Careful with Those Surveys:

An article in The New York Review of Books argues:

Books also give off special smells. According to a recent survey of French students, 43 percent consider smell to be one of the most important qualities of printed books — so important that they resist buying odorless electronic books.

Not quite, if I have the right survey (which is reported by CaféScribe, polls students, and gets a 43% number, but doesn’t seem to poll French students). The survey asked, “Of the following physical qualities of books, which do you love the most?,” and reported the following results for each of the options:

Feel of turning a page 30%
New book-smell 30%
Old book-smell 13%
Wear and tear from previous readers 5%
Weight 4%
Size of pages 3%
Dust-jacket 1%
Other 6%
Not sure 9%

It then asked, “Assuming that a used book is 75% of the cost of a new book, and an e-book 50% of the cost of a new book, which version would you prefer to purchase?,” and reported that 62% would prefer the used book, 22% would prefer the new book, and 13% would prefer the e-book.

But this does not mean that “43 percent consider smell to be one of the most important qualities of printed books — so important that they resist buying odorless electronic books.” Rather, 43% say that smell is the “physical quality” they “love the most,” with most respondents likely limiting physical qualities to the offered options: smell, size, weight, dust-jacket, and wear. This tells us very little about how important smell is, compared to other factors such as readability, portability, and the like — only that of these factors, which might be important or not, smell is the most important one.

In fact, current e-books have serious constraints that the survey never mentioned: They tend to be harder to read than ordinary books (something that some respondents might see captured in “size of pages,” but that many might not), and because few people have custom e-book readers, they would have to be read on relatively bulky notebook computers or even bulkier desktops. This might well explain the result that most people prefer paper books, with smell having next to nothing to do with it.

So the survey, it seems to me, actually reveals little about what people genuinely find important in choosing books (perhaps by design, if the company just wanted a justification for its gimmick). In particular, it doesn’t reveal what the New York Review of Books article claims. If you want to find out whether people’s refusal to buy e-books really stems from the e-books’ lack of smell, ask them that and maybe you’ll get reliable answers. But the questions that were actually asked don’t yield that information.