Last year I wrote about my tepid enthusiasm for ebook readers like the Kindle. Now that the iPad is on shelves, people seem to be trying to convince me more than ever that I need to get with the times and stop reading paper books.

I do not own one of these devices, nor do I plan to buy one in the near future. But a lot of people are buying them, I won't deny that. They are buying these devices because they are doing a cost/benefit analysis that I believe is oftentimes incorrect.

(from Flickr user atmtx)

Consider this... if a hardcover book costs $20 and the ebook version costs $10, buying the ebook would result in a $10 savings per title. If the iPad costs $500, then after 500/10 = 50 book purchases, the iPad will be paid for, right? Not quite.

Books are an asset. When you buy a new book, you can do several things with it. You can read it. You can stick it on a shelf. You can rent it out. You can loan it out. You can give it away. You can sell it. The book may depreciate in value, but it will probably always be worth something. And the cash flow you can generate on your book depends entirely on how you wish to use it as an asset.

An ebook is different. Once you download it to your reader, it's been "consumed". You can't rent it out. You can't loan it out. You can't give it away. You can't sell it when you're finished reading it. So to say that buying ebooks results in a $10 savings per title assumes that once a hardcover book is purchases, that's the end of the story. Often, it isn't the end of the story.

And of course, we could get into questions of whether ebooks purchased today will exist in any form ten or twenty years down the line. We know that hardcover books will stand the test of time. Imagine if, two decades ago, publishers decided it would be a great idea to distribute works on 5-inch floppy disks. Would anyone still have those titles today? Would they have advanced as technology advanced? Nevertheless, I digress... because this is really another discussion entirely


    On June 10, 2010 Kent said...

    There has been some talk of using a standardized format for eBooks, which I understand already exists. That way, they would be portable between devices. Somehow, though, I don't see Steve Jobs going for that. His technological authoritarianism may be great for the purposes of innovative design and functionality, but it's not so good for openness to, well, Openness.

    On June 11, 2010 Kenny said...

    Of course, there are other factors on the other side as well. If I'm traveling, and think of something interesting I read about once, then I can quickly look it up on an ereader (especially if there's some text search feature), but I can't look it up in the hardcover unless it's a book that I happened to bring with me on my travel. Perhaps this is more important for academic books and less important for fiction, but it's a further consideration.

    On June 14, 2010 John said...

    Just go to the library and save the $10 or $20 entirely. Sharing books seems a bit more efficient than everyone having their own copy of everything. Imagine 300 Million copies of the Da Vinci Code floating around, taking up space on bookshelves. It would be like everybody having their own car instead of just getting on a bus or train to go to work. Oh, wait...