Book Consumer’s Conundrum: Kindle or Hardcopy

Ideas and Issues

Newsweek Kindle
Newsweek Kindle

New Orleans I’m not much of a consumer.  My truck is over a dozen years old.  My house is many times older and the mortgage is paid.  I only replace my running shoes every couple of years and my boots every three years.  But I’ve always bought books for work, for pleasure, and for part of what simply makes life and thinking worth the work, so I was in the very first wave of consumers to buy a Kindle when Amazon first introduced the device.

Even at the first adapter’s higher premium price, it made sense to me because of both cost and weight.  Since I travel a lot, it would mean not having to tote half-dozen books to India or Argentina for a week or two on the road.   I would have continued to all the weight though except that the price was so good on an electronic book at $9.99 which was pretty much the top rate from Amazon for a Kindle book.  Calculating the number of books I bought in a year, it seemed to me that I would amortize the cost of the Kindle within a year, especially since it was right after Katrina and I could no longer get the Times at home.  I jumped to order a Kindle when they first came on market and have stayed with it all the way to what Amazon calls “Wade Kindle 3,” since #1 was stolen with a bag in Bogota and #2 had a screen die on me in Atlanta not long ago.  I’ve liked reading books on a Kindle.  I love the notes and underlining feature, which makes both more convenient than locating a hardcopy book somewhere in the house and searching for what I thought I remembered which really never happens.  I’ve “sold” Kindles to friends who read and neighbors on airplanes.

Now I am confused though because competition and the I-pad have changed the Kindle business model outside of my comfortable calculations and created my own personal consumer’s conundrum around convenience versus cost and paper versus screens in a way that I had thought I had finally resolved.  It’s one thing to read the handwringing of publishers and competitors, but it’s quite another to have to suddenly make price comparison decision for every book purchase.  More often than not, I’m confounded by the fact that the hardcopy and often the hardcover book I want is cheaper than the Kindle version.  How did that happen and what does it mean for the future of all of these enterprises?

I was moved to weight in today because I went online with Amazon to buy a copy of a book that was the lead review in the Times this Sunday for my brother for Christmas.  There was never a doubt when I logged on that I was going to buy a hardcover, because it would be a gift after all.  The list price in the review was quoted as $35.00.  The Amazon “new” price was $21.00.  I checked the Kindle price, and it was $19.35 or so.   Add shipping and I paid $24.98 or something or more than a 25% premium on the Kindle version, if I had been buying for myself.  If it had been an important book to me, I might have gone hardcover just for the photos.

Earlier in the week I had a worse problem.  A friend had been staying in the house, who recommended two books that had not risen high enough on my list to buy and prepare to read:  The Union of Their Dreams, a book my Miriam Patel that goes into some details about the United Farm Workers Unions and Cesar Chavez that I really didn’t want to know, but can’t seem to avoid and Nixonland:  The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein, where I felt I had already paid my dues.  I didn’t buy them for the Kindle though, because it was too expensive to do so.  Even with shipping the Union cost $8.78 and Nixonland cost $7.16.  Did I say that these prices include shipping?   In essence I was buying the books, including hardbacks, for between $3 and $5 brand spanking new.

Certainly, I didn’t get the books delivered wirelessly within minutes, but I wouldn’t be reading them within minutes so that was not an issue.  And, of course once I read them they will be on a stack on the floor or a bureau or elsewhere in the house and the cause of constant complaint because I haven’t built the two new bookcases that are needed or found the cheap, unfinished place that was even cheaper than my own handiwork before Katrina.

But why would I pay substantially more by 50 to 100% to have the books on my Kindle unless there were substantially good reasons to do so?  The Kindle reading experience is very good, but there’s no way to say it is better than having a real book in your hands, everything being equal.

I know enough about writing books now that I fully realize that the authors are not getting more from the electronic versions.  The publishers may be getting a little better deal from Amazon and Apple, but mainly Amazon and Apple do well on electronic books because there is no production charge, only distribution.  Furthermore when the price of hardcopy books is this low, it also means that publishers (and authors) are sucking air because these are books being remaindered by someone somewhere and offered for a song.

The price of Kindles are now down to $139 to $189, so there’s a different amortization schedule at work now, but still why would a reader/consumer pay for the device and then pay a premium to buy the books to put on the device.  Suddenly, the Kindle and its imitators are seeming more niche than necessary, and the whole operation seems hopelessly out of whack for everyone.

I don’t see the happiness for anyone on any part of this chain of tears.  What’s a reader to do?