How should I buy my books?

These days one can get a lot of books electronically. I am still not sure whether I prefer books in paper or electronic form. It seems that in principle I prefer electronic books, but the way that one can actually buy them is against my preferences. This is is the crucial distinction that will lead to a conclusion.

Electronic vs. paper

Let us first discuss how electronic books relate to paper books. I will go through the various things that came to my mind.

First of all, electronic books do not require physical space. That means that I can have all of them on my laptop or reader. Additionally I could also have them on my phone if I wanted to. This is great, and I can also go through as many books as I want without them cluttering up my flat.

The downside is that you do not own anything physical. Having shelves full of books impress me in general, and having a room with a nice recliner and book shelves makes a great library.

I prefer using my reader over paper books because it is much lighter. When I lay in bed on the side and read, I always have a good and a bad side of the book. Say I lie on my left side, then I can rest the bulk of the book on the bed when I am reading an odd page. For the even pages I need to awkwardly hold the book. With the reader all pages are the same and I do not have this problem.

In some of the books I have equations, and even though one can beautifully typeset them with LaTeX to show up in PDF or the web, it somehow does not work nicely in the electronic books that I bought so far. For this I either want proof that it looks nice or I buy the paper version.

In case you read in a challenging environment like the beach or the bathtub, you might lose a physical book due to damage or water. That particular book will be gone then. But with the electronic reader you will “just” lose the device and not any particular book. Depending on the value of the equivalent paper book it might actually be cheaper to replace the reader. Also I can put the reader into a case and still use it, whereas I cannot reasonable put a case on a book.

My Kindle reader makes it very easy to annotate sections of the books that I like to keep. Then on the device, their website and the smartphone app I can access all annotations of the books in case I want to reference something. This is a very nice feature which I use more and more now.

Since there is no paper to be printed, electronic books should be cheaper. Also one can download them instantly after the purchase and has access to them quicker. Some stores also offer a free download of the introduction such that one can just try it out at home and buy if one wants to continue. A neat side effect is that it is easier on the environment. Also books where the copyright has ended are available for free from sites like Gutenberg (except not in Germany due to backlash for legislation). This way I read Niccolò Machiavelli’s *The Prince* (Niccolò Machiavelli) for free.

DRM hell

Up to that point it looks like for me the electronic books would win hands down. The problem is that you just cannot buy books electronic books this way. There are a various systems that shops employ to keep you from redistributing the book you bought from them. And this is what completely ruins the experience for me.

I bought exactly one book so far where I got to download a PDF, MOBI and EPUB file which did not had DRM. Instead it had watermarks with my name in various places such that it would have been clear if I redistributed that outside of the fair use regulations. I am fine with that because it does not make me depend on something I have no control over.

But most books are not this way. When you buy from Amazon, you just get to read it on the web, in their Kindle app or one of their Kindle devices. I can access the AZW files that are downloaded on the device, but they are encrypted and useless to me. Even if I made a backup of these files I could not access them without Amazon allowing me to do so. Basically I did not really buy the book from them. Instead I buy the permission to look at the contents of the book in some way. This can likely be terminated unilaterally at any point for various reasons. It could be just trade regulations as has happened with Adobe in Venezuela, it could be that they close my account for having returned too many shipments. Or perhaps some AI could infer from my purchases that I am doing illegal things and locks me out. In either case I would lose my library, likely without any sort of recourse or refunds.

Another major issue is that I cannot lend or sell my books. I cannot buy them used either. Take a look at the prices (in EUR) of a couple of books that I have read or would read in the future. I have looked up the Kindle price as well as the ones for the cheapest paper version and the cheapest used paper version.

Book Kindle Paper Used
Permanent Record (English) 8.99 16.06 15.39
Permanent Record (German) 14.99 22.00 16.99
Neuromancer (English) 6.49 11.99 4.82
Neuromancer (German) 1.43
Prosperity without Growth (EN, 1.) 6.48
Prosperity without Growth (EN, 2.) 12.49 15.99
Click here to kill everyone (English) 14.85 16.50 13.23
War and Peace (German) 0.00 9.95 3.95

One can see that for a current book like “Permanent Record” the price of the electronic book is quite high, and that there are no bargain used books yet. For something that is around longer, like the German edition of “Neuromancer” there are really cheap used books. In general one finds that the Kindle edition is either more expensive than a used book or just slightly cheaper. And keep in mind that I could try to sell the used book after reading. The price difference does not really reflect the disadvantages that I incur from the DRM.

If the deal was such that I payed a monthly fee like in a library (similar to Amazon Kindle Unlimited) and could not keep any of the books after that period, I’d be happy with that. This is a deal where I know from the start that it is just streaming. The offer from Amazon costs 9.99 EUR/Month, so the same as Spotify. But it just does not include any of the books that I have picked out in above comparison! I can just read the books that they have selected for this service, and for the most part I want some particular books. Therefore this offering just does not work for me.

Another major drawback is the vendor-lock-in. For my Amazon Kindle reading device I can only get electronic books that have the DRM from Amazon. If I wanted to buy a book from Thalia I would have to use their Tolino device. But then of course I could not use my books from Amazon on that device. I would end up with a fragmentation of my library. So I either go all-in with a particular vendor or just purchase a few reader devices. Neither option is really appealing.

Conclusion

I’d really wish to buy electronic books and build a library like that. But for books that I would like to keep around for a while, going with the DRM is just not a serious option for me. If the price for the Kindle version is so cheap that I could accept a total loss I will do it. But in case that there is a cheaper used paper book I would buy that instead.

I would really hope that eventually this industry would get around to the same point where we are with music. There are many different stores where I can buy music without any sort of DRM. I can compile my own library with files, use whatever program I want to organize it and I can use it on all my devices. Under German law there is even a fair use clause which allows me to make copies under certain circumstances.

But we see this with games and movies. The PC game industry sold their games on CD and DVD media for a while and one needed to hold on to the disk. In order to play one would have to insert the disk to prove that one actually had the game. Then there was Steam and it allowed one to buy very many games, although with DRM as well. I have not bothered that much about the DRM because I usually get bored with games and I would not have such a total loss if Valve (the company behind Steam) went out of business. But there is GOG who sell the games without DRM and that is very nice! But then Electronic Arts thought that they do not want to play royalties to Valve any more and came up with their Origin software. So then I had two such store software packages on my machine. Then came Uplay from Ubisoft. And I haven’t purchased anything from Epic Games via their launcher, but it might happen at some point. On Steam there are fewer and fewer games available.

Movies are the same thing. It used to be impossible to legally stream them. And then came platforms like iTunes, Amazon Video or Google Play where you could buy the movies online. The price was just so high that I had the same reservations about building a library there. Google is notorious for just ditching products, so would be careful to invest with them there. But then came Netflix and it seemed very easy: you just pay a monthly rate and get access to everything. These days we see the portfolio of Netflix dwindling. Take The Expanse, a show which I really like to see the next season of. Season 1 and 2 were produced by Syfy and later available on Netflix. The third season was available on US television but not on Netflix, so I could not see it. Syfy announced that it would not continue it and Amazon bought it. Soon after the acquisition the first and second season were pulled from Netflix and are only available on Amazon now. So I would need an Amazon Prime Video plan in order to see the next seasons of the show. Disney has started its own streaming platform as well, I guess that the fragmentation will only continue.

With books I have not seen such a fragmentation and I seem to find virtually everything that I want on Amazon as Kindle editions. But let’s see how long that will last.