Sue Trowbridge, filling in for Erin
What happens to your ebooks after you die? To be honest, that question had never occurred to me until I read this article from the New York Times, in which Kyle Jarrard asks Amazon.com’s customer service what will become of his digital library once he’s passed away. The good news: as long as you give your Amazon.com username and password to your heirs, they will be able to access your books indefinitely.
They will not, however, be able to shift your library to their own registered e-readers, as “Kindle content can’t be transferred between different accounts.” And if your kid prefers reading on Barnes & Noble’s Nook, your Kindle books will be so much digital detritus.
I have a Kindle, and it came in very handy on a recent trip to Europe, as I was traveling light and didn’t have to worry about packing a bunch of paperbacks. However, when I’m at home, I still prefer reading good old-fashioned dead tree books. My TBR pile is not neatly tucked away on a digital device – it sprawls over several shelves in my bedroom and guest room, reminding me on a regular basis that I still haven’t cracked that copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.
I bought Middlesex, by the way, for a dollar at my local library’s semi-annual Friends of the Library sale, an enormous mega-market of used books that attracts hordes of bargain-seeking bibliophiles (as well as a not-inconsiderable number of dealers). As an avid reader on a budget, I must admit that I don’t buy all that many new books. Along with picking up used copies at Friends sales, I borrow books from the library or from my mom (an author’s dream come true, as she buys a lot of brand new hardcovers – and a good deal for me when the waiting list for the new Alexander McCall Smith mystery is a mile long). When I do buy, I tend to favor books by friends and clients. (I’ve already placed my order with Aunt Agatha’s for the new William Kent Krueger.)
What would cause me to become a book buyer instead of a book borrower? Two words: lower prices. I know that’s anathema to the big publishers, who forced Amazon into the “agency model,” where they, and not the retailer, set the price. The fact is, if ebooks were cheaper, I wouldn’t even think twice about buying them. As it stands, if the choice is between paying twelve bucks for an ebook or requesting it from the library, I’ll almost always opt for the library, even if it means waiting a while. Hey, I can always pick up Middlesex in the meantime.
Why am I such a tightwad when it comes to purchasing ebooks? Because, as the Times story suggests, downloading a book is not the same as purchasing a hard copy. If I buy a physical book, I can share it with friends, I can read it very carefully and then give it to someone as a gift (don’t tell me you’ve never done that, book lovers!), I can sell it for a few bucks to a used bookstore, or I can donate it to the Friends of the Library for their next sale. Heck, I can make it into a piece of art (check out this blog post to see some incredible works). If I download a title from Amazon, I can read it on my Kindle… and that’s it.
When you purchase an ebook, you’re not really buying it, you’re simply licensing the content, and Amazon can theoretically take it back at any time (as happened with a couple of George Orwell titles). And that license is for your personal use. When I downloaded Lee Goldberg’s King City, the only way I could share it with my husband, who prefers reading on his iPad, would be to hand him my Kindle.
With that in mind, it really stings when I come across books on Amazon that are actually cheaper to buy in paper than for Kindle. There are probably thousands of examples, but here’s one: you can buy a brand new trade paperback of Tea Obrecht’s The Tiger’s Wife for $10.20, but the Kindle version costs $11.99. (Used copies are in the $3-4 range.) E.J. Copperman’s “Haunted Guesthouse” mysteries cost $7.99 whether you’re buying them in mass market paperback or ebook form. That’s crazy, since the ebook version requires no paper, printing or shipment costs. I used to work for a small publisher, so I know how inefficient and expensive the whole system of returns can be. Ebook buyers are now subsidizing those inefficiencies.
It’s ironic that the big publishers now seem fixated on Amazon’s “monopoly power.” They certainly didn’t worry about helping the little guy when they were selling books to deep-discounting megastores like Barnes & Noble for a relative pittance. We all probably know of an independent bookseller or two who found that it was way cheaper for them to go to Costco to stock up on bestsellers than it was to purchase them from the wholesaler Ingram. It seems to me that the publishers flagrantly favored the big guys back then.
J.K. Rowling’s forthcoming The Casual Vacancy shows just how ludicrous the whole system has become. If you pre-order the hardcover (a 480-page doorstop) at Amazon, it costs $20.93; the Kindle version is $19.99. You can’t even argue that the hardcover would incur extra shipping costs, since most folks get that for free through Amazon Prime or its Super Saver shipping.
So what’s the ideal price point for ebooks? I’d say no more than $5 for back catalog titles, maxing out at $10 for new hardcovers. Yes, the publishers would lose out on some paper sales, but at that price, people would be willing to impulse-buy, so I think they’d make more money in the long run. (The royalties they pay to their authors, the folks who create the content, is a subject for another day.) As it stands, I’m far more likely to buy books from indie authors like Goldberg (the aforementioned King City is a steal at $4.99!) than from the Big Six. So many great mystery authors, including Paul Levine (the funny, sexy Solomon vs. Lord series), Janet Dawson (her Jeri Howard books are a must for fans of female P.I.s) and Jonnie Jacobs (whose Kate Austen series will charm any cozy lover), have secured the rights to their back catalogs and are selling them at attractive price points. Thanks to all the savvy independent writers out there, I might just accumulate a fat TBR list on my Kindle, too.