E-books Will Lead To A Decrease In Reading

Der Kindle
Der Kindle
I have a Kindle. (It was generously donated by a reader a few years ago.) I have, say, 200 books on it, nearly all free from Project Gutenberg and similar sites. I have bought only five or six e-books.

No, strike that. I did not “buy” books for the Kindle. I bought licenses which allow me to read the electronic versions of those titles, at Amazon’s pleasure. We all recall how via remote control Amazon forcibly and surreptitiously removed 1984 from Kindles after a dispute with the publisher of that title. Amazon claims that this sort of thing won’t happen often—which is not the same as saying it won’t happen. You do not own an e-book, you do not even rent one, you instead purchase a license so complicated only a lawyer would love it.

Since you do not own the e-book, you may not do with it as you will. You may not, in many cases, loan it, though you may loan out the entire e-reader, which is like giving up your entire library at once. You may not sell the e-book. This means there will be no used e-books, and no used e-bookstores. And since used books are a major way readers discover new authors, well, readers won’t discover as many new authors; that is, they won’t buy e-books from authors who they did not discover.

Further, the lack of used e-books also drives the average price of a title up since the purchaser must always buy “new.” Since a title will cost more on average, fewer of that title will be sold. The timing of this depends on each title’s mix of physical and e-books, since usually, but far from always, e-books licenses are cheaper. (In some cases, e-books cost more.)

E-readers cost significant money, or require the purchase of other expensive equipment (iPad, etc.) which is always undergoing upgrades. A physical books costs whatever it costs. But e-books cost the license plus the non-constant cost of the technology to read it on. Certain e-books (say with color or even video) will have to repurchased when technology changes (records to 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs to mp3s…). The list price of the e-book fibs. It masks the true cost of reading. Many don’t or won’t want to spend the initial large chunk of money to enter the e-books world.

Overall and soon, e-books will cause a decrease in number of books sold. It will be difficult to peg the decline of reading on e-books, though, because people on average are reading less. Here, “on average” means that people who own e-book readers generally now read more titles, but the percentage of citizens who read is itself declining and will continue to do so.

There is nothing in principle, save greed, which bars used e-bookstores. Amazon already sells used physical books, right along side new books. They have links for readers to sell their used copies to Amazon, who will then re-sell the titles to the public. Many readers prefer buying new regardless, perhaps because the books are gifts, or because they prefer the smell of a new book. The choice exists, however.

A used e-book suffers no shelf wear, so who would prefer to buy the new and more expensive license when a discounted used license exists? In the case of used e-book licenses, the customer receives the identical product. Publishers and e-book sellers thought these very thoughts, which is why no used e-books exist. But their conclusion is flawed. They should still allow used licenses.

When a used physical book is sold, only the seller takes a cut of the profit. The publisher gets nothing directly; indirectly, they have advertising which goes with the books, a significant benefit. With e-books, publishers can agree up front that if a used license is sold, they take a portion of the sale. The seller and publisher have already made their initial money on the first sale of the license; further re-sales are pure profit. Used e-books will not “eat into” the market of a title any more than used physical books do.

Update Physical books won’t die. If you think they will and that e-books will dominate, you have not tried to read a book of mathematics on an e-reader, or to study a set of books with scholarly intent. Flipping through e-books is impossible. Jumping from an earlier page to a later one is like trying to run through a vat of molasses. Marginal notes are technologically possible, but in practice are a horror to use. “What page was that equation on?” There are no pages and no page numbers. How do you tell somebody where to look? “On your Kindle 2.0 set your resolution at 12pt and then navigate to 12.45% and then search for X; but if you’re on version 1.7, set at 14pt…” Sheesh. Want to have more than one book open at a time? Why not instead fly to the moon flapping your arms?

Update Free reading wasn’t working, so…Library offers free pole dancing class to draw visitors.

Update Complete anti-theft DRM is always impossible (for text-only books). Just open the book on any device and re-type (cheap to have done, too).


  1. Nice post. Of course trading essential rights for temporary convenience is a definining trait of the modern world.

    I avoided e-books for many years because of the lack of ownership. I finally compromised: “pulp” books, or books that I don’t really care to own long-term I will buy as e-books. Books that I really value I buy in editions that I actually own.

    Sadly that criminal class known as our “representatives” has made it a crime to remove DRM from e-books. It is nevertheless possible…

  2. Paul M

    See this amusing video on the virtues of the bio-optically organized knowledge centre (BOOK)

    Video link

  3. Mike Johnson

    “There is nothing in principle, save greed, which bars used e-bookstores.”
    – Actually, lots of people share ebooks they have purchased with others. For free.

    It’s called a torrent.

  4. George Steiner

    Mr. Briggs

    E-book sales are down and the prognosis for them is not good. Don’t despair.

  5. Ken

    They say wrapping one’s cell phone in aluminum foil thwarts tracking of the GPS signal, etc….maybe something similar can keep the provider from gaining access to & tampering witht the Kindle/Nook content?

    Undoubtedly, someone somewhere is (are) developing means for people to download those licensed e-books off the Kindle/Nook…and…developing means for disabling the device sufficiently to prevent the provider (license holder) from gaining access and tampering with the content.

  6. Noblesse Oblige

    And e-books are now often more expensive than real books. So now you pay extra for the privilige of not owning your books.

  7. Bill

    1. DeDRM Kindle. Convert if you wish to PDF. Print if you want.
    2. get the Kindle reader on your laptop, download everything, back the books up.

  8. DAV

    You may not sell the e-book. This means there will be no used e-books, and no used e-bookstores.

    If I can loan out my reader with my entire library on it what’s to stop me from “loaning” it permanently for a price?

    DRM was a bad response to a real problem and also went to far.

    Used e-books will not “eat into” the market of a title any more than used physical books do.

    You are assuming that the market hasn’t change but it has. Now publishers have a way to charge for multiple users when they couldn’t before. They won’t readily pass on the opportunity.

    E-books Will Lead To A Decrease In Reading

    I find electronic reading difficult because I (through a speed reading course) learned to read a whole page at a time. One of the reasons I make so many typos is that I don’t really see all of the words. To me, trying to read through a small window is like reading a book that has only one word per page. It’s slow and distracting.

    Then, as noted, margin notes are next to impossible. Writable PDF makes them easier but doesn’t work well on books/papers that were effectively photocopied. When I really want to study a paper, I often print it first.

    It’s not clear to me that e-books will lead to a decline in reading. That implies they are self-defeating. Certain usages are more difficult but I don’t see how they present a challenge to everyday reading.

  9. Doug M

    You never bought the words when you bought a book. You did buy the paper that those words were on.

    As for the lack of used e-book market, that doesn’t bother me one bit. The inability to pass on a good book to a freind is slightly more troublesome.

    I do have shelves of books that I have read that I have no intention of re-reading and a shortage of people to give them to.

    Something you allude to, but never actually say — there is a large library of free books for you e-reader.

    I will still buy a physical book more often than not. I like book stores. I will usually only buy an e-book when I don’t want to wait for a book I want to read.

  10. Christina

    My own experience is that e-Readers are best with pulp or beach-reading paperback books. Because people do not generally keep the paperback books they will start to demand a resell or cheaper rent option. Libraries are already getting on board and I think a great idea would be an online national library of simple paperback books.

    Anything that is an actual dense book that you would want to note, refer to or study will be bought as an actual book. Unless the product changes substantially there is simply no way to do use an ebook in this manner.

  11. max

    Not an issue since, as experts have been predicting at least as far back as when I was a child, we will soon be living in a post-literate society.

    DAV your loaning of your e-reader with a library of licensed products on it is a violation of the licenses. The licenses only allow for personal use and virtually all of them specifically prohibit loaning out the licensed product.

  12. Wits' End

    While I don’t disagree with the criticisms one can level at electronic books and the various readers available today they do have several benefits. I mention three.

    For those of us with little or no shelf space left in our homes an e-book, say of a detective story, can be attractive.

    Anyone who travels frequently and fears running out of reading material could find an electronic reader useful in reducing the weight and volume of bags carried around airports.

    For anyone who spends more than a month away from home, or long periods away from the Internet, an e-reader can be very handy.

    None of this is to deny the many limitations of the devices and digital rights management and the ‘ownership’ issues but I find mine quite handy in certain circumstances.

    That said I prefer to sit in a comfortable chair and open a physical book and start reading.

  13. Luke B

    E-Readers in their current form won’t kill off books, but I think we need to consider that we’re at the infant stage of e-reader technology. I’m in agreement with you that e-readers won’t replace books in their current form, but I have a hunch that e-reader technology will progress forward in intuitive design and take into account the problems you mentioned above (like reading math books – which I 101% agree is tough to do on an e-reader) to try and make things easier on the reader.

    I wonder how long until someone comes up with a media license marketplace where we can buy, second-hand, limited licensed copies of media in digital form. How cool would that be??

  14. Ye Olde Statistician

    Reading as such is in decay as the culture becomes more and more visual in orientation. Think, too, of the “Google F” reading protocol. Close reading of texts is replaced by skimming.

    None of this means that people will not read, but it means that they will not read in the same way. Reading folios was different from reading scrolls. Reading printed books was different from reading manuscripts. If the medium is not precisely the message, it surely does impact how that message is delivered. As noted above, reading technical or scholarly work on an e-reader is considerably more difficult than in a book.

    Perhaps this will change. The last scroll-readers no doubt felt the same way about the first folio-readers; but that doesn’t mean the differences weren’t real or unimportant.

  15. DAV


    The license requirement is by and large unenforceable. Unlike mass selling or trading (like torrent), an individual loan or sale is often untraceable and mostly a waste of money to prosecute.

  16. Katie

    The best book that I ever bought was a remaindered copy of “Flaubert’s Parrot” from either a bookstore or a dollar store (I can’t even remember exactly which). Regardless, the book, even though it cost mere pennies gave me so much pleasure. Even if at the time the book were available by other means—–there is no reasonable guarantee that I would have found it. The trouble with moving to an “e-book” world is that happy accidents would be fewer and further between.

  17. RickA

    I actually think ereaders will increase reading.

    I am a lazy person.

    I find driving to the library to obtain free books to read to be to much effort.

    However, I am now able to obtain free books from the library to read on my ereader (granted I only have 21 days to finish the book).

    I have now read 84 books for free from the library.

    I know I would not have read these books if I had to go to the library physically to get them, nor would I have purchased them (I know this because I buy a lot of books also, and didn’t purchase them, or in many cases, even know about these titles).

    I have a higher standard when I have to shell out cash for a book – but if it is free, I will read it.

    So I have read 84 books more than I would have without an ereader.

    I also have found freebooksifter.com to be a great source of free books as well. Less useful than the library, but still there are some good books listed, which you can get from Amazon.com for free. There is a lot of overlap with books available through Gutenberg (Sherlock Holmes, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, etc.), but also some modern books made free for marketing reasons (I speculate).

    Yes – a ton of them are free chapters or excerpts, but there are some entire books listed which are fun to read.

    I do have to admit that my standards are lower for material which I do not have to pay for – but I can honestly say that I have discovered series via a free book, and then actually purchased several other titles by the Author.

    So, based just on my own reading usage, I find that I am reading a lot more books with an ereader than without – so I think overall reading levels will increase with ereaders. I am also discovering authors via ereader which I would not have without an ereader.

  18. RickA

    I should also mention that one feature from my library (Hennepin County of Minnesota), is that you can search for all Kindle format books in a particular genre (Science Fiction, Fantasy or Mystery’s say), which were added to the site in the last x days (14 or 30 or 180).

    You can even limit the search to books available for download, or place a hold on a book which is not available and the library will email you when it is available (giving you 72 hours to check it out).

    This is how I have stumbled upon many new authors to read – since the investment in downloading a book from the library is Zero (other than time spent reading).

  19. I have an e-reader and use it most of the time because it is easier to carry around. One impact that the e-reader will have is on the number of used books available for those who like used bookstores. As a result the selection of books available at used bookstores will decrease and the books that people will in bound copy will be books that are hard to read on an e-reader such mathematics, science, and other books purchased to learn rather than to entertain.

  20. David

    Reading can’t decrease if a new offer (eReading)is added to an old offer (traditional reading). At worst, it will remain the same (ceteris paribus), or improve. How can readership go down if books are still available? Looks like a dominant strategy to me.

  21. Looking at the next generation of readers, ebooks may be just as “normal” to these children as bound ones are to their parents. Many schools use laptops and electronic text books are much lighter to carry and less costly to update. Children are taught that paper is wasting of trees, so they see Kindles as eco-friendly (whether or not they are). It’s just a different direction for reading. One hopes the paper copies remain because “zeros and ones” are not a really reliable form in which to store one’s history.

    Just an aside: Windows 8 commercial shows a child “painting” on a computer screen. Then, she prints out many, many “paintings” she has made and they are hung on a wall. It seems clear that Windows 8 doesn’t trump paper printouts. (It’s also odd that she has a very expensive computer to “paint” with, but I’m sure I’m not supposed to notice that detail…)

  22. Nancy

    You bring up some valid points on e-readers and their limitations but in addition to a couple of benefits pointed out by other posters (ease of downloading free books from the library, easily carry a library with you when traveling) since I use a Kindle Fire I have not only my library but access to my email and the internet (via hotel or coffee shop Wifi) in one small package. I find that very convenient for travel. And while I no longer have small children I can only imagine that traveling with a book library, videos, games and more on one small device is quite a benefit.

    But to me one of the most fascinating developments related to e-readers is the development of the self-publishing market. While this market existed prior to e-readers, it is much easier and cost-effective with them. Granted much of the content is sub-standard but over time it will likely sort itself out.

  23. I admit to being a Kindle fan. As an avid reader for over four decades, I have found the Kindle to be a wonderful tool providing hundreds of hours of enjoyment.
    I do agree with Mr Wright, that I do not think that e-books are optimal for textbooks or non-fiction works containing graphs, etc…, but I do think you are being overly critical.
    Consider that during the past decade, music has transferred almost entirely to digital storage devices (iPods and others) to the point that many young adults have never held a vinyl record in their hand. The same licensing issues apply to the music industry – more strictly, in fact. Services like Netflix are making purchase of DVDs nearly obsolete as well.
    As pointed out in other comments, Project Gutenberg makes thousands of books available that reside in the public domain and many libraries have provisions to check out e-books. The explosion in self-published e-books is destroying the monopoly of the big publishing houses and many of them do not contain DRM.
    So I don’t see e-books reducing the availability of books nor the number of people reading them. I believe the kids with music on the iPhones are MORE likely to pick up an e-book than a paperback, and more likely to try writing one themselves.

  24. Joel Heinrich

    Well, I’ve – cough – borrowed more then 30,000 e-books, and I can’t really say that it was very difficult. Just as you don’t look for used books in a bookstore, you should’t look for used e-books in an e-store.
    And I’d say that you can have really good and easy to read textbooks even for Math. The problem right now is just a matter of formatting. Most ‘used’ or new e-books are just scanned copies of real books and were not adjusted for your specific device. As I can even read mangas (comics) without problems on my kindle, graphs and pictures shouldn’t pose a problem in the future.

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