E-book Update: Libraries, Notes, Price

The Lady Tasting Tea will continue Sunday; posting anything meaty on the weekend produces low readership.


According to Julie Bosman, many publishers are now only renting ebooks to libraries. In the olden days, libraries would buy physical books and keep them forever, or re-purchase them when they became worn, or sell them to raise money.

Now, publishers like HarperCollins (in the modern way, the company removed the space to be cool) have created a model where books can “be checked out only 26 times before they expire” after which the library has to re-“buy” the book. Of course, if the book automatically self destructs, the library never bought it, the library merely rented it. Upon learning of this, one librarian felt “gobsmacked.” As well she might, because (see below) ebook licensing prices are now comparable to physical book prices—and you get to keep real books.

Bosman is the only other person (besides yours truly) who has pointed out that ebooks destroy the used book market. Publishers, now corporations concerned strongly with the next quarterly report, fail to recognize that used books are what creates readers, a.k.a. customers. Ban used books, remove readers. Reading long-form texts will soon be an activity of only the very few.

And what need of a physical library if you don’t even have to go there to retrieve your ebook? Why not just rent the ebook from the publisher for a small fee? Libraries may soon join bookstores in sentences like, “Remember when we…”


Be careful what you write in the margins of your iPad ebook: Steve Jobs might not like it and have you banned as a counterrevolutionary. Jeff Bezos, traditionally more tolerant of apostasy, might only hand your notes over to our benevolent government.

You were aware, I hope, that the Kindle has a feature which lets you view the marginal highlights other readers have made. And if they let you read these highlights, they must perforce have them stored in the “cloud.” And, to complete our chain, if Amazon (or Apple) is storing these highlights, they must be taking them from your device as you make them. Isn’t that a comforting thought? Now, not only do the all-caring forces that govern us have a way to see which books we buy license, they will know exactly what we thought important in them.

It is still easier to write notes in the margins of a real book; it is more spontaneous and there is greater freedom in how you mark up the text. The corresponding lack of facility with ebooks has historians nervous. As Kevin Redmon relates in the Atlantic, “margins are a trove of insight for scholars and biographers.” And they are fretting that they will disappear; which, of course, they will. Charles Hill relates in Grand Strategy that when Henry Kissenger met that greatest of mass murders Chairman Mao, he noted Mao’s study was filled with thousands of books (all forbidden to his people), many of which were loaded with scrawlings. “If you don’t put your pen in action, it cannot really be considered reading,” said Mao. Which shows that even a madman can say true things.

It wasn’t until recently that the Kindle allowed you to turn off the highlighting of others, a tremendous annoyance, akin to buying a used book filled with yellow-through lines from some semi-literate college freshman. Quoting Redmon: “Inciting [Romanian-American poet Andrei] Codrescu’s ire was the ‘popular highlights’ feature on Kindle: the faint dotted underlining that, as Codrescu put it, ‘will tell you how many morons have underlined before so that not only you do not own the new book you paid for, the entire experience of reading is shattered by the presence of a mob that agitates inside your text like strangers in a train station.'”


This week M. Anonymous donated to me the book Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. Amazon’s price for the physical book is $20.00, while it’s $19.99 for the Kindle. I weighed the convenience of having the book immediately—only possible with the Kindle or with those now defunct places called “bookstores”—against the pleasure of waiting and owning it in physical form. I chose the latter. It’s difficult to be certain of the accounting, but here either Amazon or the publisher or both must be taking less.

Anyway, as I have pointed out before, any book which will be used as research (to include book reviews) is much easier read on real paper. Marginal notes we discussed; switching pages to and fro (e.g. looking up footnotes) just cannot be done easily with an ebook; switching back and forth between books (as I did while writing his post) is too great a burden with ebooks.


  1. Juan

    I predict that the used book market will slowly die and ebooks will never take off. Why? Because people are getting dumber. They don’t want to read…they want to be entertained. That is what you get when the stupid public schools keep teaching to the lowest common denominator.

  2. William Sears

    I can’t believe that you condone writing in margins. Next you will be defending the use of dog ears. Books should remain pristine, or at worst, the use of unobtrusive marginal corrections to gross errors of fact can be tolerated in privately owned books. Library books should never be written in. There are few things more annoying then reading a book from the university library that is peppered with the juvenile comments of one of the local campus denizens.

  3. Briggs

    William Sears,

    I certainly condone it, but only for books that you own. My copy of Stove’s Rationality of Induction has more notes than original text.


    I predict the opposite. Ebooks will continue to rise, primarily for “airport” books, i.e. bestsellers. But only to those already accustomed to reading them in print. New readers will drop off, and ever wither away, especially for non-trivial books.

  4. Katie

    E-books certainly have the capacity to be of more immediate use than regular book-books, especially if pertinent information is hyperlinked or if the e-book is paired with a useful dictionary or translation function.

  5. SteveBrooklineMA

    I usually can’t bring myself to write in any book, even one I own. The only time I will write in a book is to point out or correct a math error. My wife reveres books even more. She will object to a book on the floor, and really scold me if a book should happen to touch my foot.

    I agree with you about navigation and the Kindle. Although it is nice to be able to tote around many works in one small package. Also, there are many classic works that are free or available for about $1. Overall, I think the Kindle will increase “book” reading.

  6. Eric Anderson

    Hmmm . . . Sunday’s not the weekend anymore I guess? 🙂

  7. Eric Anderson


    Any book I own that I take seriously (as opposed to a quick pass through) ends up with plenty of notes: (related thoughts, questions, underlines, comments, corrections, interesting tangents, etc.). At times I hesitate to make notes if I intend to lend the book to someone else afterward, specifically because I don’t want to prejudice their experience of reading the virgin book and experiencing their own insights and ideas, rather than mine. Inevitably, however, if it is a worthy tome it ends up with a fair amount of notes, and thus I end up buying another clean copy to lend . . .

  8. j ferguson

    I’ll be damned (maybe deservedly). I’ve been delighted with my kindle and it is loaded up with many of the books recommended to me that I hadn’t got to before my current passage into dotage.

    Most is unlikely to be popular enough to have accumulated any notes, but recently i bought an ebook directly from kindle and the thing had highlights in it. Some were so out of sync with the substance of the passages i thought they might be like the occasional dvd played on a computer where the audio is running several seconds behind the video. I think I discovered a way to turn them off.

    I do not leave my Kindle on-line and so save battery life and the intrusions, or so I had thought.

    So i’m being shared the commentary of other readers. Is that it?


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