Paper or PDF? A Consideration of E-Books

Anyone who knows me in personal life is familiar with my no. 1 vice: books (My uppers and downers are Stephen King and Mercedes Lackey). I’ve been a heavy reader since childhood, but my interest took off in my last year of college (2011) when I bought my first e-reader, the Barnes and Noble Nook. It was an early version with few features, but I instantly fell in love with the idea of mainlining as many books as possible without having to find space for them in my non-expanding dorm room.

Since then, I have worn out and replaced two more Nooks, and bought hundreds of titles that I can tuck into my purse at a moment’s notice. At first, I was so thrilled by the instant gratification that I made fun of the naysayers who said they preferred “real” books. Eight years into my experiment with digitization, I won’t say I was wrong, but I will say I have added two major concerns.


When I started buying e-books, I was sure that the investment in the reader would be paid back by savings in reduced prices for digital copies. Intuitively, this makes a good deal of sense: e-book retailers have no problems with inventory, no paper, glue, or ink are used to create the products, and there are no transport costs to speak of. However, this hasn’t been borne out in real life. In fact, the average price of an e-book rose 35 percent from 2014 to 2017, while print book prices remained stable, according to Ithaka S+R’s Library Acquisition Patterns study. There is a caveat, though: e-books don’t go through a hardcover period the way many print books do. Pixels are pixels, and unless you’re an older reader who needs a larger print, you can make do with paperback editions. Also, while they can’t be beaten for convenience, e-books can’t be resold like print books. (Hello, Half Price!)


When I got over my first high from on-demand reading binges, I did make fun of all the people who said they had to have “real” books. To me, a story is a story, and I don’t care about the medium, provided it’s in good condition. (I’m not very interested in books as collector’s items, though. As far as I’m concerned, that’s confusing the meal for the plate.) After some review, though, I have to say there is some merit to the “real” book debate. When you buy an e-book, you aren’t actually buying a book; you are buying a license to access a digital file through your device. For the rest of your life, you will depend on the publishing company’s ability to maintain your access to these files. No problem, right? Amazon and Barnes & Noble have your back. Microsoft doesn’t, though: the company closed its e-book store this month, and will continue issuing refunds through July, as reported by BBC. And who would ever think a Microsoft service would crumble? Barnes & Noble has been struggling for a while. It’s not inconceivable that I could open my email to a notice that the Nook Store is closing within a few months. And as invincible as Amazon seems today, how can we know that they won’t be knocked off some day by a bigger (*shudder*) competitor? As long as most of my collection is digital, I’ll be vulnerable to the tides and waves of capitalism. It wouldn’t be a total loss, since B&N would refund the money, but it would be a tremendous commitment of time to find paper copies of a lifetime’s library.


Starting this week, I’m reviewing my Nook library and asking: What in here would devastate me if it disappeared tomorrow? Those are the titles that I’ll get in paperback. Amazon and Half Price Books are my top two purveyors, especially Half Price’s online marketplace, where you can often find good-condition books for $1.01, plus shipping. As of this writing, I’m up to forty volumes in my shopping cart (People say I have a problem, but that’s just because they’ve never gotten high off an old-book smell). It’s going to take a while to restock my metal bookshelves, but I know I’ll have them for life … or until the silverfish apocalypse.


Library Acquisition Patterns

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