BLOG The value of a good eBook

We all love to read. But are your shelves groaning under the weight of countless hardbacks? Blogger Lee Harris discusses the joys (and costs) of reading electronic versions:

How Much Would You Pay For A Bunch Of Pixels?

I’m an avid reader, both personally and professionally. Before my daughters were born it was quite common for me and my wife to go on holiday with six or seven books each. We were able to take this few, secure in the knowledge that there would be some crossover interest, and if we ran out of reading matter we’d probably be able to find a book exchange somewhere locally. Still – 14 books is a lot of extra weight to carry around. Not that I can’t do with the exercise, but that’s a different matter…

After my daughters were born our holiday reading time diminished somewhat, and we’d be lucky to get through a whole novel each while away (sometimes we’d be lucky to make it all the way through a short story), but before this momentous event I discovered something that would revolutionise the way I read books – the eBook.

You always remember your first time. I was stuck at a three-day long photoshoot in a remote part of Scotland, with little to do. For some reason lost in the mists of time I had no book with me. My phone had a good sized screen and internet access, though, and I remembered reading somewhere about how electronic books were on the up, and that paper versions were so passé, darling, so I had a bit of a browse, and found a couple of sites that sold downloadable novels. This was about seven years ago, and the novel I was particularly interested in at the time was American Gods by Neil Gaiman. The hardback was out, and I was surprised to find it already available for download.

The hardback price? £16.99. The eBook price? $24.99 +VAT (You don’t pay VAT on physical books, but you do on eBooks). Luckily, the site I was browsing had an offer on for first-time customers, and I picked up the book for about $15 (+VAT), so about a tenner. There was no way I was going to pay hardback pricing for a bunch of lousy pixels! Even the tenner was more than I thought I should pay, but I was desperate for something to read.

I settled down with my purchase, unsure if I would be able to enjoy it as much as a “proper” book. Wouldn’t the act of pressing a button to move the text prove too distracting?

As it turned out, no, it wouldn’t. It was a little odd, at first, knowing I was reading a book on a screen slightly smaller than a playing card, but I soon became lost in the prose. It was the words that were most important, not the medium. And the pressing of a button every now and then was no more distracting than the turning of a page. Perhaps even less so.

I was hooked, and devoured eBooks at a phenomenal rate. Because they fitted on my phone, I always had a book with me – usually several. If I was ever caught up on a late-running train? eBook. Ever staying overnight with a relative? eBook. Short stories, novels, novellas – everything.

There was one thing that I didn’t understand, however, and that was the pricing structure. An eBook was typically released around the time of its dead-tree counterpart, and it was typically priced the same, so a new hardback release would find the eBook priced as a hardback, and the price would drop to paperback price once the paperback was released. It is also common to find that a book available in a three-for-two offer at your local retailer is full price in its electronic version – it can be cheaper to get on the bus, head into town and buy a book, than to download a virtual copy – even taking bus fares into consideration. That can’t be right, surely.

And don’t get me started on DRM.

Every year I read predictions that the eBook had taken hold, and that the end of the dominance of the paper version was in sight. Every year the predictions have been proven wrong. The pricing has been a major factor, of course, but so was the availability of a sensibly-priced device on which to read them – not everyone had – or wanted – a phone with a big screen, and dedicated eBook readers usually cost upwards of four hundred pounds. PDFs weren’t much more useful – it’s one thing to read a short story sat at your PC, but it’s a different experience sitting in front of your monitor for hours on end, reading a whole novel.

These days, of course, you can pick up a dedicated eBook reader for about £200, and that price will continue to fall as more people discover how useful they are. Big screens on phones are now more common, and with the arrival of the iPhone and iPod Touch there are now tens of millions of people around the world with a decent eBook reader in their pocket, as opposed to the tens of thousands when I first started e-reading.

So, why haven’t eBooks sold in the numbers predicted? I think this is down to two main factors. Firstly, human beings are naturally resistant to change. There’s something comforting about curling up on the sofa in front of a roaring fire with a well-loved paperback – there’s little romance in the electronic equivalent. This attitude will change over time, I think, as the next generation gets used to doing everything electronically, and the purchase of an eBook as opposed to a paperback will be a matter of convenience, not preference. The second reason is the once I’ve spent most of this blog post discussing – the price. I feel cheated when I’m asked to fork over hardback prices for an eBook, so I refuse to do it, and I’m an eBook fan! The not-yet-converted will almost certainly be put off the whole experience by the current pricing structure.

I could go on for hours about this subject (and frequently do), and I’ll be talking more about it on a panel at EasterCon in a couple of weeks, so feel free to come along and heckle, but in the meantime, you tell me – do you buy eBooks? What do you like about them? And what would you say was a fair price for a novel-length eBook?

This is a personal article by Lee Harris, one of our bloggers. Your thoughts on this subject welcome as always, as Lee encourages. Over to you…