Buying eBooks Makes Me Feel Dirty

Most of my relatives know that I love to read, as evidenced by the Amazon and Barnes & Noble gift cards I received for Christmas this year. Both cards were for the sum of $25.00, and, shortly after I got home from our Christmas festivities, I sat down at my computer desk ready to shop for eBooks.

Whenever someone provides me with an Amazon or B&N gift card as a present, I almost instinctively spend it on eBooks. Due to their relatively high cost (I could always buy the used paperback for $4.00 shipped on Amazon’s Marketplace), and the fact that I am only ‘licensing’ their content—not purchasing and owning unencrypted files—when I buy eBooks, it feels like I am recklessly spending my much needed money.

The literary fiction I love to read almost always appears in the $11.99 – $18 range. Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, Rushdie, Amis, McEwan; these titles don’t come cheap (or even reasonably priced in my opinion, especially in the case of dead authors). The more notable the author, the more expensive the eBook, or so it seems. I once did the math on what it would cost me to acquire a digital library of fifty of my favorite modern classic titles. The price averaged out at around $600.00. Six Benjamin Franklins, all for a collection of DRMed computer files that I don’t even really own. I imagine that there are many other readers who hesitate to spend large sums of money on eBooks, but they will gladly throw down $300 for a Folio Society membership or $60-a-book for leather-bound classics from Easton Press. Buying a new hardback from Amazon seems like a sound investment, buying the eBook feels like it’s not.

The real challenge for publishers in the coming years will be making the purchase of an eBook seem as fiscally sound and secure as buying the physical book.

As of this moment, it isn’t happening.

Sure, there are a lot of benefits to reading eBooks, and maybe I should give them a bit more consideration. After all, I’m not just paying for the text, I am also gaining the ability to use the many features that eBooks have to offer over a hardback. Reading on my Kindle Paperwhite or my Nexus 10 tablet is much more appealing to me than reading a physical book. I have probably worn out the e-dictionary on my Kindle with all the words I have looked up over the past four years. I like to highlight these words and save them to ‘My Clippings’ for inclusion in a vocabulary index I’ve been working on. It’s always nice to have some sophisticated-sounding terms to use in my next research paper, all thanks to this handy Kindle feature. Looking up words in an eBook is much less time consuming than putting down my physical book, leafing through a cumbersome dictionary, and probably losing my place along the way.

The eBook offers instant service and incredible convenience. I don’t have to go to a bookstore, I can search the entire file for a single word or topic, and my eReader never lets the bookmark slip from its pages; $12.99 for an eBook is starting to sound like a pretty good deal.

I am aware of all of the arguments for higher or ‘fairly’ priced eBooks. I get it, there are many advantages to eReading, and those advantages should be paid for, but then why doesn’t this fact outweigh the feeling I get when I spend a large sum of money buying digital files? Three letters: DRM.

After hearing a number of scary stories about readers who have had run-ins with digital rights management (an electronic lock placed on your eBook by its publisher or distributor that prevents you from copying it, converting it to other file formats, or really from owning it in any way), I am feeling less confident about the security of my eBook purchases today than ever. Take, for example, the situation that many early adopters have encountered with the death of their former eBook platforms. The old file formats (and DRMs) that their eBooks were purchased in are no longer supported today, like MSReader or the many proprietary PDA formats. If you bought a hundred eBooks for your now-obscure palm pilot back in 2000, I feel sorry for your loss. People buying eBooks from Kobo or B&N today probably never consider that in fifteen or twenty years, these companies could be bought out or go under, and poof—there goes your eBook collection. Publishers could pull their digital files off your device during contract negotiations, without warning; authors could demand more fees or restrict access to certain titles; shadow edits over wifi and computer malfunctions could turn your favorite $15 eBook into 2345 kb of symbols and dashes. The list of potential hazards goes on.

When I purchase an MP3 music file, it is unencrypted and mine to own. There are publishing and author rights to consider there too. The situation with eBooks is totally opposite from this.

The debate over the value of eBooks is an important one. Authors, publishers, and vendors need to make a profit in order to ensure a vibrant industry and market. Consumers are gaining a lot in exchange for a relatively small margin. In many cases, an eBook costs only a couple of dollars more or a couple of dollars less than its physical counterpart. But I’m not trying to rehash these old arguments. I am simply stating that when I buy an eBook, it feels like I am making an unwise purchase.

In order for me to go on an eBook spending spree, without the guilt of frivolity hanging over my head, I can only do it with a gift card. Publishers have a long way to go before I can bear to do that without.

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3 Responses to Buying eBooks Makes Me Feel Dirty

  1. M.C. James says:

    Good post. While you present some interesting points, I feel like they are points most people, including myself, don’t consider when buying eBooks.

    • Andrew says:

      Oh, perhaps. Most people who are buying large quantities of eBooks right now have a lot of disposable income and don’t really care what happens to their files after they are done reading them. Another group of readers will get a Kindle for Christmas, buy a few titles, and then switch back to physical books, again losing track of their files without much thought. I, for one, intend for my eBook collection to be a more permanent part of my life, so I worry about things like this. What do you consider when you buy an eBook?

      • M.C. James says:

        I buy eBooks because they’re convenient and they don’t take up physical space. I suppose I trust Amazon with them because I never question whether or not I’ll have them in the future. I also use Audible, an Amazon company, for audiobooks and they’ve saved all my purchases, even audiobooks that are no longer available, in “my library,” so I trust that Amazon will do the same with my eBooks.

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