As an author I’ve been thinking a lot about ebooks – how they’re changing/may change publishing, if we’re going to eventually move to the ebook business model of high royalties instead of advances, (but not piracy, I’m with Cory Doctorow on this one: An SF writer’s biggest problem is obscurity, not piracy) etc. So from the writer mind side I’m wringing my hands, which is kind of stupid, because my reader mind (which is deeply tied to my consumer mind) is pretty made up on the subject: ebooks, specifically ebook readers like the Kindle and the new Nook, are a bad choice if you like owning books and saving money.
First, this is not a rawr-technology-you’ll-take-my-print-from-my-cold-dead-hands! post. I like ebooks and own several. Some of these are because the book wasn’t available in print, others for the usual variety of reasons that make people buy one thing over another, the ebook happened to be cheaper/more convenient/what was there at the time. I do not, however, own an ereader, nor could I see myself ever buying one under the current business model, and here’s why.
1. I don’t spend money to make my life less convenient or more expensive.
I keep hearing comparisons between ereaders and the VCR, how the spread of new technology brought down prices and empowered consumer choice. This all sounds awesome, except for the part where, before the VCR (or BetaMax), there was no way to view a movie in your home without a projector. It was giving people something legitimately new, the ability to watch movies (and porn, let’s not forget what truly powered VHS) in the privacy of their own homes. Ereaders don’t offer this kind of revolution. It’s not like having a book you can take with you is a new idea. Sure, the kindle lets you bring potentially thousands of books on a plane, but realistically you’re not going to read more than 2 novels on a flight, assuming you were almost done with one already.
Lovely as ereaders are (and they ARE lovely little gadgets), they’re going up against a very tough medium: the paperback. The paperback is cheap, durable, portable, lendable, and loseable. You can buy paperbacks pretty much anywhere (though selection can be limited), they come with very few rules, and are cheap to replace. Ereaders, on the other hand, require a substantial upfront investment in the platform, that $200 – $300 you spend buying the thing in the first place. So you’re sinking $200 (which is a lot of books, even if you only read new release hardbacks) just for the privilege of buying and reading books, something that, thanks to the bookstores and the dedication of literacy programs, you already have for free.
But I could see sinking $200 into a reader if you were also purchasing the chance to buy books at discount. This goes by the same logic as paying for a CostCo membership, the savings will eventually pay for the upfront cost. Trouble is, in most cases, you’re not getting a substantial discount on books with ereaders. Take, for example, Tim Pratt’s Blood Engines, for sale on Amazon at $7.99. If I had a Kindle, I could download the book for $5.59, a savings of $2.40. Not bad. However, it would still take 108 books to break even on the Kindle’s $259 pricetag. Ouch.
I am perfectly ok with the ebook pricing, authors gotta get paid and books don’t edit themselves. But the cold, sad fact is when you combine a high initial outlay with very small discounts on things that were already pretty cheap to begin with, the numbers never really add up. Also, ebook pricing is all over the place, with some ebooks costing more than their print counterparts, so your discount isn’t even guaranteed.
Add to this the standard gadget problems – if you drop it in the bath, you’re out a large chunk of change. Same if it gets stolen, if you leave it somewhere, etc. You can’t sell old ebooks to used bookstores to get new stuff, you can’t give old ebooks away. And while ebooks don’t have to be dusted, stored, or protected from mold, (and most come with nifty search features), the small perks do not make up for the heightened cost, limited options, and increased inconvenience of dealing with ebooks through a reader.
2. When I buy something, I want to own it forever.
This is more a beef with the Kindle than the other readers, but DRM sucks. When I buy a paperback, it’s mine. I can lend it to friends, sell it, give it to goodwill, whatever. When you pay for an ebook, you’re really just leasing the right to read it. It’s Amazon who tells you how your book can be handled, not you, up to and including the ability to take you book away. Also, as we’ve seen with DRM protected digital music, if the format changes, you have to buy all your titles again, negating any savings you may have managed to eek out. In ten years, my paperback will still be a paperback. I still have paperbacks of my Mom’s from the early 80s. Think about how computers change. Will a Kindle file with its embedded DRM still be readable in 10 years? 20 years? I don’t know, and I’m not going to pay money to find out.
This is much less of a problem with non-DRM files like PDFs, but even PDFs change. I doubt my kids will be able to read the ebooks I buy now, but my paperbacks, and especially my hardbacks, will still be here unless my house burns down. It could happen, but I think changing technology is a lot more likely than a raging house fire.
3. Ereaders hold back too much, give too little.
Now, despite everything I’ve just said, I am not immune to gadget lust. The Nook is damn cool, what with its 3g connection and pretty little inset color screen. Rowr, want! But the torid love affair cools quickly when I start reading about the limitations. Like, how you have all this wireless connectivity, but you can only browse the B&N store. Or how you can lend ebooks (!!!!!!), but only once, and only for 14 days. Better chose carefully. Also, so many of the features it trumpets (Marking up pages! Reading full ebooks for free in B&N stores!) are just really ghetto versions of what you can already do with real books… for free… without a wireless connection of any kind.
Again and again, ebook readers come back to the same stumbling block. You’re paying a large, upfront fee to buy a gadget so that you can do things you could previously do for free AND give up your right to a DRM free, physical object. Why, other than a love of gadgets and money to burn, would you do this? Oh I’m sure it’s nice for some lifestyles, like if you travel a lot or have a very tiny home in place with great 3g coverage, but that’s a pretty specific market to underwrite a fundamental change in the way books are sold.
Now, I would buy an ereader in a heartbeat if it also doubled as a tablet PC, letting me surf blogs, news sites, and wikipedia on a thin, handheld wireless device that also let me read ebooks. That would be AWESOME. Even keeping with eink’s famous inability to make pictures look good, so what? A handheld device with a nice, big screen and no cellphone company service agreement I could read on my couch? Yes please! That would make me buy. But, though the technology is there, no ebook reader has stepped up to the challenge. Every one of them is fenced in by restrictions that undercut their enormous potential.
In the end, ereaders hold back too much to justify the cost of the technology. Until there are some fundamental changes in the business model and in the cost of the technology, I don’t see how they could ever be a good financial decision. The future may be here, but it’s too expensive and inconvenient. In the end, laziness and cheapness are the greatest consumer forces. Until ereaders give us a cheaper, lazier way to buy stories, the paperback’s rule will continue. It’s hard to revolutionize something that works so well.
So, gentle reader, what do you think? Do you own an ebook reader? Is it worth it? What would make you consider buying one if you don’t? Inquiring minds want to know!