Why you love reading on paper (and what it means for ebooks)
There’s no denying the power and scale of publishing books on the web – that’s a necessity for impact publishing. Still, paper offers much that screens cannot.
The size, weight, design, and texture of a book signal how we should read it: leaning forward at a desk, or leaning back in a comfortable chair. Ready to learn and analyse, or drifting effortlessly into another world. Prepared to turn the pages quickly, or to pore over and turn them slowly.
Great book-makers plan all of this when they create printed books. They carefully select page size, paper stock, fonts, layout, inks, and binding.
Our minds and bodies respond to these signals. When we hold a paper book, our thumbs tell us how far we have come, by the thickness of each stack of pages. And that sense of how far we have read prepares us, unconsciously, for how much ground we have to cover.
As we read, our minds map the physical space of each spread, like we map a city on a walk. We remember that a favourite quotation was in the top left, about three quarters through the book. In our peripheral vision we see white space on the following page and know that we are coming to the end of a chapter, and to expect a climax or conclusion.
We have an emotional response to these physical signals. Each step of our journey is etched into our brains, ready to be recalled later as both information and emotion – like a smell from the distant past.
Reading a book on screen is like reading that book set behind a glass window, its exact size and shape uncertain, even shifting.
Reading most ebooks and websites, we get none of the physical clues that make our paper journey visceral and memorable. We struggle to map the book in our minds, because it lacks topography. It can be hard to know, with real confidence, where we are and where we should go next.
Readers long for a clear sense of progress in a story, and this is harder to achieve on screen. As book-makers, we must constantly develop new and better ways to signal position and progress.
Of course, books as websites have many obvious advantages over print: we can search. We can copy and paste. We can share pages and passages. The words and pictures can resize. We can include video. The cost of access is generally lower. The book’s creators can improve the book instantly and continuously.
These digital features are wonderful and important. When choosing between print and screen, each reader should decide for themselves whether they need these digital features, or whether print is better for them. There’s no obvious, universal preference. Each individual has different needs, and that’s why it’s important to give them a choice.
The challenge to innovators is how to bring to the screen that deep sense of knowing where you are, and where to go next, that we like about print books. It’s a challenge for our industry, and one our team sets itself with every project.