Randall Payleitner

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10 Years After the Kindle... What’s the Verdict on Ebooks?

I’ll never forget when I first held an Amazon Kindle. I think it cost over $400, it had about 80 buttons, its interface was slow/unfamiliar, and yet it was pretty obvious that something cool was happening. There had been other ereaders (by Sony, et al) but this one was different. It was 2007.

Now ten years later, with tablets, smartphones, many more ebook retailers, subscription services, lawsuits, and countless other ereader models in our rearview mirror… What is the verdict on ebooks? I’ve got ten of them.

Ebooks are great for a number of things:

(1) Sampling

No doubt about it, the existence of ebooks has made “Search Inside the Book” functionality possible, accurate, and helpful. Ebooks are perfect for testing the content waters. Their dynamic (and often cheaper) pricing allows for us readers to dip our toe in the water without committing too much (this can also have unintended consequences… see below)

(2) Quick Buys

As far as delivery speed goes, nothing beats instant—not even a drone delivery. If you want a book now ebooks are your answer. The fact that you can buy pretty much any book ever written from wherever you are right now is actually amazing. Think about it.

(3) Traveling

The days of dithering over which (and how many) books to bring on a trip can now be over. Bring 4. Bring 14. Bring 400! Who cares? Ebooks don’t weigh anything, so, you never have to choose your reading mood ahead of time. In addition, having your “books” with you everywhere on your phone has also made unexpected delays, waits, and breaks much more tolerable. Train delayed 12 minutes? “Whatever, I’ve got my book right here!” Corollary to this one: Moving. The last time I moved, I had 42 boxes of books—yikes. Ebooks are much easier to pack!

(4) Consumer Pricing

For the price-conscious buyer, ebooks offer a welcome solution. Ebooks—while not any cheaper to write, edit, design, and create—are much cheaper to print! So, they are often cheaper to buy and this can open up whole new markets for publishers. Especially if you, the reader, are willing to wait a while for a publisher sale. *One additional point of note here is that the rise of 99 cent ebooks has led to inflated unit sales numbers and, I fear, a deflated number of those discount buyers actually reading the books all the way through because they aren’t financially committed to the endeavor.

(5) Disposable Reading

Many books are meant to be treasured, stored, and loved (more on that below). But for the reading that is more serial in nature or “consumable,” ebooks are the perfect solution.

 

Ebooks, however, are also not great for a number of things:

(1) Gift Giving

I’m sure some tech people at the various ebook retailers would say “well, technically you can give ebooks as gifts” and then proceed to give a 9 point process whereby I can pay for and redirect the location of a digital file to someone else’s phone/tablet. However, ebooks just don’t cut it as gifts. A book made from trees is still the best, most thoughtful way to give a gift to someone for less than $25. It shows you care, you know them, and you are interested in their exploration of new ideas.

(2) Knowledge Retention

Screens, especially portable ones, are really conduits for temporarily retained information. It all blends together: that blog post, that work email, that ebook, that article about the Cubs game. This is a classic case of the medium overwhelming the message. It seems to me that it’s harder to recall information initially procured on a little screen. Everything overlaps with everything else. But, on the printed page, our brains can recall paragraphs, where they were on the page, and even how far into the resource we were.

(3) Note Taking

This is another case of technology not quite being able to replicate the physical world. There are apps for all kinds of notes (I use them!)… but after awhile they become digital junk just like everything else. Ebooks aren’t built for underlining, circling, writing in the margins, and going back to down the road.

(4) Trophy Keeping

Am I the only one who, upon entering someone’s house, immediately scans the area for bookshelves? If it’s just me, please move on to the next point. Ebooks don’t keep very well. As a reader my books are my memories, my trophies, my benchmarks, and my favorite possessions. What do you talk about with someone who has no books in their house?!

(5) Digital Breaks

These days it’s hard for anyone to spend more than 30 minutes away from the Internet and the bright screen that accompanies it. And, as much as we love technology, we need breaks from it. A book (or a magazine, or a board game, or a real-life conversation) accomplishes something now by the very fact that it’s not digital technology. We need to make space for these things or else we’ll all probably lose our minds.

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Are ebooks good or bad? Probably both. I choose paper whenever I can—for the above reasons. It’s telling that ebook sales have plateaued and physical books are selling better than ever. One thing is clear, the demise of the paper book was greatly exaggerated and prematurely forecasted. Use them both and keep reading.