An American Editor

July 1, 2010

eReader Economics: Buying a Reading Device Is Economical

Several times in recent months people have sidled up to me as I have sat reading on my Sony PRS-505 e-reading device to inquire about the device and the reading experience. After going through a demonstration and letting them “play” with it a little, the final question comes: “How expensive is it?” It used to be that once they heard the price, they couldn’t wait to move on. But with recent price lowerings, people are becoming more interested.

I understand the sticker shock. My Sony cost $300 two Christmases ago, to which I added another $70 for a 3-year extended warranty that covered all contingencies (a warranty that, I should add, has given me peace of mind but which has never been used) — roughly $400 for a device to read books, which I could do already without the device. Although my particular model is no longer available, you can buy a similar Sony (the PRS 300) for about $150 (the primary difference is that my Sony has a 6-inch screen and the 300 has a 5-inch screen) or the Sony 600 for $199 (it has a 6-inch touchscreen). (Also worth noting is that Barnes & Noble lowered the price of its nook, Amazon lowered the price of its Kindle, and the Kobo is also available at a relatively low price.)

But the economics of these devices actually argues, depending, of course, on what you like to read, for the “reasonableness” of the cost — whether that cost is what I originally paid or today’s prices (and tomorrow’s likely prices). If your reading consists only of books that appear on the bestseller lists, then the reader is convenient but probably not very economical. If your reading habits tend to be closer to mine, then the economic arguments in favor of owning one far outweigh those against.

I have always been an avid reader. As a kid, I used to take out 6-10 books every week or two from my local library. As an adult, my reading habits continued except that I now buy more books than I will ever get read. In addition to quantity, I have a relatively broad reading interest when it comes to nonfiction, and a narrower interest when it comes to fiction.

What I have discovered since I received my Sony Reader is that the quantity of books I read has increased and my range of fiction topics has widened. The Reader makes it easy to enjoy reading.

But little of that has to do with the economics of the reading devices. The question is how does the cost of the reader balance against the cost of buying books? For me that balance definitely tips into the positive side of the scale. First, thousands of very good books, including many, if not all, of the classics, are available for free. If I spent an average of $8 for a paperback that I read once and I spent $200 on a reader, just 25 free books would negate the cost of the reader; the 26th book would start the scale tipping to the positive side.

Finding 25 free ebooks to read is easy. There are many sources. Granted, none are the current New York Times bestsellers, but does that really matter? My Sony Reader has also opened me to the world of the independent author and the small (need I say micro) press. Before my wading into the ocean of ebooks, the only way I would find a book to buy and read was by going to my local bookstores. How many of us can go to such a bookstore and find independent authors and small press books easily?

eBooks have changed that equation. And the advantage is that many thousands of ebooks are available for less than $3. If I only bought ebooks at $3, I would have to buy 67 of them over the life of my Reader to balance out the initial $200 purchase price. Not a difficult task for most of us; for many of us that amounts to no more than 2 years’ worth of reading, and often less than 1 years’ worth. And if I mix free with ebooks costing $3 or less, it simply won’t take long to recoup that investment.

It should also be noted that many of the available free ebooks are contemporary and well-known author ebooks; that is, not just self-published or indie authors. For example, these ebooks are available for free: John Gilstrap’s No Mercy, John Stross’ Overtime, Rachel Swirsky’s A Memory of Wind, John Miller’s Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith, and Warren Adler’s American Quartet. Some inexpensive contemporary fiction examples are Heather Graham’s Ghost Memories ($2.84), Fern Michaels’ Fool Me Once ($4.75), Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet ($4.19), J.D. Robb’s Midnight in Death ($1.99), and Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dragonswan.

The point is this: Buying a dedicated device to read books can be very cost-effective if you are an avid reader and not wedded to reading only what the bestseller lists proclaim are the reads du jour. If you haven’t looked into such a device, now may well be a good time to do so.


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