On e-books

Posted by Jack on 2013-04-17 at 16:45
Tagged: books

I'll admit, at least when it comes to books, I'm an extreme Luddite. There's just something that I find comforting about the feel of a book in my hands, the sweet smell emanating from the aging pages of a paperback, or the excitement of getting a crisp new book.

For the past five or six years, I've kept an eye on the ebook industry but I failed to find a compelling reason to switch. Even now, the domain of the ebook reader is a weird back alley of tech. The technology looks and feels antiquated. E-ink readers are nice, power efficient, easily read in broad daylight, but for $140 (current Kindle Paperwhite) you get a device whose major selling point is the fact that it has a backlight. Others, like the Nook Glowlight advertise things like "fast page turn" for $120. All of them uniformly espouse power savings with a 6" screen that reminded me of an old Palm Pilot and a refresh rate reminiscent of scraping a clay tablet.

Also, ebooks are bullshit from a consumer freedom point of view. Look, I know that publishers are out to make money and I don't expect them to receive, filter, edit, and publish books for nothing but at the same time I see my public library with a wait list and a two week time limit on what amounts to a floppy disk (yeah, those 3.5 inch suckers in the days of yore) worth of data. Maybe a couple of floppies if there are lots of pretty pictures or the author has a problem with going on long irrelevant tangents (Stephenson, damn you). It doesn't make sense to me, the consumer, that there would be people waiting in line for copies of something that can be copied instantly, perfectly and at no cost.

There has to be a better way that combines the strength of the library (free public service with loads of media) with the strengths of the ebook (ease of duplication and transmission) that still gets the publishers a fair share. Publishers have only traditionally allowed libraries to operate because they posed no threat to sales. If a library buys three copies of a hit new book, then only three of its members can read that book at a time and everyone else either has to be patient or buy a copy and we all know how great the human race is at being patient. Now that actual physical scarcity no longer exists in the world of media, I'm not sure if there is a solution that doesn't screw at least one of the interested parties (publisher, library, member). Either the publisher takes a loss because the library eliminates scarcity, the library takes the hit because publishers switch to some model where they feel like they get compensated for lost sales, or - as it is now - the member gets screwed because an archaic system is being used to create artificial scarcity.

The library conundrum aside, the fact is that once you "own" an ebook you have fewer rights than owning a physical book. You can't lend books, for example, or if you can you can only lend them for short periods of time to other registered users. You can't resell ebooks, or exchange them. You can't do anything with them but read them (which is admittedly the primary purpose of a book, but nonetheless).

That said, I recently became a somewhat reluctant convert to the ebook.

There are a few salient points that have come into focus over the past year or so.

First, tablets make great ereaders. They don't go for 28 hours of reading on a single charge, but they also have sharp color screens and are capable of doing a thousand other things. For $60 more than the aforementioned ad-free Kindle Paperwhite you can get a Nexus 7 that will blow it away on all fronts other than power usage and the mythical "I'm using my electronic device on the beach because I'm not afraid of sand or water" usecase. Oh yeah, and the screen is lit and the pages turn fast too. This observation hasn't been lost on Amazon or Barnes and Noble either since they followed the release of the iPad with the Kindle Fire and Nook HD which are both full fledged tablets rather than ereaders.

Second, I started reading Terry Pratchett's Discworld series and immediately fell in love. The series is 40 books long. At a brick and mortar book store, new paperbacks of Discworld are $10 apiece. That's roughly on par with Amazon (+ shipping). Doing the easy math, that's $400 to assemble a collection of all the Discworld books, assuming that they're all roughly the same price. Austin is a great town for used books too, but none of the various used book stores have a great number of Discworld books and none of them had any of the first four. In the end, to do used I'd have to go online where used copies range from $3 to $5 a pop so I'd have to spend let's say $160 (+ shipping) and wait weeks to get the books from a variety of sellers that probably have no issues calling a coffee stained paperback "like new". Alternatively, I could spend $5 a pop, get untarnished ebooks instantly and spend about half as much. For the $400 I'd spend on a complete collection I could get every ebook and buy a tablet to read them on. Economically both in time and money there's no contest.

What about the library I was ranting about earlier? Well, the Austin Public Library only had the second Discworld novel (the one I was looking for at the time I made this decision) in ebook form. Some of the other Discworld novels are around, mostly the later ones, but not consistently and it seems like they're almost all out of copies. For someone that can finish the comparatively short Discworld novels in two or three delicious sittings, the weeks of waiting in between books just isn't going to work. There's that artificial scarcity I mentioned working for the publisher.

Lastly, despite the fact that I value my rights as a consumer, it's impossible to argue that the ebooks don't have a lot of advantages. I bought Mort, the fourth Discworld novel, after I finished the third, Equal Rites. It was simple, instantaneous, and the ebook looks great. I can read the ebook anywhere (laptop, phone, tablet, random computers), there's an in-reader dictionary lookup, I can change the font sizes and spacing. In short, there's a lot more freedom in the acquisition of the books and the act of reading them which, considering I think I've lent out two or three books to friends in my entire life and virtually never resell recreational books, vastly outweighs the loss of rights to lend or resell them.

Now... if only I could get my tablet to smell like old paper...