Print Versus Digital: The Great Debate

The print versus digital debate rages on, but should there really be a debate at all?

print vs digital

Here is why print versus digital doesn’t need to be an either-or proposition.

The debate between physical and digital books is never-ending. Some people like the feel and even the smell of physical books, while others would rather have the convenience of being able to pack as much reading material into one device as possible for endless variety on the go. Here are some of our findings and observations on physical versus digital books, and how that debate applies to the supposed “divide” between print and digital in general.

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The Upside of Digital Books

Upside: Cost-Effectiveness

It’s no surprise that digital books are easier on the wallet than printed books. The average ebook costs anywhere between $4 and $10 (some are even free), and there’s no shipping to pay for. Although many used or like-new books are available for much less, the average printed book cost is $26.


Inexpensive digital library subscriptions like Oyster Books and Kindle Unlimited drive the costs down even further for readers for the cost of one book a month, while thousands of public domain books are available completely free of charge through digitization and preservation efforts like Project Gutenberg.

Upside: Instant Gratification

Remember when Amazon Prime’s free two-day shipping felt like it was as fast as lightning? Digital reading takes that feeling to the next level, dropping books onto all of your devices in seconds of clicking a “Buy” button.


There’s a downside to this that you should be aware of, though: Choose where you buy your books from wisely, or you may run into trouble accessing them on all of your devices. For example, books purchased through iBooks aren’t compatible with Android or Kindle devices; and you can read Kindle books on an iPhone or iPad devices, but you won’t be able to purchase books from within the Kindle app on iOS.

Upside: Convenience

There’s a cool factor with new technology, but at the core of all of it is a desire to have more and better experiences with fewer physical barriers.

Before ebooks, readers had to guess what they’d be in the mood to read today and stuff their bags with their best guesses. If the book ended up being more boring than the wall of the DMV, then they got to spend their time staring at that instead.

Digital reading puts hundreds of times more books at our fingertips, without adding a single ounce to the weight of the devices we carry every day, so that there’s a book on hand for whatever mood we’re in.

Upside: Endless Variety

The number of digital books is growing fast: The Library of Congress has digitally preserved 16 million books so far, while the Google Library Project has scanned more than 20 million. Their collections are for preservation – not for purchase – so if you want to buy a digital book, your best best is Amazon’s Kindle store, where more than 3.5 million digital books are available for purchase.

Opening up a digital bookstore is like having a teleporter that can beam a book about anything into your hand within seconds. The fact that such a massive number of books are instantly accessible on devices we carry with us all the time means that they add no extra weight to the things we carry, making the experience feel light and almost unnoticeable.

The Upside of Printed Books

Upside: Print is Already Intuitive

There’s nothing confusing about old-fashioned books, especially when you want to mark them up, highlight them, or crack one open to quickly reference something you bookmarked earlier. Even without a search engine, the “interface” is as simple and natural as it can be.

The same can not be said about the ease of accessing reference material stored inside a digital book.Digital reading user interfaces are getting more and more friendly, but it can still take dozens of taps, swipes, and searches to find exactly what you’re looking for, and it’s not always obvious where to look in the first place.

Upside: Print Appeals to Nostalgia

For some readers, the tactile feedback they get from a printed book is just as much a part of the experience as the contents of the book itself. For others, the smell of a book can evoke a memory from their past that adds a nostalgic feeling to the reading experience.

This is one of the most common arguments against reading digital books, although younger readers born since the advent of the ebook may someday feel nostalgic about reading digital books as we do about printed ones. Time will tell!


Upside: Disconnect from the Digital World

When’s the last time a printed book ripped your attention away from the climactic finale to tell you that someone else commented on a photo of your friend’s cat? It’s easy for people who read digital books on their phones or tablets to be distracted by notifications from their email, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, or any of the dozens of apps begging and pleading for more of our attention.

The reasons for reading a physical book over a digital one vary from person to person, but it’s not an either-or proposition. 76% of adults have read a book in some format over the past year, and 87% of those who read an ebook also read a print book during that period of time.

Digital books are easy to access, but a good old-fashioned print book can offer us a much-needed respite from the swirling chaos of notifications and expectations created by our always-on, always-connected devices.

Complementing Physical Experiences, Not Replacing Them

It’s not surprising that the upsides to both digital and print books are all compelling in their own right, making it clear that both are appropriate in different contexts. It all depends on what’s important to the reader.

That conclusion is interesting, but not surprising or unprecedented – It parallels hundreds of stories we’ve seen unfold in physical and digital retail, where brands have spent the better part of the last two decades exploring ways to bring together the best parts of their physical and digital experiences.

It was never the intent of technology to replace the human experiences that are all around us. Rather, it’s a tool that enables us to remove friction and frustration in the places where doing so can make the experience more meaningful or convenient.

By designing physical and digital experiences that can coexist and work together to create better experiences in every context, each is able to serve the customer better than either is able to on its own.

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