e-books: You Can't Take It With You

There's a big market for digital books, but I think they're being sold badly, almost to the point of dishonesty. I think it's time the way their vendors talk about them was changed. First some illustrations: My father just finished reading an...

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There's a big market for digital books, but I think they're being sold badly, almost to the point of dishonesty. I think it's time the way their vendors talk about them was changed. First some illustrations:

  1. My father just finished reading an e-book and was asking me how he could now pass it on to his nephew. He called to ask how, assuming there had to be an easy way. But there's no way he can do it without paying for it again (and even then he will find buying an e-book for someone else challenging).
  2. When my wife and I go on holiday, we often like to read the same books. With paper books it's pretty easy; all we have to do is use two different bookmarks and make sure we've a choice of books so we don't have to argue about who gets to read! But with e-books, that's not possible. We either have to share the same e-book account, or we have to buy the book twice.
  3. Our family are all huge fans of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series and of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. We have a complete library of them in the house and everyone who lives here (and a few regular guests!) eagerly read and re-read them. If we had bought e-book versions, none of this would be possible (and the fan-base for both authors would be smaller as we've hooked several with strategic book loans).
  4. More than that, some of our books will definitely be bequeathed to our children sooner or (hopefully) later. We're sure they will want to share some of those with their own children too. Some of the books here are transient but some are definitely here to stay.

Pros and Cons

Personally I have purchased very few e-books. They are usually priced near the cost of the physical book, yet come with few of the benefits. I do understand their attraction though - we have several Kindles in the family and I've used them on holiday. There are some compelling capabilities that aren't present in the ink-on-paper book.

One is the ability to read using the device I happen to have with me (at least in Amazon's case - Apple only support their own devices so there's no Android or web readers for their books). Another is the ability to make marginal notes in the book that are non-destructive and reusable. But there are significant down-sides as well. For example, I can't share e-books with others; I can't pass them on; I can't re-sell them; I can't bequeath them.

e-books as library

There's another source of books our house uses like this. It's the public library. Even the books I get there are more shareable than e-books, but the serial use pattern of the public library seems to me a better analogy for the usage I'm able to gain from e-books. In addition, the rights I have to an e-book are closer to those I have to a library book than to one I have purchased. For example, Amazon's Kindle store does not sell me a book; rather, it gives me a perpetual right to borrow it for personal use, a right they can revoke at will but which I can reasonably assume I'll be able to exercise when I want to read the book again.

If the e-book stores had framed their business as a super digital lending library (with prices to match) I might be an avid customer by now. Instead, by saying I am buying the book, and charging prices that are a delta on the cover price rather than a delta on the cost of a lending library, they draw my attention increasingly to all the things I can't do - lend, share, resell, bequeath. Perhaps it's time for some reframing? Maybe for app stores too?


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