Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why I am not buying an ebook reader

Being the kind of person with a lot of bookshelves and still not enough room to keep all my books, I wondered about moving to ebooks. There is a lot to like in the concept; the idea of being able to take a significant chunk of my library with me when I am away from home is very attractive, as is being able to back up the whole lot somewhere off site. With a waterproof cover for my ebook reader I could take it into the bath or just read when outdoors on a rainy day without worrying about the wet. And of course you don't have to wait for days for a book to be delivered by Amazon.

So I started looking for answers to the following questions:

1: What books are available in ebook format? And for how much?

I picked a selection from the books I have around me now. Terry Pratchett's books are on the Kindle for around £4.50 each, although "I Shall Wear Midnight" is £9.24. Hang on a minute, the paperback of ISWM is only £3.49. So for almost three times the price I get to save the book industry the cost of printing and shipping me a physical product? I don't think so. Even the older Pratchett books still cost more for the Kindle than in paperback.

Looking elsewhere, the first four Google hits are for pirate torrents and Usenet indexers. Then there is "Fictionwise", which seems to be Barnes & Noble in the US selling stuff on it's Nook. Despite getting a hit in the Google search it seems that B&N don't actually sell any Pratchett. Finally the Diesel e-book store has them for around $8 each, with ISWM for $10. At the moment a dollar is about £0.61 although doing it through a credit card company is going to cost more.

OK, what about some other books? Robert Heinlein: there are four Kindle e-books out of the 32 novels and 59 short stories written by Heinlein. Diesel does better, with 8 Heinlein books. Baen also have some more Heinlein books.

"Contact" by Carl Sagan is not available for Kindle. Googling for "contact sagan ebook" turns up pages of pirate copies but nothing legitimate.

Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga I already have in ebook format because Baen included the entire opus on a CD with the latest volume. Not only does it not have DRM, but it is licensed for free redistribution. Kudos to Baen, and I hope the experiment works for them.

The Matthew Shardlake stories by C.J. Sansom are all available for Kindle, for about the same price as the paperbacks. They are also available in other ebook formats from Diesel for $13 each, which seems a bit steep even by ebook standards.

"Next Stop Execution" by Oleg Gordievsky is not available on the Kindle or on Diesel.

Some of Matt Ridley's books, including "The Red Queen", "Genome", and his latest "The Rational Optimist" are available on the Kindle, but "The Origin of Virtue" is not, which seems odd. Diesel only has "The Rational Optimist".

So my conclusion is that I can buy most of my existing library in ebook format, but not all. Even then its going to be an expensive business to do it legally; we probably have around 1,000 books in our house (never actually counted), and the cost of getting just half of them in ebook format is going to be in the thousands of pounds. Ouch!

2: What about Digital Restrictions Management

The attitude of most publishers here is best summed up by Barnes & Noble. Its "LendMe(TM) technology" lets you lend a book to someone else for a maximum of two weeks exactly once. Amazingly this is sold as a feature! What planet are these people living on? My wife and I both enjoyed C.J. Sansom's series of historical novels. If we used ebook readers then we would both have to buy our own copies. And our son is now starting to read my Terry Pratchett books, so make that three copies in some instances.

And then there is the limit on transfers to new devices. It seems from reports on the Web that ebooks can only be transferred to new devices a finite number of times. After that, your books are stuck on your old devices. So as I upgrade and replace my ebook readers over the years, as I am sure I will, eventually I will start having to keep my old readers around or else purchase their content yet again. Also these transfers have to be mediated by the website you bought the ebook from; if they go out of business then your content is stuck.

Of course I could resort to the pirate copies around the Net. It seems like pretty much anything that is available in a DRM version is available unlocked for free. As a test I downloaded a copy of "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" from one such site, and sure enough I got an unencrypted PDF (which I could read on my Linux box as an added bonus). I don't feel morally obligated to buy a whole new book just to shift formats: I've already paid the author for the words when I bought the dead-tree version. (Or have I? Some of my books were purchased second-hand. Interesting conundrum there.) But such "solutions" are inherently unreliable. I also worry that I will be sucked into a life of copyright infringement; a little demon on my shoulder is asking me, if I'm going to the trouble of locating and downloading a pirate copy to escape the DRM, why bother buying a legitimate copy that I'm never actually going to look at?

The list of things I can't do with a DRM'd ebook grows the more I think about it. As our son grows out of books we have donated the old ones to his school library. I've lent technical books to colleagues. I've bought out-of-print books second hand. I've borrowed books from libraries. My parents read some of our books when they visit. None of these things are possible with ebooks.

So despite all the advantages, I think I'll pass for now. Maybe in a few years the publishing industry will learn the same lessons that the music industry is learning about the futility of DRM and how to price electronic material, and more old books will be digitised. Then I'll get an ebook reader. But not now.


gwern said...

> I've already paid the author for the words when I bought the dead-tree version. (Or have I? Some of my books were purchased second-hand. Interesting conundrum there.)

IMO, the conundrum is easily answered. The ability to resell a book - the existence of a second-hand market - is part of the value of a physical book and part of the price. (You can see this empirically by looking at prices when books cannot be resold, such as sometimes with college textbook or with many ebooks. The prices are lower.)

Or to put it another way, if there were no people like you buying used books, part of the value of a book would disappear, and at the margin, people would buy fewer books - and by supply and demand, the price would drop.

So indirectly, your dollars are feeding the authors.

Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho said...

The Baen CDs are a fairly established practice by now, no longer an experiment. Of course, for Bujold it would still be an experiment.

Anonymous said...

Nice summary of the problems of current eBooks. In my opinion for new books to buy, eBooks are not really an option, especially because of the DRM hassle.

I can understand a lending mechanism that prevents me from reading the book when I gave it to someone else, but limiting the time and the number of times I can do that?

Nevertheless, the points against eBook (readers) is mainly about problems with DRM. I got mine after looking through Project Gutenberg and use it primarily for those books, secondarily to read pdf papers I wrote myself. For this use-case the eBook reader was totatlly worth it.


Paul Johnson said...


I'm familiar with the argument, but I'm not sure it works for real. when I buy a book I'm buying the information for use immediately, and the price of the book is the price I pay. I don't mentally deduct a hypothetical second hand value. In any case the typical payment at a second hand bookshop is tiny compared to the original cost (most of the price at a second hand bookshop is markup), and selling the odd book via Amazon is more trouble than its worth.

Anonymous said...

I use an e-book reader mostly because I can download e-books I need from and and Project Gutenberg. And I am happy, that I won't have to leave these books behind when moving to a new place.

Yes, most of the books on are in Russian; but they are not available on the shop shelves where I live nor they are not available from Amazon, most of them are out of print for a long time, and the authors are often dead. This is a good example of what a community can do. It is up to the community to create and maintain such libraries, they would not exist without active support of the users. It is the product of a lot of OCR, formatting and proof reading work by volunteers. Existence of such libraries is the most effective weapon against Kindle-like markets and copyright extortion schemes.

And I agree that modern e-book prices are ridiculous, and not buy into DRM fraud. Unfortunately, Amazon does not have an incentive to lower prices unless a cheaper alternative exists.

Occasionally I buy a DRM-free e-book on the net, if it's price is reasonable (< $5) and I want to support the author. Occasionally I donate to authors directly (mostly when the book is under CC license). IMO a fair price for a DRM-free e-book should be less than that of a hardcopy newspaper, i.e. $1 max. Up to $5 for a rare technical e-book is acceptable too. DRM-encumbered e-books should be either in unlimited access for a flat fee or orders of magnitude cheaper, $0.02 per file copy sounds fair for me.

For now I choose e-readers which support DRM-free formats, and believe that the readers should change the book delivery world, not the publishers. And the laws will have to be changed.

Anonymous said...

You summarized many of the reasons that I've avoided e-book readers, but there are a few others that loom large in my mind.

1. You can't read without electricity!
2. Moving the "books" on and off the device is inconvenient and dependent on the software/hardware
3. Software upgrades or obsolesence could force you to buy your library all over again
4. Can't write on the book. This can be simulated with e-books, but it's really not the same
5. Can't photocopy pages
6. If you drop the e-book reader on the floor, you're in big trouble.

I could go on. E-books have some attractive features, but for me the disadvantages greatly outweigh the advantages, even disregarding DRM.

And as for DRM, well, that's the whole point of e-books. The idea is fundamentally a rent-seeking scheme. The companies involved are hoping to move books, like other "content", to the subscription/license model, which allows them to rent-seek with impunity. In no sense do e-books and e-book readers represent innovation for the customer.

TRX said...
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TRX said...

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