Physical Bookshelves versus Kindle Library

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 5, 2015

I’m in a buying quandary. Is it better to own a hardback or a digital book? This particular problem arose just now because I’m wondering how to acquire Ada’s Algorithm by James Essinger, a new book about Ada Lovelace. At Amazon it’s $12.99 for the Kindle edition, and $19.41 for the hardback. I’d save $6.42 by buying the digital book – that’s a good bit for a retired person. But since I routinely buy used hardback books for $3-5, I’d could save even more if I wait. But then Mr. Essinger would earn no royalty.  In fact, while reading about Ada’s Algorithm I see that he also wrote Jacquard’s Web, which I immediately bought just now for $4 (1 cent for the book, $3.99 for shipping). If I waited I could eventually get the same deal on the book about Ada Lovelace.

However, there is more to my buying decision than price. In the long run – defined as rest of my life – is it better to own a hardback or ebook? Which format is easier to read? Which format is easier to review? Which format is easier to reference and look stuff up?  Which format is easier to lend to friends? Once I start thinking about all these other factors, my brain begins begging for a nap.

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I love holding a hardback book. I love their dust jackets. But I don’t like owning a lot of possessions. I often cull my old books and give them to the Friends of the Library after I’ve read them, so buying the hardback doesn’t mean owning it for life. One advantage of buying the Kindle edition at Amazon is I own it without having to shelve and store it. In other words, Kindle books don’t weigh heavy on my sense of possessions, and thus I have them as long as Amazon remains in business, which if I’m lucky, is for the rest of my life.

If Kindle books were as exactly usable as hardbacks I think I would always buy the Kindle edition. Unfortunately, they aren’t – at least not at this moment. Hardbacks are far more user friendly when it comes to flipping around the book, and reading randomly. Hardbacks are nicer to lend to friends, and use for reference. Kindle books are easier to hold. Kindle books are easier to copy quotes from. And I can find a Kindle book faster.  And it’s a snap to search for a keyword.

I really wish Amazon would put some major effort into making managing my digital library more fun and useful. I own a whole lot of Kindle books I’ve forgotten that I own. Kindle books would be more appealing for collecting if we had better library management tools.

Man, my brain is really begging for a nap now. If Ada’s Algorithm had been $7.99 for the Kindle, I would have bought it immediately, and not even thought about writing this essay. Mr. Essiinger would have gotten paid, and I would be reading. Instead, I’ll wait for Jacquard’s Web to show up in the mail. In other words, price will determine what kind of book I buy. Next Christmas when I’m going through my old Wish List items at Amazon, I’ll see Ada’s Algorithm and if there’s a cheap hardback, order it. I ordered four or five books that way this Christmas when I was reviewing my Wish List for things to tell my wife what I want Santa Claus to bring me.  Hell, I don’t mind when Santa has to pay new hardback prices. I wish I had gotten Santa to get me the Ada book this Christmas.

That said, I do wish I had digital copies of all the books I’ve ever read or owned. I often give away books and later want to look at them again. Publishers want to raise ebook prices. That’s their prerogative.  As long as I can get used hardbacks for $3-5, then that’s the price that makes my decision. I’d be willing to pay two or three dollars more for ebooks, so the author gets paid, but not two or three times as much.

Finally, if I wait long enough, I see the ebook edition of books I want in the Kindle Daily Deal or Bookbub for $1.99. At that price I often buy books I’ve read just to have a copy for my digital library. Someday I don’t think I’ll have bookshelves or own hardback books, and it might even happen before I die. (Yes, it’s always about me.)

JWH