Why I refuse to buy a Kindle, even though I totally want one

Amazon had a deal yesterday for a $79 refurbished Kindle Paperwhite. That’s $40 less than a brand new one, and convincing enough that it’s now backordered for 3 to 5 weeks.

But I didn’t buy one. Even though I really want one. It was as good of a deal as I’m likely to see for a long time, but I hesitated, for all the reasons that have held me back this whole time, until it was too late. I don’t even know if I should be sad or relieved.

And I really wanted one. Kind of. A little bit. Maybe. Allow me to explain.

Why I semi-desperately want a Kindle

In many ways, digital book readers are better reading devices than regular books, and it’s not just the space-saving tininess of their svelte little library-in-your-pocket profile. They’re also easier to read. One-handed operation, faster page turns, non-curved reading surfaces, occasional built-in lighting, lighter weight, lack of app distraction, and font customization all combine to make quite a compelling case that digital books provide a better reading experience than paper. Just imagine trying to read a paper book while lying down on your side, for example. What a nuisance.

For all of these reasons, Kindle owners simply read more, with estimates claiming they consume anywhere from double to quadruple the number of books as those who read only print. Maybe they were reading voraciously already, which is why they bought a Kindle, but the advantages of digital reading, combined with the ease of getting exactly what you want immediately, are surely a significant part of the equation.

But most importantly, when I travel, I burn through books at a ridiculous rate, devouring them much faster than I can manage at home, often going at around one book per week. I feed myself as many books as I can while I’m gone, because I know I won’t be able to keep up the pace back home. On the last trip, I read a whole book in a single day (fun fact: It was Armistead Maupin’s The Night Listener).

It’s easy to see why; the internet is less of a ubiquitous distraction, even with readily-available free hostel Wi-Fi. Long bus rides, train trips, and flights carve out massive blocks of uninterrupted free time, occasionally preceded by an hour or two spent in the waiting area as well. Spending all day reading is sometimes the only option.

It’s true that tablets and smartphones can help pass the time with movies and games, but voracious readers aren’t likely to spend much time tapping away on them before opening up a good book. Besides, those horrific 36 hour bus rides will drain the batteries long before you arrive at your destination, in which case a good book is often the only reliable way to keep you from going completely insane.

There’s just one horribly insurmountable problem: Finding books.

Unless you’re a omnilingual language genius, you’ll probably be on the lookout for English-language bookstores, hostel book exchanges, or fellow reading buddies with whom you can trade a book or two. This all sounds great.

In reality, it’s a horrific nightmare. Depending on where you are, English-language bookstores and book exchanges might be completely nonexistent, and hostel roommates might not be readers. Or maybe they do have books, but they’re terrible. Argh!

Another semi-solution is to bring a single book that’s a thousand pages long, or carry several at the same time. I once met a guy carrying twelve. You’ll get spinal injuries from hauling them around all day, but at least you won’t get bored.

Book stack
That oughta last me a while, especially if I read both Brothers Karamazov translations.

Damn. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a solution that provided convenient access to all sorts of great books, but won’t weigh you down or run out of batteries in a matter of hours? Yes, it totally would!

Sadly, the publishing industry seems to think otherwise.

Why I’ve held out on buying a Kindle for so long

For many reasons, digital book readers have failed to sufficiently kindle (ha!) my interest, though it has far more to do with the book industry in general, rather than the devices themselves. There’s nothing particularly wrong with a Kindle, and there’s lots to like. The two major problems, at the moment, are exclusively the fault of publishers:

Problem #1: Digital books are stupidly expensive

You know how much it costs to email someone a file? Nothing. And that’s essentially what it costs for a publisher to send you an ebook.

Sure, there are still plenty of costs associated with operating the business itself, and digital distribution networks aren’t free. But they’re significantly cheaper than print distribution, which is why publishers have been enjoying greater ebook profit margins, despite flat revenue. Ebooks are significantly cheaper to produce, store, and sell. So why aren’t they cheap to buy?

Consumers have frequently complained about the nonsensical irony of ebooks often costing more than print versions. Publishers are just gouging customers into paying higher prices for cheaper products, and consumers know it. Even if ebook prices were equal, or even slightly favorable, it would still be unfair, because they should be significantly cheaper.

Too bad they’re not.

Harry Potter Kindle edition pricing weirdness
“What sorcery is this!?!!”

Yes, you can get a brand new copy of Harry Potter for 50 cents, while the Kindle price is 16 times higher. Even after factoring in shipping costs for the physical book (an additional $3.99), it’s still just a little over half the price of the Kindle edition. Plus you’ll get the book, which you can lend to friends. If digital books are supposed to compete with physical books, they should be cheaper than paper copies.

Making them cheaper, by the way, also makes them more profitable. Amazon has done a lot to communicate that books are very “price elastic,” meaning that when you sell the same book at a lower price, more people buy the book; that’s obvious enough, but, more importantly, so many more people buy the book that you make more money, even with lower prices.

In other words, they could drop the price in half, and they’d sell more than twice as many books. That’s already pretty great, but as an added bonus, authors would more than double their fan base. This is just a textbook (ha!) case of a win-win for everyone, and publishers are stupid for not jumping all over it.

You know what makes it even stupider? Used bookstores. Every time I look at ebook prices, I just go straight to the used bookstore down the street, which has just about every book I can possibly imagine, always at lower prices than any digital version (with the exception of old books whose copyright has expired, and thus are free). Why would I bother paying over $100 for a digital book reader and then pay $10 per ebook when I can get all the books I want for $7 each and then sell them back to the used bookstore and save even more?

Used bookstore shelves
This is the best reason not to buy a Kindle ever.

I just picked up a copy of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon for $2. It’s nearly 1,000 pages long, it’s a New York Times bestseller, and it was in the bargain bin for two dollars. The Kindle edition is $4.99. No wonder I love used bookstores so much.

Here’s another:

Anton Chekhov Stories used copy
The Kindle edition? $10.05.

Ironically, it’s non-used books that make me feel used.

What an indisputably clear message it sends as to how stupid the publishing industry is for driving readers toward cheaper alternatives that make absolutely no money for the author or the publisher.

Seriously, what a stupid plan.

Problem #2: Digital books are stupidly unavailable

This predicament is changing rapidly, as it seems more and more books are available as digital versions all the time, but especially in the case of subscription services such as Kindle Unlimited and Oyster, which are clearly the future of digital book distribution, many of the books are simply not there.

In the case of Kindle Unlimited, a service which publishers are apparently trying to sabotage before it even has a chance, it’s especially problematic; most of the books available seem to be amateur erotica from the legions of moonlighting authors self-publishing on the site. If that’s what you love, well then, Kindle Unlimited is for you!

Kindle Unlimited sample books
Snicker.

I’m exaggerating, but only slightly.

Oyster, at the moment, has 500,000 books. Compare that to the total number of books in existence (130,000,000), and you start to see the problem. Why would I pay $10 a month for “unlimited” books if I still have to shop elsewhere for Haruki Murakami? It’s certainly not Oyster’s fault, but it’s still a problem for readers looking for a reasonable solution.

It’s all just a huge mess.

My stupid Kindle solution

As someone who likes to travel, I’m getting a Kindle. It’s inevitable. I read too fast and run out of books, and get stuck with nothing to read, and I’m too scrawny to carry more than a few at a time. Getting a Kindle is the only way to resolve this problem. Reading on a phone or a tablet drains the battery, isn’t as comfortable, and hurts my eyes. Kindle it is.

Unfortunately, it’s expensive. Anywhere from $70 to $200 for the Kindle itself, and about $10 per book. At one book per week, that’s $40 a month, which is quadruple the price of subscription services, and $40 more than trading books with hostel buddies for free.

It’s certainly not a crippling expense, but it’s still an unjustified premium just for the luxury of using a Kindle, while publishers rake in higher profits by selling digital copies. But at least that way I’ll have something to read while I’m traveling, and I can save a little by reading older books with expired copyright that can be downloaded for free.

At home, I’ll just go to the used bookstore, buy the books cheaply, and return them back to the same store after I’m done, thus providing zero dollars in royalties to publishers and authors. And if you say “library,” I’ve tried. Finding what I want just doesn’t happen often enough to be worth my time (plus it smells weird), whereas a visit to the used bookstore has never left me disappointed.

This, clearly, is a stupid solution. It’s simultaneously less convenient and more expensive for me, and makes less money for authors and publishers. Nobody wins. Except the used bookstore, which I’m happy to support. But I’d prefer a reasonable alternative.

Which I can describe:

My ideal Kindle solution

In a perfect world, I’d have a Kindle, or some equivalent device, with a $10 per month subscription service that would include every book in the world, with a well-designed curation system that would feed me books I’d like as often as possible. I’d be overjoyed.

For those who have less frequent reading habits, subscription services don’t make much sense. They should be able to download digital books for $5 each. Quit fussing, publishers. We’ll just go to the used bookstore instead. It’s what we’ve been doing this whole time anyway. Also, the first 50 pages of every full-length novel should be free. With 130 million books out there in the world, sampling is a necessity.

Physical copies will still exist, whether new or used, because some people just like having a paper copy, and they’re more practical for people who read only occasionally, for whom a $100 dedicated book machine doesn’t make much sense, which is why I expect books will prove far more resilient than other physical media, such as music and movies, so there’s no reason to lament the impending death of the neighborhood bookstore.

Everyone would be happy…but it’s nowhere close to where we are now. Sigh!

I do, however, have an alternate proposition:

Why Amazon should give everyone in America a free Kindle

Oh yes.

Amazon has repeatedly pointed out that it doesn’t care if it makes no money selling underpriced devices, as long as it can go on to sell books and movies through them. Seems pretty straightforward, but let’s see how far we can push it.

Low-end Kindles cost about $80 to manufacture. I don’t know how the hell a black and white text machine is so damn expensive, but whatever.

So let’s say they hand out a free Kindle to every single person the United States, currently totaling somewhere around 300,000,000 people. Obviously it’s stupid to hand out free Kindles to newborn babies and so on, but half the point of this thought experiment is the audacity of it all. So let’s just say they blanket 100% of the population with a cool new free toy, including those who already have one. Grand total cost: $24 billion.

And remember how Kindle owners quadruple their book purchases? They’d go from the current American average of 5 books per year (I’m using the median, rather than the mean), all the way to 20.

That seems pretty optimistic, though. In many cases it’s not the Kindle that makes someone read more, but heavy reading habits that motivate someone to buy a Kindle. So let’s just arbitrarily cut that in half and call it 10. That’s not even a book a month, so I’d say that’s pretty reasonable as a nationwide average, thus meaning a Kindle-enhanced USA would read an average of 3 billion books per year.

As for how profitable it is for Amazon to sell those books, that’s much trickier, as public information regarding those numbers is seemingly nonexistent; publishers make somewhere around $4 to $5 in profit per ebook, but Amazon’s revenue share is lower, generally somewhere around 30%, meaning for a $10 ebook they’d get $3, and that’s before taking into account the cost of operations.

Digital files, of course, are immensely cheap to mass-produce, store, and ship, which is why I’m inclined to believe ebooks are quite profitable, but since Amazon’s profit margins are famously slim, let’s just say they make a single, solitary dollar per ebook in profit.

In other words, they could give me, and you, and everyone in the US a free Kindle, and they’d make back their investment in 8 years.

I don’t know why they haven’t already sent us one.

Obviously these estimates lack the precision I’d like, but it would certainly go a long way towards kickstarting the digital book market, and we’d probably all read a whole lot more. I’m also inclined to view the purported decline of American reading habits as exaggerated. We’d read more often if we could get the books we want, the way we want, at the price we want.

Disclaimers and whatnot

My point here isn’t to take sides with one company over another, nor weigh in on the ongoing battle between Amazon, publishers, bookstores, and authors (though I should mention that this site is an Amazon affiliate, meaning that when I send readers to Amazon by suggesting products they might like, I get a commission from the sale). I have mixed feelings about the Amazon’s place in the book market, but find it incomprehensibly stupid that publishers complain about Amazon’s alleged monopoly all the time, instead of just opening their own damn online bookstore and selling the books themselves. Seriously, who’s stopping them?

Besides, I don’t particularly care if I get my books from Amazon or elsewhere, or if I read them on a Kindle, or some equivalent device. I just want good books dammit. But I literally cannot find an ideal solution to my needs. I want the portability of digital books for more convenient travel, but digital books cost more than used copies, and subscription services often don’t have the right books. There’s simply nothing out there that’s properly addressing those issues.

Why? Why are publishers forcing a situation that works out for no one? Why are they fighting to keep prices higher than what I would find in the used bookstore, which provides them with zero royalties? Why are they fighting to keep digital books unavailable through subscription services? Why are they pretending to defend the interests of authors, while simultaneously refusing to share the increased royalties from higher ebook profit margins? For a variety of reasons, I don’t expect traditional publishers to exist much longer, and articles like this one make a solid case for why no one will mourn their demise.

I haven’t even addressed the problem of DRM-related non-portability, which disallows readers from reading ebooks on whichever device they choose. Much like any CD player should be able to play any CD, every digital book reader should be able to read any digital book. Non-portability only makes subscription services even more attractive, since they don’t force you into buying books that only work on one platform or another, which is yet another reason why buying into a digital ecosystem requires more tactical evaluation than it should.

Argh. What a mess.

Time to turn the page…

In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a particularly huge problem. But what’s unfortunate is how people lament the decline of American reading habits, expecting the fall to be inevitable, with seemingly no hope in sight. I think the opposite is true.

Though people nowadays have far more entertainment options competing for their attention than they did 50 years ago, I expect the types of people who don’t bother reading today weren’t the types to do much reading back then, either. If you’re blissfully satisfied with Angry Birds, then War and Peace would have been a lost cause for you in any century.

Book lovers, on the other hand, will devour whatever they can get their hands on, and knowing that digital books have the potential to quadruple one’s reading habits, and that cutting the price of ebooks in half would more than double sales volume, there’s a pretty clear case for feeding book junkies with as much as you can throw at them, as cheaply as possible. If we’re all so worried about Americans reading fewer books, why not exploit the methods that encourage them to read more? Why not seize those opportunities with the same zeal with which readers would welcome them? Sigh.

I expect that sooner or later, all of these problems will be solved. Book lovers will have Netflix-like access to all the books they want, and they’ll marathon-read them the same way we all marathon-watched Breaking Bad. All day, every day, until we’re done.

We’re ready. It’s time to move on to the next…ahem…chapter of literary enthusiasm.

In the meantime, I’ll be at the used bookstore, enjoying every moment of it.

Minor update: I finally got one, and it’s exactly what I was expecting.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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53 Comments on “Why I refuse to buy a Kindle, even though I totally want one”

  1. A free Kindle? That would be nice but things are often valued by what they cost a person. Now if they were selling one for $25 with free shipping I’d click on it right now and then worry about the cost of the books.
    Yesterday I went looking for a title, the local library did not have it so I went to Amazon.com
    A penny for the book & $3.99 shipping means a used copy will be here for $4. Way cheaper than the kindle. I just want to read it not keep it.

  2. No comment on the Kindle device, other than to say that I love mine and you won’t be able to pry it from my cold dead fingers because I’ll still be reading in the afterlife. But regarding the topic of pricing and math stuff, take a look at http://whatever.scalzi.com/2014/07/30/amazons-latest-volley/ to see why it isn’t quite as simple as it sounds.

    Actually, you should look into libraries – many of them now have OverDrive or similar services which is basically an eBook library. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good and usually free.

    1. I tried OverDrive, but I couldn’t get comfortable reading on my phone, and you have to look up each book individually, and they’re usually checked out. I typed in all the books I was interested in reading, and they had zero of them. I did that a few times, and eventually deleted the app. Maybe other cities have better library systems, but I think if you’re dealing with only a limited selection, browsing is better than searching, which is why going to the library is generally easier than downloading library ebooks.

      1. You actually can download books from your library to your kindle. Our daughter is a voracious reader and that is one of the only ways we can feed her appetite. I think we’ve only ever purchased 4 or 5 books for her, but I would guess that she has read > 100. It does help that we have access to 3 large library systems in Seattle and Singapore to choose books from….

        1. I tried downloading library books to my phone, but always ran into the problem of not being able to find what I wanted. I suppose if you’re open-minded, you can read all sorts of things, but every time I typed something in, I couldn’t get it, so I just gave up. It made more sense to just walk over to the library and browse around than it did typing out the titles or authors and finding out they’re checked out. Oh well. Glad you’re happy though.

          1. I’ve found the solution is to register for as many libraries as possible, and use the waiting list feature. I usually have at least 20-25 books I want to read, so if I have to wait a week for half of them, it’s not a big deal for me.

  3. I would just buy one – your arguments against, especially if you are American and can take advantage of Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited, don’t really hold weight IMO – and even if you are not there are great options to get books for free or cheaply legitimately, plus the benefits you outline (weight, size, capacity, battery life, back light, etc.)

    1) Kindle Unlimited – $9..9 month s requested
    2) Amazon Prime – $99 year
    3) Local Library with Overdrive
    4) Thousands of free and opensource books to email your kindle

    Just get one

    1. I will. There’s no better way to read books while traveling. I’ll cheapen the investment with expired copyright books, as well as the occasional free promotional version of newer books, and so on. It just seems annoying that if I want something, it’s always going to be cheaper to buy it non-Kindle, and publishers have fought to keep it that way.

  4. I sympathize with your annoyance WRT ebook pricing, however for me the convenience of my Kindle Paperwhite far (far, far) outweighs the price. It is the closest-to-perfect electronic device I have ever owned (display, lighting, weight, & battery life are beyond reproach – my only very minor wish is that it was a little bit faster), and I cannot imagine ever again lugging books around with me when I travel. Like you I read far (far, far) more when traveling, but I doubt I would if I had to carry IQ84 or Game of Thrones in hardcopy with me. Join us, join us, join us!

  5. Its not always cheaper to buy paper. Especially when its a new book. In the end you read so many more old free books that it well makes up the difference in price for newer ones.

    Never again will you pay 7 bucks for a copy of the Iliad or Great Expectations. And you’ll read weird old stuff that you would not have read otherwise. Dont just look on Amazon either. Check sites like Archive.org or Project Gutenberg. Use Calibre to load them on or convert epubs. Its fun to build up a huge library.

    “Netflixization” may be the future, but its incredibly tricky to get working right. I mean, it be great if Netflix had every movie ever made too. But it will probably never happen.

    Get a Kindle. They’re great!

    1. It’s true that new releases are cheaper as digital versions, especially if hardbacks are the only options available (on a side note, I think hardbacks are incredibly annoying). So yes, it can be cheaper in certain situations; really new books, and really old books. It’s the middle ground where used bookstores are currently offering a better deal.

      And I’ll hop over the fence eventually. There’s simply no alternative.

  6. I love ebooks. I started using the Kindle app on my phone after I moved to Korea. I don’t want to waste my time searching for English language books here and also have more stuff to move since I like to keep books. I already have too many Korean textbooks. And I love that I can instantly get books. The thing I didn’t like, that I now watch out for on Amazon, are self published books. I didn’t realize this was a thing till I bought a couple that were terrible.

    I would never carry a dedicated ebook reader though. Reading on my phone is fine with me and I am used to it now.

    1. I wish I could use my phone, but it just bothers me for some reason. Maybe it’s because I was only testing out old books with expired copyright, and I wasn’t that into them…

      And yes, self-publishing is becoming more and more significant. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, but that’s basically the way it was before, but it’s probably worse overall than “real” printed books.

      1. I use my phone cause I always have it with me. When I started reading on it about 4 years ago I didn’t really think it was something I would keep doing.

  7. I say yes to kindle. I love mine!

    Things you may want to consider:

    The battery actually lasts for quite a while. I put my paperwhite in airplane mode to save battery and it lasts for way way longer than you would think.

    Then to save money instead of buying books I joined a local library or two. Most now have e-books available, though some have better policies than others. The library where I grew up lets me check out 5 books at a time and have 10ish on hold. But the real winner, the local library near my university lets me check out 20 books at a time and have 30 on hold. This is awesome and even satisfies a big reader like me (usually a book a day). By placing books that interest me on hold regularly I always have many many choices.

    I really enjoy you blog and obsessing about minimalist travel. Thanks

    1. Wow, 20 books at once and 30 on hold…no wonder you find what you’re looking for. I just get annoyed when I can’t find what I want, and then I go buy it used. But maybe I’ll give it a try.

  8. I am reading Brothers K right now. Fantastic book. It’s funny because one of the income streams I’m experimenting with is publishing on Kindle. I just published my first book last week. The mastermind group I’m in seems to be a lot of people writing romance, so I can definitely relate to that frustration you had. Kindle Unlimited is pretty stupid, most of the authors who publish on there aren’t happy with it either. They’ve been abandoning it in droves.

    I am optimistic though because Amazon is getting the idea that a subscription service will absolutely kick ass and they’re working on figuring it out. One day we shall have our unlimited books for $10 a month. I have faith.

    1. Yeah, it seems like the ideal solution, but it’s just not good enough to recommend at the moment. I suppose if you could find just one book per month that way, it wouldn’t be so bad, but you’d probably still have to buy books elsewhere in addition. Eventually I think it’ll be better though.

  9. Kindle is fantastic for traveling but does require a bit of foresight if you want to get particular books. Search the library and put the books you want on hold (I’ve also found that stuff I want is always checked out). Amazon has a ton of free kindle books; some of these are brand new books looking for a quick boost in readership, some of these are trash. Out of copyright books are always an option. To me, the advantages of carrying around one little kindle vs. a pile of books outweighs the inconvenience of cost or sometimes lower quality of books. When you’re desperate for a particular read, the used bookstores will still be there.

    1. Yeah, it all makes perfect sense. I’m just dragging my feet because I keep running into little moments that annoy me. It would make more sense if a Kindle were an expensive upfront purchase that pays off eventually, but it isn’t. It’s expensive upfront, and expensive long-term, so you’re just paying for convenience. Not the end of the world, though.

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