Words Mean Things: “Real Books”

Words Mean Things: “Real Books”

All right. It’s The Verge, but I’m going to bite anyway. They published a podcast debating the virtues of real books versus … not real books, I suppose. Which are eBooks. They’re talking about the whole print vs. digital thing.


Which, ultimately, is the phrasing they should have stuck with. Why? Well, as you probably guessed, I’m about to tell you.

Since When Is a “Real” Book Print Only?

Obviously, what I’m taking issue with here is the idea that only a print book can be a real book. I don’t think this is ultimately what the good people at The Verge meant—although it’s possible they wanted to evoke this connotation.

A stack of real books, aka paper books.

Pictured: Real books! Or physical or print books.

The problem with designating something “real” is that the word has a value attached to it. The issue with “real” is that it suggests that something else is a subpar knock-off, a counterfeit if you will. Think about it: If you have real leather, you don’t have fake or imitation leather.


These words—fake, imitation, and so on—imply something is of lesser value. So when we invoke the term “real,” we’re implying something else is not the real deal—that it’s a fake, a fraud. This, in turn, suggests it’s of lesser value.


What happens here is that print books become “real” books and eBooks become somehow not-books. They’re not as good. They’re not worth as much. They may not even exist. (They don’t, in a physical sense.) And, when we get down to it, there’s the implication that eBooks are somehow a lesser form of literature, because they exist in digital format.

The Factual Side of This

In some senses, eBooks aren’t real. They exist as binary code, little series of zeros and ones our computers and eReading devices decode and translate into human language to splay across our screen. We cannot hold them in our hands. They don’t have weight. They don’t exist in physical space. They’re ephemera.

A stack of print books and an eReader. Is one more "real" than another?

One of these things is not like the other …

Print books, on the other hand, exist in the physical realm. They have weight. We can touch them, turn their pages. They smell. They’re incredibly tactile in this sense. There’s nobody really arguing this particular point.


But to designate one of the as “real” leaves the other as some sort of fake or fraud. Can you imagine walking into your doctor’s office and a nurse asking if they had to find the “real” file? By which, of course, they mean the paper copy, not the digital version.


You’d probably wonder why your file had been replaced by a fake! Is this some sort of bad spy novel you’re now stuck in? A dream?


The word “real” doesn’t equate with physical; it never has. Your doctor’s office likely designates between hard files or hard copy or physical files and digital copies or files. Nobody’s talking about a “real” file, because they’re all real in some senses. One is physical and the other is not.


When we use the word “real,” we begin introducing other associated concepts, which complicates the matter.

We Already Have a Debate about “Realness” in Books, Thanks

The other reason I’m taking issue with this artificial juxtaposing of physical books as “real” books and eBooks as somehow “not real” books is because we already have one version of this debate in Booklandia.


Take a look at people who don’t read genre fiction, such as romance or sci-fi or fantasy. These people like to be literary snobs. They’ll gladly tell you they read real books, thank you very much. “Real” books don’t include romances, science fiction stories, or fantasies. Often, they also don’t include chick lit as well.


This isn’t a comment on these things existing or not existing. It’s a judgment about their literary value. A “real” book isn’t a space opera. A “real” book isn’t Lord of the Rings. This isn’t to say these things don’t exist, but that they don’t pass some sort of literary whiff test. They are somehow lesser artistic creations.


So, any time you see the word “real” come up in connection with books, you likely have a twitch reaction. When someone starts trying to define “real” books, you start having flashbacks to these ridiculously snobby and petty arguments about what really qualifies as literature.


The Issue Is Entirely Connotation

That makes the issue of the use of “real” here to designate print or physical books as “real” books one of connotation. Since the phrase “real books” is already firmly entrenched as being a judgment about literary value, hearing it here seems to say print books have more literary merit than eBooks.


Never mind that some eBooks are the same as the print book. Never mind that some books never make it to print, because we now have digital-only publishers and titles. (It’s quite a bit cheaper to use a digital-only production model in publishing.)


Are eBooks of Lesser Literary Merit?

There is, of course, an argument that eBooks—or at least, a large majority of them—are lesser literary products. You can use a couple of arguments here.


The first is the ability of virtually anyone to get their work into print—er, sorry, eBook or publisher format. Thanks to the lower costs, it’s much more affordable to make a book today. In fact, self-publishing is now so affordable, it’s fueled an explosion in the industry.


And much of what gets published is garbage. So there’s that. A good number of eBooks don’t have much literary value.


The other way to look at this is that publishers who go digital-only, either with their entire line or with a single title, are looking for better returns on their products. What this could indicate is the books don’t have enough widespread appeal (a form of “merit”) to get traction in print. Thus, publishers are using the lower costs of eBook publishing to publish works that maybe don’t really deserve to be published.


The counter-argument to both of these positions, of course, is that publishers are biased and subjective creatures. They make mistakes. Some of what gets self-published is certainly of literary value or merit. And some of those digital-only titles that wouldn’t make back their costs in print—and so aren’t viable as print books—certainly have literary merit.


In fact, publishing literary fiction is often an exercise in project loss. So saying that a project doesn’t have literary merit because of the way it was published is an idiotic argument.*

Ebooks Are Just as Real

In many cases, then, eBooks have just as much literary merit as their print peers. In some cases, they may even have more. So to argue “print books are real books” is a serious problem. It’s not wrong per se, but it does evoke the wrong idea.


All this comes back to the point of this column: We have to be careful about the words we use. Calling print books “real books” is maybe technically correct in the sense they physically exist, but it’s wrong in the sense it passes judgment on the literary merit of a book based on the medium it exists in.


You can’t judge a book by its cover—or by whether it’s in print or digital format.


How about, instead of arguing over what’s real or not real, let’s just ask what people prefer reading. Do you like print books or eBooks? Do you read one or the other or both? They both have their advantages and disadvantages.


The same is true of genre fiction. Do you like romance or not? If you enjoy reading it, why? If you don’t, why not? It doesn’t mean romance is somehow of less literary value than another book. There are plenty of bad books out there, many of them outside the romance category.


So let’s leave aside the arguments about what’s “real” and what’s not, what counts and what doesn’t. It’s all written, it’s all entertainment in the end.


*I know this based on experience. There’s one publisher near me that uses the following model: publishing tons of Disney-licensed, overly commercialized crap, which rakes in the cash and has little literary merit, in order to finance their literary fiction publishing program, which doesn’t make much money. High art rarely makes scads of money. Even at the publisher I worked for, we’d sometimes take a loss on a project if we truly believed it was worth publishing.

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