Why eBooks Wear Out Faster Than Everyday Paper Books

You’ll be reading that paperback decades from now

  • Ebooks require constant tending to keep them readable and compatible with current devices. 
  • Paper books will be readable forever as long as we have eyes. 
  • DRM, file formats, licensing, and plain old computer crashes make digital books very fragile.
pile of open books

Rey Seven / Unsplash

A paper book can sit on the shelf for decades, and anyone can pull it out and start reading. Digital books are way, way harder to maintain.

According to The Internet Archive's Brewster Kahle, keeping eBooks readable takes way more work than you might expect. Changing file formats, copy prevention, and the fragile nature of digital storage make managing digital books a never-ending task. And that's for a professional library. For individuals, it's even worse. 

"With the constant change, not just in file formats but in digital devices, it is difficult to maintain a digital library. Having begun my digital library using a Nook device, before moving to a Kindle and then settling on Apple, many purchases have been lost," ebook reader Caroline Duggan told Lifewire via email. 

Digital Rot

"For those of us tending libraries of digitized and born-digital books, we know that they need constant maintenance—reprocessing, reformatting, re-invigorating, or they will not be readable or read," says Kahle on his company blog. "Our paper books have lasted hundreds of years on our shelves and are still readable. Without active maintenance, we will be lucky if our digital books last a decade."

And that's with static files. Ebook vendors can (and do) change their file formats, meaning libraries either have to convert old files into a new format or maintain both the hardware and software required to open them. If you've ever tried opening a word processor file from an old floppy disk, you'll know that just having the hardware and the files is not enough. 

With the constant change, not just in file formats but in digital devices, it is difficult to maintain a digital library

The Kindle alone has had a confusion of file formats over the years. The AZW file format has evolved to add better typography and probably to enhance DRM (digital rights management or copy-prevention), and is now known either as AZW3 or KF8. EPUB might be the best format for longevity, and it's supported by many readers, but it's still not as robust and future-proof as paper.

"The issue is that there usually aren't considerations in copyright agreements that allow for good archival practices. File formats are generally dictated by distribution platforms, and access is contingent on subscriptions, and this isn't a great option for most archives," Troy Portillo, director of operations at online learning platform Studypool told Lifewire via email. "Physical media can often be a better choice for long-term storage because of these issues. Text-based material, in particular, can still be stored effectively on paper."

Home Library

If you drop a paper book in the bath, you can still read it after drying it out. It might be swollen and ugly, but functionally it is still 100 percent. Digital storage isn't nearly so resilient, requiring several redundant backups. 

For most of us, these "backups" are left to the seller. If you have a Kindle, you can just re-download a book to a new device, but those books may also not be available anymore. In 2009, Amazon famously pulled copies of George Orwell's 1984 from people's Kindles. Yes, it was because that edition wasn't authorized, but it still showed that you don't control your books.

And neither do you own them. Take a look at the small print in your purchase agreement, and you'll probably see that you purchased the right to read the book but not the book itself. You cannot sell it to a used bookstore nor buy used eBooks. And the library situation is absurd, introducing artificial scarcity to mimic old physical limitations like only having a few copies in stock. 

library full of books

Susan Q Yin / Unsplash

But the worst part might be that you’re locked into Kindle, Kobo, iBooks, or whatever vendor you chose. Maintaining a digital library means never changing to a rival or reading your books on a different brand of device. It’s possible to remove the DRM from books and store them in a folder on your computer, ready to be used anywhere, but that’s a job for very patient people. 

All of this is avoided with a physical, paper book, with the added plus that it looks great on a bookshelf. On the other hand, no one wants to fill their carry-on luggage with paperbacks when they’re on vacation, or get stuck with no books in their native language if they run out, or have to use a reading light in bed. So maybe digital books aren’t all that bad.

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