How are digital media changing our buying habits? They are changing them, there’s no question, but we often don’t think about how. But something that’s happened over the last few days has led me to think about it.

Of all electronic forms of media, I think that computer games (and other software, true, but I’m focusing on games here) are one of the most closely related to e-books, though perhaps they’re a little closer to digital music. As with books and music, they used to come solely on physical media that we buy not for the physical medium itself (well, unless you’re one of those people who like to smell books), but for the information contained within them.

With books and music, we consume the information ourselves, but with games we let our computer consume it. In the end, as with e-music, the result is almost exactly the same whether we buy the physical edition or the digital: we see or hear the same thing either way. (With books, of course, we read them on a device rather than off paper, but apart from that the principle is the same.)

Baen Books I’ll Never Read

As I’ve bought e-books over the years, I noticed something interesting about my buying habits. A lot of the time I would buy a whole month’s worth of Baen Webscription e-books at a time. If there were two or three books in there I wanted, I’d figure it was worth paying for the whole thing just in case I wanted something else from it later on.

As a result, when I look at my current Baen e-library, I see dozens of titles I’ve never read, and may never read—either they’re later books in a series I never got the first of (in some cases I can’t get the first ones, because they came out when Baen was still a print publisher and never have been converted to electronic versions yet), or they just failed to interest me. Sometimes I do go back and look for something interesting to read, and occasionally find a neglected diamond in the rough amid my Baen library, but I have little doubt I will grow old and eventually die never having read every single e-book I’ve paid for.

(There are also a few e-books I bought on sale from eReader or Fictionwise that I never got around to reading, but not all that many.)

Damn You, Valve

What brought this to mind was an on-line friend’s repetition of the stock phrase, “Damn you, Valve,” over the last few days. I usually found myself in agreement with the sentiment.

Valve, whose digital game distribution system Steam has the power to win video game pirates back over from the dark side, has been running daily sales, knocking various game titles down to 75% or even 90% off. And there are some titles there that are simply so good that when they become cheap you feel like you can’t pass them up. Hence, my friend’s mostly-kidding invective against the company for making him feel like he has to spend money there several times over the last few days when critically-acclaimed titles went on one-day sale.

I know that feeling well, because looking at my own Steam library I see far more games that I’ve bought but not downloaded than those that I have. Out of several dozen games on my account, I’ve played maybe a dozen of them, and I’ve only put hours and hours of play into 5 or 6 of them. Not all of these are due to Steam sales, of course—I’ve kicked a few bucks in for most every Humble Bundle so far, and they all come with Steam download codes (and this is actually more directly like my experience with Baen, since I don’t really care about most of the titles in the bundle but just buy them for the ones I do want)—but a lot of them are.

Some of these are very popular recent or slightly older titles: The Back to the Future game series. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. All the episodes of the first Sam & Max game series. Grand Theft Auto 1, 2, 3, San Andreas, and Vice City. (When did I get those? I don’t even remember buying them!) The Monkey Island games. Civilization III and IV. Spore. (I did play that some, but drifted away after a while.) The X-Com series. Even You Don’t Know Jack. They’re all waiting there, in the cloud, for me to reach out and grab them. But I never have, and given how little free time I have anymore between my day job, TeleRead, and once-and-current addiction City of Heroes, I don’t know when I ever will.

The Digital Choice

Thinking back to my life before e-books and game downloads, I can’t conceive of buying books that I never read or games that I never played. Even the games I got on sale got given a thorough spin. I can only point to 3 or 4 games, out of the couple of dozen on my shelf, that I bought and never tried. And why would you buy something just to take up space?

But with e-books and digital games, it seems there’s more danger of “out of sight, out of mind”. It doesn’t feel like I’m buying an artifact—it’s like I’m buying a choice. Pay this amount, this trifling little sum, for the choice to be able to read The Stars At War, or play Back to the Future, at some future time when I might want to. I don’t know when I’ll want to—I might never want to. But there’s at least a chance I might want to, and if I pass up this sale price, it might cost a bundle if and when I do.

(And Valve knows this entirely too well for the continued well-being of my pocketbook. That’s why they do it. Damn you, Valve.)

The Implications

Now, obviously it would be premature to generalize from myself to the entire rest of the world. I could be a special case. (Though I doubt Valve or Baen would be doing so well if I were.) But if I feel that way, I imagine at least some other people will, too. Come to think of it, Amazon says that people are buying twice as many e-books as they used to buy paper books after buying the Kindle, but are they actually finding twice as much time to read what they buy? This could result in more e-books getting bought than are actually read, more games being bought than are actually played, and perhaps more revenue going to creators than they would otherwise see.

Of course, there could also be people who buy even less now that it’s digital. (I know my parents don’t have any interest in paying new-book price for even paper books, let alone ones they can’t resell used or donate to a library if they want to.) It could all balance out.

Would creators rather people buy but don’t read their books (or buy but don’t play their games) than people read (or play) without buying (via library, rental, or piracy)? The money is necessary to live, of course, but most people who write will tell you that the egoboo of being read is at least part of the equation. I suppose whether authors will laugh all the way to the bank or cry that they’re being bought but not read depends on how big a part that egoboo is. (Though also, people are only able to pass along recommendations to books they have actually read.)

I suppose I’m going to continue buying Baen e-books and cheap video games that I might never read or play. I imagine a lot of people are. I wonder whether this is going to change the way books and games are published in a larger sense? Or perhaps the changes are simply part and parcel of the way electronic media are changing the publishing world as a whole.


  1. The corollary here is that ebooks are decoys inducing a consumer behavior disconnected from literary interest. Traditional paper publishing was rationalized as literary production and was intended to induce reading of products. This accord was validated by a physical product transaction.

    Screen books are not rationalized as literary production. Reading of screen books only constrains their potential sales. Corporate incentive is device delivery that induces purchase, not reading, and, at the same time, dissipates any reader guilt toward unread collections. Commodity bundling, one-click transaction and easy disregard of non-physical collections play into a corporate agenda.

  2. On the BAEN unread ebooks issue: dunno ’bout you, but I have (literally) a closet-full of pbooks I have yet to read, purchased over the last three decades. 🙂
    It’s just a reflection of interest exceeding free time.
    (Damn you Bethesda! But keep those Elder Scrolls coming!) 😉
    And since I own a set or three of the old Black Mask Collection, the ebook situation is far worse.

    I actually expect to live long enough to catch up on my TBR list, mostly because of the BPHs and their Price Fix scam as my boycott of all their content is letting me catch up a bit on the backlog. But I’ll still have to go well past 100 to get there.
    Not a bad target, though, so I have no regrets.

  3. Well what I got out of this article was this. a) Chris is a very easy sell and he has too much money and not enough control over what he spends :)and b) There is a lot of really good value out there since the change over to digital.

    I haven’t been flush in recent times and as a result I buy to read, not to hoard. But I agree that there is a lot of great value in digital.

    btw my mother and aunt used to regularly visit the charity shops and 2nd hand shops years and years ago and buy piles of paper books second hand for less than a pound. Lots of them they never read and ended up selling them back to the 2nd hand store weeks later.

    Times are not changing our habits as much as you might think imho.

  4. I used to go into bookstores and walk out with handfuls of books I would then put onto one of many to-read piles, which would more often then not just get shifted around rather than depleted. The big change for me with digital technology is that I don’t stumble over piles of books on the floor anymore. I still buy tons of books I don’t read and have to-read lists that seem to do nothing but grow. I would like to see some time-expansion software that would give me more time to read.

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