Why I do not yet own an e-book reader

Clever readers will have noticed the modifier yet. Because it seems inevitable that someday we will be forced to own one.

Plenty of reviews of the two main readers exist: Sony’s e-reader and Amazon’s Kindle2. But these reviews miss two essential points.

The first is standard creep. My ma loves Guys and Dolls and originally bought the movie on Video Disk. Remember those? They were like record players for television. We had Star Wars, too.

But Video Disk players became obsolescent fast, so my ma bought another version on Beta tape. Yes, I swear this is true. We all know what happened here: she eventually bought on VHS.

The small, weary voice of my father just kept her from buying the movie again on Laser Disc. But she has since acquired a DVD version. I suppose Blue Ray is next.

Same movie, six implementations—so far. Each shift in technology requires a similar shift of funds from our bank accounts.

Here is the problem with e-books: I do not want to be forced to buy, say, Jayne’s Probability Theory each time the e-readers are improved. This is cheating me.

I only have to buy a real book once and I can keep it for life, as long as I don’t spill too much on it. But I can spill some on it and it will still be readable.

Not true for an electronic reader, which is not as forgiving of my cup of coffee as paper is.

Amazon lets you store your purchases from the Kindle2 on a server. You can download them wirelessly, and free, anytime you like. Right now, those who bought the Kindle1 can still read the books they bought for it on their Kindle2. But there is no guarantee this generous policy will continue for future versions.

This is already the case for magazines and newspapers bought on the Kindle1. They will not work on the Kindle2. You have to buy the old copies again if you want to read them.

The second difficulty with e-books is the absence of used books. This is no small matter.

Obviously, real books can be donated, resold, loaned, or otherwise given away. Not so with e-books.

And unlikely to ever be so because of the fear of piracy. Right now, both Sony and Amazon build digital rights management (DRM) into their readers: publishers insist on it. E-books are tied to a singular device or account.

What do you do with the airplane e-novel you read but no longer want? Nothing.

So much for used book stores! The last, best place to browse and discover peacefully will quietly disappear once publishers see the benefits of charging per person and not, as they do now, per book.

And there is the delicious benefit of being able to charge for the same book in each new format.

Think of the college textbook market! No more “buy backs” and no more used copies. This should at least slow down the flood of “new and improved” editions publisher push out in an attempt to eliminate used copies.

There are few things standing in the way of this “progress”. The readers themselves are too costly, but the prices will surely come down. The screens can’t show as much text as on a real page (mathematical equations and diagrams are difficult), but screens will improve.

The annoying flash as pages “turn” will be reduced, or we’ll adapt. Other minor annoyances, like poor PDF support, will be fixed. (I met an Israeli student yesterday who said she could not get any PDFs to work on her Kindle2; Word documents worked fine.)

The paper and printing expense is a lot and can of course be eliminated. This doesn’t bring the per-book cost down as much as many civilians think, but e-books are still cheaper to produce than real books.

New book stores need not, and probably will not, be eliminated. Publishers will still need a way to show off their wares and authors in a social setting. Coffee-shop book stores will survive, but will probably be a lot smaller, and only be stocked with “demo copies” of real books used to taunt you into buying the e-copy.

Publishers are fooling themselves if they think they can eliminate piracy by fancy DRM software. No matter how sophisticated the hard and software becomes, all it will take is five bucks to pay some kid in India to re-type a book into a computer.

They’ll not believe this is true because they don’t want it to be true, so they’ll still spend time and money designing new and cleverer DRM. Eventually, however, it will dawn on somebody that re-typing is just too easy.

So they will insist that the e-readers only display content bought from valid publishers. Users will counter and demand the ability to download personal content. So software will be developed to scan that content to see if it “matches” proprietary material. If the “match” is close, the user will be denied.

At first, the matches will be crude, because publishers always assume they are being cheated. Simply quoting from a book (say, for a school report) will trigger a fault. Eventually, “fair use” will be defined in an impenetrable way, and users will adapt.

Libraries are in trouble. How do you loan DRMed e-books? You can’t give out e-readers. Publishers will be pressured to figure out a way to “loan” books that automatically expire. It will be an easy hack to disable this. Again, libraries are in trouble.

Publishers will be gleeful for a while as the build up of new users progresses. But after a while, and not too long after, sales will drop to very low levels. They will discover that new authors have almost no sales.

A highly-paid management consultant will figure out that, “Hey, it turns out that used books bring a lot of readers to the market. It let’s them discover new authors for very little money, and makes them hungry for new books.” So publishers will have to figure out a way to allow used e-books.

And so, eventually, we will come back to the way things are now.

But it’s going to take a long time.


  1. Briggs

    From over at FreeRepublic.com, the wise snarks_when_bored writes:

    How about this? I saw Jeff Bezos in an interview say that the Kindle 2 will hold about 15,000 e-books. Then he quickly pointed out that each e-book will cost $10.00 ( I guess he wanted to reassure publishers). The interviewer didn’t pause to point out something rather amazing about these two facts considered together: you could potentially have a Kindle 2 that carried $150,000 worth of books on it! Jeez, that’s a serious amount of money. I would think that thieves would find it impossible to resist stealing every one that they could get their hands on.

    A $150,000 piece of electronic hardware being carried around town, to the beach, etc.? Insane.

  2. Bernie

    I am 100% with you. As a bibliophile, I have a hard time resisting any good second hand bookstores or talking to their owners – who in some strange odd way have incredible recall of what they have read and seem to have IQs in the 150 to 160 range. (N.B. I define “Good” as logically organized, predominantly non-fiction hardcover, some fine bindings, little paperback fiction and no romance novels.)

  3. Kevin B

    Here in the UK the situation is well advanced. Most towns, and even moderate cities have zero, or at the most one, dedicated book shop. Used books are mostly to be found in charity shops amongst the old clothes. College towns, at least, have a book store, but these are usually on campus and cater mostly to the courses the students will be taking.

    This leaves me with Amazon as my only option to buy hard copy books, and since I have been in the IT industry since the punched paper tape reader days, I am allergic to using any form of credit card on the internet.

    Books are easy, convenient to carry, resistant to sand, sea and sun, tactily satisfying and give a great deal of pleasure and thought provoking information to a significant fraction of humanity.

    So it stands to reason that they should be replaced by something ‘better’.

  4. Scumop

    The kindle + drm books is almost straight out of Stallman’s “The Right to Read” scenario.
    (http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/right-to-read.html and others).

    I already have a laptop, a few desktops, and an Asus EEE, all of which are suitable for reading electronic documents. I will never get a kindle to read a book. Paper all the way unless I can drop it on any of my machines in at least PDF form. And even then, paper has advantages especially when you don’t want to be lugging yet another box of parts around.

  5. Wade Michaels

    Imagine what will happen to the law-library-backrops in all those ambulance-chasing lawyer commercials! They won’t be able to pose in front of the latest version of the [insert state] revised codes! They’ll have to find another way to “prove” their legal prowess. 🙂

  6. Briggs


    Excellent link, thanks. Here it is again for easier clicking.

    Recommended reading. While you still can.

  7. Joy

    Kevin B,
    London has many second hand book shops. Charing Cross road is famous for these.
    Conversely my town although tiny has many charity shops that contain books as well as a cute second hand bookshop. A listed building that was the only one allowed to stand when the greedy developers moved in and wiped the rest of the street out for ugly soul destroying flats.
    As far as I know the same old man works there. It’s an Aladdin’s cave. Unfortunately I am unable to confirm his IQ at this stage.
    Any demise of second hand bookshops if it is happening will be, as much due to the greed of councils charging too much for shop space as it has to do with the demise of the book as a medium.
    The difference with books/e-books versus vinyl/CD as a comparison is that with a book you need no special equipment to read the book so the e-book becomes something else to carry. As already pointed out it is a temptation to thieves (imagine the average thief would be disappointed if they landed up with a statistician’s book collection though, especially if the tealeaf was partial to Jane Austen.)
    The other factor is the visual, paper is more restful on the eye than a computer screen, even a dimly lit one, and it’s hard to see a screen outside on a sunny day I think.
    The same issue rages over Braille books, has done for years.

  8. So something we’ve taken for granted forever, as it were, is stealthily being purloined from us? Not a nice thing. We need to rebel against the e-thieves. “E-nough”, I say.

    The shops on Charing Cross Road and its environs should be considered international treasures, imo. Even for a non-academic they are tons of fun. Can’t imagine what a real brainiack would do without them.

    Thanks for the post. Anyone putting over $200 or so worth of e-materiel on a kindle and then lugging it around town is probably not all that smart, anyway, but maybe the status of “being cool” is worth it to them.

  9. Have a Kindle1 and really like it. I recognize the limitations, I use the K1 for otherwise disposable sci-fi books and things I am unlikely to want to reread. I used to take 5-6 hardback books on a weeklong cruise and pound them down, now with the additional baggage cost my Kindle & charger go into my carry-on for free.

    Used books? Pfft. Baen gave away “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi along with a dozen or so books (usually first in series) by Tobias Buckell, Brandon Sanderson and others. Might as well, the number of downloads is relatively small, the cost is negligible (even assuming they paid the authors full royalties) and they’re likely break-even on the first or second full-price eBook they sell.

    E-ink is perfectly adequate in terms of readability, and unlike paper you can change point size until it’s legible. If I was a large print person I would go digital immediately — all of Amazon’s catalog for Kindle is de facto large print if you want it that way. I’m not presbyopic yet, but lens stiffness comes to us all.

    The killer app may be Apple’s rumored large screen iPod Touch, an 8″-10″ iPod Touch would be great, and Kindle for iPhone already exists, I’m reading “Zoe’s Tale” on my teeny iPhone right now.

  10. JH

    I personally prefer reading a printed book or article because it captures my attention better. Maybe it’s just a matter of habit. I cannot stare at the computer screen for too long either. However, I am willing to try an e-book reader it if it’s free. And I will consider buying it if it reads both Chinese and English books.

    My children have wanted a Kindle reader for a while and are waiting for the price to come down. The younger generation seem to be more inclined to adopt new technologies, which are mostly wireless and plug-less nowadays. Oooh yes, they are so wired up, plugged in and…. zoned out. Hmmm.

  11. Yes and yes, but…

    Kindle screens are easy on the eyes compared to regular monitors. You can hold them in positions that reduce neck strain, too. Maybe they’re not beach or coffee proof, yet, but they will be.

    $10 a book is too much. How about $1, with 100% going to the author. That’s as much as a firmware book author gets now. Eliminate the publisher/pulp-and-ink manufacturer. Who needs them? Amazon sells the device; the author creates the content. Amazon shouldn’t make a cut, any more than a dvd player manufacturer gets a cut from the movie producer.

    Yes, War and Peace is lovely to fondle. But non-best-seller books don’t get printed at all today, unless the author pays for the publishing. The digital option means everybody can write their novel, or two or three, and publish it for free. Make money on the first sale! Just like homemade CD’s from your garage band.

    Libraries are already digital. Nobody fondles the journals at the Big U. We all download the pdf’s. Less germ transmission that way. If you have the password you don’t even need to go into the library/warehouse, unless you’re having a rendevous tryst in the stacks. These days most of the folks in the public library are homeless bums, trying to get warm.

    There will always be bookstores, just as there will always be buggy whips. These days bookstores sell more knick-knacks, curios, and trifles than books anyway. There will always be private book collectors, just as people collect stamps and baseball cards. That’s cool, but literary proliferation will explode when the digital devices get cheap. Twenty bucks for a reader, a dollar a book. You won’t be able to resist.

  12. harold

    I think the E-ink technology is spectacular. Right now it is pricey and page turn and navigation are slow (my wife has an Irex Illiad). I read that there is a Chinese company that will produce an A4 sized E-ink screen, great for PDFs.
    Converting digital text, audio, and video files is a cinch nowadays,thanks to a lot of clever and generous people it is usually free. Earlier this year I read that the Apple iTunes store will drop the DRM from most of it’s music (and the price would go down as well), it will be interesting to see if ebook publishers will follow.
    Hunting in a second hand bookstore will remain a popular hobby.

  13. Joy

    VDU comfort has to do with glare, not text size. For people staring at computers all day are even more likely to find it uncomfortable to continue the activity for reading. With the page, the eye has a rest and a change of activity, very important if you care about your vision at all. If I could read a paper page rather than a screen when it comes to the printed word IՉ۪ be more comfortable, my eyes are no different in this regard.
    So, as one who doesn’t have a choice I would not recommend replacing paper with yet another screen.
    When computers came into regular use in the work place, people everywhere started to become less active and fit, started suffering more problems from just the fact that all their tools were set in front of them. No longer were they forced to move even to reach the typex or the envelopes, or to move the arm to return the carriage on the typewriter.
    This causes problems. Now, of course, no one is suggesting that we throw computers away, but it’s worth recognising the disadvantage of convenience!
    Usually the downside is our own health/fitness; in this case, the eye.
    I wonder whether in a thousand years, we won’t need legs or arms, we’ll just stay put and all will come to us.
    Like Davros, the crinoline ladies were ahead of their time.
    Now publishers are going to have to reinvent themselves as well, because someone’s got to sort through it to find new material of merit!
    And what about the smell of a book! Like cork versus metal.
    If you’re going for a rendezvous in the stacks then the germs on the journals will go unfondled. If germ transmission is a problem in your local university, they need to look into the height of the bookshelves. Especially if glandular fever has broken out. Many a college has been brought down by careless bookshelf arrangement.

  14. Luis Dias

    $10 a book is too much. How about $1, with 100% going to the author. That’s as much as a firmware book author gets now. Eliminate the publisher/pulp-and-ink manufacturer. Who needs them? Amazon sells the device; the author creates the content. Amazon shouldn’t make a cut, any more than a dvd player manufacturer gets a cut from the movie producer.

    I am always disagreeing with MikeD in many things, but in this point, I’m 100% with you! I’m also trying to spread that idea (the meme? Ahah joking) the farthest I can.

  15. Luis Dias

    This causes problems. Now, of course, no one is suggesting that we throw computers away, but it’s worth recognising the disadvantage of convenience!

    Joy, already nostalgic of the times where books were printed? :D. Personally speaking, I’m not nostalgic at the time where if one did a mistake on a plan of a house, one had to redraw the whole frakkin thing. Yes, we were more disciplined at those ages. But a lot more frustrated. And slow. (And therefore, poor)

  16. Joy

    How did I know you were an architect? Because my brother is one and I recognise the symptoms.
    Just a fact about eyesight. Not to say I’m not nostalgic either, When I was four I didn’t want to be five! The smell part is a matter of taste.
    Some prefer wood and stone to metal and glass.

  17. Ari

    I’m generally a big fan of technology, but e-books still kind of reek of “laserdisc” syndrome to me. Like laserdiscs, something better will definitely come out soon, and since we’re still in the infant stages of the technology, it will inevitably not be anything like what you invested in.

    The Kindle 2 is a step in the right direction, but still not enough to make me feel comfortable “investing” in one.

    What gets me is the 10 cent charge to convert any file to a format that the Kindle can read. Unbelievable potential for profit there. Personally, until someone like Apple can come up with an “iTunes for books,” I see no reason to touch a Kindle. And no, I don’t think that Amazon.com is a good alternative to iTunes. It feels too much like the wild and wooly days of the “pre-iTunes MP3 era.”

  18. barbara m

    I have a kindle ! and love it. I think all readers will, as they age, face a choice–quit reading or get a e book of some sort. I had just about given up on books when the Kindle came along, now I’m back up to two or three books a week.

    Large type books aren’t much use to me, along with aging eyes, I have arthritic fingers, just try holding one of those monsters.

    Sure I’m sorry not to be able to sell my used books, but really, I’m happier to be able to read without getting a monster headache. The screen is wonderful–no glare, so I can read for hours.

    If they find a way to fix eyes and fingers, I’ll join you all finding the best used book stores, but untill they do, I’ll download my books onto my Kindle and read read read.

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