Recently I have been thinking about eBooks and eReaders – not something to which I gave serious thought in the past. That might be surprising given my predilection for electronic gadgets and books. Two passions which have not found the opportunity to merge in any plausible fashion. However, at a meeting of a book club that I frequent a few of the members were enthusing about their eReaders, a Kobo and a Sony Touch eReader. There are also others on the market, including the much-promoted Kindle from Amazon. One of the book club members had her Kobo with her and passed it around so that we could get a look and feel. I was intrigued.
I have never been convinced by the line that eReaders enable you to carry hundreds of books with you when you travel. Whether on business or pleasure I have never been able to read even half a hundred books while I travel. If I manage one, two at the most, I feel reasonably satisfied. Then there is the pleasure in leaving behind in some distant cottage a novel that some other traveller some day may pick up and enjoy.
So, the portability of mass quantities is not particularly motivating.
Is there any cost argument in favour of eBooks and eReaders? Of course nothing but the ingenuity of man hinders the vast reduplication of digital objects which, in theory, could reduce unit cost of eBooks effectively to zero. In theory, perhaps. In practice the ingenuity of man (dread phrase) seems to have been dedicated to sewing up the DRM on eBooks about as tight as you can sew a stitch. And though the unit cost of production of these digital objects must over time approach zero, I am willing to accept that in the shorter term there are costs that need recovery. Where, then, is the price point – the point at which consumers will click the purchase button – for eBooks? To my surprise the price point is rather high (for others). Not exactly the same as the versions of books transported on organic matter, but not so far distant as to be insignificant. But to be fair, I shouldn’t compare the cost to full price paper books because I am loathe to make such purchases except as gifts. When eBooks are compared against the kind of discounting that Amazon does on a continuous basis or, worse, compared to remaindered texts (for which there seem to be numerous outlets in my region), then the eBook suffers. After all, these would be superfluous purchases for me. My price point for such purchases is very low indeed.
Especially when you consider the further alternative – the library.
The public library, along with socialized healthcare, is, I think, a gauge of civilized society. We are blessed with a fabulous public library within walking distance, the Waterloo Public Library, and an equally impressive public library just down the road in the adjacent city, the Kitchener Public Library. Access to books that can be borrowed free of charge (to the end-user) is more than adequate.
My experience is that libraries are always near the forefront of technological advancement. That impression was confirmed when I discovered that our public libraries also make available eBooks for loan. The Waterloo Public Library, for example, offers some 1655 eBooks, a small but growing collection. Of course these are licensed digital objects. The DRM systems in place are able to limit downloads to a single library patron for a set period similar to the period of loan for paper books. (Set aside how counter-intuitive that seems for a digital object.)
So perhaps a cost argument could be constructed in favour of purchasing an eReader. (I notice that my ‘cost arguments’ always seem to be hypothetical arguments I might have with my wife, or better self.) For an initial not insubstantial capital investment, I could have access to eBooks at no further cost (to me) on into the future. Isn’t that the way I justified buying a somewhat pricey digital camera a few years ago?
Perhaps. And yet, for me the price point still has not been reached (at least for the eReaders themselves). I think I will stick with my paper bound volumes of text for the time being. Or wait to be convinced by someone else.