Buy It Again: Building Your Digital Bookshelf

Yesterday I gave my wife a Nook Color for her birthday. She had already shown a lot of interest in my Nook, but I also knew that she was very interested in Apple’s iPad as well. In the end, the Nook Color won out because it was the best overall value for the money. I knew my wife would want to do more than just read books, but not enough more to justify the greater cost of the iPad.

She’s very happy with her new Nook and now faces the joyful task of filling it with books. It seems that every media transition leaves us buying our collections all over again. I still remember the great tape to CD migration and the horrible carnage it left behind in my wallet! Going from CDs to MP3s was somewhat less traumatic. In each of the aforementioned transitions, most of the trouble and expense was due greedy record companies who kept costs for the consumer much higher than the cost of production justified. CDs cost a lot less than LPs and tapes to make, but even now you’ll find CDs in excess of $20 retail in the US, even higher in Japan. The artifically high high cost of music coupled with the growth of the web, lead to rampant piracy which eventually forced prices to go down. With that history still fresh in our minds, I don’t think there will be a repeat of this in the transition to eBooks.

It is true that publishers have pushed back, maintaining eBook prices that equal or sometimes exceed printed book prices for popular authors and inciting the wrath of many. But I don’t see this remaining the case very long for a number of reasons. One of those is the huge wealth of classic literature already available for free or very low cost, completely legal!  Amazon and Barnes & Noble have done well to make acess to these very easy in their eBook stores. Many of these public domain classics are also available for download from the Project Gutenberg and similar groups. So adding many of those books you had to read in high school won’t cost anything at all!

Another reason the high prices cannot be maintained is the declining number of physical bookstores. This has been the trend since Amazon became popular, first selling physical books and now eBooks. Sales of eBooks on Amazon recently passed those of hardback books on the site for the first time. And the Kindle has been their best selling product for a number of years now. Consumers are used to buying things online for less than retail stores and digital goods for less than physical ones. With fewer places to sell physical books and consumers who are warming up to buying eBooks online, the prices must come down.

Finally, piracy has not disappeared. As the number of eBook readers go up, so will demand for the works of popular contemporary authors in that format at what is considered to be a fair price. It doesn’t take a mathematician to know that it costs less to make and sell a copy of an eBook than a physical book. Any popular, but overpriced eBook will almost certainly be widely pirated, just as music and movies continue to be. There will always be piracy, but if the success of iTunes has taught us anything, it’s that if product is easy to get legitimately at a fair price, most will take the easy route.

So by all means, buy those books again! It’ll be cheaper than last time and the added functionality and portability is more than worth it. The only thing I really miss is not being able to proudly display my collection of eBooks when people visit my home.

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