Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Should You Buy an eReader?

I keep seeing questions on Twitter and elsewhere with a variation on the query, “should I buy a Kindle?” This isn’t a question that can be answered in 140 characters, nor is it a question with one answer that is right for everyone. Even among regular readers of this blog, there are some who don’t have an eReader, yet.

My intent with this post is not to give the definitive answer, since it doesn’t exist, but to lay out the questions to ask yourself in making the decision and present you with some of the pros and cons. Making the proper decision about almost anything is a matter of weighing positives and negatives for the possible decisions

Over the next few weeks, I plan to follow this with additional posts delving deeper into some of the follow-up questions that might be raised, including the big question: which eReader should I buy?

The Big Questions

There are eight sets of questions to ask yourself. The answers will largely guide your decision. Many of these questions, for most people, won’t have a definitive answer. For example, many people read a mix of fiction and non-fiction. The percentage of each will help guide you to the answer that is right for you.

1)   How much do I read? Would I like to read more?

2)   What do I read? Is it primarily fiction or non-fiction?

3)   If I primarily read fiction, are the books I choose predominately those at the top of the bestseller lists? Do I like to read non- bestsellers, either current books written by “mid-list authors” that don’t make the bestseller lists, or backlist books (those that may or may not have been bestsellers in the past, but are no longer “new releases”)? Do I read a lot of “classic literature,” especially books published in the early 1900s or prior such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, or the Bronte sisters?

4)   If I read non-fiction, are those books mostly straight text or do they have a lot of pictures, tables, and footnotes? If footnoted, do I refer often to the footnotes while reading?

5)   Where do I normally get my reading material: library, new bookstore, used bookstore, or some other retailer with a book section? When I buy a book, is it usually as a paperback or hardcover?

6)   Do I borrow books from friends? Do I loan books to friends? Do members of my immediate family borrow books or lend me books? If either of these is true: how much does this happen? Is this done with a few friends or many friends? Do any of these friends have an eReader or other means of reading eBooks?

7)   Are there physical factors to consider? Examples would be eyesight issues such as difficulty reading smaller type or a tendency for your eyes to get tired after a long reading session, or physical weaknesses or disabilities that make reading a book difficult.

8)   Is it possible that moving from paper books to eBooks, but using an alternative to an eReader would be right for me?

Weighing the Factors

This section will discuss each of the questions above and how your answers might impact your decision.

1)   The more you read, the easier it might be to justify an eReader. However, eBooks don’t always cost the same as their paper counterparts. The financial tradeoffs depend, in part, on your answers to questions 3, 5 and 6 as well as some of the items in the “other things to consider” section below. Other factors may be sufficient to sway you in one direction or another even if financial considerations would indicate a different decision.

Many people find an eReader much easier to carry with them than a book, while others use a combination of eReader at home and an app on their Smartphone. This can make times that were previously dead, spent waiting at the hair salon, doctor, in long lines, or while commuting on public transportation productive reading time. Many people find they read more after getting an eReader, either because of these or other reasons, including the ability to buy a book directly from their eReader and have it immediately available.

2)   If you primarily read fiction, an eReader is more likely to be a good fit than if you read mostly non-fiction.

3)   Most books copyrighted prior to the 1920s are now in the public domain, with eBook editions of the most popular readily available for free from Project Gutenberg. These were created by volunteers who scanned and proofed them to create eBooks. If your reading diet is heavy on the classics, and you are currently spending a significant amount on paper editions, this would tend to push you towards an eReader for financial reasons alone.

If you tend to read bestsellers, especially when first released (in either hardback or paperback), then you’ll find the paper editions are often available from Amazon or your local store cheaper. This is because the pricing scheme used by the largest publishers doesn’t allow retailers to put the eBook edition on sale. Even though the eBook is normally priced less than the paper, retailers often discount the paper edition to less.

If you read lots of mid-list or backlist books, especially if you find you often have to special order these from the bookstore or order them from Amazon or, this would argue for an eReader, because these books could be available to you instantly and normally cheaper than the paper edition. However, you should be cautioned that not every backlist book available in paper is available yet in an eBook edition. Also, some books that are out-of-print can still be obtained, either new or used, from online retailers.

The flip side is that many authors of previously out-of-print books are making them available as eBooks. If this is a significant portion of your reading and you search out specific books, it might make sense to check the availability of a sample with the online retailers to get a feel for what is and isn’t available. Also, many authors, both those previously traditionally published, especially mid-list authors, and those previously unpublished are “Indie” or self-publishing eBooks. These are generally priced somewhat cheaper than those from the bigger publishers are.

4)   Non-fiction books with tables and diagrams don’t often translate as well to understanding on an eReader. Some publishers do better than others in formatting these for an eBook version. Also, the size of the majority of eReader models makes these difficult to see. While it is possible to format an eBook with readily accessible footnotes, publishers are hit and miss in how well they do this.

5)   If you currently buy books new, either in hardback or paperback, the relative pricing discussed in #3 above should be considered. eBook prices generally come down the longer a book has been out. You shouldn’t expect to buy an eBook version at a paperback price until the paperback is released.

If your purchases are largely used books, it is possible to maintain your budget buying backlist or Indie books; however, you might do well to compare recent purchases to get a better idea of the financial impact for your specific situation. If you sell books back to your used books store to offset some of the cost of buying more, you’ll no longer be able to do this with eBooks.

Some libraries now loan eBooks to their patrons. This has the advantage of not having to go to the library to check out a book, instead doing it through the library’s website. However, many of the larger publishers are limiting or not allowing libraries to lend eBook versions of their books. If not being able to borrow eBooks from the library is a deal breaker for you, a wait and see stance is probably the way to go at the moment.

6)   eBooks can be a positive or a negative as far as lending books among family and friends goes, depending on your specific situation. While this discussion is specific to Amazon and Kindle eReaders, much of it is the same or similar with Barnes & Noble and their Nook devices.

Sharing of books among Kindles (both apps and devices) registered to the same account on Amazon is unlimited and in most situations several devices can have the same book on them at a time. (Multiple readers reading the same book isn’t something you can easily do with a paper book.) Setting up an account for all family members or even a group of friends (assuming they are financially trustworthy) can facilitate this. Many books also can be lent one time for a limited period to another Kindle owner or someone with a Kindle app on their Smartphone, computer, or tablet computer.

7)   eInk based eReaders are very close to reading a book, at least in how your eyes will react to reading on them. They have the added advantage of allowing the reader to change the size of the font. For those who need large print books or who find their eyes tiring after a long reading session, an eReader is the answer. Also, eBook versions of books are going to be easier to find and possibly cheaper than large print paper editions.

The physical act of reading on an eReader is easier in some ways than reading a paper book. The weight is much the same, but there is no need to hold the book open. One handed and a certain amount of no handed (by laying the eReader on a flat surface) reading is possible. Even those without physical limitations may find an eReader beneficial for these reasons. For example, I’ve been known to empty the dishwasher while reading, which is much easier with an eReader.

8)   Some people may prefer just dipping their toe into the eBook world as a start. One way to do this is an app on a Smartphone, PC, or tablet computer. Any of these provide a way to experiment with the eBook world without investing in an eReader. The primary difference is that each of these has a backlit screen, which isn’t as easy on the eyes, isn’t optimized for the reading experience, and other than the phone, isn’t as portable.

For those who don’t read as much and already own or need a tablet computer, the tablet combined with an app might be a reasonable compromise. Apps are available for both Kindle and Nook books. Although they are branded as eReaders, the Kindle Fire and Nooks with color capability fall in this category or possibly a category all their own. While they are good for books in color, they don’t have the advantages of the eInk screen.

Other things to consider

DRM or digital rights management: If you don’t know what DRM is, read this post for an explanation. Many books have DRM and are not currently available from legitimate sources without. This will tend to tie you into a single vendor to protect your book investment. How important this is to you will be dependent on how often you refer to or re-read books you’ve already read. Although removing DRM is possible with minimal technical knowledge and some research, this is also illegal in many places, including the US.

Not having a physical book has implications, both positive and negative. People don’t know what you’re reading from looking at the cover, which can be good or bad. This is good from a privacy standpoint, but don’t expect someone to initiate a conversation about the book you’re reading if they don’t know what it is. That could be a pro or con, depending on your preferences, or maybe depending on the person initiating the conversation. Some people also enjoy showing off their book collection while others would prefer visitors not know what they’ve read or are reading. eBooks use less space, don’t attract the bugs and dust that paper books do, are much easier to deal with when you move, and traveling for an avid reader is much easier with an eReader rather than a stack of paper books.

There are those who claim the smell of paper, glue, and (sometimes) dust from a book and the feel of the paper are a critical part of the reading experience for them. I’ll admit, I don’t get this. For me, it is about the story. Maybe you’re different.

My concern before experiencing an eReader was that it would be just like a computer, not only the screen, but with a device getting in the way of the story. I discovered that wasn’t the case and within a short time reading on the eReader felt more natural than reading a paper book. This has been the experience for most people I’ve talked to, but a small minority disagree.

Most experts agree that in the long run more and more books, especially fiction, are going to be sold as eBooks. This will affect availability of paper formats and prices, with paper books, when available, becoming a “specialty” item, not unlike vinyl records. There is a case to be made that you’re going to make the move eventually anyway, so why not now?

Just like cell phones, technology has and will continue to advance and eReader capability will grow. Upgrades (if you’ve got to have the latest) and device replacement (just like any other gadget, they don’t last forever) need to be considered.

And then

As long as this post is, I’m sure there are things I haven’t thought about. Those of you who have made the jump, tell me and other readers what they are in the comments.

Update: For a discussion on making the decision of which eReader to buy, see this post.


Unknown said...

Great post - I think you've covered all the salient points.

One thing I would add, in favour of an eReader, is how portable it makes your library. I do a lot of series reading, so it's nice to be able to finish a book and immediately dive right into the next one. Similarly, I like to jump between genres as the mood strikes me, so it's fantastic to have the 3 or 4 books I'm currently reading with me at all times.

BooksAndPals said...

I agree, Bob. Although I don't travel as much as I once did, when on the road I hated to have to either carry several books or, even worse, finish those I had and have nothing to read. With an eReader your to-be-read stack is always there plus, for those who read multiple books at the same time, you have all your currently-reading with you as well.

Laurie said...

Great article!

I use my Kindle Fire for all of my non-fiction reading. I find that it works really well with tables and graphs in my non-fiction books. It also allows you to follow links in the non-fiction books that take you out to other websites. A win in my book.

For me, the Fire was the missing piece for my non-fiction reading.

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks, Laurie. I have a Fire, but rarely use it for reading, with the exception of recipes from cookbooks when I'm cooking. For long periods of reading my eyes don't like it as well as an eInk based device, but I need to check it out for non-fiction books with tables and charts. When considering the trade offs between an eInk device and the alternatives, a fire or other tablet might be preferable for those who read a lot of non-fiction.

For people who read some non-fiction, the Kindle for PC app and MAC equivalent are also a consideration if they want to be able to study tables and charts in my depth.

?wazithinkin said...

Al, this is a great subject for your blog and you have been very thorough! I have to say I did not consider myself a heavy reader until I received my Kindle as a gift from my husband. I think it was the greatest gift ever!

One of the best features for me is the ability to increase the font size when my eyes get tired and I am not ready to quit reading, and the ease of holding the device, compared to a hard back book. Being able to have my whole library with me at all times is another big plus.

I read fiction and have enjoyed finding many new Indie authors. My genres have expanded as well. It is so easy to download samples to give a test read, and the options seem limitless. I have the Kindle Keyboard and a Kindle 2 and my daughter has the basic Kindle and a Kindle 2. Three of my grandkids have Kindles also. I would feel lost without my Kindle by my side.

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks, Linda. I've always been an avid reader, but the Kindle has caused the volume to increase. A lot. :D

Unknown said...

I have the Kindle Keyboard with 3g, and a Kindle Fire. I didn't think I would read on the Fire very often, but it has surpassed my Keyboard one in usage for reading. I'll be keeping it for reading outside this summer, but since I carry the Fire with me everywhere I go, it's my main reader.

Naomi said...

I'd add:

- Where you're located in the world, and ebook availability/prices vs paper book availability/prices


- some countries will be limited in reader/ebook availability, due to lax copyright laws

- some countries still attract a $2 surcharge on every ebook on Amazon

- some countries have high enough paper book prices that paying $15 for a bestseller ebook doesn't seem so bad.

- ebook and paper book availability can vary widely from country to country, as can the prices.

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks, Naomi. I was going to hit on those issues when discussing which eReader to choose in the follow up, but you're correct, depending on what you like/want to be able to read and availability/pricing in your country from any of the eBook venues, the best decision might be to hold off on getting an eReader at all.

Unknown said...

We should buy e-readers if we travel a lot and we love to read. We can carry them everywhere with us, because they're small, portable and we can have on them hundreds of great eBooks downloaded from sites like All you can books. I'm happy that technology has grown and exist e-readers like these ones.

Carole said...

Very good post. I have jumped but only really for fiction. Since you like to read, I wondered if you might be interested in learning more about cryptic crosswords. If so, this is a link to a post I did recently on cryptic crossword clues that involve anagrams. Cryptic Crossword Clues - Anagrams

Aurana Books said...

Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I really feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you achieve experience, would you thoughts updating your blog with additional information? This can be very helpful for me.