In a recent post on the Teleread blog, Joanna, a contributor to Teleread, vented about being tired of pbooker’s “economic snobbery.” She wrote,

If you read any ‘ebooks versus print books’ article, you’ll soon come across the print fetishists. These are people who acknowledge the rise of ebooks—grudgingly—but then insist that ‘real’ book lovers surely prefer paper, or that paper is ‘nicer’ or a ‘better experience’ or in some way superior. I am starting to get really annoyed with these people! Overlooking the obvious ‘print and pixel really can co-exist and there is no need for an either/or mentality’ argument, I am starting to grow a little offended by the economic snobbery that I perceive in some of these arguments.

What I think a lot of these ‘paper is superior’ people fail to consider is that even in this modern day and age, having a large paper library is still an economic luxury.

(For Joanna’s complete post and the comments it generated, see Print Fetishism, Economic Snobs and the Price of Real Estate at Teleread.)

Needless to say, I couldn’t keep my fingers off my keyboard and so I wrote a response. But after thinking about it, I decided that a more expansive response here at An American Editor might be appropriate, so here it is.

Joanna essentially makes a generational argument. She is in the same generation as my children, those just starting their careers or a few years into it, whereas I am at the other end of the spectrum. I agree that this makes (or should make) a difference from the financial perspective. But that has always and will always be the case.

When I was Joanna’s age, decades ago, I learned to prioritize how my money was spent. At her age, I didn’t make a fortune and had to decide between, say, spending a few dollars to see a movie or to buy a book or not spending it at all. Yet even in those hard-pressed days, when I lived in a studio apartment whose rent surpassed 50% of my net income, I bought books. Unlike spending money to watch a movie, I never considered book buying to be frivolous — reading was (and is) the primary method for learning.

I am not dismissive of the economic woes and realities of my children’s generation, but everything has to be dealt with in perspective. I remember my parents, for example, paying a mortgage of $30 a month, at a time when they earned only $15 a week. Gas also cost less than 25 cents a gallon, the New York Times was a nickel, you could buy a Coke for 5¢, and so it went — and the take home pay reflected that cost of living. I don’t know anyone today who has a mortgage or rent of $30 a month!

Of course, in those days, ebooks existed only in the imagination of science fiction writers. Personal computers hadn’t yet come on the scene and the Internet, as we know it today, didn’t exist. To buy a hardcover book required a significant investment. In proportion to earnings, hardcover books were luxury items back then and a bargain today. Paperbacks were the “poor person’s” access to literature. How things have changed with the passing decades.

eBooks are the next step in the evolution of personal libraries. Some day — but not today — pbooks will be a true luxury item and part of antiquity. Someone will recall them but be unable to produce in hand an example.

eBooks have lots of benefits for readers today, but not financially. Yes, they are the way to build a collection when you are hard pressed for real estate to house a pbook library, but that problem existed 25 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago — some people had homes large enough to house vast libraries whereas others lived in cramped studio apartments, some less than 100 square feet in size with everything communal but sleeping quarters. Yet, people read, bought books, and endured. And they learned to love the pbook, especially the paperback, which brought reading to the masses by making it more affordable.

I admit I actually prefer ebooks to pbooks for reading. If I could, I would buy every nonfiction book that I buy in hardcover also in ebook form so that the hardcover could go on my library shelf and I could read the ebook. But pbooks do have seven things that ebooks currently do not have:

  1. When I buy a pbook, I own it; when I buy an ebook, I rent it.
  2. pBooks are resaleable on a secondary market and/or rise in value as they become scarce; ebooks are never scarce and have no secondary market in which I can recoup some of my investment.
  3. Nonfiction pbooks tend to be less expensive to purchase than the ebook version and are available for significantly less on the legal secondary market, which includes the legal remainders market.
  4. pBooks can legally be cooperatively bought, thereby reducing the price to individuals even further (I have bought in cooperation with my son several books over the years that we have shared the purchase cost of).
  5. My pbooks can be lent to other readers innumerable times; if I’m lucky, an ebook can be lent once for 2 weeks to another reader (after being lent that one time, the ebook cannot be lent again to anyone).
  6. Once I buy a pbook it remains mine; unlike the ebook, no one can remotely remove the pbook, replace the pbook, or do anything that interferes with my ownership of the pbook.
  7. As my collection of hardcovers grows, I, too, may run into the space situation. At that point, I can reevaluate my pbooks and remove some from my collection, and I either sell them on the secondary market (see 3) or, more likely, I can donate them to my local library, which is happy to obtain them as they are in pristine condition, giving me a charitable contribution deduction on my taxes at the fair market value, which is the average price in the used book market. I can’t sell or donate no-longer-wanted ebooks to anyone, let alone to my local library.

The day when ebooks have a universal format and DRM scheme, like videos do, some of these pbook advantages will disappear. But at least from a purely economic perspective, pbooks — at least those from the Agency 6 — have a greater economic value and are a better bargain than ebooks. eBooks shine on portability and ease of reading on the electronic device, but that’s about it — ebooks often cost more, sometimes much more, than the hardcover, so from an economic viewpoint, ebooks are no bargain.

It seems to me that the person struggling with finances would be better off buying a pbook version than an ebook version of an Agency 6 publication. The initial cost and the subsequent ability to recoup some of that cost seems to me to create an unbeatable combination for the frugal. Of course, free and low-priced indie ebooks change the calculation, but then those aren’t the pbooks I buy.

Joanna is right only in the sense that real-estate challenged readers have a hurdle to face and overcome with pbooks that they do not have with ebooks — the storage problem – but she loses the argument when she dresses the problem in economic terms. For the real-estate challenged reader whose disposable income is limited, the person Joanna describes, buying less-expensive pbooks is a better deal than buying the ebook because the pbook can be read and then sold on the secondary market. No need to tie up valuable real estate with a pbook collection, plus you pay less to begin with.

Seems to me rather than being peeved at those of us who still like pbooks, she should be thinking about how to maximize her purchasing power by buying and reselling pbooks. (I will concede, however, that once we move away from the Agency 6 and from the economic issues, ebooks are the better choice.)

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog


  1. When I buy a book, my interpretation of the transaction is (and has always been) that I’m licensing the content for my personal consumption/enjoyment. I actually no longer respect what the publisher’s interpretation is (i.e., buy vs. rent). I want to see both the author and the publisher get compensated for their work, but once I’ve licensed it, the author and publisher are out of the picture.

    If I have an ebook and for whatever reason I need to print out a chapter to properly highlight or annotate, I’ll do it. If I have a pbook and want to read it on my ereader, my business. I’m not asking for help or subsidies or anything else. I’m already doing what I want with the book, because it’s an issue of content, not of format/packaging.

    For me, the “ebook or pbook” choice is a distinction embraced by publishers to wring more money out of consumers, as during the transition from vinyl to CD. Sorry, I’m not playing anymore. I’ll buy the content once. Period.

  2. I think, Rich, that your arguments actually confirm Joanna’s points. Wanting paper books because their paper is a fetish. Visit a used bookstore and try to sell your precious paper library and you’ll soon learn that your perceived resale value is an illusion–perhaps you’ll get 5% if your books are recent best-sellers. Good luck getting anything at all for your 1970s copy of Catch 22. The buy vs. license argument seems to get trotted out all the time but you don’t buy a book, whether paper or electronic. If you “owned” it, you could copy and sell it. You purchase certain rights when you buy a book, whether that book is paper or electronic.

    You make a good point that it’s possible to have books and a small apartment. It was only when I got married to a woman who objected to clutter, and who insisted that books be shelved rather than piled in jumbles everywhere, that the cost of ownership of paper books began to escalate first with bookshelves, then whole rooms dedicated to storing paper books in humidity-controlled environments.

    Loving paper is not a sin. I hope, however, that the real value of books will always be in their content rather than in their exterior form. Worshiping books for their exterior form is, well, a fetish.

  3. It proves my point because he affirms that people who choose paper don’t get to keep the books they read—his whole rebuttal is based on the notion of selling the books back instead of keeping them. With ebooks, I can have a library of books in my home to enjoy. With books, I cannot. And nothing Rich says refutes that.

    As to the cost, I do read classics and other freebie books. So the cost of those books subsidizes the ones I pay for. Even when I factor in the cost of my device, I still come out ahead.

    Rich, I do know how to ‘prioritize’ my spending. I spend my book money on books I don’t have to sell back just because I haven’t got a house to store a ton of paper.

  4. Rich, do your kids a favor, and start culling your collection now. Speaking as someone who had to help her husband gather up and get rid of a large book collection when his father died, it’s a painful process to leave to your kids.

  5. Ebooks can be purchased cooperatively also. Kindle and Adobe allow you to read on up to 6 devices, and B&N allows you to share books on any reader for which you’ve entered the name and credit card information. With B&N readers, if you don’t trust someone with your credit card number, you can give someone an ebook, and have them give you the reader to unlock it yourself, and then they never have direct knowledge of the credit card information, but will still unlock any books you give them in the future (on that one device, assuming it never gets reset to factory settings).

  6. Indeed, Bruce. My mother has a fear of the Kobo, and, while she likes to read on it, she won’t load the books herself. Her Kobo remains registered to my account, and when she wants a book, I pur hase it, borrow the kobo, plug it into my own computer and load the book for her. Since I have other devices registered to is account, as is permitted, I could theoretically load the books on there too and read them myself. And this would all be perfectly legal and acceptable.

  7. This post is patronizing; and that’s hardly the first example from this poster.

    E-books are consistently cheaper than p-books. The Steig Larsson books in mass pbook from Penguin are $13.99 in Toronto bookstores; the Penguin ebook edition is as little as $4.99. And don’t even ask the cost of the trade paper or hard cover. (Penguin, to be clear, is an original member of the Agency 6.)

    E-readers are consistently cheaper than bookcases. For about $250 I can own a Kindle 3 and a Kobo Wifi, giving me access to public library content, free content, all formats, best price per platform. And I can read that content elsewhere. I can have two Kobos and share the content in the family simultaneously.

    For all intents and purposes I own the content; I am not renting it; I don’t have to give it back; it won’t be repossessed if I miss a payment.

    It’s true I can’t resell it but, as Rob Pearce points out, the resale value of pbooks is miniscule; I am saving far more than that by buying ebooks and I don’t HAVE to sell them to make room in my den.

    So once again, an inflammatory post creating an irrelevant straw man., full of blatant mis-information (like the “high” cost of ebooks vs. pbooks). But I have to begrudgingly admit there’s a note of originality in it: it’s the first denunciation of ebooks I have seen that manages to wedge in square footage as a metric of comparison.

  8. Another patronising post from Mr Adin. Not just patronising but also irrelevant to the original post by Joanna, which is doubly disappointing.

    Joanna wrote a good, humorous article based on the fetishist ‘paper is best’ and ‘the feel and smell of paper’ attitude of some pBook readers.

    Mr Adin doesn’t actually tackle this core issue at all in his article. So he ends up replying to the side issues that Joanna wrote about and not the one that mattered…..

    Later he makes good points with his 7 reasons he prefers paper books. 7 solid arguable reasons not based around the fetishist arguments that Joanna was tackling.

    All sound arguments, by the way, why eBooks MUST be priced significantly cheaper than pBooks.

  9. Purchasing a book of any kind is not a necessity, but a luxury.

    “the person struggling with finances” would be better off utilizing the public library vs. buying either a paperback or an ebook.

    As for the “owning” vs. “licensing,” nothing lasts forever. I will “own” my ebooks as long as I own anything else in this life.

  10. pbook advocates admit the pre-requisite of shelving space and its cost for their format. But then ebook advocates should admit the pre-requisites of their medium. Those would be electricity, connectivity, network infrastructure and costs of display devices.

    And these costing factors are still beside the point that pbook and ebooks are not fungible or equivalent in function. Each has very different features of legibility, navigation, access, and persistence. Why is this unmentioned?

  11. I love the points you make in this article! I used to be an ardent pbook supporter – until I got an ereader – now I love reading ebooks!

    I think it’s worth bringing into any discussion of pbooks vs. ebooks the difference between a book as an experience and a book as an artifact. At the risk of pointing out the obvious – all books are meant to be read, and so all books have value as an experience. But most books have little intrinsic value as a physical object. In these cases, ebooks serve the function as well or better than pbooks (aside from the limitations listed in the article).

    But for books that do have value as an artifact (scholarly work, legal documents, historically significant works, etc.) ebooks can’t do the job. So it’s not just about economics, as valid as the points you make are and as well as they’re taken. It’s also about legacy and preservation needs. The technology of print has proven its staying power; ebooks haven’t, yet.

  12. @Sherry — You wrote: “Rich, do your kids a favor, and start culling your collection now. Speaking as someone who had to help her husband gather up and get rid of a large book collection when his father died, it’s a painful process to leave to your kids.”

    I have 3 kids. One is not interested in any of the books at all; she simply is not a reader. The other 2 children (youngest being 30) are already laying claim to particular sections of the library. They do want the books and encourage me to grow the library. Of course, I’m not too surprised by their response. A good portion of my collection consists of collectible first edition/first printing books, which intersts both kids. The bulk of my collection is nonfiction language, history, philosophy, and biography, which particularly interests my PhD child who would like to add the books to her permanent collection.

    Of course, as is true of any library, there are some books that currently are of no particular interest to anyone but me, but that is subject to change and even if there is no change, is a very small portion of my library.

    I guess it just depends on your family and of what books your library is built. I could clear out my entire library tomorrow by just letting my kids pcik what they want to add to their collections. (And FWIW, my children are not strangers to ebooks; they still prefer pbooks and like having their condos crowded with them.)

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