Joe Konrath, successful thriller author and promoter of self-publishing, recently blogged about getting rid of some of his [paper] books. According to Konrath, he has replaced a number of them with e-books, and plans to replace many of the remaining books.
Judging by the 150-plus comments he’s gotten, he struck a nerve. A surprising number of people commented that they, too, had divested their bookshelves of some or all of their physical-book collection in favor of e-books. Reasons ranged from a long-distance move to lack of space; several people also mentioned the freedom of owning less physical stuff. Other readers protested vociferously; nothing would induce them to give up their print books.
As someone who first ventured into the world of digital books a little over a year ago, I have to admit that I find the idea of replacing at least some of my physical books with ebooks appealing. I shelve my bound books by genre, and many of my shelves are full to overflowing. It would be nice to be able to get rid of a bunch of, say, paperback mysteries and use the space for something else. At the very least, I’d like to duplicate a large part of my collection, so I could take it with me to the doctor’s office or the ends of the earth. Sadly, I’ve found that in practice, there are a few problems with either replacing or duplicating my current collection:
1. Availability: A number of my favorite books are not available as e-books. Some of my favorite books are out of print. Some of my favorite authors are now dead. Some of my favorite living authors’ backlists aren’t available as e-books. I don’t see any great rush by whomever currently owns the rights to convert those titles into e-books that I can buy. (To be fair, a growing number of authors have realized the potential of e-book sales, and are now buying back the digital rights to their backlist or waiting until the rights revert to them, then self-publishing their backlist titles.)
Not a few of my favorite authors are British; in some cases, their e-books are available in Britain but not the U.S. As a U.S resident, that doesn’t help me much, as apparently I can’t buy e-books from WHSmith, the main non-Amazon British retailer. (If anyone has any idea how to do this legally, I’d love to know.)
2. Continued availability: Once a title comes out as an e-book, you would think it would remain available forever, right? After all, the publisher has no reprint costs; it can simply continue to sell digital copies, at no additional cost to itself. Therefore, I should be able to get rid of a paperback copy, and simply buy the e-book the next time I want to reread the book.
Not so fast. At least one book on my “to purchase” list has disappeared from e-book stores in the last few months: Robin McKinley’s “The Blue Sword,” which was available in ePUB through at least Kobo and BooksOnBoard in the spring, but is now gone. I have no idea whether the publisher yanked it or the digital rights reverted to the author, but either way, the e-book is gone from the virtual bookstore shelves, and I now have no way to replace (or duplicate) that paper copy with a digital one.
3. Availability in a compatible format: Not every e-book is available in ePUB format, which is what my e-reader device reads (along with PDFs.) Apparently, some publishers (or authors?) only bring out ebooks in Kindle format. Some books show up in ePUB for the B&N Nook as well, which means they exist in ePUB format, but because of B&N’s proprietary DRM, I can’t read them, and they aren’t always carried by other digital bookstores.
One obvious solution would be to own several e-reader devices, but that rather defeats the purpose, to my mind. I want to carry as much of my library with me in one device as I can, and I want everything I own to be readable on that device. I don’t want the hassle and bother of dealing with multiple devices and formats. (Oh, bother, I wanted to read The Snrgrglegig, and it’s at home on the Kindle!)
4. Longevity: As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, there’s the problem of longevity. How long will I actually be able to read my e-books? If a title has DRM, the answer is “only as long as I have an authorized device for that title,” which means that if I upgrade my device several times, or devices break and I have to replace them, I could be in trouble within four or five years. (Supposedly, one can de-authorize a device through Adobe Digital Editions, but I’ve heard this can be difficult or impossible in practice. And ADE only authorizes a limited number of devices at a time.)
If the e-book file doesn’t have DRM (or if I were willing and knowledgeable enough to remove it), presumably the e-book is good for as long as I can get a device to read it on. Given the rapid turnover in technology, however, I doubt that will be very long — certainly not as long as the decades for which my bound books have endured.
I can hear someone objecting, “But if Amazon or B&N keeps your library, they’ll have to make future devices backward-compatible.” Maybe… but I woudn’t count on it. Read the fine print: Generally, you don’t own the e-book you buy from Amazon. You have a license to use the book. That license can be revoked. The agreement you have with Amazon also states “We may modify, suspend, or discontinue the Service, in whole or in part, at any time.” They can legally cancel the entire Kindle program, and you’ve lost the ability to read your books.
I download all my e-book files; I don’t trust a bookstore to keep them for me. I back them up to external hard drives. That way, I control the files; they’re not at the mercy of a large corporation. I also chose to go with an ePUB reader rather than a proprietary device and format; since there are multiple devices out there that read ePUB, I’m not locked in to a specific device. But if and when software and devices to read ePUB disappear, and conversion programs aren’t available or are too difficult/time-consuming/technical for me to use, I will lose the use of my e-book files. That’s a problem. I certainly don’t want to get rid of print copies of books I love only to find, in three to ten years, that I can’t read my digital copies any more.
5. Power: Not to be a pessimist, but after experiencing in the last month an earthquake, a hurricane, and days of serious rain that produced widespread-but-localized flooding, I’m paying a bit more attention to electrical power. I realize that I can only read my e-books as long as A) the battery in my e-reader holds out, and B) I can load books from my computer onto the reader. My bound books, on the other hand, are good as long as they aren’t physically damaged, and I can read by candlelight or sunlight if the power goes out.
6. And the final, deciding factor: Price. Most e-books cost way too much. I’ve discussed that on this blog before, too. It’s hard to justify paying $7.99 for an e-book when I can get the same book in paperback at Walmart for $5.99 or less. It’s even harder to justify it when I can wait a few weeks or months and buy the paperback for half-price at one of the local used bookstores… or buy it from an Amazon seller for a penny plus $3.99 shipping. Or wait until the twice-yearly library booksale and (possibly) find it for 50 cents. Or even put it on hold at the library — for nothing. That price differential looks even worse when the e-book price is $9.99, or $14.99. Agency pricing is keeping me from buying as many e-books as I otherwise would.
What publishers apparently don’t realize is that if they priced e-books lower, consumers would probably spend more overall on e-books than they do now. If I’m buying an e-book for $7.99, I’m probably only going to buy one at a time. I find it easier to spend $20 on four or five books, for instance, than to spend $16 on two. I feel like I’m getting good value for my money, so I’m willing to spend a little more.
Apparently, however, there are some consumers willing to pay full print price for an e-book, even if they could buy the print copy on sale at a real or online bookstore. There must be, or e-book sales for major publishers, most of whom signed on to the agency model, wouldn’t be reporting rising e-book sales. Still, I see plenty of comments on various e-book-related blogs from readers who, like me, are reluctant to buy e-books at the current agency-dictated prices, so there’s clearly an untapped market, one which publishers would do well not to ignore. (One wonders how long they can hang on to the agency model. It’s already facing legal challenges, but market forces may bring about its demise before any legal cases are resolved.)
Will I replace my print library with digital copies of the same books? Probably not. I value my hard-covers; I love my old out-of-print books; and I don’t want to lose the ability to reread old favorites. I might prune down a bit here and there, but I doubt I’ll get rid of any books I truly love.
Will I continue to add e-books to my digital library? Definitely, particularly free or low-cost books that let me try a new author, as well as old favorites that I really want to have in my portable library.
Will I stop buying print books? Probably not, although I’m buying a lot more of them second-hand these days (which of course does publishers and authors no good at all, though it’s a boon to my budget.) I may buy some titles in both digital format and used bound-paper format, if I feel strongly about having a particular book in both forms.
Will I buy some e-books at full price that I don’t buy at all in paper format? I already have; I have a series of light women’s fiction novels that I didn’t really feel the need to take up shelf space for, but wanted to reread as successive novels in the series came out. (As it happens, they’re from a non-agency publisher, so I can use e-retailer coupons to purchase them. That brings them down to under $5 each, and sometimes under $4.) But I don’t think I’ll be buying a lot of new books in e-book format only. At this point, I’m still in the “duplicate my library” mode, not the “replace my bound books” mode.
On the other hand, check back with me in eighteen months or so. A year and a half ago, I was still trying to decide whether to buy an e-book reader, and if so, which one. A lot can change in eighteen months: technology, prices, title availability, and maybe even my position.