Are e-books cost effective? The pros and cons of e-books

Yesterday, Google opened its ebookstore for business. The search giant joins Apple and Amazon (and Barnes & Noble) in a fast-growing field. Electronic books will never completely replace paper books, but they're going to make up a sizable portion — and maybe even the majority — of the market sooner than you think.

Naturally, more and more GRS readers are moving to e-books. In fact, I've had a couple of people ask me about them recently. For example, Peggy wrote last week to share her experience:

Amazon Kindle eBook ReaderWhat do you think of Kindle books? Do you have a Kindle?

Our family members are all avid readers. We live overseas and move every three-four years. Books are a major weight factor for us, so we started downsizing during our last move and kept only those books we enjoy re-reading or which have sentimental value.

This year we bought several Kindles, and I have to say, I really like it for its portability and that we can travel on R&R and have all our reading material in one small ‘container'. But when we retire and settle down, it might lose some of its attraction. I also wonder how it will hold up over time…but I guess it's too early to tell about that.

I'm a die-hard bibliophile. I love the look, feel, and smell of an old paperback. I used to have several thousand books, though I sold many of them to pay off debt. Still, I have a modest library, and I love it. I cannot imagine a world without books.

Having said that, I did own an Amazon Kindle. I bought one in early 2009, and used it for just over a year. When I bought my iPad, I sold the Kindle to a friend. I switched to the Kindle app instead. (For those who don't know, you can download the free Kindle app for iPad, smartphone, and computer, which means you can read e-books from just about any web-enabled device.)

Checking my Kindle account, I see that in the past two years, I've downloaded 54 books. Twelve of these were free, but the rest cost about $10 each. If I had to guess, I'd say that about half of my book dollars are now spent in the Kindle store.

The Pros and Cons of E-Books

I agree with Peggy's assessment: It's great to be able to have many books in a small “container”. It's awesome, really — like living in the future. To the extent that e-books help me reduce clutter, I love them. But I'm not wholly sold on e-books yet for one very simple reason: cost. Buying e-books usually isn't cost-effective. Not for me, anyhow.

First, you can only read an e-book on an electronic device. That means you have to own the electronic device, which itself costs money. Admittedly, most folks own an iPod, a smartphone, or a computer, which means they don't have to pay anything new for an e-book reader. But still, you're using a device costing hundreds of dollars to read a book. And that device generally isn't as portable and/or convenient as a paperback.

Second, e-books aren't cheap. In fact, depending on what you read, they may actually be relatively expensive. Perhaps to protect the paper-book industry, publishers have set what seems like obnoxiously high prices for most e-books.

Here's my assessment after two years of buying e-books:

  • E-books are great for new releases. For new books, the electronic version is almost always the cheapest way to go. At a friend's house the other day, I noticed he'd paid $29 for the latest John Grisham book. $29!!! That's insane. That John Grisham book costs $16 at Amazon, and the Kindle version costs $10. In fact, most e-books cost between $10 and $12. When the cost savings is combined with the space savings, e-books are the clear winner for new releases.
  • E-books are okay for classics. Anything that's in the Public Domain (published before 1923) can generally be downloaded to your e-book reader for free. Sometimes the formatting is goofy, and there usually isn't any supplemental material (like essays and notes), but you do get the books at no cost. (Searching for free Kindle books? Here's Amazon's list of free eBook collections, and here's their best-sellers in the Kindle store, including free books on the right.) Of course, these books can usually be had for cheap (or free) in their dead tree versions, so there's not a huge savings here.
  • E-books suck for most titles published between 1923 and, say, 2008. Books from the past century are still priced between $5 and $10 in electronic editions. This is ridiculous. You can borrow these for free from your public library. Or you can go to a used bookstore, a garage sale, or a thrift store to pick them up for less than they cost in digital format. Plus, tons of popular books aren't even available electronically. (A real-life, typical example: Cry, the Beloved Country costs $12 on the Kindle. A brand-new paperback copy from Amazon? $9. The mind boggles.)

Finally, this is both a pro and a con: With electronic books, you can download something you want to read right now. Buying a book for the Kindle is an almost instantaneous process. The morning we left for Europe, for example, we were seated on the plane just before takeoff, when I decided I wanted to read Eat, Pray, Love. In the two minutes before we were required to switch off electronic devices, I was able to download the book. It really is that easy. But, as I say, this is both a pro and a con. It might lead some folks to buy too many books on impulse.

End Notes

What about the reading experience itself? Some people prefer e-books to regular books. I don't. I tend to be a synoptic reader — I read several books on a subject at once. And with non-fiction, I'm often a non-linear reader — I jump around from chapter to chapter. Plus, in all books, I like to dog-ear pages and take notes. E-books suck at all of these things. Yes, you can add bookmarks and take notes, but it's a tedious process.

To summarize:

  • The part of me that hates Stuff loves e-books.
  • I use the Kindle app on my iPad often (it resides in the taskbar), especially for new releases. In fact, as soon as I finish this post, I'm going to spend a couple of hours reading Jayber Crow on the iPad.
  • But I think e-books are expensive.

My advice? Unless you're an avid reader of new books, I'd avoid the Kindle itself. Stick with the free Kindle app on a device you already own. And be careful choosing which books you purchase. Stay frugal!

Do you read e-books? What do you think? Do you find them convenient? Do you find they save you money? Do they cost more than the printed page? If so, are you willing to pay the price?

Photos by goXunuReviews.

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Kevin
Kevin
9 years ago

Like JD, I use the Kindle app on my iPad to read books. I’m relatively new to this experience, but it seems like JD hit all the major points, and I agree with everything he wrote. However, I would have liked him to expand the discussion a little to include magazines. I find I’ve completely moved from physical magazines to the digital versions. The difference between reading books and magazines on eReaders is much bigger than I would have imagined. Here are some of the reasons I’ve found this to be so: – Magazines frequently reference previous issues, making electronic… Read more »

Tracy
Tracy
9 years ago

They actually do save me money, but that’s because I’ve always been a huge reader – but I also have always had a combination of fear that I’d have nothing to read, or when I bought books, I’d always do it in splurges. I’m not capable of buying a single book at a time! But with my Kindle, I find it easy to just send myself samples of everything I’m interested in, and it satisfies the book buying urge – and then I only get the book if I’m really wrapped up in it. Plus I do read a lot… Read more »

Peter
Peter
9 years ago

I sometimes read ebooks on my ipod touch. Kind of small, but extremely portable. The only thing I would say to be careful of is that sometimes the ebook version is actually more expensive – for some weird reason. I bought a book recently and checked for an ebook version before i bought. I found that it was actually $6 more (for a new release) for the ebook. Doesn’t make sense.

Will
Will
9 years ago

I just got a Nook, Barnes & Noble’s answer to the Kindle, and one of the things I love about it is instantly checking books out of the library. Not all libraries have ebooks, but if they do it’s a very convenient way of reading books for free. Unfortunately, the Kindle doesn’t support this, but most other e-readers do.

Wesley
Wesley
9 years ago

Don’t forget to include the cost of gas or delivery charges when considering the difference in price for physical vs. e-book.

Yes you could go to a used book store, but if it takes you say an hour and 1 gallon of gas, you aren’t really saving much money.

keeper
keeper
9 years ago

In somewhat of a defense, older books are expensive to turn into e-books. Usable electronic versions of the final retail product may simply not exist. In many cases, someone has to literally scan every page, then it has to be proofed. Sure, it only has to be done once, but it is not a trivial task. Furthermore, old contracts with authors did not have any e-book provisions, so a new deal must be struck, with all the headaches that entails. On top of that, because of all the old copies exist as you say, the number of people who will… Read more »

Bryan
Bryan
9 years ago

My preference depends on the type of book. In any case, a dead-tree book is my last choice. For entertainment type reading, usually the of the epic fantasy Lord of The Rings type books, I actually prefer unabridged audiobooks. I have a premium Audible.com account. I’m currently working my way through Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time series. If an audiobook isn’t available for whatever it is I’m wanting to read I’ll go for an e-book, preferably Kindle via a Kindle App on my PC (or soon my Windows Phone 7). Then as a last choice, I’ll go for dead trees.… Read more »

Tara
Tara
9 years ago

I own a Kindle. I use it mostly when I’m traveling and I will buy the paperback book if it is cheaper than the Kindle book. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I save money, but the convenience is definitely worth it to me. I tend to read non-fiction books chapter by chapter at random, between fiction books, so having the Kindle allows me to do that quite easily. I tried borrowing books from the library when I first moved here, but I found that I never finished the books before they were due and then I had to return them… Read more »

Beckie
Beckie
9 years ago

My issue with ebooks is that they’re not easily transferable to others. When I was backpacking through Europe, I was meeting new people by exchanging books we’d read. The whole backpacking world became my library – and I didn’t have to lug a large number of heavy books throughout my travels. When I finally settled back in the US, I still exchanged books with friends and would buy and sell books at thrift stores/used book shops – none of which is possible with ebooks.

Amy
Amy
9 years ago

One savings with ebooks is the ability to download the first chapter for free. This gives me the opportunity to decide if I really want the book before I spend the money on it. That is worth a lot to me.

smirktastic
smirktastic
9 years ago

I’m old school, I guess. Still get paper books from the bricks and mortar library. However, I’m a fan of anything that encourages more people to read, more often, so if an e-book helps you do that, go for it!

Mary
Mary
9 years ago

I love my Kindle. I like reading books on it. As to the money side of it… I used to go to the bookstore, buy two or three books, and inevitably not all of them would get read. With the Kindle, I’ve been very good at downloading samples and then buying only from the “do you want to buy now” button at the end of the sample. The e-reader forces me to be more honest about how much I can actually read. Also, I am finding myself using the library more. I read the sample and then make the decision… Read more »

Robin
Robin
9 years ago

I have a Kindle, and I am a very frugal person. And I don’t buy very many new books. I got my Kindle on sale (Kindle 2’s, right before they brought out the 3’s, were $110). I have had it 4 months, and have only bought one “full-price” book (Suzanne Collins Mockingjay, if anyone cares). And I have around 800 books. Maybe 100 are public domain. The rest have been free or cheap (less than three dollars, mostly $0.99). Mostly free. Maybe 200 are books I’m honestly interested in. But at $3 (used price), that’s $600! Plus I have a… Read more »

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago

Only eight comments, and already I love the discussion. Like Bryan, I’m a huge fan of audiobooks. Nothing can beat the experience of listening to a well-read book. It’s magical. Re-reading my post, I feel like o downplayed the convenience in favor of cost. Just as I’ve digitized all of my music, and am now digitizing all of my movies, there’s a lot to be said for digitized books. As Peggy said in her e-mail, it’s awesome to have a portable library in a small container. Kevin, I haven’t explored the world of digital magazines. Where dowse one start? How… Read more »

Emily
Emily
9 years ago

Librarian here. If you have a Sony or Nook, you can borrow ePub format books from some public library systems (especially big-city ones that have huge collections). You can check them out at two in the morning if you like, which removes a big impediment some busy people have with using the library. For me, it’s the best of both worlds–all the portability and no-clutter of the e-book reader, but I get 2/3s of my books, including recent popular stuff, for free from the library.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

We don’t have one yet, but every year we get closer to buying one. Our university library has recently started making a lot of books available online, and their ereader is a pain to deal with, even on a laptop. Every time I’m going through one of their online books I’m wishing I had something like a kindle or ipad to use. Something with less glare that I could lie back in an easy chair with. I have hopes for the future. This year we haven’t done much traveling so I haven’t had as much time to pleasure read nor… Read more »

Jake
Jake
9 years ago

My comment that Library books can be had on many devices that aren’t Kindle has been covered. Welsey’s comment about the gas is probably appropriate, and also is a ding against a getting books from a library. You address the weight when it comes to moving, but you don’t address the storage. Bookshelves don’t grow on trees, and even the cheap particle board ones are $50+. With eBooks I can store thousands of books. I also don’t understand the comment “that device generally isn’t as portable and/or convenient as a paperback”. One of the reason’s I bought my Nook was… Read more »

Barefoot & Married
Barefoot & Married
9 years ago

You forgot to mention a major plus of some e-readers – checking books out from the library electronically! I own a Sony Reader (and I have heard that Nooks have the same feature), and it allows me to read anything in a pdf or Word format (along with many other formats). It is fantastic for reading all sort of things, but best of all, library books. Most libraries have an e-book section now, and you just select the book you want and download the file onto the e-reader. It simply expires off of your reader when it is “due” to… Read more »

Chris
Chris
9 years ago

I bought a Kindle recently for reading PDFs (grad student). It’s cheaper than printing everything out, or paying for new glasses because I’m reading so much on a backlit screen. It’ll probably be a long while before I pay for any ebooks, since I’ve got several free novels by the likes of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Melville on it that I’ve yet to read.

Kevin
Kevin
9 years ago

@JD,

Like I said, I started with the “Zinio” app, which is apparently favourably reviewed. It has a self-contained digital storefront, through which you can buy single issues of magazines, or subscriptions. Alternatively, you can manage your subscriptions through a regular web browser on your desktop computer. I’ve found the cost comparable, or slightly cheaper, than print-editions of the same magazines.

The app comes with several free demo issues of various magazines, it’s definitely worth a look.

Steve
Steve
9 years ago

I find that my personal reading time is feast or famine. When I have a lot of time (e.g. I am working at a job where I commute by bus), I can get through a physical book from the library before it’s due. When I don’t have a lot of time, I can only get through a book or two a year, so purchasing them used isn’t a great cost in either money or space. Either way I don’t buy a whole lot of books. Also I don’t yet own a smart device. I do have access a computer obviously… Read more »

AB
AB
9 years ago

I’m a fan. I got a kindle recently, and while I feel sometimes like I’m cheating on my giant paper book collection, I love love love my kindle. There are tons of good ebooks that are 5 bucks or less, and more are coming out every day as authors are putting up their backlists and publishers are getting smarter about pricing. I almost never pay more than 5 bucks for a book on my Kindle, and many I’ve gotten for free (publishers do promotions and often offer the first book in a series free). I think I’ll probably trim down… Read more »

David
David
9 years ago

@J.D. – Does the app let you import your own documents? If so, and if ePub is one of the allowed formats (should be), then you can borrow from the library. Borrowing eBooks from the library for my nook is fantastic! The selection is great (overwhelming, if anything), and once you figure it out, it’s easy to do. My biggest disappointment as an eReader is the lack of selection in eBook stores. It’s getting better, but I still often encounter books I want to read that I can’t find in digital format. Here’s my recommendation for birthdays / holidays: Instead… Read more »

Linda in Chicago
Linda in Chicago
9 years ago

J.D. you can read ePub books with iBooks on your iPad. iBooks is a free app that may already be loaded on it, too. I read ePub books on my iPhone with iBooks and love it. I also have the Kindle app, but haven’t used it much since I can find so many things in ePub format. Reading PDFs on the small iPhone screen is not as great, but I do it when I must, such as with knitting patterns I’ve scanned. Unfortunately there aren’t many ePub books available through the Chicago Public Library system, and the few that are… Read more »

DG
DG
9 years ago

eBooks from commercial vendors are (most likely) never going to be an option for me. If those books would be provided in a format that’s not crippled by DRM then, yes. Otherwise, no.

I don’t like the threats that the vendor can remove any ebook that I have *paid for* whenever they feel like it (something some have already done).

The “free” ebooks on the Amazon web site can probably found elsewhere on the web. Start here, for example:
http://www.planetebook.com/

These ebooks exist in a standard format: PDF. And once I downloaded an ebook it’s not going to disappear. Ever.

KM
KM
9 years ago

I’m interested, but I haven’t tried an e-reader yet. It seems like a lot of money, and then you have to pay for the books on top of buying the reader. The limited number of books available for each e-reader also worries me. I’m also not sure about the format–I like flipping through books, books with gorgeous pictures (art, architecture, gardening), and lending or giving away my books after I read them. I also read primarily stuff that isn’t fiction or best-sellers. Probably I’ll eventually cave and get an ipad. I can’t see spending money on yet another electronic device… Read more »

Liz
Liz
9 years ago

Note that both Barnes & Noble and Sony allow you to borrow ebooks from your local library – can’t do better than that!

Andrew
Andrew
9 years ago

When I can buy a ‘book’ and receive both the hard-copy in the post, and download the ebook, I’ll use an e-reader. Until then, I’m sticking to dead tree format.

There is also no way I will buy something with DRM on it. Totally voting with my wallet on this one.

I really want an e-reader though.

Megan
Megan
9 years ago

I’m a huge reader, but I haven’t yet adapted to reading much on my iphone, or even downloading books from the library onto my laptop. However, right now my library doesn’t link very well to the iphone and if it did, I think I would “borrow” more to read. It does do audiobooks but with a hearing loss, that’s not of interest to me. I think ereaders work for people who are willing to buy books but for me, if it’s not at the library, or I can’t read it in an hour at the bookstore, I find I’m not… Read more »

Stephanie
Stephanie
9 years ago

I’ve always been an avid reader, used to take a book a day on vacation. Didn’t leave much room for clothes in my suitcase though! Before our honeymoon this year, my husband bought me a used Sony Ereader off Craigslist. I loved being able to travel so much lighter! That being said, outside of travel I still utilize my local library for dead tree books. I vastly prefer free to paying money for electronic versions. When we do travel, I try and pick out the cheapest books on my lengthy list of stuff I want to read and load up… Read more »

Heather
Heather
9 years ago

This is a very timely post for me! I was recently gifted a Sony pocket edition reader as a bridesmaid gift and have been spending the last few days poking around the internet looking for free ebook resources. Never would have bought an ereader for myself, as much as I’ve coveted them: at this point in my life I have more important things to save for…like a house. I’m an avid user of the library and have severely curtailed my book-buying habit the last few years to save money, and I certainly don’t intend on reversing the trend now that… Read more »

Money Maker
Money Maker
9 years ago

“Electronic books will never completely replace paper books”

Probably what the stone carving tablet guys said when Papyrus was invented and started threatening their industry.

I seriously doubt paper will exist in 10-20 years. It just doesn’t make to cut down trees and burn valuable fuel to ship words around.

Jeff
Jeff
9 years ago

I’ve been a consistent detractor of Kindles and e-books since they’ve come into existence. I’ve never purchased an e-book nor a Kindle. My main issue is cost, which I think is unreasonable with libraries and used books. Here are a few additional reasons I don’t like them other than what’s in the article: 1) You can’t share them easily. Now they are coming out with ways to share, but that person still needs a device to read it. 2) You still have to carry around the device and that device needs power to run. Granted there is good battery life… Read more »

Thad
Thad
9 years ago

I have two problems with many of the eReaders, but especially the Kindle. 1) I don’t want ‘big brother’ reaching into my library to remove the items they deem offensive. The DRM on the Kindle means that you don’t own those books that you purchased. In other words, if Amazon or the publisher or the author decides that they don’t want to continue with the eBook, then you can lose your copy. That does not happen with traditional hard copies. 2) I get my books for free from the library. Sure, I have to go once every couple of weeks… Read more »

Sasha
Sasha
9 years ago

I got the B&N Nook because I am in online classes and find that staring at a screen to absorb information does not work for me. At the time of purchase, Kindle did not have a convenient way to read PDFs and the Nook did. The process of reading for classes has been easier with this portable device. For this reason alone, it was worth the investment. A plus side is I can free download books from a variety of sources (Borders has a good list of free stuff) or samples of books from B&N to see if I like… Read more »

Stacy
Stacy
9 years ago

I am a devoted bookworm mostly via library and used bookstore or Goodwill. I debated long and hard and finally bought a Nook when I saw a good price on Craigslist ($80 for the basic with a case). I have a friend who works for BN and he told me what to look for in a used one and checked it over for me. The tipping point was a 10 day vacation across the country and a plan to travel more in the future. I typically travel with a backpack full of books, and it was wonderful to only have… Read more »

Jessica Bosari
Jessica Bosari
9 years ago

eBooks won’t be my main source of literature until I have the ability to download them, save them wherever I want and hand them down to my kids. The books my father handed down to me are special. You should be able to hand down eBooks too.

RP
RP
9 years ago

My husband got me a Nook for my birthday this year, and I’m using it almost exclusively for my major reading habit (3-5 books a week). I’m doing this while still being majorly cheap by checking ePubs out from the library. The Nook also lets you lend out any books you do buy to anyone with a Nook or the Nook app (for the lending time, you can’t read it, but they can). I’ve tried this out once with my husband and it worked like a dream. Now I just have to find someone who wants to read what I… Read more »

Rachel
Rachel
9 years ago

I want to point out that the actual cost of paper, print, and binding for a book is relatively low. (I can’t speak to distribution; my side of the biz doesn’t sell through regular channels like Borders or even Amazon.) What you’re actually paying for is the intellectual property of the author, and the time & efforts of all the people who edit the manuscript, design the book, and otherwise work to translate the author’s thoughts & ideas into a format that you, the consumer, can read. That expense, that investment on the part of the publisher, is there &… Read more »

Kyle
Kyle
9 years ago

I would love ebooks even if they were consistently MORE expensive than actual books because of the convenience factor. It’s well worth the price to be able to carry 20 books on my next flight without having to devote my entire carry-on to reading material.

Shari
Shari
9 years ago

You really should have titled this “Is Kindle Cost Effective?” since you didn’t look at how ebooks work outside the realm of Amazon. Many commenters have already pointed out that on other devices, you can check out ebooks from many libraries. Did you know that Baen Books offers free ebooks? They don’t just offer a teaser chapter masquerading as a free ebook – an act that I find disingenuous. They offer free ebooks as part of their marketing plan. With their release of Cryoburn, every hardcover copy came with a CD with all the ebook versions of the entire series… Read more »

Jim
Jim
9 years ago

I know a lot of people who keep each book they read as a kind of trophy. Why else would people have bookcases in their homes containing anything other than reference books? They keep War & Piece out there to show you that they read it and that they are cultured, educated people!

eBooks can’t do this.

James
James
9 years ago

In addition to the recreational reading, what about college textbooks. Some kids are paying $50, $100 or even $200 for a book that they try to sell back for $20 at the end of a semester (only if a new revision doesn’t come out.) Why can’t they release them in ebook for and then you could have your entire semester in the palm of your hand.

DJ
DJ
9 years ago

Hi J.D.,

Another point that you made maybe not intentionally, is that you were able to sell off a substantial portion of your physical library to help pay down debt. I don’t believe that you can easily sell electronic versions of books. My guess is that it would be a lot more difficult to justify buying a “used” electronic copy of a book versus a well kept hard back edition. Unless of course, e-books with 120 pre-loaded books start popping up on Ebay like World of Warcraft character accounts. But I think is highly unlikely…

Robert
Robert
9 years ago

I own a Kindle and I use it mainly for Public Domain and Creative Commons works. I also use it to read PDFs for work. The main benefits for me are the size and the screen contrast. I have not bought books on the device. Everything on the device is mine because the Public Domain and Creative Commons works are free to distribute. With any paid material which are read on the Kindle, and any of these other e-book stores, the money spent buys a restricted, revocable, and heavily encumbered license for the material, not the material itself. I like… Read more »

fairy dust
fairy dust
9 years ago

@Robin #13 – when you say read the blogs daily to see what ebooks are available free, which specific blogs are you referring to? I think we (the family, but maybe just me if no one else likes it) are getting a Kindle for Christmas, and I want to be as frugle as possible about its use.
Thanks! Great topic!!!!

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

I don’t read ebook because of the cost. There are tons of books at the library and I have a lot of reading left to do.
If ebook cost $2 each, I might be more interested.

Todd
Todd
9 years ago

I have a Kindle and love it. Once purchased, there are no connection fees, the charge will last up to three weeks and, as I travel a lot, it saves a ton of space which is being limited more and more by the airlines. I read a lot of odd things so they are sometimes on the Kindle, sometimes not. I love the free public domain books. I like the ease of use, going out to a park on a sunny day makes the Kindle the closest thing to reading a physical book. I have no attachment to physical books.… Read more »

emily
emily
9 years ago

My husband quickly found that he ran out of books to read electronically because his tastes don’t run to NYT bestsellers. I hate that I can’t lend e-books to anyone.

b
b
9 years ago

One thing I dont like about an e-reader or e-book (I downloaded the Barnes and Noble e-reader to my iphone but rarely use it) is that you can’t share books. Paperbacks if you LOVE it you can pass it onto someone else who may love it. But with e-books it seems that you can’t share them.

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