I was thinking today about how ebooks have changed my reading habits in the last few years. I had flirted with them as early as 2005, when I experimented with Project Gutenberg freebies on a Palm Pilot while living in smalltown New Zealand. There was only one local bookstore, and its selection was lacking. At the time, Project Gutenberg was a revelation. In the years since, I have gone through 5 main readers and nearly as many preferred bookstores, and spent over $500 a year on books and content. So, how has my reading changed?

There are some special points I’ll elaborate on below, but if they could be summed up in one sentence, it would be this: I have become profoundly less patient. As a customer, I am less patient with publishers who sell shoddy products or with vendors who play funny games with geographical restrictions or inflated pricing or DRM schemes that complicate my fair and legitimate use. And as a reader, I have became far less tolerant of mediocrity.

That last part might seem like a funny statement to make in this age of the instant self-publisher, where authors can directly reach the marketplace on a whim without the bother of a gatekeeper, and the internet can seem at times like the world’s biggest slushpile. But the blunt truth behind my newfound impatience is this: I simply don’t have the time to read anything that’s only so-so. I am drowning in content, and it isn’t letting up.

In the old days, my stash of ready-to-go paper books was limited primarily by issues of space—I had a finite amount of it, and only so much to devote to books. Even books I enjoyed had to be culled from time to time to make way for other things. I had a basket for library books too, and when it was full, that was it for library books.

And now? Well, when the TBR pile was only five books tall, I’d read what was there because I had nothing better to do. But a virtual stack a thousand books tall is a whole other story! My Calibre collection has over 2000 books, only several hundred of which have been read in full. At two books a week, that’s about 16 years to finish them, even if I never buy another book! So why should I slog through a so-so title when there are almost two decades worth of other ones waiting in the queue which might be better?

Admittedly, there are a handful of authors whose works, for me, are truly must-reads. But I am a fast reader, and given the quantity of books I go through in a year, the vast majority of them are just categories. One mystery or thriller or romance by an unknown-to-me author is pretty much the same an another one. So if the one on offer cannot be had within my price range, preferred format and geographical area, there are plenty more where that came from. And if the book has other problems too—formatting issues, badly proofed OCR, heck, even if it starts a little slow or is simply not my thing—no big loss. Next!

I’ve had a few experiences—in the last year, especially, as ebooks have taken off and publishers have tried to cash in—where I have had to work much too hard to just enjoy a reading experience, and I’ve  given up. A badly proofed new release whose refund required four separate emails to Kobo, including screen shots of offending pages, and a personal intervention from the CEO of Kobo himself? I’m over that. I’ll sample first, from Amazon whose samples are a little more generous, and then buy from them if the book is a must-have. And if it’s not a must-have, I’ll just move on to the next one on my list.

And how about Zinio, who has an annoying habit of refilling your device with every issue you’ve ever bought, every time they issue a major app update? I subscribe to more than one magazine, and the only way I can keep track of unread issues is to delete the ones I’ve finished. When Zinio puts them back without my consent, it makes me lose track. The second time I opened the app and found my to-be-reads mixed in with 2 years worth of ‘helpfully’ re-added back issues for half a dozen publications, I resolved to just stop. Bye, Zinio! When my current subscriptions end, that will be it for me. I have two years of Dell magazines from Fictionwise I haven’t finished yet and a bookmark at Project Gutenberg which lists complete years of Astounding Stories, Atlantic Monthly, Punch and Scientific American, among others. All of these are DRM-free, ready to be loaded onto the device of my choosing. If Zinio is going to be a problem, there are plenty of other magazines to read.

Another one was Barnes & Noble, who stubbornly refuses to sell anything—even free books in the public domain—to the non-American. When I couldn’t get my hands on their dozen free classics, I simply shrugged and looked elsewhere. Yes, I was curious to read their supposedly excellent introductory material, footnotes and other supplementary add-ons. But if they won’t sell to me, they won’t sell. I can get my fill of classics elsewhere. For instance, Mobile Read has a very nice complete set of the Harvard Classics—all 51 of them, and they have introductory essays and a reader’s guide too—available for download in a single zip file with just one click. It couldn’t be easier. And there is the series  directory at The Everyman’s Library (121 books), the Chronicles of Canada (32 books), English Men of Letters (36 books), Library of the World’s Best Literature (12 books), World’s Best Reading (56 books) Best Short Stories (5 books) and so on…

And how about the backlist specials? Well, let’s put it this way—publishers may not care too much about those, judging from the ream of over-priced barely proofed OCR’d editions I’ve seen. And nobody seems to know who is actually in charge and capable of fixing them anyway (believe me, I have tried my best to find out!) But individual authors do care, and many of them have gotten back the rights to their backlist titles and are plugging them on Smashwords and other indie sites. Smashwords allows generous sampling, so it’s easy to try before you buy. And if you do have any difficulties, you can reach a real person, who can actually resolve whatever issues you have. It’s like winning the lottery for this fed-up ebook fan.

So, the good news is that I will indeed spend money on content, and I do indeed acquire a lot of it. But the bad news is that unless you are the latest instalment in the JD Robb series by Nora Roberts, or a new-release Stephen King, Kevin Brockmeier, Margaret Atwood or Connie Willis, it’s going to have to be good and you’re going to have to make it easy. It’s not enough to simply be available—quality is the new gatekeeper. With a to-read list that’s cleared the 1000-book mark and is growing, I simply don’t have time to spend on anything less than a compelling, error-free and professional-quality book.


  1. Joanna, thank you for this. Your experience mirrors mine, except that I am in the U.S. But I, too, have come to realize that life is too short and my TBR list too long, to waste time on anything that does not completely engage me. I periodically list the books I have read on Goodreads, and anyone analyzing them would probably consider me undiscriminating because there so many 4 and 5 stars. This is because if there are problems with a book, I drop it and am on to the next. (And I love Connie Willis, too. The Doomsday Book will haunt me forever.)

  2. E books changed my reading style too because after I discovered this new hobby I forgot about classic books.
    I can blame allyoucanbooks for providing so many attractive e books for free, but the real reason is me. I love reading but I don’t have much time because I’m always on the road working. E books helped me practice this hobby everywhere not just at home in bed, and that’s why I prefer them .

  3. Quite an interesting story from Joanna and it makes a lot of sense. However while in some respects yes there are many like her, I feel that her habits will quite not be those of the average reader in coming years.
    I believe most average regular readers will continue to read maybe 10 or 15 books a year because they have limited time in their busy lives.
    I agree with Joanna about a lessening in patience with un-engaging writing. However I believe the driver of change is the cost factor. With current paper books, readers are investing upward of 12 euros on a paper book and even if it is not the most engaging, they feel that they paid for it so they may as well as persevere.
    Also while it is pretty clear that quality is going to be demanded by future readers more than before, when we use that word ‘quality’, we must remember that it is a totally subjective term. Your quality title is my rubbish title and vice versa.
    And as we have discussed many times before here on Teleread, the current challenge for readers is how to find those ‘quality’ titles in a sea of mixed ‘quality’ titles, where solutions are being experimented with but non have yet really clicked.

  4. Howard, my suspicion is that, for the ‘average’ reader, we have entered into the Age of the Sample. People will find new books by downloading samples and then either rejecting them or springing for the book. As for where they’ll get these samples, I think the Amazon Deals of the Day page is our future. People will bookmark that page, or whatever the equivalent might be for their preferred store, special interest category or what have you, and then merrily click away. Perhaps newspaper websites will start highlighting a book a day. Or people will troll the best-seller lists as they do now. The difference will be that they won’t buy it sight unseen. They’ll sample and screen out.

  5. Yes Joanna though I personally feel the emergence of social reading sites with networking and reliable and individual and personal reviewers that share their likes and dislikes. Reading samples is great … but quite time consuming in and of itself.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly with Joanna. There are many books I would like to read, but the quality of the ebook itself is too poor. I have found samples from travel memoirs where the maps are small bitmap images that can’t be made larger than 1 x 2 inches on my iPad screen without the type completely pixilating to illegibility. Do I buy that ebook? No. Do I buy the paper book when I already own over 1500 books in a small townhouse? No. There’s always something else to read.

    In terms of general quality issues, I would really like ebooks to have real, virtual covers with the blurbs generally found on the back or dust jacket flaps. I read many mysteries, and the titles don’t often provide enough information for me to determine which of three books by the author was the one I wanted to read first. I hate to have to go look them up again at amazon or a site like goodreads.

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