An American Editor

May 16, 2011

The Buying Conundrum: pBook or eBook?

In a recent post on the Teleread blog, Joanna, a contributor to Teleread, vented about being tired of pbooker’s “economic snobbery.” She wrote,

If you read any ‘ebooks versus print books’ article, you’ll soon come across the print fetishists. These are people who acknowledge the rise of ebooks—grudgingly—but then insist that ‘real’ book lovers surely prefer paper, or that paper is ‘nicer’ or a ‘better experience’ or in some way superior. I am starting to get really annoyed with these people! Overlooking the obvious ‘print and pixel really can co-exist and there is no need for an either/or mentality’ argument, I am starting to grow a little offended by the economic snobbery that I perceive in some of these arguments.

What I think a lot of these ‘paper is superior’ people fail to consider is that even in this modern day and age, having a large paper library is still an economic luxury.

(For Joanna’s complete post and the comments it generated, see Print Fetishism, Economic Snobs and the Price of Real Estate at Teleread.)

Needless to say, I couldn’t keep my fingers off my keyboard and so I wrote a response. But after thinking about it, I decided that a more expansive response here at An American Editor might be appropriate, so here it is.

Joanna essentially makes a generational argument. She is in the same generation as my children, those just starting their careers or a few years into it, whereas I am at the other end of the spectrum. I agree that this makes (or should make) a difference from the financial perspective. But that has always and will always be the case.

When I was Joanna’s age, decades ago, I learned to prioritize how my money was spent. At her age, I didn’t make a fortune and had to decide between, say, spending a few dollars to see a movie or to buy a book or not spending it at all. Yet even in those hard-pressed days, when I lived in a studio apartment whose rent surpassed 50% of my net income, I bought books. Unlike spending money to watch a movie, I never considered book buying to be frivolous — reading was (and is) the primary method for learning.

I am not dismissive of the economic woes and realities of my children’s generation, but everything has to be dealt with in perspective. I remember my parents, for example, paying a mortgage of $30 a month, at a time when they earned only $15 a week. Gas also cost less than 25 cents a gallon, the New York Times was a nickel, you could buy a Coke for 5¢, and so it went — and the take home pay reflected that cost of living. I don’t know anyone today who has a mortgage or rent of $30 a month!

Of course, in those days, ebooks existed only in the imagination of science fiction writers. Personal computers hadn’t yet come on the scene and the Internet, as we know it today, didn’t exist. To buy a hardcover book required a significant investment. In proportion to earnings, hardcover books were luxury items back then and a bargain today. Paperbacks were the “poor person’s” access to literature. How things have changed with the passing decades.

eBooks are the next step in the evolution of personal libraries. Some day — but not today — pbooks will be a true luxury item and part of antiquity. Someone will recall them but be unable to produce in hand an example.

eBooks have lots of benefits for readers today, but not financially. Yes, they are the way to build a collection when you are hard pressed for real estate to house a pbook library, but that problem existed 25 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago — some people had homes large enough to house vast libraries whereas others lived in cramped studio apartments, some less than 100 square feet in size with everything communal but sleeping quarters. Yet, people read, bought books, and endured. And they learned to love the pbook, especially the paperback, which brought reading to the masses by making it more affordable.

I admit I actually prefer ebooks to pbooks for reading. If I could, I would buy every nonfiction book that I buy in hardcover also in ebook form so that the hardcover could go on my library shelf and I could read the ebook. But pbooks do have seven things that ebooks currently do not have:

  1. When I buy a pbook, I own it; when I buy an ebook, I rent it.
  2. pBooks are resaleable on a secondary market and/or rise in value as they become scarce; ebooks are never scarce and have no secondary market in which I can recoup some of my investment.
  3. Nonfiction pbooks tend to be less expensive to purchase than the ebook version and are available for significantly less on the legal secondary market, which includes the legal remainders market.
  4. pBooks can legally be cooperatively bought, thereby reducing the price to individuals even further (I have bought in cooperation with my son several books over the years that we have shared the purchase cost of).
  5. My pbooks can be lent to other readers innumerable times; if I’m lucky, an ebook can be lent once for 2 weeks to another reader (after being lent that one time, the ebook cannot be lent again to anyone).
  6. Once I buy a pbook it remains mine; unlike the ebook, no one can remotely remove the pbook, replace the pbook, or do anything that interferes with my ownership of the pbook.
  7. As my collection of hardcovers grows, I, too, may run into the space situation. At that point, I can reevaluate my pbooks and remove some from my collection, and I either sell them on the secondary market (see 3) or, more likely, I can donate them to my local library, which is happy to obtain them as they are in pristine condition, giving me a charitable contribution deduction on my taxes at the fair market value, which is the average price in the used book market. I can’t sell or donate no-longer-wanted ebooks to anyone, let alone to my local library.

The day when ebooks have a universal format and DRM scheme, like videos do, some of these pbook advantages will disappear. But at least from a purely economic perspective, pbooks — at least those from the Agency 6 — have a greater economic value and are a better bargain than ebooks. eBooks shine on portability and ease of reading on the electronic device, but that’s about it — ebooks often cost more, sometimes much more, than the hardcover, so from an economic viewpoint, ebooks are no bargain.

It seems to me that the person struggling with finances would be better off buying a pbook version than an ebook version of an Agency 6 publication. The initial cost and the subsequent ability to recoup some of that cost seems to me to create an unbeatable combination for the frugal. Of course, free and low-priced indie ebooks change the calculation, but then those aren’t the pbooks I buy.

Joanna is right only in the sense that real-estate challenged readers have a hurdle to face and overcome with pbooks that they do not have with ebooks — the storage problem — but she loses the argument when she dresses the problem in economic terms. For the real-estate challenged reader whose disposable income is limited, the person Joanna describes, buying less-expensive pbooks is a better deal than buying the ebook because the pbook can be read and then sold on the secondary market. No need to tie up valuable real estate with a pbook collection, plus you pay less to begin with.

Seems to me rather than being peeved at those of us who still like pbooks, she should be thinking about how to maximize her purchasing power by buying and reselling pbooks. (I will concede, however, that once we move away from the Agency 6 and from the economic issues, ebooks are the better choice.)

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