The Holiday Gift: To eBook or to Hardcover?

Increasingly, the reader in the family is reading ebooks and many of us are thinking that an ideal gift for the ebook reader is either an ebook gift certificate or some desired ebooks themselves. In my case, I was thinking about asking for ebooks (as opposed to asking for hardcover books), but then I got to wondering: If I give an ebook as a holiday gift, what message am I sending to the gift recipient? My off-the-cuff answer is “I love you” or “It’s great that you are my friend” or some similar positive message. But after mulling the matter over for a while, I wonder how positive the message really is. Yes, I know that many readers prefer to read ebooks and that increasingly readers only want to read ebooks. Yet the question arises because this is a message-bearing gift, even if the message is left unsaid.

When I give a reader a hardcover book, I give the reader something they can see constantly. As it sits on the bookshelf, it acts as a reminder that I cared enough to give them a gift. Depending on the book, it may also have a visual presence that is much more than a reminder that the book was a gift (think of a book about paintings, for example). Plus, if given to, for example, a grandchild, I can inscribe the hardcover with something pithy, like “Happy 9th birthday. Love, Grandpa.” The hardcover is a constant reminder that I care. A few years from now, when the grandchild loses all sentimentality and wants to raise some cash to buy the latest video game, the grandchild can sell the hardcover on the used book market and get a few more dollars toward the purchase price — the hardcover gives again.

The hardcover also is returnable and exchangeable. I bought the book that promotes being a carpenter but mommy and daddy want the child to have a book that encourages a career in quantum physics. I think dragons and fairies are great for 8-year-olds; mommy and daddy think a grounding in reality is better.

The ebook, on the other hand, doesn’t really have a presence. It becomes one of hundreds on the reading device; it doesn’t stand out and remind anyone that this was a gift given with love. And let’s face it, the ability to inscribe something pithy in an ebook just doesn’t have that “magic” ring to it. Of course, since I am buying the ebook for someone else, I also have to hope — with all fingers crossed — that the ebook is properly formatted and isn’t riddled with errors. Giving a poorly formatted, error-riddled ebook as a gift is like giving a TV without a remote control — it will work but the recipient will be a bit grumpy about how well it works.

Plus when I give an ebook, what am I really giving? A license that can be revoked on a capricious whim by the seller (consider the recent Fictionwise debacle); a book that can be here today and gone tomorrow because a cloud failed; a book that cannot be exchanged or returned should it turn out to be the wrong book or inappropriate because about midway through it has a steamy erotic scene even though the book has been rated great for 8-year-olds (or, in today’s vitriolic political environment, the book discusses evolution and the parents are creationists).

I suppose the answer is to give an ebook gift card but how impersonal can one get? That is OK for a business associate, but is that what I really want to give my child or grandchild? What thought (and effort) goes into giving a gift card? I think of gift cards as the gifts of last — last resort and last minute — the gift that says I ran out of ideas; I can’t think of anything for you (what message does that send!); I ran out of time to do shopping; I got lazy; and so on. Besides, how memorable (or exciting) is it to receive a gift card? I can’t ever remember dragging a friend to my bedroom to show him the gift I got from Granny when it was a gift card.

I guess I could avoid my dilemma by simply not considering buying books at all as holiday gifts, but as an editor, I’d like to support my industry in hopes that it will continue to provide me a livelihood for years to come, and, more importantly, books are the gateway to knowledge and there is nothing better than spreading knowledge. Additionally, when that remote control race car finally has seen its last days and joins the scrap heap of once-loved toys, the book I give should still be available.

If my child or grandchild is like me, he or she will treasure books they receive and think of holding them for future generations. Few of us do that with the busted light saber we received for last year’s holiday. That’s another positive to hardcover books — they can be passed on to subsequent generations and evoke the same positive emotion in that generation as was evoked when the gift was originally given. They are the gift that can keep on giving.

Yes, the same is true of ebooks. The text file can be given again and again, perhaps for hundreds or thousands of generations to come and each giving will be in pristine form — assuming that 100 years from now there will be devices available that are capable of reading the file. We assume that today’s text file will be forever readable, but that may not be so. Today’s popular or dominant formats may simply be echoes of the past in the future. A hardcover book, however, we know is likely to be readable 500 years from now because we are reading books from 500 years ago.

(Remember this video of a monk being introduced to the wonders of the new-fangled gizmo called the book?

Even if this is how it has to be done 500 years from now, it at least can be done, which is something that cannot be said with certainty about an ebook file.)

In balancing the pluses and minuses of to ebook or to hardcover, I come to the conclusion that for gifts I will give, I will give hardcover books, not ebooks. eBooks send the wrong message and not enough of the message I want to send. Even for gifts to me, I will designate hardcover desired. I want to be reminded regularly from whom I received ”this” book and for what occasion. I do not want the gifted book to simply become another file among my many thousands of already-owned ebook files — a file that once read will most likely never be seen again. I want to know that someone cares and be reminded that they care.

What are your gifting plans?

8 Comments on The Holiday Gift: To eBook or to Hardcover?

  1. I’m not speaking to most of my family (mutual indifference), otherwise I would be getting them ebook gift cards (Livrada has nice gifting options). I now see books as clutter to be reduced to a minimum, and I don’t want to add to someone else’s storage issues.

  2. When I get an actual book as a gift, I usually squirm. Like this: Unless it’s a specific book the giver already knows that the recipient wants/needs, it can become a burden. What if it never gets read, or isn’t liked? If I ever feel strangely compelled to give a book to someone, I always specify very clearly why I’m giving it (usually it’s one of my own books and they were somehow involved in production, or they’re in it, or they inspired it), and noting explicitly that just because I give them a book, they’re not required to read it, nor to like it if they do read it. Then we’re both off the hook. And the 99% case is that the book ends up at the bottom of a heap somewhere.

  3. I really hope that in the near future every hardcover book will contain a voucher which gives the owner free access to the ebook version of the content, which would solve the dilemma.

  4. @Rodent: I guess we do things differently in my family. When my children were young (and still for the grandkids) I would buy books as gifts that were designed to open them up to new experiences — typical books for children. Every book given was read by the recipient.

    Now that my children are adults, I don’t simply go out an buy books for them. I ask for gift ideas from them (no sense buying a rice cooker for someone who neither needs nor wants one) and so receive a list that will include books they are interested in reading or owning. Any books I buy as gifts come from those lists and so I expect the book will be read, not simply put at the bottom of a pile. I think ebooks are more likely to be added to a large and lengthy TBR pile than are pbooks.

  5. I give to the recipient’s preference, not my own. If I were to receive a paper book as a gift I would think that the giver has not listened to a word I’ve said for the last 12 years (or is my evil SIL who does things like that on purpose to be hateful). I don’t think that is the message a gift is supposed to convey.

  6. I have such a great appreciation for the thoughtful sentimentality of this post. I used to relish gifting inscribed print books to loved ones for year-’round celebrations. Much has changed, however.

    As with Nate, I personally now regard most print books as needless clutter. My personal library has dwindled to a couple dozen books as I have minimized the things with which I live. For my family and friends, most now regard shelf space in their homes as a dear premium that they are loath to fill with anything they haven’t explicitly expressed a desire for, and less and less of those desires include print books (or CDs, or DVDs). (mp3s don’t require physical storage; Blu-Ray requires less shelf space, but streaming video requires none)

    I would much rather receive a gift card (for Amazon, preferably, as I’m not a fan of B&N’s customer service or their refusal to stock books by certain imprints) tucked within a greeting card inscribed with a thoughtful note from the giver. Even better, I’d rather be gifted with time with the would-be gift giver; much more valuable, in my book.

  7. I totally agree with this dilema. Did want to add that I am a big reader but I don’t like personally owning physical books (or buying eBooks) — I want to be able to find what I want at my public library. Read it (ebook or otherwise) and pass it on to the next person. One year my sister ever wrapped up and put under the tree a library book that she knew I would enjoy. It was thougtful. I truly oved it. And all these years later it has been read by many more.

    Wouldn’t you love to be able to pass an eBook you enjoy on to a friend and then have them pass it on to another etc etc? Wouldn’t you like to be able to donate your already-read eBooks to your local library? We need to advocate for “the culture of reading” as the format for digesting books shifts, otherwise it will be about profits for big business alone.

    • @TRMite – I am a big reader, have been all my life, and the library was always a magical place for me. So I certainly find your sentiment quite lovely from the reader point of view. But as an author, it’s horrifying. ‘Big Business” – as in the big publishing house? – may well be making a substantial amount off the backs of their authors, who receive a very lowly portion of the profits. These days, e-publishing and self publishing are often the best (if not the only) option for new authors. Each e-book sale and our few cents (usually under a US dollar) royalty is all that keeps authors fed and writing. I’m all for sharing, but would you really deny the author of that book you enjoyed so much – enough to share it with someone else – the paltry 50cents he or she could have earned on it if everyone wasn”t hacking their e-readers?
      In the long run, it benefits no one. Less chance of sales for authors = fewer indie authors and publishers = less choice for readers. Don’t do it. Please

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