Books and Ebooks: Renumerations on the Future

My GF recently published a book, The Girl in the Bunker, which has a ebook version and a physical version. This caused me to think about the future of books (also, given the fact that I will probably never get my thesis published as a monograph, I had cause to ponder). So my basic premise is that ebooks will be the larger market than physical books. The difference between the two will be that ebooks will be more like renting a book, see The Right To Read, while a physical book will be a true ownership position.

The difference will be reflected in the price. My GF’s ebook is priced at just over £1 while her physical book is priced at £10. The difference is ownership. In the case of an ebook you will never own the book itself, see Amazon’s revocation of 1984 as an example. The difference between the price of the ebook and the price of the physical book is the convenience of the digital form and the lack of true ownership of the ebook.

There is also a difference in risk. The risk of an ebook is that the proprietor of the site whence you purchased the book could at any time disappear and take your ebook with them. This means that the risk needs to be adjusted in the renter’s favor. To entice people to rent an ebook means that it will need to be priced such that if the website shuts down, the renter is not out of pocket too much and thus will take the risk of renting the ebook.

So, while ebooks will probably be the larger market, I do not expect books to disappear any time soon due to the difference in legal positions and the risk involved. As a scholar, this means that while it would be nice to have digital editions of the books that I need, I will more than likely continue to purchase books as I cannot afford to have a book vanish. Also, some people like to collect things so while the market in plain books will diminish, the market in autographed copies will probably take up some of the slack.


Ebooks and regular books have a number of other important differences.

From the standpoint of weight, you can carry (or at least have access to) as many ebooks as you like for the weight of a smartphone or other ereader. This is a major reason for students to buy their textbooks as ebooks: they can keep their freshman calculus book handy when their in physics classes without injuring their backs. This is why I bought a tablet pc back around 2003, though it never actually ended up being as useful as I had hoped.

On point is the actual experience of reading a tactile book. For my literature review for my dissertation, I gathered a collections of articles, printed them on my nice laser printer, and had them cheaply bound at Kinkos. This has a number of advantages over a collection of a hundred individual pdf files (though I have them on my computer, too). The articles in that bound copy will always be in the context of the surrounding articles, and that has served as a mnemonic trigger for me a couple of times. Being able to write math equations in the margins is something that I’ve found helpful but which I don’t think you can do with the current batch of ereaders without a stylus. Who has a stylus?

You’re only renting if you go with Amazon/Kindle.

If buy an epub then you have a file that you can use anywhere you like, and that cannot be taken away from you.

This is the equivalent of buying an mp3 rather than an encrypted AAC - you’re using an open standard that can be used anywhere.

Also, an ebook discount that high seems unusual. Checking for another recent book:

the price differential seems more reasonable there.

Regarding the future of book publishing Kathryn Rusch has an interesting section of her blog about it:


You can get DRM epubs, but I’d avoid them too, because you’re locked into the same problem.

As with music, I’m only interested in DRM-free solutions when it comes to buying.

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user-pic Celticist, Computer Scientist, Nerd, sometimes a poet…