Should We Feel Guilty for Not Buying Books in Bookstores?

I’m a guy who hates to shop, but for my whole life I’ve loved shopping in bookstores and record stores.  I gave up on record stores years ago, but I still shop at bookstores, but not as much as I used to.  Yesterday I visited my local indie bookstore and bought a hardback The Man Who Invented the Computer  by Jane Smiley just to support them.  I could have bought it at Amazon and saved $12 in discounts and taxes, but I thought I’d help my store and state.

Well, no good deed goes unpunished as my mother-in-law used to say.  I get home and read the reviews on Amazon and they aren’t good at all, including many claims of poor research, inaccuracies and even fraud and scandal.  Of 24 customer reviews 12 gave it 1 star, 5 people gave it 3 stars.  If I had been shopping at Amazon those reviews would have stopped me from buying the book.  Now this isn’t the fault of my bookstore, but it does point out a major advantage of shopping online.

The main reason to shop at a bookstore is to see books before you buy and allow yourself the pleasure of discovering something new and exciting.  But shopping at a store literally means judging a book by its cover.

I’m in three online book clubs and a hot topic in all of them are ebooks.  Some folks are pro, and others are definitely con.  But we all lament the disappearance of bookstores, and feel guilty that we buy books online or via those new fangled contraptions like Kindles, iPads and Nooks.  But I’m wondering if we really should feel guilty?

Quite a few club members, especially those living in small towns, say going to a bookstore is expensive and time consuming.  Others are housebound and feel online shopping and ebooks are a godsend.  Me, I like to study reviews before I buy.  And despite what everyone says about personal customer service, I’ve never met a sales clerk as knowledgeable as good reviewers.

Another thing to consider, among my bookworm friends who love shopping for books locally, many of them actually treasure the used bookstores and looking for good deals.

But I hate the idea of just letting bookstores disappear like record stores.  I’ve read that Germany protects bookstores from online sales and ebooks by outlawing discounting.  This makes books more expensive, but protects bookstores, publishers and authors.  I’ve also read that other countries have various ways of mandating price controls.  This is great for saving jobs and keeping businesses afloat, but it’s not very free market.  Should we reevaluate our ideas about free markets?  I don’t know.

What if online sellers had to sell books for the same price as local bookstores and charge the same sales tax, so books were equally priced no matter where you bought them.  I’d still say Amazon was a better place to shop because it’s so much more informative.

I’d also prefer buying used books online.  I bought three used books this week, The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker, The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd and I, robot – the illustrated screenplay by Harlan Ellison and Isaac Asimov.  I would have to shop for years before I would have even seen copies of any of those books in local used bookstores, but they were a few keystrokes away with ABE Books.  I also bought an ebook, Aegean Dreams by Dario Ciriello because it was only $5.99 on the Kindle, versus $14.44 for the trade paper at Amazon.

At the Classic Science Fiction Online Book Club, we’re voting on the books we’re going to read for the next six months, and one of the major considerations is availability and price.  Members are scattered all over the world, and few want to buy new copies.  Most of the books we’re nominating can be found at ABE Books for $4-5 used, including shipping, and some can be had as ebooks for $5-10, or new for $8-20.  Some of the members with ebook readers say they will buy the ebook edition if it’s priced closed to the used edition.  Others with good used bookstore nearby are finding copies for less than a dollar.  But see the trend?  New hardbacks and trade paper editions have to compete with online discounted books and used books, so it’s not just ebooks hurting new book sales.

One member found this list of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Bookstores that include online and local bookstores.  There’s a huge variety of options for shopping online.  Some stores on the list do have a physical buildings to visit, but they also do business online.  How does an old fashion bookstore compete?

And maybe that’s the clue.  Maybe online is just a new kind of bookstore.

The times are changing and more and more people are seeing the wind is blowing in a new direction.  There’s a new documentary, Press Pause Play about how technology is impacting artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers and other creative folk.  It’s scary to them because they don’t know how they can earn a living when the traditional methods of marketing their work are disappearing.

We are living in evolutionary times.  I’m turning 60 this year, and many of the people that I know lamenting the loss of bookstores are my age or older.  Have the young already forgotten bookstores?  Our nephew while giving directions to his apartment today said to turn past that building where you mail stuff.  Will concepts like the post office, book store, record store, phone booth, and video rental store even be known to the young in a few years?

It’s weird to be an anachronism in your own time.

JWH – 10/2/11

Science Fiction Short Stories

Over at SF Signal they held a Mind Meld asking sixteen of their favorite SF fans and writers to assemble their own anthologies of personally favorite science fiction short stories.  This produced several hundred short stories with annotations and commentaries to think about reading.  Strangely, there is damn little overlap.  Just from eyeballing the list without using any kind of tallies, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny got the most recommendations, with three.  I think the participants consciously tried to avoid the obvious classics.

Science fiction is at its purist in the shorter lengths of fiction where ideas dominate. Reading any good science fiction anthology should showcase the true potential of science fiction, and any recent anthology of the best SF will show the furthest edge of the speculative universe.

Robert Sabella did pick my all-time favorite SF novella, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, and he picked several other of my favorite stories so I need to check out his unfamiliar selections.  Tinkoo Valia, whose web site Variety SF is devoted to short SF produced a rather novel list that shows he reads far and wide.  Jason Sanford made a nice selection of Then and Now stories, and since I remember fondly many of his Then stories, I figure I better go after his Now stories.  Before seeing his list this morning, I read his number 19 choice last night, “Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky, a rather tender story about a woman and child in love with a robot.

Since Nancy Jane Moore picked “Empire Star” another all-time favorite that I reread regularly, I’ll need to track down the stories on her list too.  And I’d definitely have to check out Rick Klaw’s quirky anthology of ape stories – his list comes with a nice enticing historical introduction.

The trouble will be finding all of these great stories.  Lucky for us many are reprinted on the Internet just waiting for readers, like “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon.  Other stories like “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” by Samuel R. Delany require a visit to ISFDB to find which books have reprinted the story over the years.  Of course you can jump over to Free Speculative Fiction Online and check there.  Quite often its possible to put the title and author in Google and if you’re lucky, the actual story will be in the top search returns.

But what I really wish for is a totally different way to find these stories.  What if science fiction writers could load their stories into a database at, and Amazon allow their customers to build their own Kindle anthologies at bargain rates – maybe 24 stories for $9.99 (the latest Dozois The Years’s Best Science Fiction has 32 stories for that price).

Readers could build their own anthologies to order, or the contributors of the Mind Meld could have assembled their lists with links to Amazon with their collections pre-assembled for purchase.  Amazon could also keep tabs on the most popular stories to help Kindle users easily build new collections, and maybe even offer a voting system.  And it would be fantastic if Amazon offered Kindle editions of all the classic past SF anthologies, like Adventures of Time and Space, or Before the Golden Age, or reprint all the Judith Merrill, Donald Wollheim, Terry Carr past annual best of anthologies.


This would be a good time to also recommend to Amazon that they redesign the Kindle with folders, so I could have a Science Fiction Short Story folder, and within it have something like playlists, or virtual folders so I could organize my short story collection by publication year, author and theme.

JWH – 10/19/10

Classic Science Fiction Books on Audio, Kindle and Nook

First off, look at the PDF report I made:  Classics of Science Fiction on Audio, Kindle, and Nook.  [Excel version.] What I did was take the ranked list from the Classics of Science Fiction web site and make a spreadsheet adding columns for Audio, Kindle, Nook and In Print.  By “In Print” I meant there was a paper copy for sale.  I then looked for the books on Amazon, B&N and web sites, marking their columns Yes or No.

The original Classics of Science Fiction list was pulled from a database of SF titles that had been recommended from 28 different sources.  The final list were all books that had been on at least 7 of the recommended lists.  What I wanted to know is how well these books are represented in ebook and audiobook editions.

Of the 193 titles, 143 can still be bought as old fashion books.  81 can be listened to as audio books, 69 read on the Kindle and 64 on the Nook.  So a little less than half are available as audio books, and about a third as ebooks.  That doesn’t sound too bad.

However, if you use just a Kindle for reading, two thirds are not available, so that does feel bad.  Or if you’re an audiobook fanatic, a little more than half are unavailable.

35 books were not available from any source and 35 books were available from all four sources.  I made the all sources blue, and the no sources red.  Some of the red books might be available from other sources like print on demand, for ebook readers other than Kindle or Nook, or even on the web as public domain. 

Many of the red titles were collections, so I don’t worry about them going out of print.  Often a writer’s short stories get recollected under new titles.  If I saw a new collection that appears to have most of the original stories I counted the old title as being in print.

What’s troublesome is the number of novels that are no longer available.  Should John Brunner’s Stand On Zanibar really be considered a classic if no one is selling it?  Some of these novels do come back into print every decade or so, so if this list was made again in a year it would all be different.  Yet, I would think with the advent of ebooks all books will become “in print” digitally.

Some of the short story collections really should be in print today because they are major collections that deserve to maintain their identity, such as:

  • Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy & McComas
  • Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov
  • The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein

Someday I might reevaluate this list and remove the books that people have obviously lost interest in, and remove most of the short story collections, and titles that really shouldn’t be listed as science fiction, like Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm.  They are on here because fans polls or critics included them, but I think they shouldn’t be.

I’m also surprised by how many famous SF books are not available on the Kindle or Nook.  Do some authors not like ebooks and refuse to let their work appear in digital editions, or are there legal problems, or do some publishers think ebooks compete too well with print editions?

What’s fascinating is some books are only available in audiobook editions, like The Lensman series from E. E. “Doc” Smith.

JWH – 9/4/10

Revised 9/5/10:  I replaced the reference to Frank Herbert’s Under Pressure to John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar because Chistopher Carey below pointed out that Under Pressure is also known as The Dragon in the Sea.  Thanks for that information.  I also found a little know hardback version of The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke.  I also added an Excel version because of a reader request.

I also changed the totals in various places.  I don’t know if it’s going to be practical to update the essay every time I update the spreadsheet/pdf report.

Ebook Economics

Big name authors are making ebook marketing deals like Open Road Integrated Media and Odyssey Editions, while Amazon claims they are selling more ebook titles than hardbacks.  Is there an ebook gold rush?  Is 2010 finally the year of the ebook?  I’m meeting more and more bookworms with Kindles and Nooks.  I ordered the new third generation Kindle the day it came out, and lucky for me, because it sold out in a matter of days.

If everyone reads on an ebook reader does that mean printed books will go extinct?

On several of my online book club groups we have been grumbling because of rising ebook prices.  Ebooks used to be like paperbacks – far less glamorous than hardback or trade editions.  After the Kindle came out, ebook editions started coming out concurrent with the hardback editions, but priced at $9.99.  Can you imagine in the old days if new books were published in hardback and mass market paperback on the same day?  Which would you have bought?

Are cheaper ebook editions published the same day as hardbacks too good to be true?

Publishers now want more money for ebooks because ebooks are replacing hardbacks, as well as trade and mass market editions.  It used to be you bought the expensive hardback because you wanted to be among the first to read a book.  Sure there are book collectors, but most people just give away their hardbacks when they finished them.  Publishers want the most money for a book when its new, even if its in a digital edition which has no collector value at all.

It’s now possible on Amazon to find Kindle editions more expensive than hardback editions?  WTF?  That doesn’t make sense, does it?  What will be the new cheap mass market paperback edition then?  If everyone reads ebooks will they slowly drop in price as their sales dwindle?  Instead of waiting for the paperback edition, people will wait for the $4.99 digital edition.

What does that mean for new book sales, used books and remaindered books?  It used to be if you waited a few months you could buy a new hardback marked down for a fraction of the original price.  $35 books would go for $7.99.  Or you could go to a used bookstore or a library book sale and get a copy even cheaper.

If a bestseller sells a millions digital copies, how many used and remaindered books will show up for sale?  Will physical books from before the ebook era become more valuable as less books are published on paper?  Or will people just prefer a Kindle edition?

I’m in four online book clubs and I try to read one or two each month.  Some books I can get at the library, but often I can’t.  My choice is to buy either new or used.  I can generally get used hardbacks cheaper than new mass market paperbacks.  But if I had a choice between a $5 used hardback and a $5 download I’m going to pick the download for the convenience.  However, if the choice is a $5 hardback or a $9.99 download my decision gets harder.  The idea of having a 3,500 book library on my Kindle is cool, but not when I think it will be $35,000.

I’ll never need 3,500 books on my Kindle.  I read about 50 books a year, and even if I live to be 90, that’s only about 1,600 books, but still $16,000 at $10 each.  I could save a lot of retirement money by going to the library or shopping for used editions.  But what if used editions disappear?

Here’s where the pricing of ebooks will effect me.  I want the latest yearly edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois.  At Amazon, it’s $26.40 for the hardback, $14.95 for the trade paper, and $9.99 for the Kindle.  If I wait it should show up at Edward R. Hamilton for $2.95-4.95.  Amazon has for years stopped me from buying it from my local bookseller because of the huge discount.  The trade paper is $21.99 locally.  If I want this year’s edition now, the ebook is $9.99, which is $12 cheaper (not counting tax) locally, or $5 cheaper from Amazon. That’s a pretty good deal.

But book publishers are balking at selling new books for $9.99.  If the Kindle edition was the same as the trade edition, wouldn’t it be logical to get the paper edition?  I could give it to a friend when I’m through, or donate it to the library.  But would I pay the same just for the convenience of having it on my Kindle?

Authors are flocking to agents to get special deals for their back list of books.  Royalty rates are 25-70% for ebooks compared to 8-12% for printed editions.  I wonder if writers would prefer to sell a million digital editions or a million hardbacks if they ended up making more on the digital edition.  I’m sure hardbacks will always be the most prestigious format.  Or will it matter?  I’ve bought hundreds of hardbacks I no longer own, maybe even over a thousand.

I’m starting to meet people that didn’t buy books before that are buying ebooks because they can read them on their iPhone.  That might be a novelty thing, or it might be a trend.  You have to carry your phone everywhere, but carrying a book everywhere can be a pain.  And if you are in the mood for a book and don’t want to wait for Amazon to mail you one, or find it at a local bookstore, will you just take the easy way out and buy a digital copy?

But look what happened to audiobooks.  Years ago about the only kind of audiobook that were for sale were miserable 2 and 4 cassette abridged editions that went for $25-35.  If you wanted unabridged editions you had to pay $50-$150 from a specialty seller.  Or rent them for $20-30.  Now I get digital audiobooks, unabridged for $9.56 apiece.  That’s how digital audiobooks have changed the economics.  But I buy my audiobooks from (owned by in 24 credit packs.  If I got them one a month they would be $16.  Audible is forced to sell a few titles for 2 credits per book, but I won’t buy those books.

You have to be crazy to buy CD audiobooks nowadays.

I’m thinking ebooks will shake out the regular book business too.  Non-fiction might hang in there because beautiful picture books look horrible on ebook readers, even the iPad.  Bookstores might focus on non-fiction.  And non-fiction books are the kind I like to see before I buy too.  I’m more likely to buy non-fiction locally, rather than order from Amazon.  Unless it’s $50 locally, and $22 from Amazon.

There are several economic revolutions going on at once with books.  When they come out with a digital ebook reader that makes non-fiction books look better than paper, that will cause another revolution, especially with textbooks.

Amazon is making deals with writers to sell classic old books for $9.99 for the Kindle.  Here’s a list of some titles to consider.  These are famous literary titles like Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie or The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer.  $9.99 seems too high for these old titles.  But the cheapest paperback of the Mailer book is $12.24.  Amazon also sells used paper editions starting at $4.86, but most sellers want $3.99 shipping. 

Thus $9.99 becomes a very interesting price point.  It’s cheaper than new paper, but slightly more expensive than used paper, but it conveniently goes on the Kindle.   If I searched around at used bookstores I might find a copy for $2-3.  But if I buy the $9.99 copy, Mailer’s estate gets a royalty, and Amazon and the publisher make money.  It stimulates the economy.  Plus it will sit patiently in my Kindle library not taking up any shelf space, not requiring any effort to move if I move, so it’s sort of appealing at $9.99.

Will low price and convenience kill off printed fiction?  But then, with ebooks, fiction should never go out of print.  In the end I predict ebooks will kill off the mass market paperback, seriously hurt sales of the trade edition, and hardback sales will be geared towards book collectors and libraries.  Slowly, the used book trade will retool for selling to collectors.  I think new books will sell for more than $9.99, that books that were sold as trade editions will sell for $9.99, and that as sales fall off ebooks will migrated down in price to be lower than the average cost of today’s mass market book.  We’ll eventually see $.99 – $2.99 specials.

JWH – 8/10/10

How Kindle and Nook Can Better Compete With The iPad

Last weekend I wrote “To Ebook or Not To Ebook” and I’m still agonizing over which ebook reader to get.  There are two main issues I’m still worrying over.  First, which book is the most comfortable to read for long periods, and second, which ebook reader is the most universal in terms of buying ebooks.  I imagine the light E-Ink readers, the Nook and Kindle, are easier to hold for long periods of time, but it’s obvious the iPad can read books from Amazon, B&N, iBooks, and many other smaller ebook sellers.  The iPad is almost the universal ebook reader and I’m leaning towards buying it.

My need for reading comfort might put me in a limited market so my buying desires are of less concern to ebook engineers, but I wished they’d consider them.  I have bad eyes, and back problems that make it uncomfortable to sit long in one position, and an arm problem that makes holding a book pain inducing over time.  I’m getting old and wimpy.  I’d love to sit and read for hours like I used to, but it’s a struggle.  That’s why I fear the iPad – many reviewers have complained its difficult to hold for lengthy reading sessions.

And, besides that, I don’t want Apple to just crush the competition, so how could the Kindle, Nook, Kobo and Sony ereaders better compete with the iPad?

Universal Reader

First off, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders should make a cross license deal to display each other’s DRM material.  That way any Kindle, Nook or Kobo owner could buy and read books from all the leading booksellers.  The obvious solution would be a universal ebook format and DRM, but that might take years to hammer out.  It might be easier to add competitor’s software to each others readers.  Obviously, the iPad does it with ease.

The reason why I’m leaning towards the iPad is because I can buy books from all the major ebook retailers and read it on the iPad.  If the E-Ink readers want to compete they need to do the same thing.  It was foolish of Amazon to start the trend for proprietary readers.

Add a Handle with Trigger

The second way to compete with the iPad is make the E-Ink readers even more svelte and easier to hold.  I wished they came with a detachable handle so the ebook reader would look something like a church fan.  A nice handgrip with a trigger to page forward would make holding an ebook reader nicer, and make the page turning more convenient.  You can leave the back page button on the reader because it wouldn’t be needed that often.  I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine a handgrip handle would be more comfortable to hold than holding the ebook reader like a book. 

I’m talking about making the device comfortable for reading 8 hours at a stretch.  This is where the iPad is weak.

The Third Option

I’ve even thought of another option, but this one by-passes the E-Ink technology.  Keep the books in the handle and beam the content to a pair of special glasses via Bluetooth.  I wonder if it’s possible to make a pair of glasses that displays words that are even easier to read, something that helps the reader tune out the world and become one with the word.  In the music world we’ve moved the speakers into the ears, why not move the page right in front of the eyes?

Why Reading is Specialized

iPad fans lord their gadgets over the E-Ink readers claiming its a universal solution.  They ask why anyone would want a specialized device when one device, the iPad, can do so much.  I think the iPad is a revolutionary device, it moves the computer screen off the desk or lap and into the hands where it makes a big functional difference.  But is that the ultimate location?  And is it the right weight and form factor?

Bookworms like to read for hours on end, and the ultimate ebook reader will cater to that need.  I tend to believe the lower weight of the E-Ink technology gives it a chance to compete with the more glamorous and universal device of the iPad if they are optimized for streamline reading of text.

Many bloggers and journalists have written about the approaching doom for the E-Ink reader, but I tend to doubt those predictions.  That doesn’t mean I won’t buy an iPad any day now, but it also doesn’t mean I won’t buy a Kindle 3 when it comes out.  The new Pearl E-Ink technology is appealing.  It just galls me to think about buying ebook reader that can’t read all ebooks.

The Deciding Factor

To be honest, the universal ebook reader of the iPad sways me more than comfort of the smaller E-Ink technology readers, and I’ll probably buy an iPad for now.  That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t buy an E-Ink reader too, especially if they become a universal reader.  I’m greatly disappointed that most books I’m reading right now aren’t available for any ebook reader.  That sucks.  But we’re living in transitional times for books and times will change soon.

JWH 7/4/10

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