I love books, and I love reading. Not astonishing statements coming from a librarian, but there you go. I never go anywhere without a book, hence always carrying an enormous handbag. I hate having nothing to read so will occasionally carry two books, if there’s a risk that I might finish the first before I get to a place where I can pick up another book.
Given this habit of lugging books around with me everywhere I go, it’s probably not surprising that I have near constant back and shoulder pain. For the good of my spine, if nothing else, I’m starting to think it might be time to invest in an ebook reader. This would give me less to carry, and save me from the occasional horrifying moment when I realise I’ve only got a handful of pages left and still an hour to go on the train. It would also be useful for travelling: I went to Egypt for a fortnight in February, and I packed 17 books. No joke, there were more books than clothes in my suitcase (totally worth it though – I read 15 of them).
So, I’ve decided to get an ebook reader. The only question now is – which one? And where will I get my books? This decision has turned out to be harder than I thought it would be. As I see it, I’ve got 3 options: Kindle, Sony eReader, or iPad. The iPad is out straight away partly because it’s way too expensive, but also because I want a dedicated ereader, not a multi-function device. Part of what I enjoy about reading books is that it allows me to shut the world out and just concentrate on one thing. I’ve tried reading ebooks on my phone, and it’s really distracting to have alerts popping up when I’ve got an email or a Twitter message. There’s also the screen – I spend all day looking at a computer monitor, so my eyes are pretty tired by the time I’m settling down to read a book. Particularly when I’m wearing my contacts, my eyes get really itchy from staring at a backlit screen from too long.
Discounting the iPad, that leaves Sony or Kindle. At first, this seemed like an easy choice – I know that I can borrow ebooks from my local library (part of the London libraries consortium), but I wouldn’t be able to read them on a Kindle. In general I tend not to pay for books I read: unless it’s something I specifically want, and am likely to read more than once, I go to the library or use readitswapit.com. I read a bit too much to be able to afford all the books I want! Being able to borrow ebooks from the library would be the perfect solution for me. I figured that although the Sony is more expensive than a Kindle, it’d be worth it for the money I wouldn’t spend on ebooks.
That was my mind made up – until I thought to have a look and see what ebooks were actually available from my library. I hate to say it, but my word that’s a disappointing selection. I started off by looking at the last few physical books I borrowed from the library, to see if they had the electronic counterparts of any of them. For reference, these were:
C, Tom McCarthy
Finkler question, Howard Jacobson
Room: a novel, Emma Donoghue
Long song, Andrea Levy
Thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
Parrot and Olivier in America, Peter Carey
In a strange room, Damon Galgut*
The Children’s Book, A.S Byatt
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman
American gods, Neil Gaiman
We are all made of glue, Marina Lewycka
Out of those 11 titles, only 2 were available as ebooks – Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and We are all made of glue. That, to me, seems like a pretty poor showing. Now, I’m not blaming the library for this – I know that there will have been deals made with publishers and I assume that I am simply unfortunate in wanting to read books that, for whatever reason, were not made available for loan. Still, it doesn’t encourage me to use the library to borrow ebooks – what’s the point, if the books I want to read aren’t there?
I started to wonder if maybe my tastes in reading material aren’t very similar to that of the average library user, so perhaps the collection better reflected the kinds of books that are more often borrowed in hard copy. So I looked up the most borrowed books for 2009, to see if any of the top 10 were available as ebooks. These are the titles I searched for:
Sail, James Patterson
No Time for Goodbye, Linwood Barclay
7th Heaven, James Patterson & Maxine Paetro
You’ve Been Warned, James Patterson & Howard Roughan
The Outcast, Sadie Jones
Nothing to Lose, Lee Child
The Front, Patricia Cornwell
Hold Tight, Harlan Coben
The Appeal, John Grisham
Friday Nights, Joanna Trollope
Of those, 3 were available: 7th Heaven, Nothing to Lose, and The Appeal. A slightly better showing than my own list, but not by much.
I am not saying this to slag off libraries – I understand that there are selection systems in place, and that these are not going to be geared towards the specific books I want to read. That being said, I’ve never had a problem getting hold of a book I was after in hard copy from the library. I am genuinely curious as to how the titles included in the Overdrive system are selected – anyone know and care to enlighten me?
Anyway, after those searches I gave up on the idea of using my ereader to read library books on a regular basis. I was still leaning towards the Sony. I thought I could use it to read free ebooks via Project Gutenberg and the like, plus the occasional library book that took my fancy, and just keep an eye out for cheapish ebooks from the Waterstones and WH Smith ebook stores (yes, I know that there are other places that I could buy ebooks, but those are the two stores that Sony are advertising for use with their ereaders. I’m also not convinced that smaller stores would have as wide a selection of titles). Then I checked the prices on said stores, and compared them with the Amazon store.
That is what finally made up my mind. Now, don’t get me started on the ridiculously arbitrary price setting on ebooks. That’s been covered, in a more eloquent way than I could manage. I’m just cross that I feel like my mind’s been made up for me when it comes to which ereader to buy, based on simple economics. Having used (briefly) both of them, I actually think the Sony is a better ereader. However, it doesn’t make sense to buy something that will cost me more initially, and mean that I either can’t read the books I want, or have to pay over the odds for them. Kindle ebooks appear to be consistently cheaper than those available through Waterstones or WH Smiths. And it’s not a small difference: to take an example, Tony Blair’s A Journey (not something I particularly want to read, but it’s a fairly recent, fairly popular title that’ll do as an example) is currently available for the Kindle at £6.99. At WH Smiths it’s £10.22, and at Waterstone’s it’s a whopping £17.88. If I was shopping around for a hard copy, there’d be no contest – obviously, I’d go with Amazon.
After all that, I think I am going to buy a Kindle. It’s not as slick a product as the Sony, but it’s good enough. And really, most people will settle for “good enough” if it’s cheaper both initially and in the long term. I didn’t really want a product that would lock me in to a single format from a single supplier, but it actually makes the most sense for me at the moment. So that’s my mind made up – unless anyone cares to convince me otherwise?
Having read back over this post, I thought I’d add this note before I published it. Some of the above may come across as library-bashing. It’s really not meant that way. I should also make clear that i am speaking not as a librarian here, or even really as a library user, but simply as a book lover. I’m frustrated that if I want to start using ebooks, I can’t use my library the way I want to. I would like to know more about how libraries select their ebooks, so if anyone has information on this, please do let me know in the comments.