Why e-readers aren’t just for the rich

April 24, 2011 § 13 Comments

Lately I have repeatedly come across the notion that e-readers are primarily the province of the ‘well-heeled’ middle class  – those who have plenty of spare income to lavish on books and never have to worry about the prices.

This is complete nonsense. The only way this conclusion makes sense is if the matter is viewed as:

– The high price of buying the reader to begin with

– Plus the exorbitant price of stocking it with books if the buyer pays the same price for each book as they would pay for a brand new paperback or hardback. 

If that’s the approach taken to stocking your e-reader then yes, only people with a lot of spare cash would be able to afford to make much use of it. But then, these are the same people who casually walk into Waterstones every weekend and come out with four or five sparkling-new paper books each visit. If that was the only way to get reading material, most of us would be seriously out of luck – with or without e-readers.

I’ve never really been comfortably off, never mind wealthy, so as an obsessed bibliophile I’ve become very good at thrift-shopping for books. To me, more than £3 is expensive for a book, because I can get most of my reading material for less than that (luckily, otherwise my intellect would shrivel up and die within a year). I’ll admit I was slow buying an e-reader because the prices looked high. As soon as I finally bought my Kindle, though (which was at the end of last year), I realised I’d made a mistake in waiting so long.

As an enthusiastic reader of old, out-of-copyright classics, I was in the money immediately. We all know by now that these books are readily available for free, or for seriously cheap prices. By the time I’d had my Kindle a whole day, I’d downloaded approximately £300 worth of books onto it for a total price of about £5. I.e. it took 24 hours for my Kindle to pay for itself, and then some.

A few months later and the e-book craze has hit. By that I mean that the world in general has discovered e-reading: how easy it is, how convenient and low on hidden costs (no paying postage on books, no waiting for books to arrive, no petrol-heavy trips to the bookshops). How great sampling is. How broad the market is, all of a sudden: all those old classics readily available, even the ones not usually considered ‘great’ enough to be reliably in print; long out-of-print author backlists cropping up more and more all the time; a growing ocean of self-published books, many of which are really good reads which publishers just didn’t feel they could make enough money on.

And of course, publishers and self-published authors alike are rapidly discovering how beneficial it is to offer new books for free download, for an initial period of time.

So, how is any of this particularly reserved for the wealthy? Let’s break down those points into bite-size pieces.

– Virtually all out-of-copyright classics can be read for free

– No driving down to the bookshop or the library to collect your weekly reading material

– No paying postage to have books delivered to your door

– New books are regularly offered for free download; keeping an eye out for these saves a ton of money by itself

– Even when they aren’t free, many ebooks are very cheap. Cheaper, in fact, than even a tatty old second-hand paperback is likely to be.

– The option of downloading free samples of books helps to reduce the amount of money buyers waste on books that don’t deliver.

– E-book lending is seriously getting started now, which means more free reads that don’t have hidden costs like petrol (and time) to collect.

Since I moved to digital reading, I’ve acquired considerably more books for significantly less money than even my most dedicated thrift-shopping adventures could get me. Buying an e-reader, then, is an investment. If voracious readers think about how much money they’d probably spend on paper books over a period of a year, or two, or three, then compare it to the combined price of the reader and hundreds of digital books over that time… I reckon it will always come out cheaper to have a reader. By quite a long way.

Which doesn’t mean we’ll spend less money on books over the course of a year. Let’s be realistic, here. It’s an addiction, after all. It does mean getting a whole lot more reading material for that money, and that’s a definite win.


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§ 13 Responses to Why e-readers aren’t just for the rich

  • Ali says:

    I must admit I am quite tempted to get one, mostly because there are a lot of herbal books in pdf format now and if I can find an e-reader that will read pdf books, I could literally carry an entire reference library around with me on my e-reader! Definitely worth doing! 😀

  • I only recently acquired a Kindle and I’ve been reading like mad ever since. The cost of new paper books was often prohibitive – not to mention seemed like such a waste of resources to see the book sitting on my shelf after only being read once. The selection at the local library was limited as far as my tastes were concerned, plus it was time-consuming to drive there, sort through back cover blurbs one by one, haul a stack home and sometime end up reading none of them. For far less time and the money it costs me to drive there, I can download samples, sift through them at leisure and select one perfectly suited to my needs.

    • Charlotte says:

      Actually that’s true for me as well, I’ve been reading more since I got my Kindle – just because I have a lot more books available than I used to. That alone makes me love it to death. Also a good point about waste of resources. Probably only about 20% of the books I buy ever get re-read later.

      The other thing I love, which I didn’t mention in the post, was space-saving. I don’t know about you, but over time my books stack up to the point where I start having trouble fitting more in. Then I have to have an offloading session. Even if I’ve only read a book once, if I paid good money for it I feel reluctant to throw it aside. I love digital because I get to keep them all, without having to sleep on a mattress of books with a book duvet.

  • DarcKnyt says:

    Brilliantly worded and laid out, Charlotte. Fantastic job of presenting the case. The eRevolution has been on here for some time, however. I’m glad to know you’ve come on with it and can’t wait to find your book on the Kindle store someday so I can read your lovely words weaving timeless tales.

    You will be one of the greats, I feel sure. 🙂

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Darc, thank you. You’re quite right that the eRevolution has been building for a while; it seems like they’re becoming more normal this year, though, as the rate of purchase spirals up and up. They’re no longer the province of the most hardcore book (or technology) fans. I’m looking forward to the day (perhaps not far distant) when more book-buyers own an e-reader than otherwise.

      Thanks for those kind words also. I can’t wait to see my book on Kindle either (though of course I also dread it in about equal measure!). I hope you’re right about that last part 😉

  • noobcake says:

    Good article. I’ve been saving my pound coins for a while now to buy a Kindle and resisting the urge to buy books in the meantime, although when I run out of something to read I dip into my fund.

    You make a good case for e-readers not being just for the wealthy and I’ve heard that Amazon are about to release a new Kindle at a reduced price because it has advertising on the opening screens or something, I find that idea appealing because it means I will be able to afford it much sooner!

    • Charlotte says:

      Ohhh how exciting. I feel fairly confident in saying you’ll probably love it to death once you finally get it! I fell in love with mine after about two hours. I’ve heard the rumours about the Kindle with ads. I think it’s a great idea. Not that adverts aren’t annoying, but if the reduction is really significant (and I hear that it will be), it’d probably be worth it in order to have access to the digital book world. Anyway, who knows what they’ll be advertising? If it’s books – and if they’re clever enough to send ads to individual kindles based on the owner’s tastes in books – it could end up being just another way to hear about new book releases. I guess we’ll see! I hope you get your kindle really soon!

  • DarcsFalcon says:

    I love the thought of eReaders. Matter of fact, I came up with an idea for one back in the 90s, as my beloved will attest. He thought my idea would never fly. 🙂

    Our local library is now loaning books on Kindle and libraries all across the States here are jumping on the bandwagon. Just think! No late night trips to return books you forgot until the last minute!

    I’ve been using the Kindle App on my phone and have downloaded several books. Yes, the screen is small, but I love the features. 🙂 And with those free ebooks, well, you can’t beat free. And free trumps the small screen.

    Paper books are great – until you move and have to pack them and lug them around, or store them someplace where they can get moldy. They have their place and always will, but digital is the new normal. 🙂

    You expressed it really well here Charlotte. All excellent points!

    • Charlotte says:

      Wow, what a shame you couldn’t have been the developer on this idea… you might’ve been riding the e-wave to impossible wealth by this time!

      I’m awaiting the advent of widespread ebook lending in the UK and I’m really enthusiastic about it. I love my local library, but as time goes on I have less and less opportunity to go down there and spend hours choosing books the slow way. I’d rather be spending most of that time actually reading. And yes, not having to find time to make an emergency dash down to return books would be very much appreciated too.

      As for paper books, I do love them. Really. But you’re right. They are impractical in more than small quantities, and any reader worth their stripes will have books in seriously large quantities. I’m to be moving abroad sometime in the next few months, and one of the biggest practical problems I’ll have to deal with is getting my library over there. I certainly didn’t spend years building it up only to leave half of it behind! I’ve quietly swapped to buying books for my e-reader more often than in paper, because in addition to all the advantages I discussed in my post, they can be transported with the greatest of ease.

      I could wax lyrical about the advantages of e-reading all day, actually, but I’ll stop there. Thanks for the visit and comments!

  • My first Kindle is arriving next week! I bought the “special” version that has advertising (not sure if it’s available in the UK yet).

    I already have dozens of free books on my Kindle for Mac software. One thing I’m really excited about is sending pdf files to the Kindle. I can read for some of my editing jobs, read for my critique group, and best of all, my computer-phobic husband will finally read my manuscript!


    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Debbie,

      How exciting! The advertising version isn’t available in the UK yet (as far as I know), but there’s talk of it. I’m quite interested in the idea. If it succeeds in making e-readers more widely available it’s going to be a great development.

      Hope it arrives soon! Thanks for commenting.

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  • I dunno… the high cost of an e-reader is exactly why I don’t have one yet. If you’re not at least solidly in the middle or upper class, I don’t see how you can get around that initial $150-250 hurdle… (I am in the middle class, and I can’t justify the expense). For folks in the poorer segment, without much in terms of “disposable income”, that’s just not going to happen: free e-books or no.

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