The Pros and Cons of Reading Ebooks (2022)

Dan Kimberg
21 min readSep 5, 2022

Twelve years ago, I made the switch from print books to ebooks. I’d been excited about the concept of e-reading since the 80’s, so when the right device came out in mid-2010, I got myself a Kindle and read Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story.” Although the experience wasn’t perfect (not Shteyngart’s fault), for me the pros outweighed the cons, and I stuck with it.

Although I’ve read ebooks exclusively since then, a lot has changed over the past twelve years. So here’s my review of what’s to like, dislike, and contemplate about e-reading in 2022.

Before anything else, a quick disclaimer: Although I do work for a company that sells ebooks (Google, and more specifically Google Play Books), these are my opinions and not those of my employer. And my preference for ebooks began long before I started working in this area. There’s a longer disclaimer at the bottom of this article.

Ground Rules

  • “Reading” means many things. Here I’m talking mostly about long-form prose — novels and book-length non-fiction, essays, novellas, and most short stories. Maybe poetry. Not popcorn reading or time-killers, not Twitter or Instagram, not email or Reddit or news feeds you skim on your cell phone. Focused reading to which you devote time just for that.
  • I’m considering books that are mostly made of words. Not graphic novels or other books that are mostly about illustrations, nor cookbooks or technical books with intricate formatting or illustrations, but the kind of thing that basically boils down to a long series of words that you read in some predictable order.
  • And lastly, I’m focusing on books in English, because that’s the language I read in.

Pros and Cons can be highly personal. Some of my pros might be your cons, and a non-issue for me might be a deal-killer for you. So I’ve done my best to cover the important considerations, and sorted them loosely into two lists. I hope it will be helpful, even if you might sort the points differently or come to a completely different conclusion.

The Pros

Here are the things I count as wins for ebooks.

  • The physical form factor. Print books can have all kinds of physical issues. My list of complaints includes: overly hefty hardcovers, trade paperbacks that are awkward to hold with one hand, mass market paperbacks printed too close to the spine, low-quality paper, poor contrast, paper or edging that makes it tricky to turn pages, and bindings that crack and set your pages free. Heavy or awkward books were especially problematic for me when I commuted by train (some books I simply couldn’t read unless I got a seat). Although trade paperbacks now dominate print publishing, and most trade paperbacks are pretty good, you have no control — you get whatever the publisher of that book chooses for you. E-reading devices are also far from perfect (see “Cons”), but if you find one that’s comfortable for you, it will be equally comfortable for every book you read.
  • Reading in the dark (or in dim light) is easier. Over many years of reading books in print, I tried many kinds of book lights and flashlights, and never found an arrangement that was really comfortable. I’ve always found uneven lighting on the page distracting, which is not good when you like to read in the middle of the night (although LEDs have improved the situation). My old Kindle had no light, so it wasn’t much better, although I had a clip-on light that was decent enough. But now that most e-readers have built-in illumination, it’s a non-issue for me. My current reader’s light is uniform and can be adjusted for both brightness and color temperature. For the first time in my life, I can read in perfect comfort in any light. And as a bonus, LED e-readers often have a dark mode (dark background, light text), which is obviously not possible in print.
  • Fonts. Control of the typeface and font size is a powerful capability. Even when I was younger and had perfect eyesight, I occasionally had complaints about fonts. Today, although my reading glasses make small fonts readable, they don’t make ugly fonts nice. Options for adjusting the margins or spacing can also make reading more comfortable (or less, if you’re not careful). Sometimes you don’t have as much control as you’d like, but it’s still better than with print.
  • Turning single pages can be easier. I know it sounds ridiculous, but this really used to aggravate me with some books. Some common tasks (quickly flipping to the previous page to check something, and then back to where you’re reading) are actually smoother with tablets/phones than with print books. Ebooks have their own quirks, though, and even with the same page size you need to turn pages twice as often. So you’ll find this in the “Cons” section too.
  • Always with you. If you’re able to read on your phone, and you always have your phone with you, then you always have your books with you. Even if you don’t read as fluidly on your phone as on other devices, phone reading may be preferable to not reading at all. My current phone is larger than most Kindles, and it’s definitely saved me a few times. And honestly, once I start reading, I don’t notice the device at all, I’m too wrapped up in the book.
  • Portability. I’ve probably never read more than 4 or 5 books on a trip, but before ebooks, I always packed a bag of books for travel. I no longer have to think about it, although I do usually fiddle with my library a bit before a trip. If you’re the kind of person who’s always in the middle of 4 different books, this may be even more of an advantage.
  • Instant delivery of purchases, whether for yourself or as gifts, is very convenient. This applies equally to samples of books you’re thinking about reading.
  • Searching is much, much easier. This seems obvious enough.
  • Note taking. Annotations can be longer and more legible, and can be read, revised, and located (even searched) easily without resorting to tape flags. Especially with nonfiction, I often revisit and edit my annotations later. It’s also easy to highlight a few words without interrupting your reading flow too much, and then add your thoughts later (which I prefer doing with a real keyboard). You don’t need to have a pen or tape flags with you. And at least in principle, it should be easy to turn them off when you don’t want to be distracted by your previous notes. Lastly, for students who don’t own their books, it’s possible to take notes to your heart’s content and to keep those notes even after the book must be returned. There are also some note-taking cons, see below.
  • Built-in dictionaries. It turns out there are still many words I don’t know, and I’ve always been reluctant to interrupt my reading to look something up in a dictionary. With e-books, I can consult the dictionary with minimal interruption to my reading flow.
  • They don’t take up space or accumulate dust. If you tend to acquire books faster than you can read them, as I do, this can be a real problem. I live in an area where real estate is expensive, and there would have been no place in my house for the many books I’ve shed over the past decade. With ebooks, you can keep as many books as you like, no matter how small your living space.
  • Virtual bookshelves. With print books, each physical copy of a book that you own can only be in one place. Ebooks, by contrast, can be on multiple virtual bookshelves at the same time. You can even have samples of books you don’t own on your virtual shelves. I currently have 22 custom shelves that I use to keep track of most of my e-library.
  • Privacy. This may be a con for you, but I don’t like to advertise to the world what I’m reading. I know I shouldn’t care, but it makes me self-conscious. Ebooks have made reading in public much more comfortable for me. (And no, it’s not because I’m reading anything sketchy.)

The Cons

These are the top things I think could use some improvement.

  • The screens haven’t come along as much as I would have hoped. I’ve had good luck with tablets — a nice IPS LCD screen was my main reader for many years, and I’ve been very happy with my current E Ink device. But many people dislike even quality LCDs, and the slowness of E Ink screens can be an issue. Color is great on LCDs, but it’s an expensive add-on for E Ink. Everyone has their own preferences, but the perfect screen has yet to be invented. More on this below.
  • Flipping through a book quickly is not great with e-books. With tablets, this is arguably a fixable issue with the software, while with E Ink devices, it’s a hardware issue — E Ink screens are just too slow to riffle the pages. Due to software improvements, it’s not as bad as it used to be, and you can often do better with search instead. But as of today, I still call it a win for print.
  • Page images are not always great. Typically, ebooks have “flowing text” that reformats itself according to the dimensions of your device and your font and layout preferences. But some books are sold as page images, essentially PDFs where the publisher decides exactly what each page looks like. Books like this often fare poorly on smaller screens. For me, there’s no single device that works equally well for Jane Austen and Alan Moore.
  • Some books with flowing text present navigation and layout difficulties. If you’re reading a book where you’ll often need to consult a glossary, the list of dramatis personae, endnotes, or long footnotes, or a book with two bodies of text meant to be read in parallel (as in Nabokov’s Pale Fire), this is easier, though still awkward, in print. Books that are presented side-by-side (e.g., some Shakespeare editions) or with sidebars don’t always work well as e-books, especially if you want flexibility with font sizes. Illustrations and tables sometimes come with layout requirements that are hard to reconcile with dynamically reflowing text. I believe software improvements will someday fix most of this, but some books do have issues right now.
  • You don’t own your books. You can only share your ebooks in some narrow circumstances, and almost never give them away. The books you buy are only yours to use for as long as your account with that service exists (although I’m optimistic that Google and Amazon, the services I use most, will be around for a while). Because the books are tied to the vendor, if you use multiple e-reading products you can’t see all your books in one place. Depending on your habits, this may be a deal-killer or a total non-issue.
  • The selection of ebooks is very good by some standards, and has certainly improved over the past 10 years. Virtually all newly published books are available as ebooks, as are the overwhelming majority of well-known older books. But the more esoteric your tastes, the more you’ll find missing. More on this below.
  • Typesetting. Although things have improved dramatically, formatting errors and awkward typesetting are more common in ebooks than in print. Many older books have errors from when they were converted to e-books via OCR. This is a fairly narrow win for print (I once bought a hardcover that was missing most of its punctuation). But traditional publishers continue to do a better job with typesetting for print than for ebooks.
  • Note taking can be worse on e-readers. You usually can’t doodle freehand in the margins. The user interfaces for adding notes can be pretty awkward, especially if you don’t like typing on your reader (as many of us older folks don’t). If the advantages I noted earlier don’t really apply to you, and you always have a pen handy, then you might find print better for this purpose.
  • Showing off your library. A visible physical library is a great way to spark conversation, impress your friends, or even to show your kids that books occupy a central place in our lives. And some people just find shelves of books comforting. I don’t have many books on shelves any more, but I love it when my friends do. If having a physical library in your home is important to you for whatever reason, ebooks will offer no help. The same applies to sharing what you’re reading with fellow commuters or coffee shop habitués,
  • E-readers need to be kept charged. I don’t feel like this is a huge problem, especially since my phone has trained me to keep on top of things. Most readers have great battery life. But it’s an issue print doesn’t have.
  • The lost physicality of books. This comes up often in critiques of e-reading. Some readers really appreciate the physical experience of books, and never warm to the comparatively antiseptic experience of e-reading. If the feel or smell of a bound book in your hands is an important part of your reading experience, then ebooks may not be right for you. More on this below.
  • Cost is a mixed bag. Depending on your reading habits, this might be a solid “pro” or a solid “con.” I discuss the cost of the books a bit more below. But for now, I’ll just point out that the readers themselves cost money, and although there are some great options below $100, depending on your preferences you might end up spending more than $300 before you buy your first ebook. And the devices don’t last forever.

In the remainder of this article, I’ll address a few topics in a little more depth.

Getting the Most Out of Your Reading

Will you get more out of your reading in print?

This is a complicated subject, and there’s a ton of misleading information floating around. I care very deeply about getting the most out of my reading, so if there were good reasons to believe that I’d get more out of print, I would at least consider going back. Fortunately, I have a background in cognitive psychology, and I’ve been able to read and evaluate a lot of the relevant research.

The bottom line: although there is evidence that under some circumstances, reading comprehension is not as good on screens as on paper, the evidence comes from people reading under poor circumstances that you can easily avoid (and probably would, even without any warning). So here, in brief, are the pitfalls you should avoid. It’s mostly just common sense.

  • If you’re really averse to reading ebooks. don’t do it! I’m as big an advocate of e-reading as there is, and I can drone on for hours about the advantages. If you’re ambivalent, I might try to talk you into giving it a fair shot. But I’d never try to talk anyone into it if they’d really rather not.
  • If you do decide to give e-reading a go, don’t give up after just a few pages. Try it out for a book or two, maybe with some lighter reading or an old favorite. Give yourself a chance to acclimate.
  • Read on a quality device that’s at least as comfortable for you as a paperback would be. For me, that’s an 8-inch tablet, and I’ve had good experiences with both LCDs and E Ink. But you should choose what’s comfortable for you.
  • Adjust your reading experience — fonts, line spacing, screen brightness, etc. — for comfort.
  • Don’t read on a device that will distract you. E Ink readers are great from this perspective, because they’re not great for much beyond reading and note-taking. With tablets and phones, you’ll want to turn off notifications (visual, auditory, and tactile), maybe using airplane mode. If simply knowing that you have other apps readily available will distract you, your phone is probably a poor choice.
  • Don’t e-read things that don’t work well on your device(s). PDFs and books with lots of illustrations or tables can be poor on typical e-readers, although they may work well on larger tablets.
  • Use software designed for immersive reading of ebooks. All of the major ebook sellers have you covered.

The available science on reading doesn’t speak to what you can expect if you follow these suggestions — research studies almost invariably violate at least three of these rules. While you may have seen some scary headlines about the dangers of reading ebooks, in my view it’s more likely we’ll find that the reverse is true. E-reading does surprisingly well in these studies, despite conditions that are often alarmingly poor.

So for now, I think it’s safe to say that as long as you use some common sense, there’s no evidence that e-reading will do you any harm. I go into much more detail on this subject in a separate article.

On Distraction

Distraction is one of the most oft-cited reasons why people might have trouble reading on screens. Basically anything other than an E Ink reader can present distractions, and there are certainly some people who would be unable to focus on reading just knowing that their favorite games and text messages are just a few taps away. There are studies showing that merely having your cell phone nearby, even if it’s turned off, can be distracting.

Of course, distractions can strike when you’re reading in print too. Your phone doesn’t stop buzzing just because you’re holding a paperback. My biggest two distractions — my family, and my own wandering thoughts — are equally distracting in both formats, and I can’t lock either of them out of the room. But it’s surely worse when it’s the phone you’re reading on.

I may not be the best guide here — I don’t consume social media or play addictive games on my phone. And I still do most of my reading on tablets that I use for nothing else. But I do understand the predicament of people who are more easily distracted, or unwilling to make their phones more hospitable reading surfaces (e.g., via airplane mode). As a rule of thumb, I would say that if you often find yourself setting aside your reading in order to do something else on that same device, that should be a huge red flag. And if you’re the sort of person who needs to constantly check email or Twitter, or play your favorite game, and any device will do, then perhaps e-reading isn’t for you (and you probably shouldn’t have your phone nearby when reading in print either).

The Cost of Ebooks

You might think price would be a big win for ebooks, since they don’t have to be printed, shipped, stored, shelved, or sold from high-rent storefronts. The cost of serving e-books from the cloud is comparatively miniscule, even though it can be expensive to develop and maintain the software. But for various reasons, the consumer cost for ebooks is complicated. To keep things simple here, I’m just going to describe a few common situations, focusing on the cost to the consumer and ignoring questions about whether the products, viewed holistically, are really comparable. Bear in mind that I’m thinking about the US, where I live, but I know the equation is different in other parts of the world.

  • Compared to buying an undiscounted book new in a bookstore, just for yourself and your immediate family, ebooks are typically cheaper, but not universally so.
  • If you often buy used books, or borrow from friends, ebooks will be more expensive. There’s no such thing as a used ebook, and sharing outside of your immediate family is generally not allowed.
  • It’s typically easier to find great deals on ebooks than by prowling the remainder shelves at your local bookstores. But again, if you like to shop for used books, you may do better with print.
  • If you borrow books from libraries, you can do the same with ebooks, and the cost is the same (free), although the selection and availability may differ. I’m not very expert on this.
  • If you like independently published serial science fiction, fantasy, romance, comics, manga, or genre fiction in general, ebooks are generally cheaper. Pricing that would be impossible for print (e.g., first-one’s-free, subsequent volumes under $5) often works great for indie ebooks.
  • If you like to read the classics, whether for school or for recreational reading, ebooks are much cheaper. As of 2022, works published before 1927 are generally in the public domain in the US. Although it can take some effort to find a decent free edition, they’re out there (I’m a huge fan of the Standard Ebooks project). More great books enter the public domain in the US every January 1st.
  • For schools that can normally get 5–7 years of use out of a print edition, ebooks that are not in the public domain are generally more expensive than print. For example, if a print textbook costs $50 and can be used by five students on average, a single-use ebook would have to be priced under $10 to win out on price. In practice, licensing terms are continuously evolving, and textbook publishers have all kinds of offerings, so the reality may not be that simple.

Screens Are Still Not Perfect

There are two broad types of screens: E Ink and LCD. E Ink is a paper-like display used mostly in ebook readers and note-taking devices (e.g., Kindle, Kobo, Onyx). LCD is the same kind of screen you have in your cell phone or tablet (e.g., iPad, Kindle Fire, or most other tablets). I’m including OLED screens in the latter group, even though it’s technically a different technology. Here are the major considerations:

Does it seem like paper? E Ink screens do, LCDs don’t. Some people find extended reading on LCDs uncomfortable, though some of that may be due to low-quality screens. Most LCD screens are glossy, which I’ve always hated, while E Ink screens tend to have more of a matte surface. I’ve never had an issue with reading on LCDs, although I recently switched to a very nice E Ink reader (the Onyx Boox Nova3). People who dislike LCDs often find E Ink comfortable.

Can you read in sunlight? E Ink is perfectly readable in sunlight, very much like paper. Good LCDs are great in all but the brightest sunlight, but still not as pleasant as E Ink. Cheaper or older LCDs can be unreadable in direct sunlight.

Do you care about illustrations or color? Illustrations and photographs render beautifully on LCD devices, often better than on paper. But color is still an expensive add-on for E Ink, and it’s not quite up to the standards of LCD displays. Photographs in ebooks often render poorly on monochrome devices.

Can you turn pages quickly? Yes for LCD, no for E Ink. Quickly revisiting the previous page is probably no worse on E Ink devices than with print. But riffling pages is really not viable with E Ink. With LCDs, the screen isn’t the limiting factor, but the software could generally use some work.

Is size/weight an issue? E Ink readers can be ridiculously light; some are lighter than any printed book. Book-sized LCD tablets (~8 inches) are still pretty light, though you can find books that are lighter.

A lot depends on the specific screen you’re looking at. LCDs have evolved tremendously over the past few decades, but the cheapest ones still tend to be a bit shimmery, and to my eye, unpleasant. Cheap LCDs also have poorer resolution and brightness. IPS LCDs are much nicer than earlier LCD technologies, and OLEDs are nicer still. In practice, most LCD panels sold in 2022 are pretty good, but there are exceptions.

The bottom line: no screen is perfect, and no screen is right for everyone. There’s still room for a screen that combines the best of E Ink and LCD: a paper-like matte surface; great in sunlight; color; fast to update; and low power consumption. I keep hoping.

Availability

Basically all new releases are published as ebooks. But I do occasionally stumble across gaps in the ebook catalog — older books that are not available as ebooks on any platform. The gaps narrow over time, but the more esoteric your reading tastes, the bigger this issue will be. At the same time, there may be older books (books published more than 100 years ago) that are only widely available as ebooks, often via Google’s massive archive of books scanned from the world’s libraries. These tend to be of mostly academic interest, but there are many hidden gems.

There’s no law that you can’t switch back and forth between ebooks and print, and many readers do so. I personally find the conveniences of e-reading so overwhelming that I’ve rarely been tempted back into print (though I do maintain an Amazon wishlist for a few exceptions). It feels weird to let ebook availability influence what I read. But I have such a massive backlog of great books to read, and there are so few gaps that I care about, that I haven’t had a strong desire to read anything in print for a long time. And ultimately it’s not much weirder than what I was doing with print — reading what I had on hand or happened to find in the library or bookstore.

Constant Access

Much to my surprise, I’ve discovered that despite my slowly worsening eyesight, I can still read very comfortably on my 6.2” phone screen, even without reading glasses (though it’s better with them). My phone doesn’t buzz or interrupt me when I’m reading, so although it does have a few apps on it, it’s also very good for immersive reading. If it’s important to you to get audible and tactile notifications for texts, instant messages, email, or whatever else, then this won’t work well for you. But if you’re more like me, it’s not at all difficult to make your phone a peaceful place for reading. When all else fails, airplane mode is your friend. The only drawback I can see is that with the smaller screen, you have to turn pages more often than with a larger reader (though many popular readers are actually smaller than my phone).

During my first 40+ years on this planet, I never got the hang of making sure I always had a book with me, and would often get stranded without one. But now, I’m never without my phone. So even if I didn’t anticipate having the opportunity to read, I always can.

Authenticity of the Reading Experience

Many of the negative things I’ve read about e-reading imply that it’s a less authentic reading experience; that ebook readers don’t care about books or reading in the way that committed print readers do. That the physicality of books is not just a preference, but essential to the true appreciation of literature.

This viewpoint strikes me as mean-spirited, and I’m not sure any form of argument or evidence will sway someone who feels this way. So I’ll just have my say and be done with it.

When I read, what’s essential to me is the story the author is telling. I don’t want anything to come between me and the ideas in the book. As far as I can tell, ebooks accomplish that at least as well as print ever has, often better. I do sometimes admire pretty covers and well-bound volumes (though I’ve rarely owned any), and I have some fondness for the smell of books, particularly used books. I used to choose my bookmarks carefully. I appreciate the anachronistic charm of the triple-decker, and of paraffin candles. I also like summer breezes, comfortable chairs, and tall glasses of iced tea. But I’m not sympathetic to the idea that any of these things are particularly crucial to my reading. The idea that Jane Austen must be read on parchment in a musty, leather-bound, deckle-edged volume, by candlelight, seems patently ridiculous to me.

If you feel differently about your own reading, that’s totally fine — just feeling that way makes it true for you. But if you feel that my appreciation of literature, broadly construed, is lesser because I read ebooks, and you can’t muster some more compelling evidence than anything I’ve seen, then we probably can’t be friends.

I miss bookstores, but only a little

I used to spend a lot of time in bookstores. Often I’d just browse, but then every now and then I’d give in and bring home a bag full of books. I miss it a bit, but I also have to remind myself that the vast majority of bookstores I’ve ever visited have been terrible — huge chains with little more than the latest bestsellers, or idiosyncratic bookshops that are never quite my flavor of idiosyncratic. Even before ebooks, most of my book shopping had shifted to Amazon. I do still occasionally wander into physical bookstores, and sometimes I’ll spot a book or two to investigate and maybe buy later, but often not.

That said, ebook storefronts have never quite given me the same browsing experience I always enjoyed in the better bookstores. I feel like this is a fixable software issue, but I’m not sure the software is going in the right direction. In the meantime, I find fewer books via shopping, and more via references from my other reading. Maybe that’s better anyway.

What about things that aren’t books?

Some kinds of writing don’t demand focused reading, and for those we should all be happy to skim as needed, reading on whatever device is most handy and only rarely venturing below the fold. But sometimes you encounter an article online that deserves close attention. For these, I rely on a great app called Pocket, which makes it easy to collect and consume online articles in a distraction-free manner, on all my devices. The service is free, although I’ve found it worth paying for the premium features. There’s more to say about it than I can squeeze in here, but I’ll just note that for me, it works a lot like ebooks: it’s far from perfect, but also far better than the alternatives.

The ebook format has also made it much easier to publish and distribute things that have not had great outlets in the past. Although the “book” in “ebook” suggests a certain weight, an ebook can technically be as short as zero pages. Essays, flash fiction, short stories, novelettes, novellas, and serials can all be published as ebooks. Although most of these already had some avenues for reaching readers via periodicals, and the best ones would sometimes find their way into collections, the ebook market makes it easy to distribute and sell them independently, just like longer works, without the need to add any padding. When published in this way, they become a permanent part of the catalog — less ephemeral than most magazine articles and easily consumed in the same ways as any other book.

The Bottom Line

Optimizing your reading to make it a regular habit, and as immersive as possible, is well worthwhile. If you’ve been curious about ebooks, I hope this will help you sort out the pros and cons, and maybe give you the confidence to give ebooks a try. But I’m just as happy if you weigh your options and stick with print, as long as you’re reading.

Disclaimer

The opinions here are my own and not those of my employer. Although I do work for an ebook seller (I’ve worked at Google since 2011, and on Google Play Books since 2018), I’ve been a devotee and advocate of e-reading since before I started working in the tech industry, and long before I worked on ebooks. I took my current job because I’m a strong believer in the value of ebooks, not the other way around. And I do still use three different e-reading products, though mostly the one I work on.

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Dan Kimberg
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I am who I am. Who else would I be?