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Are e-books cost-effective?

E-books aren't cheap. In fact, depending on what you read, they may actually be relatively expensive.

By Karen Datko Dec 20, 2010 1:43PM

This post comes from J.D. Roth at partner blog Get Rich Slowly.


Google has opened its e-bookstore for business. The search giant joins Apple and Amazon (and Barnes & Noble) in a fast-growing field. Electronic books will never completely replace paper books, but they're going to make up a sizable portion -- and maybe even the majority -- of the market sooner than you think.

Naturally, more and more GRS readers are moving to e-books. In fact, I've had a couple of people ask me about them recently. For example, Peggy wrote last week to share her experience:

What do you think of Kindle books? Do you have a Kindle?
Our family members are all avid readers. We live overseas and move every three to four years. Books are a major weight factor for us, so we started downsizing during our last move and kept only those books we enjoy rereading or which have sentimental value.
This year we bought several Kindles, and I have to say, I really like it for its portability and that we can travel on R&R and have all our reading material in one small "container." But when we retire and settle down, it might lose some of its attraction. I also wonder how it will hold up over time … but I guess it's too early to tell about that.

I'm a die-hard bibliophile. I love the look, feel and smell of an old paperback. I used to have several thousand books, though I sold many of them to pay off debt. Still, I have a modest library, and I love it. I cannot imagine a world without books.


Having said that, I did own an Amazon Kindle. I bought one in early 2009, and used it for just over a year. When I bought my iPad, I sold the Kindle to a friend. I switched to the Kindle app instead. (For those who don't know, you can download the free Kindle app for iPad, smart phone and computer, which means you can read e-books from just about any Web-enabled device.)


Checking my Kindle account, I see that in the past two years I've downloaded 54 books. Twelve of those were free, but the rest cost about $10 each. If I had to guess, I'd say that about half of my book dollars are now spent in the Kindle store.


The pros and cons of e-books
I agree with Peggy's assessment: It's great to be able to have many books in a small "container." It's awesome, really -- like living in the future. To the extent that e-books help me reduce clutter, I love them.


But I'm not wholly sold on e-books yet for one very simple reason: cost. Buying e-books usually isn't cost-effective. Not for me, anyhow.


First, you can read an e-book only on an electronic device. That means you have to own the electronic device, which itself costs money. Admittedly, most folks own an iPod, a smart phone or a computer, which means they don't have to pay anything new for an e-book reader. But still, you're using a device costing hundreds of dollars to read a book. And that device generally isn't as portable and/or convenient as a paperback.


Second, e-books aren't cheap. In fact, depending on what you read, they may actually be relatively expensive. Perhaps to protect the paper-book industry, publishers have set what seems like obnoxiously high prices for most e-books.


Here's my assessment after two years of buying e-books:

  • E-books are great for new releases. For new books, the electronic version is almost always the cheapest way to go. At a friend's house the other day, I noticed he'd paid $29 for the latest John Grisham book -- $29!!! That's insane. That John Grisham book costs $16 at Amazon, and the Kindle version costs $10. In fact, most e-books cost between $10 and $12. When the cost savings are combined with the space savings, e-books are the clear winner for new releases.
  • E-books are OK for classics. Anything that's in the public domain (published before 1923) can generally be downloaded to your e-book reader for free. Sometimes the formatting is goofy, and there usually isn't any supplemental material (like essays and notes), but you do get the books at no cost. (Searching for free Kindle books? Here is Amazon's list of free e-book collections, and here's their bestsellers in the Kindle store, including free books on the right.) Of course, these books can usually be had for cheap (or free) in their dead-tree versions, so there's not a huge savings here.
  • E-books suck for most titles published between 1923 and, say, 2008. Books from the past century are still priced between $5 and $10 in electronic editions. This is ridiculous. You can borrow these for free from your public library. Or you can go to a used bookstore, a garage sale, or a thrift store to pick them up for less than they cost in digital format. Plus, tons of popular books aren't even available electronically. (A real-life, typical example: "Cry, the Beloved Country" costs $12 on the Kindle. A brand-new paperback copy from Amazon? Nine dollars. The mind boggles.)

Finally, this is both a pro and a con: With electronic books, you can download something you want to read right now. Buying a book for the Kindle is an almost instantaneous process. The morning we left for Europe, for example, we were seated on the plane just before takeoff when I decided I wanted to read "Eat Pray Love." In the two minutes before we were required to switch off electronic devices, I was able to download the book. It really is that easy. But, as I say, this is both a pro and a con. It might lead some folks to buy too many books on impulse.


End notes
What about the reading experience itself? Some people prefer e-books to regular books. I don't. I tend to be a synoptic reader -- I read several books on a subject at once. And with nonfiction, I'm often a nonlinear reader -- I jump around from chapter to chapter. Plus, in all books, I like to dog-ear pages and take notes. E-books suck at all of those things. Yes, you can add bookmarks and take notes, but it's a tedious process.


To summarize:

  • The part of me that hates stuff loves e-books.
  • I use the Kindle app on my iPad often (it resides in the taskbar), especially for new releases. In fact, as soon as I finish this post, I'm going to spend a couple of hours reading "Jayber Crow" on the iPad.
  • But I think e-books are expensive.

My advice? Unless you're an avid reader of new books, I'd avoid the Kindle itself. Stick with the free Kindle app on a device you already own. And be careful choosing which books you purchase. Stay frugal!


Do you read e-books? What do you think? Do you find them convenient? Do you find they save you money? Do they cost more than the printed page? If so, are you willing to pay the price?


More from Get Rich Slowly and MSN Money:

Dec 21, 2010 1:32AM

I will never understand the e-book versus "dead tree" book "debate".  Why MUST there be conflict here? Who cares the medium through which the printed word is delivered? What matters is that people READ!


Many will prefer the "dead tree" method. Many will prefer e-readers. Many will combine both, preferring e-readers while traveling for example but reading "dead tree" books at home, etc.


One way isn't superior to another. Just different.

Dec 20, 2010 11:10PM
There is one advantage to textbook e-books recently pointed out to me by a friend. It is much easier to slip an I-Pad or a Kindle into your backpack . . .and oh, so much lighter.
Dec 20, 2010 8:41PM
In the world of college textbooks, at least, e-books are an expensive route to go.  They're generally near the cost of a used book (maybe a little cheaper at first), but they cannot be sold back.  If you buy used and sell back, it's almost always cheaper than an e-book.  And e-book textbooks generally can't be kept for very long (most expire in 6 months or a year and you're left with nothing).  They're getting higher tech (you can actually "highlight" in them now and things like that), but I would still much rather have a real book that I can sell at the end of the semester again.  The only exception to this would be when a book is changing editions and a cheap copy can't be found. 
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