7 Reasons Why Digital Books are the Way to Go & 4 Ways They Still Need to Improve

Digital books are getting a lot of hype right now with the announcement of Barnes and Noble’s Nook. I really hope digital books take off. And for that to happen we are going to have to have lots of digital books, multiple readers and different business models. Here are just some of the top reasons I think digital books are the way to go.

  1. Convenience. You can read the book when you want it. Recently I decided I wanted to read Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child. Since I was leaving the next day on a business trip, I first checked to see if it was available on my Kindle. If it had been, I would have bought it immediately. It wasn’t, but Amazon would ship a paper copy to me for $10.98 + $3.99 for next day shipping. I checked all the libraries of my home town and the three closest cities. None of the libraries had it. I called Borders, no go in any stores within 30 miles of me. I called Barnes and Noble. They had a copy in a store 13.5 miles away for $14.99. I didn’t get it. Yet I would have bought it immediately in digital format.
  2. Anywhere, any time. You can carry lots of books with you at once. I always read at least two books at once, a fiction and at least one non-fiction one. When I leave the house, I don’t have to decide which one to carry now. On long trips, especially vacations, I no longer pack half a suitcase of books. (That’s good since airlines now charge for checked baggage!)
  3. Privacy. Nobody can see what you are reading. Usually I’m happy to share what I’m reading but my business books get strange looks at the kids’ events. The vampire books get strange looks from lots of people. The science fiction ones get “oh, you read that?” I don’t care what anyone thinks about what I read but sometimes it’s easier to just not deal with it. That said, having a Kindle, I’ve passed my book over to tons of people so they could check out the Kindle. I’ve often wondered what they’ve thought about my reading choice, but without the cover, people don’t seem to notice what you are reading. Even when they’re reading a page of it.
  4. You read more. At least that’s what Amazon and the New York Times say. They say you read more because you can carry your book with you all the time and get what you want quickly.

    Amazon for example, says that people with Kindles now buy 3.1 times as
    many books as they did before owning the device. […] So a reader who had previously bought eight books
    from Amazon would now purchase, on average, 24.8 books

    I think they are confusing buying with reading. Kindle readers are definitely buying more books but I’m not sure they are reading more. I’ve always carried my book with me. I think I read the same amount now but I definitely buy more books from Amazon as that’s the only way to get recent books onto my Kindle.

  5. Notes. I love being able to highlight sections of books or magazines for personal reference or to blog about later. It beats typing in quotes. I really wish I’d had an electronic reader with textbooks in college. It would have saved my back and made taking notes easier.
  6. Physically easier. I know a lot of people that complain they miss the feel of a paper book. I don’t. I don’t miss holding open a paper back with one hand, or holding a hardback book in two hands. (There was a book I really, really wanted to read and I was so excited that on maternity leave I was going to be able to read it. I went and checked out this 600 page hardback book from the library and discovered that holding a baby and reading a hardback book is really difficult. Three years later I still haven’t read that book …) That said, I still mostly read paper books and I’m not going to give them up until I can check digital books out of my local library.
  7. Access. With digital books we can give books, entire libraries, to people around the world. While there are still barriers like cost and language, it is a huge step forward. Schools that could only afford a few text books per student would easily be able to not only have more copies (assuming they are also getting technology) but up to date copies. Hopefully universities, text book publishers and electronic reader manufacturers keep developing countries in mind as they come up with new business models.

We still have to fix a few things with digital books. Here’s just a start:

  1. Cross platform. I want to be able to read my book on any device I own. I should be able to read my Kindle books on my Android phone. Or my computer. It shouldn’t depend on the seller to support my device.
  2. No vendor lock in. I can put lots of different format books onto my Kindle, but the books I buy from Amazon will only work on my Kindle. (Or an iPhone if I had one.) From a consumer point of view, it would be much better for vendors to agree on a format, or a couple of formats, but make them open so all readers could display them.
  3. Sharing. People are used to sharing their books. Either we’ll have to teach them that these books are so much cheaper that everyone buys their own (not yet!) or we have to let them share. Right now Amazon lets you share with your household members and Barnes and Noble will let you share with friends for a total of 14 days per book. Or perhaps we could move to a model more like Netflix and the O’Reilly Safari bookshelf where you are getting access to movies and books but not ownership. A subscription model as opposed to a purchase model.
  4. Libraries. Libraries provide information, including books, to citizens. There needs to be a legal and acceptable way for them to give books in digital format to their readers. I could see a model where they pay more for their edition and ensure that only one person can access it at a time. 
  5. Skimming. It’s really hard to flip through a digital book the way you would a paper book. You can search for something by word but you can’t search by flipping through and recognizing the page.

What do you think (or not think) that digital books are the way to go?

22 Replies to “7 Reasons Why Digital Books are the Way to Go & 4 Ways They Still Need to Improve”

  1. 6. And universally available.
    Kindle not available in Canada. Nor nook. But yet I can order any book on amazon.com and get them shipped here, 100km from Seattle, past the border.
    Looks like the eBook business has more borders than physical books.

  2. two other improvement:
    1 – possibility to take portable notes.
    2 – a water proof one so you can read in your bath 🙂

  3. Same problem here in NZ and we are the other side of the ring of fire!
    For some reason, and I strongly suspect a copyright issue, the International Kindle is not available here.

  4. As long as you can put your own content, DRM isn’t much of an issue since it’s easy to avoid. There’s a surprising amount of high quality free content on the Internet.
    IMO, the key thing holding back digital books is price. Unless books are your life and you’re always away from your computer, it’s hard to justify paying $300-$500 for a book reader.
    My guess is that once the price goes down to $150-$100, you’ll see the same surge of interest that happened when LCD Monitors broke the $400 barrier. Once that happens, competition will force the price to go down further and most of the above issues to be resolved.

  5. Interesting…
    …i don’t have one of these newer devices, tried e-reading on laptops ( 😉 ), PDAs and Smartphones, though. But i had a chat about it to my colleague the other day and realized that i’m still under the impression that e-reading will take off in the “topic literature” area…news, science books, life support ;-), that kind of stuff…but that in the realm of novels it wouldn’t unless some real physical improvements are made.
    The reasons for that impression:
    1) Novels are an emotional item…and – so far – we still like to identify emotional impact with physical objects a lot. We want to be able to touch what we love. If we love a book, it’s not enough to be able to borrow it…we want to have it. Also, we want it to be a book. A physical object that we can project our love onto. I think e-readers are inherently lacking that feature.
    2) Two very significant qualities of paper are softness and sturdyness. You can sleep on a book without significant discomfort, nor the fear to break it. In fact you can abuse a book in so many ways…it’s scary ;-). You need to apply a specific technique (ripping) on a piece of paper to really destroy it. Or you just burn it. You can throw it around, punch it, stump on it, have your 2 year old chew on it…it will survive it all. You can even drown it (briefly). These features make paper books ‘lovable’ objects…everyday life companions. Current e-readers cannot provide that…though i think technology will be able to solve that issue sooner than later.
    Do you read novels on your kindle?

  6. Agreed. Not just portable notes but a standard way to see which book you are quoting.
    And waterproof would be great – for the pool, outside when it might rain, etc.

  7. I think either the reader or the books have to go down in price. I would think that the reader/books is kind of like printers/ink where the manufacturers make more money off the ink than the printers.

  8. I read a lot of novels on my Kindle and really enjoy it. I also read nonfiction but I’d say it probably takes me longer to read a nonfiction book on my Kindle than in paper because I’ve got all those novels handy …

  9. The Nook seems to be getting closer but I still prefer this old Thinkpad X41 tablet with Fluxbox and Evince.
    An XO is good for reading in sunlight but it just takes too long to startup and get to where one was.
    And the Sugar interface is as awkward as the GNOME 3 Shell promises to be.
    And reading a programming or *nix book really requires being able to start a terminal emulator in order to play the home game version. So unless that’s easy to do, I’m not that interested.

  10. Agreed.
    No e-paper readers are available on MX and UI languaje is only available on English.
    I actually have to travel to US to be able tu buy one of these.

  11. I think you are off base with libraries paying more to restrict access to books to one person.
    Surely the weakest aspect of a library is that they have limited copies and only one person at a time can physically access each copy. Digital books should liberate libraries from this restriction.
    I read that the nook may have the ability to loan your e-book to someone and remove your ability to access it while it was loaned. Again this is backwards we should not be hide bound and restricted to simulating the physical.
    If I loan you an e-book be I a library or individual it should be a time limited, but not restrict me from accessing it. Once your loan time expires you loose access to it and need to check it out again.
    Should I be required to pay extra for this – yes I think so, but I certainly won’t pay extra for an e-book that locks me to one device at a time.

  12. I think most of the current thinking is to limit the book to one person at a time not one device at a time. For example, with the Kindle now you can read the same book (at the same time) on your Kindle and your iPhone. And soon your Windows PC.
    But if you lend it to someone, like libraries do, the thought process seems to be that only one person should be able to read it at a time. I was thinking that the library could pay more to have more rights/privileges. (If more than one person can read it at the same time, how do we compensate authors and publishers appropriately?)

  13. Let’s enter the e-reader buzz and ..
    So, assumming I am sony e-reader biased, IMHO:
    –> e-readers should be cheaper.
    For developing countries 320 usd can be regarded as A LOT OF MONEY. And for what I’ve been reading so far, they will.
    –> e-readers should ease the transfer and formatting of legacy documents.
    For example, reading US Letter size PDF’s on the e-reader is far from pleasing. Zooming destroys the PDF format and graphics are not shown.
    –> We are not exploiting the potential capabilities of the existing e-readers.
    What if I want to read that large email on my e-reader? Formatting the document to the appropiate size and margins is not very strightforward.
    It should be easy: like a button in openoffice that says “print to your e-reader”, the magic occurs and seconds later you have that document “printed” on your e-reader. It’s an electronic paper anyway.
    Calibre is pointing towards that. They have this very very nice feature of downloading your RSS and pack them in a e-reader compatible format. So you download all the posts on Planet Gnome to your e-reader and then read trough all them while on the track to home.
    My two cents.

  14. I bought mine when I realized I was spending over $1000/year on newspaper subscriptions (The NY Times and the SF Chronicle). With the reduced price of subscriptions on the Kindle, it paid for itself in a few months. Granted, reading the Kindle is not as nice as reading an actual newspaper, but I’m willing to give some of that up for the cost savings. (And it does have advantages… I like to read the paper outside in the sun, but here in windy SF, that’s hard to do with an actual paper.)
    Similarly, books are often (but not always) cheaper than their physical counterparts, so that defrays some of the cost of the device. (But you can’t loan them to other people, so they’re also less useful.)
    Pluses and minuses.

  15. Andre: I agree with you somewhat. A lot of people have sentimental attachments to books. But these sentimental attachments aren’t actually USEFUL, and people will shed them over time. The same argument could have been made about photographs, don’t you think? Some people get prints of their digital photos, but in my anecdotal experience, most don’t and are content to look at them on a computer.
    For the record, I’ve actually been reading more novels since I got my Kindle, but I don’t think that’s actually because of the Kindle… I’ve just made a conscious decision to read more fiction.

  16. Thanks for your responses…Michael…i do believe that there is a feeling of awkwardness involved in showing people pictures on a laptop over handing around paper photographs. I believe, digital picture frames kinda resolve that lack of ‘intimacy’.
    But it’s interesting to hear that both of you actually read novels on your devices…guess i’ll have to adjust my conception somewhat.

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