The Arguments Against eBooks

There are good reasons to favor paper books over eBooks, but they are more limited than most people think. This post is intended to clarify what is and is not a good argument, using the most common ones I've come across.

(NOTE: The first two arguments are actually TRUE for the iPad, which is more of a tablet than an e-reader.)

1. "I get a headache looking at a computer screen for too long." FALSE. Not that you don't get a headache, but that you're not looking at a computer screen. E-readers treat your eyes more like paper than anything. The screen reflects light like paper, rather than shining light into your eyes. And it doesn't constantly refresh (which is what causes the headaches). If you've never tried an e-reader, I'm not sure you're allowed to use this argument.

2. "You have to charge it everyday just to read." FALSE. Because the screen isn't constantly refreshing, the e-reader only uses power when you change the page (and then not very much). Unless you leave the wireless connectivity on all the time, the battery could easily last a month or more.

3. "It doesn't look/smell/feel like a real book." TRUE. It's smaller, lighter, and lays flat on the table.

4. "You can't loan books you love out to friends." FALSE...ish. You can loan, but it's limited. Honestly, this is my biggest hold-out too. But it's also my biggest draw because I could borrow books from anyone in the world.

5. "You can't borrow e-books from libraries." FALSE. You can do it without even leaving your home (though not with a Kindle, apparently).

6. "E-books cost as much as, or more than, a paperback that I could loan to my friends." Varies. Some are more expensive. Some are cheaper. Really, it's up to the publisher, and publishers are still figuring this out. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of (legal, non-self-published) books you can download for free.

7. "DRM sucks. You have to tie yourself to a specific device forever." TRUE. It'd be nice if we could just pay for the e-book and then copy it as much as we like to whatever device we like. But you can see why that's a bad idea in general, right? On the plus side, if you lose or break your device, you can still get all your books back.

8. "You can't take an e-reader in the bathtub." FALSE. I mean, no, you can't put it in the water, but you can't do that with books either. You could put the e-reader in a plastic bag and still turn the pages, which is something you can't do with books.

9. "You have to turn your e-reader off during take-off/landing." TRUE. What? You thought I had a backhanded counter for everything?

10. "You can't trade/sell/buy used books." TRUE. It's possible Amazon and others will have programs to trade in old e-books for new ones, but I wouldn't count on it. And no, the concept of 'used books' doesn't quite fit the e-book paradigm.

Like I said, there are good reasons to favor paper books, but they're limited--and getting more limited every day.

Know any arguments I missed? Disagree with my reasoning? Let us know in the comments!


Corinne said...

Nice post! I still don't tend to buy many ebooks, but lately, I'm not as opposed to the idea as I used to be.

I do have a few nitpicks with your post, though. *g*

I don't think DRM is a bad idea in general -- pirates will break it anyway, so there really is zero point to it. All it does is inconvenience the people who legitimately purchased the book.

Borrowing books from libraries/loaning them out to friends also entirely depends on where you live and what kind of e-reader you have. (The type of ereader also influences some other things you bring up -- for example, I own a Sony Reader, and its battery is awful. Not only does it use up a lot of power, it uses power even when the device is turned off. So if the battery is full and I don't touch it for a few weeks, the battery will be fully drained.)

Adam Heine said...

Thanks, Corinne. Bring on the nitpicks!

I wouldn't say there's zero point to DRM. I agree that, done poorly, it's more inconvenient to the paying customers than the pirates. But if there were no DRM at all, it would be awfully hard for even the most law-abiding citizen not to copy their library and send it to their friend.

I've heard of DRM as analogous to the velvet ropes in banks (or movie theaters or airports). They don't actually stop line-cutters, but they tell those who want to follow the rules that, yes, there are rules and those in charge would like them followed please.

Everything else you said is absolutely right. Though I wonder why the Sony Reader uses up so much power. If it's a true e-reader (not a computer screen), it shouldn't be using power. Or at least whatever is using power (e.g. WiFi) should be able to be turned off.

Adam Heine said...

According to Sony's website (which I know is a biased version of the facts, but it's all I got), their Pocket and Touch editions have 2 weeks of battery life (but they're touch screens, so I'd guess you couldn't leave them on all the time).

The Daily edition has 10 days with wireless on, 22 days with it off. That's shorter than Amazon's advertised one month (without wireless), but it doesn't explain why it uses power when it's off. That's weird O_o

Matthew MacNish said...

I LOVE real books, but I am slowly coming to accept the inevitable, even though I don't have an e-reader yet. One thing about books that no one talks about very often is what a wonderful tool they are for getting to know someone.

Imagine you have recently met someone (love interest, new friend, doesn't matter) and you've finally been invited to their apartment (or home, whatever). When you get the chance to see their library, or just their bookshelf, the opportunity to get to learn about that person is impossible to measure. Just think of the conversations that can be sparked based on a few dozen books.

I'm not saying e-books and paper books can't coexist, but I can't see e-books doing that.

Ricardo Bare said...

You can't burn an e-book!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I have a Nook, and the same battery issues as Corinne. It goes into "power saving" mode when I'm not using it, but it doesn't help. Not sure what the deal is, but I haven't tried to figure it out either.

OK, I'm a HUGE fan of e-books, but I'm confident that the e-book overlords will take over regardless, so now I'll tell you the perks of paper books (or possibly, I just enjoy being contrary):

1)Paper is better for reference - I have several writing books that I like to flip back and forth through, and that's just too much a pain with e-books. So I always buy them in paper. I even bought another copy of Hunger Games in paper, so I could mark it up as I re-read to analyze for plot structure, etc.

2)Paper books remind you to read. Ok, maybe not everyone needs this, but that pile of books staring at me reminds me in a way that the silent Nook does not.

3)Can't be a lurker. I like to peek over people's shoulders to see what they're reading and then chat them up about it, but you have to get creepy close to see what someone's reading on an e-reader. (On the plus side, it's easier to read books with naughty covers in public, if they're safely hidden in the e-reader. Not that I would ever do that.)

Emmet said...

I'm a Kindle apologist, and for good reason. So far the only arguments worth mentioning are: It's nice to display the books you have (or pretend have) read on bookshelves, and you can't get used or limited print books (can't find the sequel to Firefox, which blows).

The arguments: they don't feel the same, and the reference argument, could go either way. After the first five minutes I didn't notice or care about the difference in feel (I prefer e-books now and re-purchased Les Miserables so I could finish reading it on my Kindle, it cost less than a buck). As for reference material, I've bookmarked pages (though I haven't inserted notes or highlighted) and I had no problem flipping back to them.

Otherwise: the screen is easier to look at than most real paper, which means I end up reading more; I've read the equivalent of over 800 paper pages on my current charge, and there's still 20% left to the battery (I charged it about three weeks ago); it can't be turned "off" because it isn't "on" unless the page is turning (this isn't an argument I've decided to have with airline attendants) but the 5 min. of downtime on takeoff and landing more than make up for carrying a few thousand books, including my travel books and anything else I can put into pdf format, in the space of a dime-store novel; if you put the Kindle software on your computer (and register it to the same Amazon account) you can have your books on multiple electronic platforms, and because the books are registered to an account you can erase them from your devise them re-download them at a later date for free.

Oh, and having an e-reader doesn't mean you "can't" buy a paper book, it just meant you probably won't want to.

Candice said...

I own a Nook and think design-wise, it's great, but for some reason I can't bring myself to buy ebooks, despite all the positives. I'm actually asking for help choosing my first ebook on my blog today.

Emmet said...



Unknown said...

Apart from the "tangible" arguement that really isn't an argument because it isn't logical but then because it isn't an argument can't be argued away either, my biggest concert about converting to books in the electronic form is that I loose things and leave things places all the time (people can never get ahold of me because I forget to charge me phone or leave it at home, leave it off etc.). If I am carrying one book or two books or even three and leave them on the bus or beach or wherever I will be sad but if I have my ENTIRE LIBRARY in one device and lose it . . . I don't think the world wants to see me in that condition. Also people are more likely to return a book if I drop it because no one likes books (present comapany exepted of course) but electronic devices are cool. And worth money.
Besides, you can't hit people on the head with e-books --at least not in the non-metaphorical sense -- and hitting people on the head with books is fun.

Meg said...

-I'd never thought about the bathtub thing. I usually take in paperbacks I don't mind getting wet.

-I agree that DRM is important to protect piracy, but at the same time it can leave you hanging. If the Nook or Kindle were ever discontinued you'd be stuck with all your books and no way to play them on a new e-reader.

Also, I have some mp3s I bought back in 2002, and they won't sync up to my mp3 player because I don't have sync right. Why? Because sync rights didn't exist back then. And I can't update the rights because the store I bought them at doesn't exist anymore.

Keriann Greaney Martin said...

I would love a Nook or Kindle at some point. But again, most of my books that I read I have borrowed or I loan out to people. Plus, I just got a bunch of free books at the ALA conference so I have way too many paper books as it is. So for me, I hardly ever buy my own books so there may not be a real point to owning an ereader without being able to share books.

Maybe they could do the whole iTunes thing where it limits the number of devices you can use a song on to maybe 5 max? That way friends can share a book, but you can't share it with the whole world for free.

Adam Heine said...

@Matthew: I totally agree! I even said so in an older post on the subject (3rd item under "What I'll Miss").

@Ricardo: Hah! True! Even if you burn the reader, you'd have to burn the entire internet to get at the books.

@Susan: Totally agree with #2 and #3. I think the reference thing is a technology matter. All it takes is good table of contents, index, hypertext, and search capabilities to make e-books even BETTER for reference.

Adam Heine said...

@Emmet: I should be no surprise that I agree.

@Candice: My problem (kinda related to the Gummi Bears post on Monday) is I would want all my books either one or the other: paper or e-book. And I'm pretty sure I can't have that ;-)

@Taryn: Losing the device would suck, but the thing about DRM (done well, anyway) is it means you don't have to lose your entire library. Though you're right about hitting people on the head. I hadn't thought of that.

Adam Heine said...

@Meg: In theory, you would still be able to use a Kindle or Nook app (is there a Nook app?) to read your old books. And in Happy Fantasy Land, someone would write a conversion tool for your old stuff if Amazon went under. But obviously it's just as likely that won't happen :-( DRM's a double-edged sword.

@Keriann: That's how I am too. Those of us who actually get US books out here swap them a lot. I'm still not satisifed with the Two-Weeks-One-Time loaning system current the Kindle and Nook have in place, but the ability to loan/borrow with friends on the other side of the world is awfully enticing.

Myrna Foster said...

I don't have an e-reader, but I don't have anything against e-books. I listen to audiobooks on my MP3 player, and I think the loaning system for our library is similar. I've never bought an audiobook.

Thanks for the information, Adam!

Nick said...

When the apocalypse hits, power grids will die and your reader will run out of power. You could get some of those batteries that recharge in the sun, but that's only going to last you so long.

Your collection will die with civilization!

Nick said...

Oh, and you probably couldn't re-download your stuff from amazon when that happens either :)

Adam Heine said...

One of my first orders of business, after putting the sniper nests in place around my land, will be collecting solar energy for my house and building rechargeable batteries out of potatoes.

The ONLY problem, as I see it, is I'd want to eat all the potatoes.

Asea said...

I admit that ebooks are very alluring when I'm traveling and get one backpack for three weeks' stuff. I read a book a day (sometimes two!) when traveling, so it's hard to manage to bring enough. On the other hand, no one has ever tried to steal a book out of my hands on the metro, and I have seen an ereader stolen that way.

Re: battery consumption, batteries discharge over time even when they're not being used. It's not that the device is using power, it's just that batteries are not an entirely closed system and they "leak" energy a bit. You can slow this process down by putting batteries (the old kind of batteries, anyway, I'm not sure about lithium ion batteries) in a cold place, like the fridge (not the freezer! you don't want to make them crack!). Or my pocket when it's -20 (like today) - my phone started beeping that it was low on power 20 minutes into my walk home, but it was just that the battery was cold!

Fun conversation! :-)

Unknown Blogger said...

The biggest argument I see against E-Readers is the "loss/theft/damage" argument. If I bring a book to the beach and leave it on my towel when I go in the water, I'm 99.99% sure its going to be there when I get back. I'm also 99.99% sure that if it is gone, its not going to ruin my day. Those percantages drop dramatically if I've got an e-reader with me. Additionally, sand in a paperback is no biggie, sand on a screen or in connections is not so good.

Otherwise, yes, I'm on board with e-readers.


Adam Heine said...

@Asea: Interesting information about batteries. I knew that was true for the regular kind, but I've never left my laptop unplugged long enough to know if the same is true for lithium ion.

@Andy: That's a good point about the beach, Andy. (Though that's also true of my wallet and cell phone I bring to the beach too...Now that I think of it, I just never left stuff unattended there).

Unknown said...

Very interesting...found your blog via a Google search. I'm a retail manager for Barnes & Noble, and I'm posting from my Nookcolor. I have no strong feelings for or against e-readers, as my primary concern is to serve our customers individual tastes and needs. The reaction to the release of our Nooks and Nookcolor has been surprising and exciting, but some people still prefer physical books.
One benefit that hasn't been discussed is the space saved by e-books. For incurable bibliophiles that is a huge factor.

Adam Heine said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Ben! That's definitely a good point. I've often wondered, if I one day replaced my paper books with digital ones, what I would do with all my bookshelf space ;-)

goldenapple said...

Technology is constantly improving. With such a new thing as Ebooks, many new things will be improved. THIS means that many Ebooks will be lost, if they are an old compatibility or something. Don't quite understand? Here are examples:

- You CANNOT play normal DS games on a DSi. That means all your DS games will be useless.
- Same with computers. You CANNOT play DOS games on today's computer.
- Floppies used to be a big craze, but now any of those left won't be worth anything.
- Records have been given up to CDs

See what I mean? Ebooks will be lost, along with much of the owner's money. Alternatively, books will never be un-readable.

Earth said...

@ Corrie: YES!!! EXACTLY! I'm not so much against ebooks as I am against going entirely paperless...which I see this as the start of the trend.

Joy said...

Actually - Kindle just updated that - you now can borrow from Kindle to Kindle or even Kindle to iPad. Amazon also just introduced a library it's limited right now, but I'm sure will expand!

Joy said...

Oh - and to add to the theft argument - I don't know how the nook works, but while the device itself is expensive (the ereader) the books actually aren't lost if your device disappears. You just pull it up on your computer later and if you get a new device, transfer it there. Your cloud library doesn't disappear.

Swordsmith said...

Most books I buy, I read once and never touch again.

This means I won't really miss anything if, five years from now, my current EReader dies and the format those books were in is obsolete. But for the few I DO want to keep, a paper copy would be much better protection against time.

It also means books become significantly more expensive: I buy about half my books from used bookstores, and sell about 90% of them TO used bookstores when I'm done with them. This means I currently pay (lets see, half price, minus 90% of 25%... 27.5% of the cover price of half my books, but less than that really, since many of those used books are old enough to have much lower cover prices.) And I practically NEVER buy hardcovers, so the "cover price" of an eBook would be competing with paperback prices, making the math even worse.

Another issue nobody has mentioned is the process of selecting a book in the first place. I browse through a bookstore, or library, looking at spines for names, author name, spine art; anything interesting at all I look at the cover and the cover art, and if interest holds, the blurbs on the back, the inside cover, I flip to a random page or two to get an idea of what the style is like. I have listened to a good many audiobooks, and have also tried downloading them from the library... doing that leads me to believe that browsing online for eBooks will be just as unsatisfying as doing it for audiobooks. (note, I also don't shop Amazon for paper books, for the same reason.)

Anonymous said...

I have to do a debate, pro-book, on this topic...but I do honestly believe that the pros of real books much outweigh those of Kindles. Something that was forgotten is that instead of having money go to working class people (as it would in a bookstore), it goes to the company heads, which will eventually leave many people jobless, and adds to the seperation of classes.

Dave Weber said...

What about the division of classes. If poor people aren't able to access the same literature as wealthy people. Not that this would be a current problem but a possible future outcome. Do you think we would lose the art in producing literature? Do we really want five years olds operating electronic devices?? Just throwing some topics out there.Also, will this monopolizing the publishing industry? How do you deal with a copywright issues when the re is such easy access to steal intellectual property? Also,who will put regulations on inappropriate material? Will censorship become an issue? I think we only see the convience and not the future complications.