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...
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.