Should You Buy an eBook Reader?

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At least once a week, someone tries to explain all the reasons that I need an eBook reader. It’s become so annoying that I recently resorted to online threats: I recently Tweeted that the next person who sees me reading a book and asks me why I don’t have a Kindle will walk with a limp for the rest of his life.

But a lot of people like them: Amazon recently reported that it is now selling more eBooks than regular books, and authors I’ve spoken to have told me that negotiating royalty rates on eBook sales is now a major concern when they’re signing book contracts. I signed the deal for my first book in late 2008, and I don’t even remember the issue of eBook royalties coming up in conversation. The growth of eBooks has been rapid and, I think, unexamined: Other than the fact that everyone is telling you you should buy one, why should you buy one? I thought I’d break down a list of all the reasons people have been touting Kindles and Nooks and Crannies — and explain why I don’t want one and why you probably shouldn’t either:

You save money with an eBook reader.

No, actually, you probably won’t. Leaving aside the point that borrowing books from the library is much cheaper than buying them for a Kindle, the cost savings from buying eBooks instead of print copies depends on a few factors, like how many books you read, how much less they’ll cost as eBooks, how much the eBook reader cost and how long your eBook reader will last before you have to buy a new one. The last part is the hardest to answer, so we’ll leave that aside.

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But let’s look at a recent bestseller with real numbers: Add to that the cost of a Kindle: $139. The latest James Patterson thriller costs $12.99 on Kindle and $15.21 in hardcover, which is about what it would cost in Walmart as well. But if you buy it used on Amazon, you’ll pay just $6.40, plus another $3.99 for shipping. Plus, if you read it quickly while it’s still a new release, you can resell it on eBay or to a local used bookstore and recoup some of your investment.

And here’s the thing: that’s the worst-case scenario. Anything that isn’t a brand new release will be much cheaper to buy used than as an eBook. The Internet revolution has made the market for used books more efficient than ever; it’s bad for dealers, but great for consumers. You can get most non-new-release mainstream titles used on Amazon for 1 cent plus $3.99 shipping. That’s right: 1 cent.

The bottom line is this: an eBook reader won’t save you money.

eBook readers are better for the environment.

Eh. Probably not — at least, certainly not enough to make it worth buying. The main issue is this: a ton of energy is used creating these machines and, when they become obsolete, they clog up landfills because they aren’t that easy to dispose of. By one estimate, an eBook reader’s creation uses the same energy as the production of 40 to 50 brand new books. And, of course, if you’re buying used books, the carbon footprint falls even more in favor of passing on the eBook reader. eBooks are, at best, an ecological wash.

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It’s so much more convenient. Books are too heavy!

This is a classic example of people needing new technology to solve a problem that is completely non-existent. Unless you’re an incredibly voracious reader and an incredibly weak human being, lugging around books is probably not even within the top 10,000 inconveniences of your life. Harold Bloom is probably the only person in America who meets both of these criteria. Oh, and by the way, I’ve never had a problem with my paperback book running out of batteries on a plane.

And the most important problem with eBooks: You can’t read them in the bathtub.

I can get the book I want instantly.

This is probably the only good reason to have an eBook reader. If you live way outside of civilization (but still have good enough reception to download books) or are constantly traveling and don’t have a home address, I can see owning an eBook reader. But for most people, the Kindle solves a problem that didn’t exist. Stick with books.