Do You Own Your E-books?


My e-reader with a “Vicky Bliss” mystery loaded. (c) 2015, Robert C Trube

In most cases, the simple answer to this question is “no.” The vast majority of the e-books on most of our e-readers are essentially “rented” to the end-user. If you’ve downloaded an e-book from Amazon on your Kindle device or app, or from Barnes and Noble, or Google, you’ve been granted the right to read that e-book only on your registered device or app and there is a limit to the number of devices to which you can download without re-purchasing the book.

Furthermore, books can be removed by the provider from your device. A recent Chicago Tribune article describes how this is happening to those who bought books at the Microsoft Store, which closed in April. In this case, the relative few who purchased books via this outlet will receive a refund, plus extra compensation if they have annotated the books.

The simple reason for this, and the fact that you can’t read Amazon books on Nooks or Barnes & Noble books on Kindles comes down to something called Digital Rights Management (DRM). This technology, developed to prevent music piracy, means you cannot copy and share digital files.

So, what are the good reasons for this? The simple answer is that it protects copyright, and proceeds to publishers and authors and the e-book vendor. This is good, right?

It’s right for everyone except the end user. Here are some of the problems:

  • You are restricted to particular devices or apps depending on the source of your download.
  • I cannot re-sell books I’ve read. There are limited circumstances under which I may lend them. For physical books, I can recover at least a fraction of my investment at second hand stores or other ways of re-selling. Not for e-books. After all, I don’t own them.
  • There are a variety of reasons that your device may be “wiped” by the vendor. Attempting to sell a licensed work is one of them. Don’t do this–you could lose everything. It is all in the Terms of Service. It can happen if you travel with your device to a country where your vendor cannot sell books. And if the “store” you licensed (not bought, remember) your books closes, you could lose them all. Yes, it could even happen to Amazon.
  • If you decide another device or app is superior, you have to re-license any of the books you had on your previous device that you still wish access to. DRMs do not transfer across platforms.

There are ways around this. Tech savvy users have found ways to remove DRM code from files, which allows them to make up backups and use the files across platforms. Technically, this probably violates most licenses, and never should be done to circumvent copyright and anti-piracy laws.

There are some other alternatives. Indie e-book publishers like Smashwords and Humble Bundle sell DRM-free books and some publishers sell DRM-free books on their own sites. Some have concluded that the inconvenience of DRM to end users is worse that the risk of piracy. DRM-free books are still copyrighted and licensed, not sold.

What else can we do if we like to use e-readers, particularly to read books only available under DRM licenses?

  • Borrow them from the library. You really are borrowing the book anyway, so why pay for it?
  • Only buy what you will immediately read. The greatest potential for loss is when you have a large library on your device. While you can de-register a defunct or stolen device (which will be wiped), and restore your books on a new one, carrying a large library on the device puts you at greater risk for loss.
  • If you really like a book that you’ve read, you might consider purchasing a physical copy. Good print books properly kept will last your lifetime, and perhaps many more.

I don’t think there is an upside for vendors like Amazon to change the system, so we have to decide whether it is one you want to live with. The most important thing to remember: you don’t own your e-books.

Finding E-Book Bargains


My trusty old e-reader with a “Vicky Bliss” mystery loaded. (c) 2015, Robert C Trube

While I am a print guy and I prefer buying books at brick and mortar stores, I do buy and read e-books, particularly when traveling. Here are five sites that I receive emails from to learn about currently discounted e-books. I have a Kindle, so I do acquire these from Amazon’s site, one of the places all of these sites will direct you to. The first three also options of purchasing in other formats. The fourth is an affiliate site with Amazon. All allow you to sign up for emails, most of which are daily.

Early Bird Books This site connects you to Open Road’s catalog of books. I’ve found some great older fiction, as well as history and biographies. They often have a free classic e-book at the bottom of the emails. You can set up categories of books you are interested in.

BookBubThis site also does daily emails and allows you to set up categories. What is different is that they highlight discounted books from various publishers and occasionally free books as well. I do sometimes see overlap between Bookbub and Early Bird.

Bookperk. This site is connected with HarperCollins and connects you with discounts from their catalog. In addition to daily emails they will sometimes send special emails.

Englewood Review of Books. For those interested in thoughtful Christian writing as well as classic literature, Englewood is a great resource. Once or twice a week they will send an email with current discounts available on religious books through Amazon, including alerts about discounts particular publishers may be offering (for example, Fortress sometimes offers deep discounts on hundreds of their e-books).

Kindle Daily DealsAmazon also sends emails (sometimes multiple per day if you sign up) of discounted e-books available through their site. Personally, I’ve found these the least tailored to my interests of any of these. Much seems to be popular fiction, which I read very little.

In most cases, the books on these sites are $1.99 to $3.99, occasionally less or more. Of course there are also various free sources of e-books from Project Gutenberg to Amazon, as well as borrowing at your library. I write about some of this here. Hope all this helps as you stock up your e-reader, tablet, or smartphone for this summer.

Goodreads Recent Changes

Goodreads so you finishedMany of you who are book lovers use Goodreads to catalog your books, track what your friends are reading, and read reviews of books you might be interested in. There are currently 55 million Goodreads members and 1.5 billion books added to the site. I’ve been on Goodreads since 2011, and it was the “gateway drug” that got me into book reviewing and blogging.

This is kind of an update on some of the recent changes, at least the ones that have noticed. One that started turning up in my email inbox recently was that whenever I finished a book Goodreads sends an email that shows the book, my rating, and links to my review. Not shown on the screen capture above is that it also allows me to see any friends who are reading the book, their reviews, and the reviews of other Goodreads members. It allows me to go to the Goodreads author page, even dead ones (there is one for Gerard Manley Hopkins which I can follow). It also allows me to like and comment on friends activity, and even to post a question about the book. What I discovered is that about the time Goodreads introduced this feature, I saw an uptick in likes and comments on my reviewed books, even ones I reviewed in the past. This seems like a good change that makes Goodreads more interactive.

A second change that  Goodreads has begun is “Goodreads Deals” emails and “Sponsored Books” on the updates feed (on the phone app). The “deals” update is just for e-books but surprisingly does provide options (depending on the book) for Google books, Apple iBooks, Nook, and Kobo, as well as Kindle (Goodreads is owned by Amazon). It is interesting that these deals are on e-books but there seems to be no similar approach with print media even though e-books have been waning in popularity. Still, I give Goodreads credit for not promoting only Amazon.

Not so with “Sponsored Books.” Here you have options for purchasing the book in whatever format you are interested in, but only from Amazon. There are also inserts of books that are “new” or “popular” which also direct one to the Amazon site.  So far, this only appears on updates on the Goodreads App, not on the website. It appears that you can indicate you are not interested in a particular “sponsored” book, but not these others, which are interspersed with friends’ updates. Rarely are any of these of interest to me. For some reason, who is reading the book often catches my eye and makes it of interest. The “recommendations” function is better, even if it often recommends books I’ve read but haven’t logged on Goodreads.

One thing with both of these changes is that they drive online purchasing, which of course is the interest of the online book seller behind this site. At least the page for each book on Goodreads offers the option of looking for the books in stores like Barnes and Noble, or through the IndieBound site at independent booksellers. One wonders if Goodreads will continue to do this in the future or direct potential buyers to their parent company more and more. This may be the point where those of us who think brick and mortar stores and local businesses are a cultural good should close our accounts. I hope it doesn’t come to that because there is so much I like about Goodreads (and, yes, I also am on LibraryThing).

One of the features I really like on the phone app is the ability to scan a book and add it to one or more of your shelves. It uses your phone’s camera and I just discovered that it not only works by scanning bar codes, but even by scanning the cover of the book. It will pop up options for your book which you can then add to your shelves. The cover scan worked on every book (a limited sample) I tested it on. This is much better than typing in a title and searching a list for your book. I only log books as I read them, but I could imagine going through my whole library in a relatively short period of time if I wanted to do this.

These are not the only changes on Goodreads. I’d be interested in what changes others who use Goodreads have seen and what you like or don’t like about them.


The State of the Book 2016


One section of Destination Discount Books, Delaware, Ohio

It seems that the reports of the death of the print book (or book book!) are greatly exaggerated. Print book sales actually grew somewhat this past year, although, according to this Fortune article, this was driven heavily by sales of adult coloring books and fiction, particularly the release of Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee. This doesn’t exactly suggest an intellectual renaissance, but does suggest that with the recovering economy, people are buying more print books.

Perhaps the more interesting figure is the purported drop in e-book sales. Actually, the e-book market, according to another Forbes article, is growing at an annual rate of 1 percent. What is interesting is that the major publishers, who have been pressing for higher pricing of their e-books have seen sales drop, while indie publishers are seeing sales increases. Small and medium publishers, indie published, and Amazon published e-books all have seen sales increases. Only the big publishers have seen sales drop.

Both of these sets of figures suggests a much more nuanced picture of what is going on right now. It suggests that e-books are here to stay and in fact e-publications are providing new authors an alternative way to break into publication that authors may be learning to exploit more effectively. Likewise, people will still buy print books and many prefer them, particularly for certain forms of reading. Students for example, by a significant margin still prefer print over e-books for text books and studies show better comprehension when reading print texts, according to this recent Publishers Weekly article. Some are suggesting a hybrid of print and e-text may be best overall.

I wonder if one of the most significant factors in all these discussions is pricing. It is apparent that pricing has been a big factor in e-book sales, and also shapes the print market, particularly the second-hand market. There are some important issues for authors in all this, who do not benefit from the second-hand market and are affected by pricing both in terms of commissions per book and sales.

What’s apparent to me is that we are continuing to function in an era both of flux and new opportunities. The question remains of whether the market will support works on intellectual excellence and artistic merit. Perhaps the question is, will we?

Stop back tomorrow for a post on “the state of bookselling 2016”.


Are E-books Dying?

My e-reader with a "Vicky Bliss" mystery loaded. (c) 2015, Robert C Trube

My e-reader with a “Vicky Bliss” mystery loaded. (c) 2015, Robert C Trube

There has been a spate of articles (for example this one on Publisher’s Weekly) recently resulting from a dip in sales of e-books, and possibly e-readers. This one on Bustle sounds the most alarmist but in fact is not, as you get down into the article. In the end they suggest that both formats will continue to co-exist, which is my own take.

What is more interesting to me is to see in which categories e-books sales are the strongest. It turns out that mystery and romance are the two leading categories. It appears that much of the dip in e-book sales was in the young adult category, where there was no blockbuster, like the Divergent series, to drive sales.

What I wonder is whether we are seeing a “leveling out” and “sorting out” after a “boom” in this new technology (the Bustle article points out that the Kindle only came out in 2007).  Here are some of the ways I think this may all be sorting out:

1. It is interesting to me that genres that are doing best in sales are those that lend themselves to e-reading. I wonder if we are figuring out that e-readers are great for casual reading when we are on the fly (in airports or places with distractions) but that print works best when we are doing serious reading that requires concentration. Also, books don’t have other apps on them that interrupt us–a problem when you are trying to concentrate on a more serious piece.

2. I also wonder if some part of the sorting out just has to do with market saturation. For the past seven years, many of us have been acquiring e-readers, smart phones, and tablet computers. Most who want to use this technology for reading now have it. I’d be curious about how many “new users” vendors like Amazon or Apple are gaining.

3. Another factor in the sorting out is what I might call the “backlog” or “TBR” effect. Many of us who acquired e-readers or apps in the past few years have found how seductive and easy it is to download things we think are interesting and may be realizing we have virtual “to be read” stacks and are limiting new purchases.

4. Finally, I wonder, and some articles (for example, this one in the Washington Post) seem to indicate this, whether there is a renewed appreciation for the aesthetics of a book, both as we read and on our shelves. Naturally, this means that some types of books will be more “disposable” and we may prefer to acquire them in the generally cheaper electronic versions (as opposed to cheaply made paperback versions that we also don’t want to save). I wonder if this might eventually lead to greater attention to the aesthetics of the books that publishers think people will want to savor and keep. It actually makes sense to not manufacture books that are most likely to wear out and be trashed, ending up in a local landfill.

So, just as many of us thought the purported death of physical books to be greatly exaggerated, I also think e-books are with us to stay. What I hope is that we are learning to use this technology more wisely and appropriately. That would be a good thing.

Is Your e-Reader Draining Your Bank Account?

I came across this fact in a post on 101 Books, a blog dedicated to posting on the experience of reading through Time’s top 100 novels:

A recent study showed that, on average, e-reader users spent $433 more per year on online shopping than people who did not own an e-reader.

While doing my taxes last year, I tallied my eBook purchases and, while not this high, it represented a change in my spending habits that I thought I better curb. Here are some thoughts about how to avoid having your e-reader or tablet become a siphon drawing money out of your bank account:

1. Use a dedicated e-reader or one of the free reading apps you can install on a tablet or computer. Tablets provided by the vendors of e-books will not only connect you to other e-books but lots of other products. This happens on dedicated readers as well but the interface isn’t as friendly for ordering.

2. There are lots of free books available from your e-book vendor and various independent sites. Most are public domain and many represent great works of literature and non-fiction. At one time, I think I discovered that there are over 15,000 free works available on Amazon.

3. I’m tempted to book hoard. Yes, I do that with physical books as well, but the ease of buying that book I’ll read “someday” that appears to be a good bargain makes this especially tempting.

4. If the ads are tempting, an e-reader you pay a bit extra for without them might be worthwhile. And just delete without reading all those emails!

5. Many libraries now allow you to borrow e-books and you can get many current titles at no cost and these are often returned automatically on their due date, so no fines. Just check with your library about what formats they carry and compatibility with your e-reader.

6. Don’t buy something new on your e-reader until you finish the current book you are reading.

7. If all else fails, you can always just read physical books, which don’t send you ads for other products and don’t connect you to the net!

E-books and Libraries

In this article on the ALA Midwinter session, the discussion underscores the continuing evolution of libraries from places with shelves of books to an “information port” or “hub”.  One development is that publishers are no longer asking whether to do this but how–and in particular how they and their authors are payed under these models.

The larger and more interesting issue is the authors who are not working through publishers. How can libraries serve as an outlet linking readers to their works? Then tension is finding readers and getting paid. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Platform allows for this but the librarians are arguing that Kindle should not be the only option.

To me it seems that the question is not only royalties but distribution. How are independently published e-books to be distributed to the many different libraries in this country or around the world? It seems that there is a need for some kind of counterpart to Amazon that serves as clearing house and financial agent between independent authors and local library systems. I also wonder how acquisition would work. Will librarians still acquire the works they think readers want or will they “acquire on demand” or some mix of the two, which would make sense.

Libraries of late have been making themselves into a kind of “third place” community gathering spot as this article suggests. Yet I wonder if they can continue to sustain this if they become “all-digital”. Why can’t I just meander down to my local Starbucks and “go to the library” while sipping that latte’?

The other side of this is that there is an immutability about physically printed books that digital resources do not have. Digital text can be deleted or altered, or hacked. Physical books and periodicals are much more difficult to do this to. This writer contends libraries play a crucial role in guarding our civilization against 1984-like re-writing of history and everything else.  The honest question though is, should every library be part of this or simply places like the Library of Congress, major university libraries and the like.

For those interested, all the articles linked to in this post come from today’s PW Daily email, also available on the web. I’m finding this to be an interesting source on what is going on in the world of books and publishing

The Library of the Future?


[Picture from NBC Nightly News]

Last evening NBC Nightly News ran a story on The Library of the Future.  The “Bibliotech” is a library without books. Its whole collection of 10,000 books is in digital format.  Patrons can either “borrow” books and download them to their e-readers (our own library also offers this) or read them on computers at the library.  Children can read stories on iPads at the library.  E-readers may even be borrowed (they de-activate if not returned).  What we saw on the video is a large, comfortable space with lots of computers and tablets–and that is it.

I think this story is prophetic.  My hunch is that within ten years, most libraries, and most bookstores (if they even exist as physical entities) will look like this.  I’ve already watched this transformation in process in our own library as the space given to stacks has steadily diminished to be replace with computer terminals and other forms of media. Cost and user demand will probably drive this.  But I wonder if it will spawn a new generation of readers–or not.

When I was young, I spent many a summer afternoon at our local library.  Probably my favorite books back then were sports biographies of my baseball heroes–Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, and stories of the teams they played on.  But I also found myself wandering into other sections of the library–the books on science, on history, works of fiction and more. Many I would browse and put back.  But often one or two would end up in the stack I’d take to the librarian’s desk.

I still browse, but rarely at libraries which seem to have less and less of what I’m interested in.  Most of the time, my browsing is in used book stores, as was the case this weekend.  I probably would never have searched for any of the books that I bought (four for under $12) on Amazon because I didn’t know they existed.  But each piqued my (admittedly quirky) interests:  Walter H Conser, Jr’s God and the Natural World because of my interests in religion and science conflicts, Religion and Politics in Enlightenment Europe because one of the editors of this collection of articles is Dale K Van Kley, an OSU professor of history with whom I’m acquainted, J Philip Wogaman’s Faith and Fragmentation because it explores how Christianity engages a pluralistic world, and China Wakes by Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn because I want to understand the generation of Chinese students coming to American universities and I’ve like Kristof’s op eds in the New York Times and read WuDunn’s Half the Sky recently.

I wasn’t looking for any of those books. And I admit that I’m taking a risk that they will be worth the price and the read.  But I wonder if these “libraries of the future” will afford the same kind of opportunity to make these serendipitous discoveries. Perhaps they will offer ways to browse that parallel my experiences.  (The closest parallel I find are the daily and monthly specials from Amazon for download to my Kindle). Perhaps I’m just nostalgic but I wonder if it will be the same, and if we’ll still be making those serendipitous discoveries of new authors and ideas. What do you think?