January 26, 2021

Paper Books or E-Books?

Jo Ann with her poetry book Transition

Even before Gutenberg printed his first Bible in Mainz, Germany, in the fifteenth century, the written word was considered the highest symbol of knowledge. But only a few could profit from this knowledge. Books were rare, and not many people knew how to read. With the printing press, books became common objects and all sorts and sizes were soon published and read.

Books became friends. Children developed powerful feelings around certain stories that left indelible traces, redolent of innocence and discovery. We decorated our homes and filled public libraries, law offices, and schools with them. Books travelled with us when we explored the world. They were at the root of the Age of Enlightenment. Books were powerful creatures. Writers were censored, tortured, and even killed, and their books outlawed or destroyed whenever governments felt threatened by the ideas contained within their pages.

Today, the World Wide Web offers vast possibilities for people to stay informed. Physical barriers are no longer enough to stop ideas circulating. All the knowledge we have put down on paper over the centuries can now be retrieved, free of charge, at the click of a finger. It is truly a New Age of Enlightenment.

Clearly the web-based networking is creating a new culture. But is this culture developing a cohesive narrative, and does it have any long-term significance? Do I value an e-book or a webpage as I value a book? I need to understand just what this digital virtual world means to me.

As a reader, when I hold an electronic tablet, it feels as impenetrable as a CD, and as impersonal as a washing machine. When I hold my first edition of Lady Barker’s Station Life in New Zealand, an insignificant book for most people, but the one that inspired me to a vagabond writing life, I am holding an object of love. My father spent hours searching for it, and proudly presented it to me after my first essay was published. It is 140 years old. The distillation of this beloved book down to little more than its words does not appeal to me.

I have often been scolded for travelling with books, an old-fashioned, out-of-date notion, when it would be so much easier to carry a kindle. But I like to leave books and pick up new ones when travelling, a little bit like Hansel dropped stones after he was taken into the forest with his sister Gretel. I can’t do that with an e-book… in fact, quite the contrary. An electronic device would only be one more object to worry about.

Research has been done concerning the ecological costs of an e-book versus a book made from paper. The result seems to be a draw  –  there is little difference in the use of natural resources and energy.

I know that visibility on the screen can be better than the classic text on paper. One day, when my eyes fail, I might be reading e-books, grateful for the large letters, though I am not sure I will be as comfortable, curled up by the fire with a metal slate. So, as long as possible, I will remain faithful to paper books, and I hope my local bookshop will survive this revolution.

For all those interested in books, this period is challenging. As a writer, extraordinary opportunities exist now to get my work out to readers. I am more at ease with these transformations than as a reader. I have had short stories, essays, and poems published by traditional publishers, but I do not have a network to fall back on – somewhere where I belong. I am too old to be of interest to an agent or publisher who think in long-term investments. Most of my writing must find its home in another way.

Several years ago, I decided to bypass the habitual publishing gatekeepers. When I finished my first book, Blowing Feathers, a memoir in my mother’s voice, the manuscript was praised and then turned down by several New Zealand publishers. Exasperated, I chose to self-publish it with Lulu. But my writing career did not prepare me to edit a book, design a book cover, format it for various kinds of devices, and then market it. I needed to learn, and  I obtained my knowledge from the web. Within weeks, Blowing Feathers was on the shelves in several US and Swiss bookshops and on Amazon. It continues to have a modest success, but I still need to put it on Kindle. As they saying goes: “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

But I am not a technical person, nor very good at selling myself. When I finished my second book, Transition, a memoir in poetic form, I knew a normal book has a lifetime of six weeks on bookshop shelves.  Yet I still wanted to see Transition out in the world.  I decided it was time to try a publisher who lived near me. The problem was that I lived in a country with four national languages, none of them being the one I wrote in. Fortunately, in Switzerland, this sort of complication becomes a challenge. After all, English is often used, and nearly all Swiss bookshops have a large selection of books in that language. The Editions du Madrier accepted my book, and the idea that we would create and sell it together.

But why was it important for me to be published? The answer is simple. I am a writer … and a writer needs readers. So, why didn’t I try traditional English-language publishers? Again, the answer is straightforward. As I mentioned before, I don’t know where I belong as a writer. I could not be bothered with all the rejection slips, which would inevitably come my way. I did not need to re-paper my bathroom, be it virtually or with printed paper. Yet I believed in my writing. I had something to say and I did it well, even if my audience was small. So why didn’t I put my poems up on my website? The answer is simple. I wanted my poems to be housed in paper. Impenitent, I wanted to offer a warm tactile object to my readers. For my third book, I will try another procedure and go for the best, where ever that may be.

I continue to hope that books and e-books will find a way to co-habit, just like radio and television do. In Transition, there is a short poem that I offer, as closing words, to you, my reader.




Neruda writes of a poet’s obligation

to give both freedom and the sea

to shuttered hearts. Rilke sends me

to the limits of my longing.


There I encounter scribblers

infected by pain and pleasure.

Life, they say, is a farrago of experience.

I accept my yearning

as a way forward.


This essay was part of a talk given at the bookshop BooksBooksBooks on February 23, 2012. Four book lovers spoke about the revolution of books and what it meant to their professions. We were Sue Niewarowski, a book designer, Matthew Wake, bookshop owner, Dieter Bühler, an editor/publisher,  and myself, a writer.

Four book professionals discussing the future of books


  1. Penelope says:

    Good on you, Jo Ann, for getting your writing out and about, one way and another. Transition looks from the cover to be a handsome volume. As a reader, i confess to a preference for hard copy. As a newbie publisher, I’m delighted to know I can disseminate lovely work digitally from the living room table. (Hard to believe I’m using as many resources as if I were trucking crates of books around the world, but I’ve also heard the rumour.) All the best to you, x P

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