08 February 2010


Choosing disposable books

For Christmas, my longtime friend Sebastien bought me an Amazon Kindle ebook reader. It's been great—while it has its flaws, it's a convenient and non-fatiguing way to read electronic documents, much more pleasant than the backlit screens of my laptop or iPhone (or, probably, the iPad). But I find it has also influenced my reading choices in an interesting way.

I first read a few ebooks that I had kicking around on my hard drive, mostly in plain-text format. I honestly don't remember where I got them, since I've had them so long. They're almost all science fiction titles, and judging by the oddball typos, most of them were obviously illegitimately scanned and OCRed years ago. But the Kindle does a good job with plain text, so I was impressed.

Next, I moved on to buying a few books at Amazon's Kindle Store. And it's the store that altered my choices. So far I've only bought three ebooks there, but the ones I've sampled without buying have been similar, and uncharacteristic for me.

Kindle books, like most ebooks these days, are locked down by DRM, making then significantly less portable and shareable than plain-text or other open formats, or than traditional paper books, and more likely to suffer digital rot, likely making them inaccessible years down the line. So the ebooks I have bought and read aren't the type I would previously have kept on my bookshelf. All of them, oddly enough, have been memoirs, not a genre I've previously chosen much:

I recommend all three, by the way, though Infidel is the best if you choose just one. But I consider memoirs generally disposable: I can read them once and not have much interest in re-reading them in the future. Maybe that's why my mom has always been a reader of memoirs and biographies. For decades, she has picked them up second-hand and breezed through them in a few days.

My gut feeling is that DRM-protected ebooks should cost less than they do: $5 to $7 feels about right, while the current $11 to $15 range for many mainstream titles (like the three I read) is too much—though I might regularly pay the higher price for unlocked ebooks. I don't think I'm alone in this: notice that many of Amazon's Kindle bestsellers are in the cheaper price range. Also notice that many of those books are old enough to be public domain, so no one has to pay the authors anymore. You can even get them for free, and unlocked, elsewhere.

Ebook prices can be more flexible than traditional hard-copy paper book prices, though. Publishers seem to want to charge $15 and up for in-demand new titles, and then lower prices to pick up more price-sensitive readers later—and they seem willing to fight to be able to do that. I'm willing to wait, so I guess that sort of arrangement would be okay with me.

I'd still prefer they ditched the DRM. And I'd still pay a bit more for that if they did.

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I've been getting free books from Gutenberg.org which, I believe, you suggested, because I like to read old books. I'm reading my third Jane Austen this month and then I'll probably read The Three Musketeers or King Solomon's Mines. I usually don't read bestsellers or even books written in the late 20th century, and my Sony Reader helps push me that way.
yeah DRM & the pricing is exactly why I haven't switched to E-books yet. I'd much rather get my books from the library until the prices are reasonable and I can archive them however/wherever I want.