7 Reasons why E-Books are Great

Josephine Mangani on YABR mentioned that there is a protest brewing at a literary festival in Britain.

You can have my book when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

The protest? E-books are ruining “real” books. (I should point out that the protestors are independent bookstore owners.)

This is certainly not the first protest, nor will it be the last. All over the internet and in real life, people are complaining about or praising e-books. Josephine thinks there’s room for both. (I know that, despite my love of my Kindle, I still enjoy the tactile quality of a book more.) Other people think that the e-book will destroy all printed books (and it may very well do so; I used to write only with pencil and paper, and now I only write on the computer).

Here are the benefits of e-books for readers:

1. Instant gratification. If you have a wi-fi or wireless connection, you can buy a book. Now. Why wait to go to the store? You might talk yourself out of buying it or forget about it before you get there. With instant shopping, there’s never a delay. Shoot me up, Amazon!

2. While traditional publishers are charging print-book prices for some e-books ($9.99 for an e-book? Really?), that is not going to last long; prices will fall. For the bibliophile, that means more books on the same budget. Sorry, you’re not going to find bibliophiles protesting that development.

3. Everyday, places like Google and Project Gutenberg are scanning old, out-of-copyright books and making them available online. For free. Freeeeeeeee. As a medieval re-enactor, there has been more than one occasion where I or my husband have been thwarted in our attempts at research because the book we need is out of print and the cheapest copy online is $300. But as time marches forward, the curse of out-of-print books will increasingly fade into memory. No e-book goes out of print.

4. A corollary to #3 is that libraries will eventually have digital copies of books. Imagine the power of sitting in your writing cottage overlooking the Cliffs of Moher (okay, that’s my writing cottage) and connecting your Kindle to the internet and borrowing a book on Bohemian shoes of the 14th century from the Národní Knihovna České Republiky. (The Czech National Library is already digitizing some of their antique books for Google.) And, depending on the technology encoding the borrowed book, you might be able to run it through Google Translate, so not only can you look at the pretty pictures, but you can get a general idea of what it’s saying. No longer will information be stored in a few far-flung repositories of knowledge, inaccessible by the average person.

5. E-readers are light and thin. I can slip my Kindle into my pocketbook and have hundreds of books instantly at my fingertips. And between also storing books in an internet cloud, and having access to stores, libraries, and free book sites via the internet, your reading choices are damn-near limitless.

6. If disaster were to strike our house at the moment (God forbid), our library would be wiped out existence. Not only would our books be destroyed, but our homeowner’s policy limits book claims to $500 (!). We couldn’t even replace the vast majority of it. When it comes to e-books, though, you can back them up on computers, USB keys, or internet clouds. Your e-reader may be stolen or die, but your books will live on. Just get a new reader, download everything to it again, and you’re in business before the insurance adjustor can even come to your house.

7. E-books are much more subversive than regular books. In the middle ages, it was easy for people to seize books and burn them because there were so few of them. The printing press, however, made seizure much more difficult because so many people had books, it was hard to track them all down. (The Cheese and the Worms is an interesting book about a 16th century miller who read subversive books, and *gasp* started to think about religion and God and stuff.) But the e-book takes this another step further by making it easy to transmit and hide subversive books.

Think about countries like Iran and China were there is so much censorship. It’s much more difficult for someone to smuggle a print book into the country than it is for someone to download a copy off an illicit website or share by e-mail. It’s also much easier to hide a book stored on a CD or USB key or destroy it all together when the police come knocking on your door.

I think the invention of the e-book will go down in history as the most significant development in the dissemination of information since the invention of the printing press.

In future post, I will cover the reasons why e-books are great for writers.

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8 comments on “7 Reasons why E-Books are Great

  1. Wallace says:

    Your post got me thinking and so I wrote an entire post of my own on it. I’ve copied it here for you:

    I still buy lots of real books, but my purchase of ebooks is growing. The main benefit I see in ebooks is getting books for free. I do this both with old books that are out of copyright and quite often out of print as well. Project Gutenberg and Google and even Amazon and Barnes & Noble all offer free copies of old books.

    Also I can get free copies of books by new authors. Quite often I can pick up a free copy of some new or up-and-coming author who puts a free copy of their ebook on Amazon or some other site just for the PR value it will give them. This is especially true of authors who have only published ebooks and are willing to give away the first book in a series or some of their older works that aren’t selling anymore. It gives me a chance to read something that I wouldn’t necessarily pay for, but in a subject matter I’m interested in.

    I’ve recently got a few free novellas by authors I’ve never heard of in the Steampunk genre. The stories were good enough that I then both bought some of their actual mass market paperback for $7.99 and also some of their ebooks as well. Most of the ebooks are in the $0.99 to $2.99 range, so, even if they aren’t really good, I haven’t really wasted any more than the price of a Coke or maybe a McDonalds burger on something that I can enjoy for a lot longer than a Coke lasts.

    The are only three real problems I see with ebooks for book collectors. One is the inability to resell the book if you decide you didn’t like it or are never going to read it again. Certainly the cost of an ebook is far less than a hardback or even paperback, but it is not zero. If I buy a mass market book for $7.99 and don’t like it, I can always take it to a used book store and get money or credit for it. That can’t be done with an ebook. You can keep it or, if you’re short on space in your reader, delete it and only have it on the book sellers cloud storage, but you can’t sell it to anyone since you really have nothing physical to sell.

    The second problem with ebooks is that there is no such thing as a “First Edition” for the book collector to, well, collect. There’s no difference at all between your copy of the book you bought today and the copy I bought five years ago on the first day of its release. And even if there was some sort of digital first day issue stamp on your book, how could you display it or even sell it? You might have the smug satisfaction of knowing you bought it first, but there’s no real value in buying a first day issued ebook since there’s no real investment value. You can buy it, you can enjoy it, but you can’t make any money off it, and you are, in fact, guaranteed to lose all your money since you can never get any of it back on an ebook.

    The third problem with ebooks is the most serious for book collectors, what happens if the company you bought your books from goes out of business? That’s very unlikely for Amazon, but certainly possible for Barnes & Noble, and has already happened for Waldenbooks and Borders Books and other national book seller chains. If you have thousands of dollars in books from an ebook seller and they file for bankruptcy and their assets get liquidated, then your backup and cloud storage of all your books disappears too. If you have enough built in storage on your ebook reader, you can download all your cloud storage into your reader, but if you don’t, then all your cloud storage books are gone when the company shuts off its servers.

    And worse, the only copies of all your ebooks are now only on the reader you are carrying around. If it gets lost or stolen or just breaks down or wears out, you’ve lost your entire library of books. That could be thousands of dollars instantly lost, but also thousands of books you’ve spent years collecting, many of which you many not even remember, let alone be able to find or afford again. It would be like a personal Library of Alexandria loss for tens of thousands of people.

    Of course, there might be some precautions you could take to preserve your books, such as copy them all over to a removable media card and make multiple copies of it. But even then it might do you no good if the company you bought the books from has proprietary reader software that only allows their ebook readers to read the files. And, of course, you’d still need a functioning version of their ebook reader, something that would get increasingly harder to get once the company goes out of business.

    Certainly, physical books are subject to loss or damage too, but unless your house burns down or is covered in flood waters, the fate of your physical books is determined one by one as you lose or wear out or lend them away. If you lose a mass market paperback, you’re only out a few dollars, but if you lose your ebook reader, you’re out potentially hundreds of dollars depending on the type of reader you own. And your entire library goes with it until you can buy and reload a replacement reader.

    If you are particularly careless and keep losing or breaking your reader every year, or even more often, it can be a substantial expense to keep buying new ones. The only slight consolation to this might be if you buy a lot of three dollar ebooks instead of eight dollar paperbacks, the money you save might be enough to compensate for the price of a new ebook reader every year. But still, you could have sold those paperbacks you didn’t want to keep and avoided the cost of an ebook reader altogether.

    So what do I plan to do? Keep buying the books I want to keep as physical books and try to get a lot of free, or close to free, ebooks of new and promising writers. Some new and good authors are only publishing in ebook format, so I’ll be buying them there. And I’ll try to get all my ebooks in an open source format so that, if I lose my ebook reader or it breaks or just wears out, I can then transfer all my ebooks to another ebook reader or even just my laptop.

    For a lot of writers and readers, ebooks are not just the future, but the only future, but for the time being, I think I’ll still keep a lot of my books in physical format. There’s still nothing like the feel and smell of a good book, and it’s still no batteries required.

    • Keri Peardon says:

      One concern you raised is proprietary e-readers and the worry that if the company backing your e-reader goes out of business (like Borders), you will be out of luck.

      That’s actually not a problem, as there are programs like Calibre (http://calibre-ebook.com/download_windows) that convert various e-book formats. Your Borders e-reader now obsolete? You can still buy books at Amazon and convert them to work on your Borders e-reader. Or, you can do the opposite and buy a Kindle and convert all your Borders books to work on it. Or you can convert everything to a .pdf and read it on your computer. While your e-reader may become obsolete (meaning you will eventually want to replace it), you won’t have to worry about losing all of your books.

      The same is true of a company-specific cloud. Big companies do not go under without warning. If you hear your bookseller is going out of business, just move the stuff in your cloud. Their servers are going to be one of the last things they shut down.

      You can also store all of your media (books or otherwise) in an independent cloud which is not backed by a bookseller. (Which is something I probably need to do, because I’m paranoid about losing my writing. My most active files live on my USB key, and my less-active files on my C drive on my home computer. But I regularly back up the USB key, both on a separate hard drive at home, and on my computer at work (because I’m paranoid a fire or tornado might destroy both hard drives). But a cloud is the most secure backup of all.

  2. My comment won’t be quite as exciting as Wallace’s, but I’ll do my best 🙂 All your points were great, but the last two really struck me. I often (okay, not often, but sometimes) think about what I would save if my house were on fire. And you’re right – the ebook reader totally solves that problem. And your point about ebook readers encouraging subversive texts was great – although I imagine laptops would be more effective at spreading subversive content, due to their multimedia nature. But then, an ebook reader is a lot easier to hide than a laptop!

    • Keri Peardon says:

      The laptop helps spread the subversive content, but it’s not THE content itself. If you’re in Myanmar, and I want to give you a copy of the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution, all I have to do is put those texts in a .pdf and e-mail it to you, make it a downloadable file from my website, or sneak a CD to you. I will assume that you have a computer, e-reader, smart phone, or i-Pad type device which can read it (and even people in poor or repressed countries have a lot of access to such devices).

      It is the electronic book which is subversive, because it’s so easily transmitted and concealed.

  3. Jim Maher says:

    I truly believe there is room for both. While I do enjoy the tactile experience of a traditional book, I do love the sheer number of books becoming available as ebooks. The big publishers need to take a look at their pricing, but as you mentioned, they will go down.
    I think a lot of people take issue with the indie published books. For every good one out there, there are 10 not so good. I say work through the crap, and the cream will rise to the top, like it always does. Can’t wait to see your next post about ebooks.

  4. writinghouse says:

    I love the physical aspect of a book; an old book can often tell its own story before you turn a single one of of its pages. AND I love my Kindle. I have started to read all the old ‘classics’ because they’re free and have discovered I didn’t miss much with some of them!
    We live in an age where literacy is taken for granted by many in the first-world but in the third-world there is a real struggle to teach reading and writing. Given that there is mobile ‘phone infrastructure already in place, electronic delivery of reading material is surely the obvious solution. E-books may yet just raise the literacy of the World to near 100% which has to be good for everyone!
    They also mean that everyone can have a go at writing a novel/novella/short story/War and Peace and unleash it on an unsuspecting audience. And as Jim Maher says, the cream will rise. If it stops the proliferation of ‘celebrity’ written nonsense, all the better!

    • Keri Peardon says:

      You’re right that they’re a good thing for poorer countries. In the long term, e-books (even with the cost of an e-reader) are cheaper than paper books, which means poorer communities can afford to have more available to people. $100 may by 10 paperback books, or one e-reader which can access thousands of free books. And how much easier is it for an author to donate free copies of her book to libraries all over the world? It costs me nothing to do that (although it would cost me a lot of money to print and ship a book to Niger).

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