An ebook dilemma

As much as I love the idea of a digital book and the implementation of the Kindle, I can’t quite convince myself to go all ebook for future purchases. There is the DRM question, but that’s not the main issue. I suppose in the future Amazon could go the way of the dinosaur leaving all my precious Kindle books to bitrot. But I’m pretty confident that someone will find a way to break the DRM before that happens.

No, my current dilemma is far less technical. There are two books I really want to buy right now: Seth Godin’s Poke the Box and the just-released Anything You
by Derek Sivers. Both of them are available on Amazon in Kindle and hardcover, dead-tree form. The problem is that for both of them the ebook version is just about a dollar less than the hardcover version. For the Poke the Box, it’s just 30c.

From an author’s or publisher’s perspective I can understand why you’d want that kind of pricing. Perhaps you don’t want readers to feel like either version is a
second-class citizen. Perhaps you don’t want readers without a Kindle to be put off buying. Perhaps you want to tell your readers that either choice is fine and you, as publisher, are ambivalent on the subject of print versus digital. I think all of them are perfectly valid decisions. But as someone who isn’t pre-decided one way or the other, it makes the decision harder, not easier.

Here’s a (probably incomplete list) of all the things that I’ve been thinking about over the past few days regarding my choices, not in strict order: Oooh.. look Kindle versions! Now I can take them with wherever I go. But wait, the hardcover is less than a dollar more. If I get the hardcover I’ll have something nice and physical and DRM-free to keep on my bookshelf. And I don’t randomly start reading on my Kindle so I could probably just plan ahead and carry the book when I think I’ll read it. But the hardcover is probably going to be heavy and I have to move on a fairly regular basis. I don’t want to move too much heavy stuff, but then again I move once a year at most. The rest of the time it’ll sit on my bookshelf and I do like the look of a well-filled bookshelf. And if it’s in plain view instead of tucked inside the Kindle I’ll
probably reread it again at some point. But paper books are so last century and the Kindle is just gorgeous.

So on and so forth. You get the point.

In general I agree with Craig Mod: the future of books is digital and paper books will move closer and closer towards Collectors Item status. Instead of being cheap, mass produced blocks of paper, they’ll become careful, hand-crafted works of art. And I for one am quite happy with that. The problem is that there is this awkward growing-up phase as digital book technology matures. That phase is now. One of the results of that awkwardness is the indecision I’m currently facing. If these were mass market paperbacks that I’m going to read on a plane flight and never again I would get the Kindle versions in a heartback. But they’re not. They’re both books I think I’ll like, would want to keep and can see myself rereading. If the reading experience on the Kindle wasn’t as top-notch as it is, I would get the hardcovers. But the argument in favor of ebooks and ereaders has gotten good enough that the choice between the two is not an easy one by any measure.

For me the idea of books is intimately connected with the idea of libraries. I don’t just want to read the books and absorb them, I want to have a growing library of my reading as well. And though I could make some kind of digital “have read” list, there is something about a physical library that tugs at my heartstrings. It’s the idea of having a set of books that in some way is a reflection of myself. They contain words and ideas that are now a part of me. Not all books I read would go into this library (most textbooks would not make the cut), but hopefully anything that I willimingly buy would. In an ideal world I’d be able to “rent” the ebook version for an absurdly low price (say 50c a day). Then I could read it and if I decided it was a “keeper” I would buy the dead-tree version for my library.

At this point I officially hand this question to the wisdom of the Internets. For a $1 difference, which version would you buy and why?

(And no, I am not going to scrounge around for a “free” PDF copy. That defeats the point of everything I just said. I want to give the authors my money, but I want to make a good investment myself as well. The two purposes can be aligned, I’m just not sure how.)


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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

3 thoughts on “An ebook dilemma”

  1. Very astute observations on a relevant and topical question. To E or not to E? There’s no absolute answer, either. Being from an older generation my first preference (read love) is to proper books, books made from solid physical things like trees. On the other hand, the worlds resources are finite so looking to alternatives is an inevitable consequence. On the other, other hand, the cost to those resources of producing the hardware (and by association software) required to allow non-physical media shouldn’t be overlooked. If you’re reading this on a mobile device, or your laptop or home/work computer, you’re probably contributing at least as much to the depletion of the Earth’s raw materials as you would be were you sitting at home with a hard/paperback in your lap. I suspect, if one were to full analyse the issue (which I don’t intend to – that’s for people with real brains!) the electronic form is probably worse than the printed form when it comes to using up what little the planet has to offer. For me the long term environmental argument weighs in favour of print, but that is, I stress, a personal view..

    On the other hand, of course, one of the biggest drawbacks of print is the physical limitation. You can only carry so many books about your person, and even if you had a dedicated library (and were prepared never to leave it) there would be still a real limit to the number of literary works it could contain. Expanding the library would necessarily involve new building work and that, of itself, uses up resource in one form or another. Of course, electronic storage also has its limits but those are overcome relatively easily (and increasingly cheaply) by the acquisition of additional storage space, and faster processors to improve the speed at which you can retrieve whatever it is you decide you want to read next. Even in the best of physical libraries it can sometimes be time-consuming to locate the tome you’ve set your heart on reading.

    There are many arguments on both sides of the divide but in the end I think it’s a matter of personal preference which you prefer.

    On the question of pricing the alternative reasons that you set out in your original article pretty much cover it for me. Doubtless there’s greed involved somewhere along the way, and certainly the author, publisher, agent, printer (etc., etc.) are justified in taking their whack, but I do feel that not having a significant difference between hard copy and electronic forms is less than justified. In the end, though, the prices charged are going to be driven by market forces, aren’t they? If more and more people are drifting towards e-books then that will, initially at any rate, force the price difference to become larger. I say initially, however, because if it should ever come to pass that print really does die, and e-books take over the world, I can imagine that the ‘big’ publishing houses will maintain their dominance (unfortunately) and prices will eventually rise to fit their ideas of what constitutes a ‘reasonable’ charge, on the basis that if there’s no (or very little) choice of what media to buy, then you’re going to have to pay the ferryman whatever he wants.

    But as I said, I like ‘proper’ books. Maybe I’m just getting to old…

  2. I want to buy the physical book and get the digital book (along with “apps,” a link to get updates on the author’s work and other stuff) “free” with it. This is how online newspapers, many online games, etc. work. It already works that way for some books. If I buy a college textbook, I get access to a whole lot of extras on the publisher’s website.

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