a consumer’s take on why ebook readers still have a long way to go

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!

9 Responses to “a consumer’s take on why ebook readers still have a long way to go”

  1. November 15, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    I own an ebook reader, a eBookwise. It’s previous-generation technology, with LCD rather than e-ink, and only $100. You can purchase books with DRM from the associated eFictionwise store, but there are lots of DRM-free options, from the free Project Gutenberg classics to much of the Baen catalog. Lots of authors also have a novel or two available for download. All of these are mine, and I can do whatever I want except distribute or resell (in most but not all cases). (And by the way, PDFs can and do have DRM, and not all readers support DRM PDFs.) The very best thing about this reader is that I can have 50 or 100 books with me when I travel, without carrying a giant stack. Or maybe the best thing is that because it’s LCD, I can read in the dark, even under the blankets. If these had been available when I was 12, I never would have slept!

    On the other side of things, I’m anxiously awaiting the release of a 10-inch e-Ink reader, and will buy one the instant one meets my needs and isn’t hideously expensive. If that’s a Kindle, I’ll still think about it (the Kindle DX is big enough, but has some other issues), though I’m unlikely to be buying any of Amazon’s DRM books. I’m a scientist, and have a library of several thousand PDF journal articles and technical books, and I’d be very very happy to have a way to carry them around and read them conveniently. Sure, I can read them on my computer, but then I’m chained to the office, or on my laptop, but only for three hours at a time and not in bright sunlight.

    Those are two entirely different uses and entirely different specifications. I still buy paper books. Bathtub, lendability, lack of DRM. But the reader is also awesome, and as more titles become available without DRM (I hope), a larger and larger proportion of my reading will shift to ebooks. I’m running out of bookshelf space at an alarming rate, you see. Fiction reading is a different sort of reading from technical reading. I don’t see any reason to ever print out a journal article, as long as I can comfortably and conveniently read it onscreen, whatever that screen may be.

  2. November 15, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    I have an iphone, which has Stanza and Kindle apps on it. Since I would have bought the phone anyway, my ebook reader cost me nothing. I travel a great deal and have over 400 books on my phone, most of them free. I agree with everything you have said; that I was able to use a device I did not have to pay extra for has made all the difference in my use of ebooks.

  3. 3 Stephen
    November 15, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    I have a dedicated ebook reader – a cybook: old technology but still has an e-ink screen. Before that I used to use a PDA for reading books (and still do occasionally). I had the PDA anyway, so it was a sunk cost, but I still upgraded to an e-ink reader for the better reading experience.

    On the other hand, I read a lot, so it was worth it to me to pay extra for the extra benefits. I can also justify it easier price wise – paperbacks here cost around $16-17 US, Hard covers have a RRP of $40-45 and up. (You can get them cheaper at some stores, of course). What seems expensive to you for an ebook is cheap for me.

    The other big benefit for me is storage – I have bought over 2000 e-books in the last few years. I’d never manage to store those as paper books.

  4. November 16, 2009 at 8:14 am

    I own a Soney ereader, and I bought it mostly for reading other people’s manuscripts. When I’m reading for critique or for the possibility of providing a blurb, it’s a whole lot easier for me to lug the ereader around than it is for me to lug a jillion manuscript pages with me.

    I do have a few regular books on there, but you actually managed to perfectly nail my own thoughts about why paper books won’t be disappearing any time soon. I’ve conducted a number of extremely unscientific surveys among friends and family, and close to 99% of respondents stated that they liked reading from a “real” book. Only one (non-geek) friend of mine owns a Kindle, and that’s only because he does huge amounts of travel for his job. (And, in fact, it was his wife who bought him the kindle. He admits he was a hard convert to it, and never would have bought one on his own.)

    Anyway, yes, I do think that authors need to pay close attention to the parts of our contracts that deal with electronic rights, but I don’t see paper books disappearing in the next twenty years or so.

  5. 5 rachelaaron
    November 18, 2009 at 9:22 am

    Oooh, thanks for all the feedback! I’m always interested in how other people view the system and use their ereaders. Sometimes I forget that my life is pretty ereader unfriendly since I’m almost always near a computer and never stranded without reading material. It gives me a skewed view, so it’s really nice to be reminded there are other people getting their own benefits out there.

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    The largest super pack of master resale rights and private label rights products available online. Way bigger than anything you’ll ever find. Thousands of downloads for the price of one. Check out OnSpotlight.com

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  9. July 17, 2013 at 7:21 am

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