Why Ebooks Are Forever and Print Books Don’t Last

The ebook versus print book topic tends to polarize people–readers are passionate about their print books…or not.

I am very firmly in the ebook camp.  I have been reading electronically for decades (yes, for more than 20 years), and these days resent having to read print books, if forced to it.  I avoid it where I can, and will find a book summary of non-fiction books, if there’s no ebook copy available, and make do with the summary.

Until recently, I followed a shrug-and-move-on policy; for readers who absolutely insisted upon print books, that was their choice.  I don’t understand the whole “smell and feel” thing.  I find print books bloody awkward to handle and don’t like the smell of modern inks.  But we’re all individuals, and so I shrugged and moved on.

The only time I would argue is when readers would tell me that “print books last”.  I’ve lost count of the number of readers who think of print editions as their “keeper” copies.

I learned that print books are anything but permanent when I moved to Bougainvillea in Papua New Guinea (a long time ago!).  I took all my print books with me, including a leather-bound set of Encyclopedia Britannica that I was paying for in installments.

Civil war broke out while I was on the island and we were all evacuated. I had to leave my books behind and figured I’d never see them again.  Miraculously, the mining company packed up all our possessions and shipped them back to us…including my books.

But within weeks of arriving, my books fell apart and were unreadable.  Mold had set in from the humidity in New Guinea.

I had to burn most of them.  As this was in the 1990s and ebooks were still science fiction, I started reacquiring books (excluding the encyclopedia set, which I was still paying for).

Then I moved from Australia to Canada.  I sold off all my reacquired books at market stalls for weeks before I left, to raise funds for the move.  I figured I’d got those books back once; I could do it again.


There are books I had in Australia that I still cannot acquire here in Canada.

Print books do not last forever.  They really don’t.

Even if you never move countries, states or cities, even if you’ve been in the same house for decades, your print books are still vulnerable, because you’re a rabid reader who likes to keep their favorites.

Late last year, LitHub ran a post about Slow Fire.  Slow Fire is when the glue dries out, pages drop out, and the paper crumbles to dust.  And unfortunately, modern printed books are more susceptible to slow fire than really old ones.  They fall apart more quickly.

I’ve known about this aging process for years but wasn’t aware it had been given a name.

Ebooks, on the other hand, DO last forever, if you give them the same care and attention as you do print books.

I spend the time to make sure the metadata of my books is clean and accurate.  I find good cover images if the one that comes with the book sucks.  I manage my ebooks with an ebook management app (currently, Calibre).  I keep my books in a library folder on my hard drive, that is backed up twice: Once to my cloud storage and once to a backup service.

ePub format seems to be the most stable format at the moment, so I convert all my ebooks to ePub.  As formats evolve, I stay current and convert everything to the newer formats.  Soon, I will have to go through the process of updating everything to ePub3, but I will find a batch conversion process for this when I do.

This updating of formats will ensure that I can always open and read the ebooks, no matter how old they are.

My ebook library has survived the implosion of three hard drives, and a CPU that just up and quit, one day.  I can move my library with me to whatever country I happen to be in, and with a little bit of time and attention, the books will never be unreadable, no matter how old they get.

Do you tend to think of your print books as the permanent versions?  The keeper copies?

You might want to rethink that idea.  Imagine unexpectedly losing your collection (and it always happened out of the blue).  What would you hate to lose?  Maybe starting to shift over to ebook masters instead of print masters will ensure the stories you love to reread, the comfort books and sentimental favorites, will always be there for you.

Taylen Carver - Fantasy Fiction
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