So Many Books, Too Little Time

My motto should be:  “ Quot Libros, Quam Breve Tempus” or so many books, so little time.

My patron saint is Henry Bemis.

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In case you don’t know Henry Bemis, he was played by Burgess Meredith in a very famous episode of Twilight Zone, “Time Enough at Last” about a super-bookworm, Henry Bemis.  Henry was a bank clerk who never could find enough time to read, until the world came to an end.

I never can find enough time to read either.  It’s a life of quiet desperation for words.   I have more unread books on my shelves than I will be able to read if I lived to be 100.  I also have a book buying addiction – I buy 7-10 books for every one I read.  I’ve always rationalized I will read them someday, but at 60, I know that’s not true.

I had an epiphany the other day.  I was flipping through some free books I had picked up and it dawned on me that I will never run out of something to read, even if I didn’t own a single book.  I have access to so many free or cheap books, that owning books doesn’t matter anymore.  I even pictured myself finishing a book and just leaving it where someone else could find it, and then stumbling onto my next read.  There’s a service for leaving books for other people to find called Book Crossing.

There’s also a movement called Little Free Libraries, where people build tiny waterproof libraries to give away books.  They put them in public places, or in front of their homes, with a sign “Take a book, leave a book.”  I wonder if I built a little free library box for my yard, would there always be a book in it I’d want to read when I finished my current book?

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Where I work we’ve had a free book table for years.  I always find something to read there.  Today I snagged The Victorians by A. N. Wilson, and Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind by David Berreby.  Yesterday my friend Ted handed me Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  Before that I brought home The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman.  Don’t be too impressed, I doubt I’ll actually read them, but like Henry Bemis I dream of the day when I could.  Ted is giving away hundreds of books.  Over the years so have I.

I’ve also rediscovered libraries, and my main library now has a used bookstore as part of the library.  So there’s a library book sale every day except Sunday.  It’s classic section always has at least one book I’ve always wanted to read.  Last Saturday I came home with five such books, for about $9.

And even if I couldn’t find a free book, there’s never been a time I’ve walked into a bookstore and not found a book I wanted to read.

This makes me wonder why I hoard books.  Generally I don’t read books off my bookshelves because I’m always hearing about a new book I want to read.  Serendipity always selects my next read, so why should I bother gathering books to somehow plan my future reading?

Well, it’s an addiction.  Not a bad one.  I don’t have to steal to keep up my habit.  The worse aspect about it is my house fills up with books and I have to decide which ones to give away.  That’s what I’m doing this week.  So far I’ve brought five cloth bags of books to the free book table at work.  The fall classes start this week and they will disappear quickly.

Another source of books is friends.  I know enough bookworms telling me about great books that I could mooch off of them for the rest of my life.

There’s also an Internet service called BookMooch.  You list books you want to give away by mail and people contact you.  You earn points towards mooching books off of other members.  I have access to so many free books that this service wouldn’t help me, but people living where books were hard to find should love it.

And just remember the new world of ebooks.  Feedbooks and Manybooks fills my Kindle and iPad with classics and public domain books.  And Books on the Knob daily reports all the great free ebooks that are available.   My library provides me with free ebooks to check out, and Amazon Prime lends me free books too.

I could reduce my bookshelves down to one volume, a Kindle, and never have to worry about finding something to read again.

I don’t think I’ll give away all my books.  I have too many I keep for sentimental reasons, but I do think I might try overcoming my book buying addition.  There’s no reason to hoard books.  Well, I can think of one reason.  If the world came to an end like in the Twilight Zone show, it would be great to have a stockpile of books to read if I was a sole survivor.

JWH – 8/21/12

What If I Only Bought Books Just Before I Read Them?

I’ve always bought books far faster than I could ever read them.  That’s always been true for physical books, and it’s even truer for audio books and ebooks.  I just can’t pass up a bargain, like Audible.com’s recent sale that priced hundreds of audio books at $4.95 each.  I bought 10 and I’m thinking about buying more, even though I have 60-80 audio books I haven’t listened to yet because of previous sales.  Now my Kindle is filling up full of ebooks waiting to be read.

Amazon has been offering 100 ebooks each month for $3.99 or less.  Plus Books on the Knob keeps me informed of a constant stream of free ebooks and ebooks at bargain prices.  And SFSignal announces almost daily free SF/F/H ebooks to try.  There are so many free ebooks deals out there, and not just crappy books, but books worth reading, that it would be possible to never buy another book again.

I already own more books than I have time to read even if I lived to be 100.  I’m a book addict.

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I know why writers and publishers give away ebooks.  They want exposure.  New writers wants readers.  I’ve read blogs by new writers who say when they price their books free hundreds and even thousands of them get downloaded.  Of course, they also say, when the put a price back on the books, the downloads slow to a trickle, but that trickle is more sales than they got before they offered their books for free for a few days.  Even established writers offer some of their books for free hoping to get attention for their other books.

I’ve yet to read any of the free ebooks I’ve collected.  And I’ve only read a handful of the bargain priced ebooks.  And I wonder if I’m typical?  Does free ebooks just inspire a kind of hoarding and not reading?

If I was practical I’d only buy a book just before I was ready to start reading it.  Now this is like believing I’m only going to eat food that’s good for me, but it is quite logical.  Even if books were $50 each I would save a tremendous amount of money if I only bought books I actually read.

What if all readers actually followed through on this practically plan of book buying?  What percentage of book sales go to unread books?  What percentage free books get read?

Maybe I just like shopping for books.  Maybe I just like reading book reviews.  Maybe I could find a way to collect books I want to read but probably won’t, without buying them.  I’m in a book club and I made up a list of potential books to read and found that very enjoyable.  I even like rereading the list.  I could build a virtual library of the books I think I want to read.  Growing up I wanted to own a bookstore.  Maybe that’s why I hoard books.  I also worked in a library for years – that could also explain my instinct to collect books.

If I bought books only just before I read them would I feel the need to collect them afterwards?  If I become just a reader can I divorce myself from my collecting instincts?

Also, if I bought books just before I read them how would that change my life?  I’d have more money and time, but what about the subtle changes?  I spend a lot of time shopping for books, reading reviews, looking for bargains.  There’s a table at my work we’ve designated as the free book table and people bring in books they want to give away and leave them on the table.  I’m all the time looking through those books, often taking many, but seldom reading them.  My public library has a used bookstore within the library that I like to visit too.  I guess if I spent less time shopping for books I could actually read more.  And I’d spend less time pouring over online sales and book catalogs.

All of this sounds very practical and positive, but I don’t know if I can give up my book hoarding addiction.

JWH – 3/10/12

What Does it Cost to Read a Book? How Ebooks will Change Book Buying Habits.

With hardback and paperback sales sliding down the charts while ebook sales rising, it appears the new paperback book is the ebook.  Unlike the past, where readers had to wait months or years for the paperback edition to come out, the ebook and hardback are now published simultaneously.  This is great news for readers until you realize what has happened is the price of a paperback has been increased.  You get to read it sooner, but it costs more – but the whole point of mass market paperbacks was to read books for less.

It used to be a book would come out in hardback, say for $25.99, and then months later, a $14.99 trade edition would come out, and finally after sales for the trade edition tanked, the $7.99 mass market edition would appear.  The cost of reading a book depended on how soon you wanted to read it after first publication.  Now we’re seeing $9.99-$12.99 or more for the ebook, but we get to buy it right away.  On one hand this seems like a very fair price, because it’s such a savings off the hardback cost, but on the other hand, you get nothing but electrons for your money. 

When you buy a hardback you have something physical that will last, that’s collectable, or nice to look at on a shelf, and makes a great gift, or is wonderful to lend to your friends, or even sell.  Even if you didn’t read the book, you had something when you bought a book.

Most people only read a book once, and if you’re buying ebooks, all you’re really getting is to read it.  An ebook will last, but if you only read a book once, it’s more like renting the book.

By the way, from now on when I mention pricing, I’m going to use Amazon’s for sale pricing and not list.

You’d think pricing would be based on what you get for your money.  The ebook would be the cheapest, then mass market paperback, then trade paperback and then hardback, because of the production costs and materials that go into creating the book.  And sometimes this happens.  For example The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is $6.35 ebook, and $7.99 mass market paperback.  But Isaac Newton by James Gleick is $11.99 ebook and $10.20 trade paperback – WTF?  Does that mean a mass market paperback only costs $1.64 to produce and the ebook costs $1.79 more than a trade paperback to create?  I don’t think so.

James Gleick’s newest book, The Information is $17.21 for the hardback and $12.99 for the ebook.   What Amazon is asking the reader, are you willing to pay $4.22 more to have a hardback copy, or would you just prefer to read it on your Kindle for $12.99. 

The list price of The Information is $29.95, which is probably what you’d pay at a brick and mortar store.  So the publisher probably thinks $12.99 is a great bargain for the reader, with $16.96 savings.  The author is probably thinking, at what price and royalty rate do I earn the most money.  The pricing of a book is a really hard math problem, isn’t it?

Me, I’m thinking something different.  I’m thinking:  What does it cost to read a book?   Once we enter into the world of ebooks, I’m essentially paying to read the book.  I don’t own anything.  I can’t sell my copy when I’m done with it.  I can’t lend it to a friend (even though they are working on that, but it’s not like owning a real book which I could lend over and over again).  I can’t put it on the shelf for others to admire my large library of great books.  I read the book, and more than likely, I’ll move it to archive on the Kindle, or even delete it so I have less cluttered interface to deal with.

You’d also think ebooks would be priced by the word, to take into account the cost of writing and editing the book, so that a 100,000 word book would cost twice as much as a 50,000 word book.  That doesn’t happen either.  Basically publishers are charging whatever they can get, and each has their own system for pricing.  With ebooks I think they are guessing what the demand will be, and if they think it’s high, they will raise the price accordingly – so a new ebook off the press might be priced $12.99.  But if they think they can sell more copies at the $9.99 price they sell it for that.  When demand goes way down, they will think about lowering the price.  That’s all understandable.

But ebooks is changing the habits of bookworms.  I’ve always bought lots of hardbacks, and never read many of them because I sit them on my shelf thinking one day I’ll find time to read them when I retire.  I’m just not going to do that with ebooks.  I’m going to buy just before I start reading.  I’m not even sure I could save an ebook for twenty years before I got around to reading it, but there’s just no pleasure in owning a bunch of books I can’t see.

And since I don’t feel “buying” an ebook is like “owning” a book, when I see the price at Amazon for the Kindle edition, I’m going to check the library first to see if there is a copy I can “borrow” because reading a book on the Kindle feels a whole lot like borrowing a library book – I’ll only see it as I read it.

Recently Amazon announced that they were selling more ebooks than hardback and paperback books combined.  I’m not sure the world is really ready for the implications of this.  Essentially bookstores, both news and used, are the side effect of bookworms, and not book collectors.  Real, hardcore book collectors are rare compared to the ordinary everyday bookworm that consumes books.  If we bookworms can get our reading electronically, what happens to the bookstore?  And once bookworms realize they are only paying to read a book, and get past the illusion of owning books, how they judge what a fair price is for a book will change.  I’m not sure if publishers are ready for this.

Finally, the move to ebooks is changing me in other ways.  When I shop for books now I realize I was fooling myself.  I’m not going to read all those books I bought.  I don’t really need my shelves of books because I’ve learned I’m a consumer of words, and not a collector of books.  Several times lately I went to buy a book and stopped myself, because I knew if I didn’t read the book right away there is little chance I’d read it at all.  I can’t plan for future reading because I read by what I’m hungry for at the moment.  This is also why I don’t buy ebooks when I see one I want to read.  That impulse is different from the impulse for picking a book to read right now.  With a Kindle, you can finish a book and download another and start reading immediately, and since finding books electronically is so easy, why not wait until it’s time to read the next book.

The future price of a book won’t be based on what the publisher thinks the book is worth, but on the price readers are willing to pay to read it next.

JWH – 5/24/11