Why I’ll Probably Never Buy an E-reader

Amazon Kindle
Yesterday I saw a web announcement that Sony was dropping the price of their e-reader and that Barnes & Noble is rumored to join Amazon and Sony with their own e-reader in the near future. This got me thinking about e-readers and whether I’d like one. Then last night I came across a great article, “A New Page,” in The New Yorker by Nicholson Baker about the Amazon Kindle and I decided it was time to write out my thoughts about e-readers. After reading Baker’s article I think I’ve finally decided why it’s not likely that I’ll ever buy an e-reader or even e-books. (Baker mostly decries the experience of using the Kindle, but my reasons are almost entirely different.) Here’s why you probably won’t see an e-reader in my hand anytime soon.

  1. You can’t loan an e-book to a friend without loaning the device.

    When you buy an e-book, whether it’s through Amazon or Barnes & Noble, you buy that book. You are allowed to read that book on whatever device that vendor allows you to read it on. For example, you can read Amazon Kindle books on the Kindle app for the iPhone or iPod Touch. But I can’t loan the book to a friend to read on his iPhone or iPod Touch. One of the pleasures of having a nice collection of books is allowing other people to make use of it (assuming of course you’ve got a way to make sure you don’t loose track of who has what – Delicious Library is great for that).

  2. It’ll be nearly impossible for me to give my e-books to my children (who then will be robbed of the opportunity to sell the collection for a small fraction of its worth).

    Not only can I not simply give my e-books to my heirs, there’s a good chance that I won’t even have an Amazon Kindle or Sony E-Reader or Barnes & Noble Whatever when death comes knocking. The only way I could give them away is to give them access to account, but they’ll still be stuck with whatever company I originally bought the books from. Each purchased e-book is saddled with a proprietary DRM system that forces me (and my children) to continue to use that one company’s device forever. The simple fact is that buying an e-book is a very long-term commitment to particular company and their ability to continue to develop the product. I’m not willing to make such a commitment.

  3. Reading books on the screen just isn’t the same as reading an actual book.

    Here I must say I have very limited experience with dedicated e-readers, but Baker’s article seems to lend support to this complaint. My experience with e-books has been on the computer screen and on my iPod Touch. I can never read more than a few pages on the computer before seeking out the nearest library that has the actual book. The iPod Touch is much better and I think it’s because I can get comfortable and still see the screen. When the weather is nice I don’t want to be stuck at my desk hunched over a laptop screen. The iPod Touch fixes that problem but it is still not as pleasant an experience as the feel of nicely bound book. My biggest complaint (and it’s the same on all devices, from what I can tell) is the lack of page numbers. Since the screens are not the same size as the pages of a book, the page numbers often don’t match (the Kindle using something called a “page range”, I think).

  4. The selection of academic e-books is still quite small.

    Most of my books are not New York Times best sellers. They are academic books that sell very few copies. The books I’m interested are probably not very high on the list of books to be considered for e-publication. I have noticed that more publishers are sending out examination copies as a PDF so maybe I’m mistaken on this point. But my own experience makes me think that not many academic titles are available in an e-format. Even if they are available, it’s highly likely that I’ll need to cite specific page numbers for my own publications. The above worry about page numbers comes back into play here.

So what would it take for me to buy an e-book? Not surprisingly, fixing the above problems. To be a bit more specific, here are three things that would make me jump on the e-book bandwagon.

  1. Ditch DRM

    Apple took a lot of flack for only allowing music bought from their store to play on their devices. (Sound familiar?) Apple has since stopped selling their music with these restrictions and allows you to upgrade your previously purchased music to allow it to play on any device. If the e-book companies did the same, a huge obstacle would be removed. I’m much more comfortable investing a lot of money into e-books if I know I can switch to whatever device offers the best experience without having to re-purchase all those books. Of course each company wants to get people locked into their device, but that’s also what prevents people from switching to their device.

  2. Fix the page numbers

    This is a no-brainer. This could probably be fixed with a software update to whatever program(s) they are using to originally format the books. They could even keep the device-specifc page numbers where they are now, just allow me the option to turn on a page number (in parenthesis perhaps) that refers to the physical book. Since the pages don’t often correspond, they could even just place them in the margins. Again, make this an option so people that don’t need/want the numbers don’t have to look at them. I could turn it on when reading a book for my own research and turn it off when reading a book for my own enjoyment.

  3. Bundle the print and e-book copies together

    Even if the above fixes were beautifully implemented, there’s a good chance that I’ll never want to have just an e-book copy. I enjoy holding actual books in my hands. I like casually flipping through the table of contents and then jumping right to the index. Scanning through the chapter to see future section headings while holding my place in the current section is really valuable to me. It’s not likely that any of these things will be able to be accomplished well with an e-book.

    But, if you sell me the print copy and then give me a substantial discount on the e-book then you’ll have me hooked. I’m sure there are profitability worries about this idea, but it’s what would actually provide added value to the purchase for me. I could read like I normally do and not have to lug all my books I’m currently reading to conferences or libraries. When a company tries to sell me just the e-book it’s actually more of a hassle for me. I know I can save a couple of bucks, but it’s not money well-saved. The lost time in productivity will cost more than the money saved. But would I be willing to spend 35% – 40% more (maybe even 50%) on a hard copy book if that meant I could get the e-reader version too? In a heartbeat. In fact, I’d probably do that even if it meant I was locked into one device. No matter what happened to that e-reader company, I’d still have something – the actual physical book.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m most hopeful about fix number three since Amazon used to do something similar (they may still, but I haven’t seen anything on their website about it in some time). There was a time when you could add to your cart an e-version of the hardback book. If I remember correctly, buying the two together was less expensive than buying them separately. The problem with that e-book offering is that it was before they had the Kindle. Yes you had an e-book, but you had to read it on your computer. As I said above, that’s not a very good option for me. If they brought back that same capability but sent it to the Kindle instead, I’d happily jump aboard. And, of course, the same would go for Sony or Barnes & Noble. Like most things, whichever company provides a product that I value is the company that gets my business.

So what are your thoughts? Have you bought an e-book? Would you? Has any of the companies above already implemented some of the things I suggest? Let me know in the comments.