that e-book readers are very frugal with electrical energy. I have to charge my Kindle Paperwhite about once a week for several hours a day of use.
    And there are any number of charging stations, solar, hand cranked, and even one that generates power off a small fire, marketed for camping use or off grid folks. Not gonna run a fridge off one, but sufficient to charge a cell phone or an e-reader.

    1. While an e-unit can scrape by on locally generated small power, eventually that e-unit dies (if nothing else, the battery reaches EOL). What then? I’d say it’s fine to count on for entertainment, not so fine to count on for critical knowledge.

  2. 1) If not specifically excluded, the rights – assuming that they were sold – might well include e-books. Shouldn’t be, as the Peggy Lee vs. Disney decision held otherwise, but – – you know the current courts. Bought and paid for by the tech/media giants.
    2) By the time Amazon or other retailer catches on that you’ve passed on, the copyright should have expired on most books. Expect some entrepreneurial kids to make a tidy living reading books aloud, and having a digital transcription made. Could be released as both e-book and audio format.
    3) There will be Gutenberg-type services at the low end, and as well. Add in some 3rd Worlders who use OCR scanners, and some more educated among them to clean up the errors, and it will be a Bonanza for readers. Think of it – it’s what got me reading a lot of classics and older books – the paperback revolution was a boon for readers. It made readers out of a lot of kids. We’re on the cusp of a New Literate Age, which will also create a new market for writers – Win-Win.
    4) You’re right about the e-readers being cheap to keep charged. The Raspberry Pi, a tiny Linux computer, will also not need a lot of power. I don’t see the Chinese or any of SE Asia dropping the EMP bombs – they would KILL their home markets, for a dubious benefit. Better to work as they have been, to corrupt our economic, political, and cultural/religious systems.

    1. By the time Amazon or other retailer catches on that you’ve passed on, the copyright should have expired on most books

      Unless you have a lot very old books, not so much. IIRC the current copyright period is death of the author plus seventy years.

  3. Oh, I think ebooks will continue to sell, and sell big. Although I have a pretty large library of print books. I think a lot of readers are wrestling with the question of balance and space. For classics and reference books, especially histories, I’m in favor of keeping the print volumes. For light entertainment reading – ebook.

  4. The eBook is the wave of the future (and the present) for transient reading matter: i.e., for books and periodicals the reader doesn’t expect to read more than once. But a reader who encounters a book he expects to revisit will feel at least a tug toward the paper medium.

    I’ve been going through this myself. The C.S.O. and I recently donated nearly 4000 paperbacks (all fiction) to the Salvation Army. That allowed me to free up a significant amount of space on my bookshelves…which I immediately started to fill with hardcover editions of reference books and novels I expect to reread (and to press on friends who read). While there are eBook editions of many of those hardcovers, incidents in the recent past have led me to distrust Amazon when it comes to the retention of access to purchased eBooks. Plus, as a friend of mine remarked only yesterday, paper doesn’t crash.

    So don’t discount the attractions of hardcopy completely. It retains a certain appeal, especially in the case of classics and volumes of enduring importance.

  5. I think the eBook will dominate transient reading matter for the foreseeable future. However, hardcopy will continue to be important for reference books and other books of ongoing importance, including novels the reader specially values and intends to reread, or intends to press upon relatives and friends. The News Corp purchase of HMH is consistent with that outlook.

  6. The reason they want the backlist is to cancel it. For the same reason I keep print. It’s not about power outages, it’s about not having LoTR bowlderized.

  7. My immediate heirs are both close to functionally illiterate in my opinion (one reads the occasional “true crime” book, the other, the occasional highly touted woke novel. Pfui.) They’ll never miss my electronic library.

    As for hardcover vs. ebook, I am slowly and reluctantly building my library of Renaissance research materials, some of which don’t exist as ebooks and others which are insanely priced. Taking notes directly from ebooks is easier, but when the ebook costs upwards of $50 and there’s a good used copy available for $2, I’m willing to do a lot of typing.

  8. A number of those books (not Curious George but the “grown-up books”) are used in high-schools and colleges, and reading clubs. So those will all be in print, not e-book, to ensure that everyone has the same edition and page numbers.

  9. I have an extensive library of physical books, but I haven’t bought anything except e-books for a few years now. Mainly due to space reasons, but also for the convenience. If I finish reading a book while I’m away from home, I have the next one to read already waiting for me on the e-book reader. My spouse and I are contemplating a move in a few years that will require us to downsize significantly, so I’m starting to think about what to do with the physical books – which ones to keep, which to sell, which ones to donate to needy places, etc. It won’t be fun.

    1. Carrying three times as many books as you can possibly read because you don’t know what you will be in a mood to read is always interesting.

  10. If you’re looking at leaving your eBooks to your heirs, check out the Calibre program and the extensions provided by Apprentice Alf. The steps involved are not difficult and then your eBooks are truly yours afterwards.

  11. Entertainment, e-books for cost, storage and readability.

    Reference, print books so they will always be available. Possibly also an e-book copy for readability and portability.

    Even treated well lithium batteries start getting iffy after a few years and getting a replacement isn’t always easy, even for a popular device. Doing the replacement isn’t easy and all too often leaves the device unusable when it won’t go back together properly.

  12. If you have hardcopies the powers that be can’t make them disappear at the touch of a button.

    That’s what the Firemen will be for.

  13. I’m likely to move in the not-too-distant future. So I’ve been replacing many of my physical books and magazines with ebooks. Some are books I know I’ll never want to reread — those I can just get rid of. But, if I expect that I might want to reread the book, and it’s available in a reasonably priced ebook, then I can replace it (which, if it’s a book from a traditional publisher, I’m more likely to replace — and get the author/publisher paid a second time — if the ebook pricing is reasonable).

    I completely agree with those who are concerned about the DRM giving control to Amazon/vendor about the ebook — they can remove it from you Kindle, and you can’t stop it. But, as was mentioned upthread, there’s software available for the Windows platform (and, I believe, the Mac platform, but I haven’t used it so I can’t say that I know it works), which lets you remove the DRM from anything you download from Amazon, and keep in a separate repository from your Kindle versions of the books. Everything I have gotten from Amazon is sitting in my Calibre library, converted over to DRM-free epub format — which has free readers for Windows / Macs / tablets / phones. And they’re also backed up on all my backup devices, for backup purposes, for if (more likely when) my original device fails.

    For me, this includes both non-fiction as well as fiction. If done properly, an ebook can be designed to be easier to use as reference than a physical book — since your reader can implement text searches, and you can have multiple pages of a book open side-by-side, so you can do some kinds of research more easily in the ebook than you can in a dead-tree version. And, as I’ve gotten older, I find it’s a lot easier to read, for example, one of the volumes of the US Army in WWII “green books” in ebook format than a very heavy physical book (4+ pounds per volume). And, of course, 70 volumes like that of physical books takes a lot more space than those ebooks.

    So, at this time, given the easy availability of software for the Windows (and I believe) Mac platforms to remove DRM, it means that I’d very much recommend going the ebook route. It’s let me dispose of a few thousand physical books, with more constantly being replaced by ebook versions.

    I do note that there are strange licensing issues with some ebooks. Ebooks from Amazon-UK, in some cases, can’t be sold to US purchasers, and a book might not exist in ebook form from Amazon. It’s very strange that a UK purchaser can get a lot more ebooks by an American author like Jack Williamson than a US purchaser can get from Amazon. Amazon UK can sell the physical book to an American, at a US address — but can’t sell the book as an ebook to the same person.

    There may be reasons for keeping a physical book — but, for many purposes, ebooks have replaced physical books on my “method to buy” list.

    I’m not saying that this is a way to rip off authors, or publishers — they all deserve to get paid. But, for building up and backing up an ebook library, so it’s not getting lost or at threat of removal — it makes ebooks mostly as versatile as physical books, and better in some significant ways. For people with limited physical space, it makes ebooks a very satisfactory replacement for many purposes.

  14. I saw a different take on what’s going on with Rupert Murdoch buying Houghton Mifflin.

    1 – A while back, Disney bought Fox for an obscene amount of money,
    2 – Disney began building Disney+ from the ground up,
    3 – Murdoch then turned around and bought Tubi, a pre-existing streaming service,
    4 – Tubi has already made a deal for the Toei catalog, which gives access to a lot of anime to build up *Tubi’s* catalog,
    5 – Tubi intends to start original programming, a la Netflix and Hulu,
    6 – Murdoch buys a publishing company that has the rights to a lot of kids books, e.g. the books listed in the post. True, Curious George (and Tolkien) are tied up, but others are not…

    …Which is another reminder to authors to be careful about giving away their IP rights with bad contracts. Indies of course should already know this.

    Yes, I’m culling my print library because a lot of the paperback novels are small print, and I can’t tolerate that anymore. I’ve owned Kindle for years because of that very issue. But–I may do the Folio Society / Subterranean Press route, that is, durable and collectible versions of books I already love and re-read. Bonus is that dead-tree books can’t be “hacked.”

  15. Dunno.

    Obvious utility in both formats.

    I think if Censorship Andy was hated widely enough to fully kill the kindle market, then the process of hanging certain public figures would have already finished. So I think we can rule out foreseeable big simple events.

    As for the specific deal in question, the New York Post article did not disclose that News Corp also owns the New York Post. I do not know of any NYC New York Post competition I would trust to scrutinize the claims made about the business case. I think it looks suspicious, but that may simply be my own paranoia levels.

    1. The article makes the disclosure at the end of the third paragraph. The article itself reads like the reporter was writing off a press release, an accusation I’m basing on the shallowness of the details and the generic quotes.

  16. “If I (or my heirs) copy one of my downloaded files to another device, will it still work there?”

    Backups are your friend. There have already been many cases of tech giant Google stranding customers with games and music. My phone did it to me, I had to switch music players from Google to a Samsung one. Google decided that they would just cancel their offering, too bad so sad if your collection was on their server.

    But my collection is on -my- server, and about a dozen more places too. Some of which are DVD and CD, which even mighty Google and Microsoft can’t reach in and corrupt. All my ebooks are backed up in similar fashion. Easy to do, and it has already saved me once.

    You can pretty much forget about passing on your lifetime of cloud-stored data and purchases to your heirs and assigns if you didn’t download it, crack it and store it offline out of their reach. Back up those e-readers and store those Apple movies. You paid for it, you should store it securely.

    Also, when you do it that way it makes it hard for Amazon to change the words in Huckleberry Finn without telling anyone.

  17. As with anything in computers — backups are your friend.

    Once you’ve got something off of the cloud, and onto your machine, then you can back it up. And, since backup drives fail, then you can back it up in multiple places — so you should have multiple physical backup devices.

    Fortunately, the price of backup drives is constantly dropping. You can get a 5terrabyte external drive for about $100 (so you can get two for about $200, and back everything up on both).

    Books, of course, are small. You can store a thousand books in a few gigabytes. The reason for thinking of terrabyte sized backup drives is so that you can keep the A/V stuff on your own machine, rather than counting on it staying on Youtube. And the software to download stuff from Youtube is freely available.

    So don’t count on stuff staying in the cloud when you know you’ll want it. Download it, and store it locally.

    We’ve spent decades with content publishers coming up with new ways to make it hard for people to copy their content — going back to people copying physical books on the early photocopiers. And that constantly fails, from a technological viewpoint. So we had uncopyable CDs, followed by uncopyable DVDs, followed by uncopyable Blu-ray. And now we have uncopyable ebooks — but, of course, it doesn’t work, either. The tech is there to let you strip the DRM from the books you get off Amazon, and back it up safely.

    And, if I couldn’t do that — I’d never recommend going to ebooks. But my ebooks are all backed up, and don’t live only in the cloud. So I recommend going to the ebooks for anyone who is space limited (and I suspect it’s all of us, to a greater or lesser extent).

  18. I haven’t tried the DRM-stripper on my Amazon eBooks, but after jumping through some* hoops, I got the Kindle-for-PC program running on my Linux desktop machine. At that time, I downloaded my Kindle library, and that is archived offline. It’s been a while, and running K-PC (under Wine, under Linux) is a minor pain, so I have a lot of eBooks that still need to go to the computer. If Amazon tried deleting books, I’d move the files to an airgapped computer and proceed from there. (Note to self; download my library onto my wife’s Kindle…)

    FWIW, my first(?) generation Kindle Fire HD dates to 2014, and it’s still going strong. I leave it on the USB charger at home because I like the brightness set fairly high. A long USB charge cable works when I’m reading in The Comfy Chair. Battery-only use happens when I’m in town; ordinarily once a week. I managed to keep reading during the lockdowns while juggling a taco, soda and the Kindle in my car.

    And yeah, the hardbacks take up more room than I have available in the house, and an injury is keeping me from getting at the storage in the shop. I’d like to prune both fiction and non-fiction so I can get everything accessible. At least, once I’ve healed. I’ve purchased a few books in physical form lately, (mostly a reference set) and that one offered the same content as a free pdf download.

    (*) Kindle for PC is a 32 bit program, so that has to be dealt with on a 64 bit system. At the time I did it, the latest version of K-PC wouldn’t work, so I had to get a somewhat older version. A bit of research uncovered the methods required.

  19. One-tenth of American families are now traditional home schoolers (from one-twentieth twelve months ago). Not online charter school, not any public or private school at home. Traditional home schoolers.

    The reasons range from “local schools are crap, who knew?” to “screens are bad for my kids” to “Oh hey, this isn’t that hard,” to “well, if I’m staying home with them cause I lost my job I might as well” to anything else you can think of.

    Yes, I bet there’s been an upswing in demand for print books, especially classics. If your kid will go do something else on the device you won’t use ebooks. If your concern is screen time, you won’t use ebooks.

    Another data point: at our home school co-op I caught some teens sharing battered paperback science fiction novels around with a slight air of subtrefuge last week. (I’m loaning the young gentleman who was clearly the ‘dealer’ Monster Hunters: I may be an enabler. He was dealing Orsen Scott Card.) Not sure that would work so well with ebooks.

  20. LOL, NOW I know why I keep getting books from you. I’m your ‘overflow’ library! Seriously, as others have said, back up your e-books! And I actually like paperback/hardback, but storage IS an issue.

  21. Note that ebooks can be restored to devices other than the original device only if they don’t still have the DRM. So, if you’re backing them up and expect to restore them to other devices, in case one device fails, you’ll need to strip the DRM first, before backing them up.

  22. Some people keep print books for religious reasons among others. Just like TVs are not to be used on the Sabbath by Orthodox Jews, so too are e-books. Print books aren’t in this category.

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