Why I Hate E-Books

I reserve the right to change my mind on this down the road, but as a confirmed grump with Luddite tendencies, I have no interest in buying e-books.

My reasons are rooted in both pragmatism and principles.

E-books cost too much. I know this has to do with messy, tangled negotiations between Amazon and the publishers, and Apple and Google got involved somewhere along the line to mix things up further. However we got here, the end results is there in dollars and cents.

And in the numerous instances where an e-book costs more than its physical counterpart, buying the latter is a no-brainer to me.

This screenshot from Amazon shows that the Kindle version of Cloud Atlas costs $12 and a brand-new physical copy of the book is less than $9. If you’re a Prime subscriber like me, that lower price includes free two-day shipping. The pragmatic voice in my head refuses to spend $12 when I can get the same thing for $9.

cloud atlas

E-books also require hardware and that hardware costs money. Best-case scenario, you’ll use Amazon’s free Kindle app on some device you already have. But reading an e-book on a PC is hardly the point. For a real e-reader, you can shell out $69 for a bare-bones Kindle, but it’s more likely you’ll want a versatile device like a $200 Kindle Fire HD or a $500 iPad. Then you have to pay to fill it up with books after that.

The entry fee for physical books? Nothing. Maybe a bookshelf.

Now, the principle.

When you pay for an e-book, you haven’t bought the book at all. You’ve bought a licence, permission to read certain words in a certain order. It’s a pretty one-sided deal. And just like a driver’s licence, it can be revoked. Consider what happened in July 2009 when Amazon remotely deleted George Orwell’s 1984 from users’ devices—yes, I’m not kidding, Amazon censored a seminal work about censorship.

Amazon refunded the money, apologized, and promised not to remotely wipe books in the future.

But get this: Its terms of service used to explicitly allow users to keep a “permanent copy” of the content.

Today, Amazon’s Kindle terms no longer include the “permanent copy” language.

Buying a book actually gets you the artifact itself. Jeff Bezos would have to break into your house to get it back.

While there are certain systems in place that let you lend e-books out, they’re overregulated. Not all books are lendable and there are strict time limits on books that are. It’s impersonal. No human lends books this way.

I wish I liked e-books more. I realise they’re the wave of the future. Technology has an inevitability about it. E-books will take over the same way music on vinyl went to CDs went to MP3s. Already, the lower cost of distributing e-books is allowing books to be published that would never have existed on paper.

But the transition could be easier. Here’s what Amazon and the book publishers need to do.

  • Cap e-book prices at $10. I want for the book world what iTunes did for music. Amazon tried to push uniform pricing on the publishers early on, and it backfired. But simple, lower pricing for nonspecialized books seems like a no-brainer to boost sales.
  • Let me own digital books the same way I own my print books. Call it a licence or a sale, I don’t really care—just take away all the pain points in the interface which force me to think about the legal details.

Until then, the only real advantage in having a library of e-books is that it’s a little easier to pack up and move.