Negotiation, Negotiation, Negotiation

UK Property Investment news and comments from Mark Harrison of

ebooks vs. paper books

Posted by markharrison on January 5, 2011

Let me start with a confession: try as I might, I can’t bring myself to be rational on the subject of book formats. I am a bibliophile as well as a lectoholic.

I’m wrestling (again) with the question of how I should consume books. Let me think as a reader first, and I’ll come back to my viewpoint as an author later…

There are, as I see things, four broad ways in which I might buy a book:

  • I could buy it on paper (the so-called DTV / Dead Tree Version)
  • I could buy it in a format that locked it to one publisher’s software, but allowed it to be read on any device I own that runs that software
  • I could buy it in a format that allowed me to read it, restriction-free on any device (PDF/EPUB being the obvious example, but there are others)
  • could buy it in a nasty proprietary format that locked it to some specific reader software on a Windows PC

However, I can dispose of the last two options fairly quickly (at least, from my own perspective), albeit for very different reasons:

The “PDF/EPUB version”  – There are over 33,000 books available for free download from Project Gutenberg – primarily because they are out of (US) copyright. As such, if I want a classic book, like Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations“, this is a fantastic place to start. That having been said, the vast majority of things I want to read have been published sufficiently recently that they aren’t available for free, and the vast majority of publishers do not sell DRM-free books.

Then there’s the “why would you bother?” option of having a DRM-loaded book that could only be read with a special reader software, and normally locked to a single PC. This fundamentally fails the “I don’t work that way” test. I want something I can read on a plane, on a train, in bed, on the tube, in the bath… and a Windows laptop fails at least two of them (your mileage may vary.)

So, let’s consider the mainstream ebook options, vs. the traditional paper book.

The economic case

I have just looked up the four books I’ve ordered since Christmas:

So, the first part of the economic case is the cost. Let’s compare a brand new copy (from Amazon) with the Kindle edition (Amazon’s ebook format):

  • Never get… Hardback: £10.39, Kindle: £9.35 (no softback available yet)
  • The Art… Paperback:  £6.93, Kindle: £6.58
  • We feel fine… Hardback: £17.57, Kindle: £N/A
  • Spiritual Machines… Hardback: £16.43, Kindle £N/A

OK, our first issue is that only two of the four are actually available on the Kindle platform. However, for those that are available, Kindle is saving 50p – £1

But the “lifetime cost” of the book is important, so let’s consider the “total cost of ownership” of the books.

What if I want to lend the book to a friend?

Amazon introduced a new feature, in fact about 10 days ago, where I can “lend” my Kindle ebook to another Kindle user. There are some limitations (like, I can’t do it from the Kindle – I need to go to a real PC – doh!) I regularly lend books. However, this is only equalling the functionality I have with a paper book – I can lend that to anyone I want to – they don’t have to have a Kindle. I know only a few people who regularly read ebooks, and actually, as far as I can remember, Kindle isn’t their platform. This may, of course, change, but at the moment a clear win for the dead trees.

What if I want to sell the book once I’ve read it?

As far as I’m aware, I can’t. Once I’ve read my Kindle book, as far as I know, I can’t sell it back to Amazon (nor any other third party.) Nor can I give it to a charity shop and have them sell it.

Aren’t I failing to take into account delivery costs?

I have Amazon Prime. For a fixed annual fee, I can have “next day” (ho, ho, ho) delivery on pretty much any book from Amazon. It’s not better than 50% reliable in terms of “next day”, but it does mean I don’t pay shipping. As we saw above, only half the books I wanted to buy are available as ebooks, so I’d still be in a place where shipping costs existed, to the extent that I, personally, would probably stay with Amazon Prime anyway.

Can I buy second-hand?

As well as buying new, I average about 100-150 second-hand book purchases each year. Some are collector’s items, selling for more than the original price, but most are in the £1-3 range from a bunch of second-hand sellers, either locally to me, in Hay on Wye, in charity shops, or through Amazon marketplace.

In most (all?) cases, I’m buying that way, either because the books are not available new, or because it’s cheaper to do so than it would be to buy new. In some cases, the books are as cheap as a penny on Amazon. (And in some, brilliant, cases, I’ve picked up books I wanted for one penny that were eligible for Prime delivery – a book for a penny including delivery!)

Cost of an ebook reader

Actually, I’m prepared to accept that ebooks actually work out cheaper here! A Kindle would cost £100-150. That buys about 3 IKEA Billy bookcases… each Billy stores about 240 books, so a Kindle costs the same as (cheap) bookcasing for 720 books. This is about 2 year’s shopping for us, so we could buy a Kindle every couple of years, and hope they lasted.

Yes, an iPad would be more expensive, but would have other uses, and the ebook readers are only going to come down in price. However, the marginal saving is only of the order of 20p / book.

Economic Conclusion:

For me, ebooks would work out, in many, many cases, to be more expensive than paper books.



Where can I read a paper book? Where can I read an ebook? Where do I want to?

I have the following list of places I can read either:

  • On a plane, at cruising altitude
  • On a train
  • In the back of a car
  • In the front of a car during daylight (on the basis that reading lights distract the driver, I’m excluding the passenger seat)
  • In my study
  • In bed (I’m of an age where reading ebooks in bed is acceptable, sorry to those who consider it a breach of protocol)
  • In a hotel room
  • At the beach

However, there are places where I could read a paperbook, but not an ebook

  • On a plane, during takeoff and landing
  • On the loo
  • In the bath
  • In a working kitchen
  • On a bus in Central London (books don’t get nicked on buses, computers do, your perception of risk may vary!)
  • On a tube (ditto)

I am hard-pressed to think of somewhere I could read an ebook where I couldn’t read a paper book.

There is, of course, balancing this, the fact that, with an iPad / Kindle / iPhone on me, I could read anything I owned (in the right format) wherever I was – paper books limit me to the ones I have taken with me to wherever I am.

However, for my own lifestyle, I’m going to award this one to the paper books again.


I read a lot before going to sleep. I find it (much) easier to get to sleep if I’ve been reading on paper rather than on a screen. Win for paper books.

Reference / Lookup

The combination of text-search, and ebookmarking features do beat the combination of index (not all books have one) and bookmarks. That having been said, for reference books, I find the Post-It page markers very useful.

More to the point, however, with an ebook reader, finding the right book would resolve to “finding the reader.” With 5000+ books in the house, finding the right book is sometimes problematical:

  • Fiction is straightforward – group by category, sort each category by author. The only problem you sometimes find in bookshops (which have an order of magnitude bigger a problem) is category confusion, say, between sci-fi and fantasy, or between humour and crime (Jasper Fforde, you know I’m writing about you here!)
  • Non-fiction is far, far, messier. Yes, the Dewey Decimal system lends itself well to libraries that span the whole gamut, but those like mine that concentrate in a particular area are more problematical. Is this book about “property”, about “negotiation”, or what? Is this investment or economics? By author is fine for the books with an obvious author (Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Napoleon Hill, etc.), but remind me who wrote “Creative Capital” (a biography, not an authobiography, of George Doriot). Actually, by publisher is looking increasingly useful in my life, but that’s another story for another day.

So, overall, I’m going to give the win to the ebooks here.


The “Rational Conclusion”

For all the reasons above, I have to vote to stay with paper books.


P.S. …

Everything above has been self-justification, or at worst, sophistry.

My decision actually boils down to a simple fact – I love books.

Books aren’t just about the content. They are about how they make me feel, and the memories.

  • “Midnight at the Well of Souls” is, for me, as much about Inter-railing through the summer of 1991, and sitting on the Brindisi-Patras ferry, as it is about Nathan Brazil.
  • The Art of Kitchen Design is about meeting Johnny Grey at the Grand Designs Show, both exhausted at the end of long weekends on our respective stands.
  • “Family Food” is about my (then 5-year-old) son standing on a chair, holding a hand-blender in a dish of peas, saying “I’m so clever” while daddy is flipping between three different things to check timings

To trigger those memories involves looking at the book, listening to the rustle of pages, feeling the creases, finding the bus ticket that was used as a bookmark ten years ago…it’s a visual thing, a kinaesthetic thing, even an auditory thing.

There is an Epicurean streak in me… paper books give me a pleasure that no ebook reader I’ve yet encountered can match.


6 Responses to “ebooks vs. paper books”

  1. Hi Mark,

    I agree with your economic case – but I think you’ve made a few errors in the rest of your reasoning.
    Like you, I love books. My Anobii account shows a small selection of what used to sit on my shelves. But, this time last year I got an ebook and haven’t looked back. I’m in the process of taking all my books to charity shops or giving them to friends as I replace them with ebooks.

    First of all, your economic case is fundamentally sound. I would add that it is trivial to lend books. You can easily remove the DRM (if any) and tools like Calibre make it a cinch to convert a book if your friend has a different reader to you.

    Regarding utility.
    * On a plane, during takeoff and landing
    Mixed reports about this one. I’ve been on planes where they’ve let me use an ebook and I’ve been on planes where they told me to stow my paper book.
    * On the loo
    Without getting too graphical – that’s my second favourite spot for reading! May I ask why you don’t think it’s suitable?
    * In the bath
    Agreed – but you can get waterproof cases if you’re desperate.
    * In a working kitchen
    Again, agreed, but printing out a recipe if you need one isn’t hard. For sheer size of page and coloured photographs, it’s hard to beat a good cookery book.
    * On a bus in Central London (books don’t get nicked on buses, computers do, your perception of risk may vary!)
    * On a tube (ditto)
    In a year of using an ebook, I’ve never had a problem (perceived or otherwise) on the tube or bus. Indeed, the commuter services seem full of Kindle and iPad owners. But, yes, it’s as risky as having an expensive phone or mp3 player.

    Regarding the screen, you say

    . I find it (much) easier to get to sleep if I’ve been reading on paper rather than on a screen

    I think that’s based on looking at a computer screen. eInk has no light behind it, it just passively reflects whatever light is in the room. It even has the same sort of visual “texture” as paper. It’s just as easy to read as paper – with the added advantage that you can set the font size.

    I only partly agree with your epicurean argument. I’m keeping a few really personal books (mostly signed copies) but, having just re-read some of the Narnia series that I haven’t touched since childhood – I’ve realised that it’s the words more than the physical object that stirs my memories. That said, I’m finding it rather hard to give up my complete collection of Terry Pratchett books! Sentimentality is a funny old thing.

    There are three further arguments I will put forward in defence of ebooks.
    1) Text sizing. As I mentioned earlier, being able to change the font and font size is fantastic. We’re all getting old at the same rate – and one day our eyes won’t be able to focus as well as they did. You can either buy a new copy of “Catcher In The Rye” – or hit the zoom button.
    2) Lightness. Rather than taking 6 hardbacks with me on holiday, I took my Kindle. Not only did I have more space for Duty Free, I actually found the eReader lighter and easier to user one-handed while I was busy tanning.
    3) Paper burns. Not to get too Fahrenheit 451, but paper is a flimsy material. One stray flame and it’s all gone. My eBooks are on two separate eReaders, burned on to DVD, and stashed online.

    So, I hope I’ve turned the tide a little. I agree that ebooks are over-priced – but, for me, they’re superior to their paper ancestors.


  2. Thanks Mark. Enjoyed the post – it’s something I’ve been considering over the Christmas/New Year break. I love books too – and have been trying a Kindle and iPad for reading (and even the iPhone4).

    Mixed results – and no real winner yet. As I was waiting in the queue to get on the Channel Tunnel before Christmas I did read a play (about 70 pages) on the phone. Not too bad at all!

    On the iPad, I have read someone’s thesis in PDF – and cracked through about 60 pages of other books (but then have been “foiled” by my children wanting to play games on the iPad).

    I’m struggling a bit with the Kindle – it’s just such a “windowsy” interface compared to my iPad, iPhone, MacBook. All buttons and drop down menus! Not a pleasure…

    I’m still carrying around 2-3 books in my hand luggage (usually hardbacks) – and getting frustrated at getting them roughed up around the edges.

    My overall feeling is that I will end up comfortable with reading on the iPad – and it might well be used for when I’ve got 2-3 books on the go. Can see the “main read” of the week/month remaining in paper form though. I am also going to keep on dipping in to reading on the iPhone – once you get “absorbed” it’s not bad (and very convenient).

    Best wishes – and happy reading.


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