Apr 052011

As an e-book and e-reader evangelist, and someone who really enjoys reading on my Kindle 3 and can’t imagine going back to printed books, I hear lots of arguments as to why people don’t want to give e-books a try. While some of these are valid concerns, some are (IMHO) unfounded. I’ll try to separate which is which.

“But I’ll miss the smell and feel of paper books.”

This is probably the #1 reason I hear from book-lovers who don’t want to try an e-reader. They talk about the “feel” of printed books or the “smell” of them. They often conflate fond memories of reading books in their childhood with fondling the physical pages. But what do we really enjoy about reading? Smelling paper and glue? Feeling pages? Would we have as much fun buying a ream of printer paper and just holding it in our hands? No, it’s the words that we enjoy; it’s the stories that make the book. That’s what makes the reading experience special and memorable. And all the words are still there on an e-reader — better than ever, because you can adjust the font size, look up meanings in a built-in dictionary, and take literally millions of those words with you wherever you go.

I’ve always loved books. I’ve read hundreds. I loved them so much, I wrote three of them. But I can state with 100% certainty that I do not miss the paper that books were printed on even one iota. I get just as engrossed in the words, and enjoy the story just as much on my e-reader. In fact, I find myself reading more on my Kindle, and I enjoy the reading experience more. I have it with me more often, and it’s just more comfortable to read one-handed. Believe it or not, when I switch back to paper, I find turning pages (instead of just pressing a button) slows me down!

While I hear “But I’ll miss the smell & feel of paper” quite often, I have literally never heard it from even one person who actually tried an e-reader.

“But I want to keep books on my shelf.”

I can understand this sentiment somewhat. After all, some of us enjoy keeping a particularly treasured book, or even displaying it for others to see. (On the other hand, some people like e-readers because they make it tougher to see what you’re reading — so you can catch up on that trashy romance novel during lunch without your co-workers snickering.) However, I’ve found that there are only a small handful of really great books I want to keep on my shelf (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Lamb come to mind) — and I still do. But for the vast majority of my reading — which I would have bought in paperback and not hardcover anyway — getting stuck with books once I’m through reading them is more annoyance than asset. Some avid readers run out of shelf space and rent storage space for their books! An e-reader solves that problem nicely.

“But I can’t re-sell or lend e-books.”

On a similar note, some people complain that they aren’t able to re-sell e-books like they can with printed books, which is true. However, I’ve found that it’s very rare that I’ve been able to sell used books, especially paperbacks. If you’re lucky, you might get 10 cents for them at a garage sale or a quarter from a used book store. Big deal — it’s not worth the hassle. Most e-books I buy are less expensive than print books anyway, and I’d much rather save a couple bucks up front than hope I can try to sell a used paperback for more than a pittance.

As for lending, both Amazon (Kindle) and Barnes & Noble (Nook) now allow one-time lending of some e-books (where the publisher allows it). While you can theoretically lend a print book as often as you want, e-book lending has some nice advantages as well: you don’t have to physically meet up or mail the e-book, and you get it back automatically, without having to bug your friend, and without any of the pages dog-earned or damaged. Also, Amazon allows you to share most e-books with up to 6 different people on your account — so you, your wife, your 2 kids, and your parents can all read the same e-book at the same time for one purchase price — try that with a printed book. With all these advantages, you can understand why there are some limitations on the feature — with unlimited e-book lending by email, who would buy books anymore? (Well, beyond the first copy that would then get lent millions of times!)

“But I don’t read.”

OK, this one is 100% legitimate. If you don’t like reading, you won’t magically like reading on an e-reader. (I stand behind the corollary, though: if you like reading, you will almost certainly like reading on an e-reader.)

“But an iPad (or some other multi-function LCD device) is better.”

Define “better.” Yes, an iPad, Nook Color, or other tablet computer can do many more things than an e-reader. It can play “Angry Birds” and other games, surf the Internet, watch movies, do email, etc. (While the Kindle can play some games and access the Internet, it doesn’t do those things nearly as well.)

But, which one is better for reading? The Kindle 3, hands-down. The e-Ink screen, which isn’t very good for games or Internet surfing or movies, is much easier on the eyes than an LCD screen, especially when reading for long periods or reading in sunlight. Compared to the iPad, the Kindle is also roughly 1/3rd the weight, 1/3rd the price, and the battery lasts a month instead of 10 hours.

As mentioned above, if you don’t like to read (or you only read very rarely), a multi-function tablet computer might be a better choice. But any serious reader will easily get $139 worth of value out of a Kindle 3.

“But I can’t actually own e-books, they won’t be around in 5 years, and DRM sucks.”

I’ve posted about DRM before, and it is a strike against some e-books — those e-books released by publishers who use DRM (many smaller publishers, independent authors, and public domain books don’t use DRM). And it is true that most e-book sales are actually licenses — and you should understand what that means. The two issues are related, and are admittedly more complicated than the rules surrounding printed books, which most people understand pretty well already (you can lend or re-sell, but not copy and distribute). Personally, since I stick with DRM-free e-books, and I back everything up on my computer, my e-books are much more likely to be around in 5, 15, or 50 years than a paperback I buy today and will probably donate next time I move.

“But the books I want aren’t available as e-books.”

There are some gaps in e-book availability. Some blockbusters, notably the Harry Potter series, aren’t available in electronic form due to the wishes of the author (although Rowling has recently said she might be open to e-book versions). (UPDATE: The Harry Potter e-books are available now.) Some series will maddeningly have some books available and other books in the same series not available yet (often because different publishers own the rights to different books in the series). And some e-books have geographic restrictions, where (again, for legal reasons) they’re available in certain countries and not others.

No, it’s not ideal. But there are already over 900,000 e-books available in the Amazon Kindle store, plus literally millions of public-domain e-books available from multiple sources. Over 1,000 more are added every day. E-books are still a relatively new technology, and the industry is still catching up. But I am confident that these growing pains are temporary, and become less of an issue every day. (Keep in mind, owning an e-reader doesn’t prevent you from buying that one book in print — you just won’t like it as much as your e-books. 😉 )

“But e-books are formatted poorly.”

This is sometimes true, but pretty rarely in my experience. Some publishers cut corners and scan printed books, then use OCR (optical character recognition) to convert them into e-books. You end up with missing periods, “tum” instead of “turn,” the numeral “1” instead of the letter “l,” and so on. E-book formatting ranges from pristine, to easily readable with a couple of quirks, to really annoying. This is another “growing pain,” and I think this is improving every day as well. If these sorts of issues bother you, my recommendation is to sample the e-book before you purchase and see if the formatting is up to par. If readers demand good formatting, no DRM, reasonable prices, etc., publishers will have no choice but to cooperate, or be replaced by someone who will.

“But e-books are too expensive.”

Another popular complaint. And, some of them are. (Of course, some print book prices are way too high as well.) But, on the whole, e-books are significantly less expensive than printed books. Even bestsellers usually sell for $9.99 – $12.99, which is cheaper than the average hardcover. Most older e-books range from $4.99 to $7.99, which is cheaper than most paperbacks. There are thousands of really inexpensive e-books as well (including my own for $2.99 each), and special deals for 99 cents or even free. And the millions of public domain works (including great classics) are free — that’s enough to pay for the cost of the e-reader right there, especially if you’re taking a Literature course. All in all, e-books really are pretty cheap. I mean, what else can you get for $2.99?

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