For many book-lovers, there's just... something.... about e-books. Whether we're reading them on our computers or our phones or our Kindles, many of us can't quite get behind them like we do tangible tomes, despite their upsides: they save space, they're easier to travel with and they're harder to lose. So what is it, then? Why is reading an e-book less enjoyable? Many book-lovers have theories. "It's just a personal preference!" I've said, defensibly, to no one in particular. "I like to see where I am in the book!" But in a new study published last month, researchers from the University of Arizona may have identified that missing nail (er, bolt? Nail-bolt? Whatever the building implement is that ties the whole project together), that lacking spark of magic that separates e-books from book books. And it's probably not what you think.
In an article run by ScienceDaily and initially published in Digital Markets, head researcher Sabrina Helm, whose background is in consumer perceptions and behaviors, sought out to explore "psychological perceptions of e-book ownership." She and her team gathered and spoke with four focus groups: Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and two millennial groups, split between college students and older millennials.
And what she and her team found throughout their conversations was two-fold: first of all, despite older generations salivating at the chance to call millennials technology-obsessed, younger generations were less likely to routinely take advantage of e-books.
Older consumers reportedly saw more upsides — like the ability to zoom in on words and the lighter (literally) e-book design. Iiiiiinteresting.
But what emerged across the board was the feeling that, no matter how much we pay for an e-book, no matter how many platforms we can read it on, there is a lack of psychological ownership when it comes to e-books, "Which is not necessarily tied to legal possession or legal rights, but is more tied to perceptions of 'what is mine,'" wrote Helm in her ScienceDaily post. We are unable to connect emotionally to e-books in the same way we've been connecting to tangible books for centuries because they don't feel like "our" stories. Helm noted a sense of renting, versus ownership, with e-readers. Consumers couldn't decorate their shelves with e-books, demonstrating elements of their personality (I mean, how many times have you formed an opinion about someone based on their bookshelves?). Consumers couldn't lend their friends e-books and get them back, months later, with a certain page particularly dog-eared. E-books are a concept; books are a world you can touch and re-read and see, every day.
The reactions were so strong that Helm and her team determined that e-books and tangible books should not be treated as two heads of the same beast.
"One of the conclusions of our research was that digital books and physical books are entirely different products," Helm told ScienceDaily. "E-books feel like more of a service experience; overall, they seem to offer a more functional or utilitarian experience. You have much more richness if you deal with a physical book, where all your senses are involved."
One solution, wrote Helm, was to accept the differences and move forward, exploring ways in which e-books could idiosyncratically engage readers. Essentially, stop trying to make e-books books - it's never going to happen. The other was to dedicate more time and effort into making e-books more directly emulate books. One suggestion was allowing consumers to scribble in the margins.
But I don't know - there's still nothing better than going back to an old favorite book, one I've had for years, opening the first page, taking a deep breath and diving in.