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Goats, gripes, and grasping for greatness
Why I don't like e-books, part II (where part I is specific to Kindle) 
14th-Sep-2011 02:08 pm
Read Irresponsibly
A while ago, I wrote about why I won't buy a Kindle, even though I think they are nifty devices. Now comes the harder part: why I don't like e-books. (This post is inspired directly by Seanan McGuire's post today.)

Before I start my rant, let me acknowledge that there is a lot of good in the electronic book format. E-books are convenient little digital file packages. E-readers allow me to carry a complete library in the size and shape of one single book. E-readers allow me to change the font to suit my reading setting, allow me to search for favorite quotes, and have some fun bells and whistles regarding interior decorating aesthetics of electronics.

Also, I admit that there are some points where e-books really are the way of the future. In the world of publication economics, e-books are far less environmentally unsound, cost far less to produce and distribute, and can bring in a profit to the author at a far smaller economy of scale. Electronic books can reach audiences who might not otherwise be reachable due to distribution network issues, agent purchasing decisions, and/or 508/accessibility issues. Fine.

But e-books have no legal mobility. There is no trickle-down of e-books through the economic layers of society. There is no secondary market for e-books. There is no donation bin for e-books to go to the local library, women's shelter, or prison. You cannot lend your e-book to a friend over dinner, and ask that friend to pass it on to another friend when she is done reading it.

To quote Seanan McGuire - I love used bookstores. I exist because of used bookstores. In the last month, I have been to three Half-Price Books, two independent used bookstores, and a library book sale. When I was a kid, eighty percent of my books came from these places. Without the secondary market, I wouldn't have been able to read the way I did, and I would have grown up to be someone very different. I am worried about the smart, poor kids of today, I would end that sentence with "who don't have access to an e-reader, the internet, and a lot of money to pay for book downloads."

As a child, I had access to a lovely library system that was within biking distance from home. I brought home stacks and stacks of books, then convinced my Mom to buy the ones that I renewed and re-checked-out as keepers. During college, used bookstores were how I satisfied that desperate craving for escapism without running out of spending money. But e-books don't come in big dusty boxes at a buck a book, buy three get one free.

Just for grins, I hit Amazon and asked it how much some of my older paperbacks (which I have purchased used) would cost new, as an e-book, or as a used book.

Piers Anthony, A Spell for Chameleon. New MM: $7.99. Kindle E-Book: $7.99. Used: $0.01.
Louis L'Amour, Flint. New MM: $5.99. Kindle E-Book: $5.99. Used: $0.01.
Charlaine Harris, Shakespeare's Landlord. New MM: $7.99. Kindle E-book: $7.99. Used: $2.29.

So, there I see it: For $2.31 plus shipping, I could have three paperbacks which I could loan to anyone for their enjoyment. When I was done reading them, I could then sell them back to the used bookstore for a percentage credit, or donate for a tax write-off, or simply give away to someone else to enjoy.

There is no legal mobility of e-books (beyond Kindle's "lend to a friend" application). I could not purchase those e-books at a discount, loan them to friends, sell them to anyone. I might be able to give them away if I were to copy the files to another medium and erase my local copies. At least that is legal, if a pain in the neck to accomplish.

Right now, to me, e-book files are dead ends. They are bought, read, and left to metaphorically rot in the bowels of my computer. They cannot support the clerks hired to work registers at the used bookstore. They cannot entertain children during Library Read-Along day. They have only one step in the chain, then either they have spawned their economic children in that one environment ("I have to buy the next one!"), or they are dead right then and there.

E-books are a mental dead end, along with a fiscal one. They sit on my computer, stuck there, to be read or forgotten as my whim allows. No friend will ever browse by them and ask to borrow them, as my shelves and shelves of hardcopy books circulate out into the world. No friend will say "Hey, is this any good?" and end up totally hooked on a new series/author and go out and buy his own set, thereby starting the cycle again. Eventually, when my computer crashes (again), I will forget which books they were, and never replace them, and those files will disappear along with the memory of the books.

I don't know the answer to this problem, beyond making sure that I do buy hardcopy books whenever they are available as an option, and loan them out to friends, and send some of them back into circulation at the used bookstore. Also, I do make my [ir]regular donations to the Salvation Army and the local library. I have the money to start the trickle down at the top, and I like knowing that those books are out in the world for other people to love, enjoy, read, and reuse as those people please.


Please support your local bookstores and your favorite authors.
Please don't use this rant as a reason to not buy books in your preferred format. Buy books! Support reading in all forms. Just understand why bookstores are getting scarce...

Thank you.

Also, and this is an aside from my economic problems with e-books, I don't think the accessibility of the market is there yet. Everyone understands how to browse a bookstore and buy hardcopy books. Books were and still are gifts from everyone including my Luddite grandparents, my niece and nephews, and many other friends. Books are impulse buys that we pile into our baskets because they look nice, interesting, feel good in our hands, or the sample page we flipped open caught our attention. Books are still a physical object for me, and the sensory pleasure of books is a part of my pleasure in reading.
14th-Sep-2011 06:35 pm (UTC)
I wish I could argue with you, however all I can do is disagree. You acknowledged the points that make ebook good and I will acknowledge the points you raise that make them bad. All we could argue about is the relative weights of those points and I think that is mostly a matter of opinion. Thank you for the well written blog post.
14th-Sep-2011 06:40 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the compliments and the thanks. Yes, this really is a "relative merits" discussion. The points I put in my first two paragraphs are really important to me too, especially the accessibility and exposure ones. I could just as easily reverse this entire post and write about "Why I like e-books, part 1" instead.

Also, since you aren't a regular reader, here's some more context: I admit to owning an e-reader of a sort (an iPad) and downloading half of Baen free library to stock it. Of course, I own all of the books that are on my iPad and that are available in hardcopy as hardcopies too. My e-reader is for specific convenience (doctor's office where suddenly my half-hour wait is a four hour one), but not as a replacement of the hardcopy format.
14th-Sep-2011 06:57 pm (UTC)
Alternate context, I have been buying ebook from Baen since about 2004 and am unabashedly and ebook fan. My purchases have only gone up now that I have a phone I can read on. On the other hand my purchases of DRM infected books has been extremely limited. I have seen to many DRM schemes fail when the company decided to quit supporting them. Without DRM at least I can convert the book to a plain text file and kee reading, but this also makes it easier to pirate the books.

The next few years are going to be rough on publishers and authors. I wish there was an easy answer. Something that keeps the convenience I love and addresses the ownership and secondary market issues you have.
14th-Sep-2011 06:39 pm (UTC)
additional thoughts on the matter, since I've thought about it as well.

Authors get zero additional revenue from used book stores. I thought John Scalzi had written about it, but I can't seem to find the entry.

It can be much easier to self publish (even through Amazon) via ebooks than through physical books. There seems to be a growing number of authors who have "made it" using the new format.

Some authors believe that "free eBooks" lead to greater physical sales. Baen books has a huge selection of quality books that are available for free (and have been for years).

As for negatives, I have a few of those as well.

The first is that I hate being tied into a proprietary format. If Amazon decides to stop support the kindle, and it's format, I'm screwed. Especially if they replace it with a newer "better" format (like going from vcr tapes to dvds). The fact that this is inevitable doesn't help.

There is now an available record of the books I like to read. I'm not incredibly orwellian, but it does make me uncomfortable that someone has at least a passing representation of my reading choices.

In at least one case, they discovered that they weren't allowed to sell a specific book, and overnight it had vanished from people's kindles. I assume that they got a rebate, but not sure.

Anyway, those are my quick thoughts. In the end, I do have, and use, a Kindle. I got it as a present. My wife, my daughter, and I all fight for time with it.
14th-Sep-2011 06:46 pm (UTC)
Yes, I agree with all of your points above. I could go point by point, but really, since we agree, it's probably not worth it to your screen space.

I think the Baen Free Library is a fabulous idea, and I really hope that the participating authors are getting the increased exposure and sales out of it. Additionally, I would argue that used bookstores do a similar thing, in exposing more readers to an author's work at a lower economic barrier to entry.

If you're interested, hit the link at the top of my post for my commentary about the Kindle yanking of 1984.
14th-Sep-2011 07:12 pm (UTC)
Yah, not trying to argue at all, just throwing out some points, most of which you seem to already know and cover.

re: baen books; David Drake was a huge instigator of the free library. He reported that sales of his books would noticeably spike when he placed books on the list. Of course, he tends to create multiple book series, and throws the first couple up for free. Probably the best case scenario to make people actually go out and buy more books. I know I did.

re: 1984. I think it's really funny that my subconscious used the word "Orwellian" in the point right above the one referring to "unselling" 1984.
14th-Sep-2011 07:16 pm (UTC)
He reported that sales of his books would noticeably spike when he placed books on the list.

Oh, that's excellent! I'm glad that is the case, as "the first taste is free" is definitely how that library was sold when I first heard about it.
27th-Apr-2012 02:27 pm (UTC)
Hey, I just came across this: http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2012/04/12/how-the-agency-model-led-to-an-antitrust-suit/

It's about a conspiracy between five of the big six (or is it only the big five? not sure) publishing houses and Apple to bust amazon's ebook pricing system and early "no publisher needed" business strategy. They were also pretty stupid about it, and the DoJ was able to nail their hides to the wall.

This is neither a pos nor a neg to your actual post, just some interesting info that I hadn't actually heard anywhere else.

27th-Apr-2012 11:48 pm (UTC)
Really? I heard about it when the news broke. Monopolies are a bad idea, and collusion in a small marketplace when it's really obvious is a REALLY bad idea.
4th-Feb-2014 09:44 pm (UTC)
Waking up a long-past conversation... Here is a blog post about the positives of ebooks, and how people tend to the most convenient and cheapest option. http://www.sheldoncomics.com/archive/120724.html
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