My Love-Hate Relationship with Digital Books

I've got a love-hate relationship with digital books. I've purchased gobs of digital books and spend hours every week reading them. On one hand I love digital books, especially in terms of what they represent and what they're trying to accomplish. On the other hand, there's still plenty to hate about execution and cost, especially when it comes to development and technical books.

Digital Books Cost Too Much

As someone who gets paid to write on a regular basis, I'm certainly not advocating that authors be paid less. Likewise, because an author is only part of what makes a great book successful, I'm not advocating that editors, designers, layout specialists, or any other publishing specialists be paid any less, either. Nor am I advocating that publishers, who ultimately take big risks on authors and ideas, be prevented from enjoying compensation or success for their role in helping to filter out crap that might not be worthy of publishing.

But, I still balk every time I see a digital version of a book that costs roughly the same as its paper counterpart. Although paper has been a valuable and reliable medium throughout the centuries, it's a patently bulkier medium compared to electrons. As such, I assume that the cost of a paper book is because of the manufacturing process. For example, above and beyond the obvious costs associated with felling trees and shipping them to mills, turning pulp into paper, and committing refined paper to printing processes, there are also costs associated with the physical transportation and management of paper books once they've been printed. Brick and mortar stores, for example, need to stock physical books on shelves. And those shelves need to be in heated and protected environments. Employees also need to be on hand to keep those books prominently displayed, shelved, and dusted, which also contributes to the cost of paper books. Likewise, in the case of paper books that are purchased from online retailers, the physical handling needed to wrap and ship books to customers' doorsteps also lends itself to additional costs that need to be considered.

But as Amazon's chief executive officer, Jeff Bezos, has said, "EBooks should be cheaper than physical books. . . because there are so many supply chain efficiencies relative to printing a paper book." Yet, too many publishers refuse to let digital versions of their books be sold at prices that are much lower than the physical versions.

Layout and Formatting are a Bigger Problem

As much as I dislike paying the same amount of money for digital and paper books, I still regularly buy and consume digital books all the time. Only, I'm done buying technical books in digital formats, not because of pricing, but because of formatting problems. Sadly, in every instance in which I've decided to pony-up the cost to buy a digital book, I've been sorely disappointed because the formatting and presentation of the digital book is so insanely bad. In a few cases in which I've purchased digital technical books, I'm convinced that the copy of the book I purchased was run through an optical character recognition (OCR) scanner in which the text was ripped, digitized, and dropped into one long, rambling, chain of words with absolutely no effort dedicated at all to keeping accompanying images and figures intact—to say nothing of even being able to keep paragraphs from running into each other.

In other cases in which the formatting was as abysmally bad, I've still been frustrated at how poorly digital books try to distinguish the difference between text, examples, figures, and other forms of technical content. For example, Figure 1 shows the content from a book in its native eBook format, which was taken on my Kindle Fire. Figure 2 shows the same content in a PDF format. Clearly the content in Figure 2 is much easier to read and evaluate than the content that's in Figure 1. Although it might be easy to try and blame the hardware on my Kindle Fire, it has absolutely no problem displaying the PDF version of this book—meaning that the digital formatting is the culprit, not the device.

Figure 1: Screenshot of the native eBook format on the Kindle Fire.
Figure 1: Screenshot of the native eBook format on the Kindle Fire. 

Figure 2: The same content in a PDF format.
Figure 2: The same content in a PDF format. 

I've Stopped Buying Paper and Digital Technical Books

In the end, I'm just a consumer. I'm in no position to demand anything from publishers or copyright holders. They're free to try and charge whatever they think the market will bear for their content. Although I continue to buy gobs and gobs of non-technical digital books, I've all but stopped buying technical books. On one hand, I can't force myself to buy paper books that weigh a pound or three a pop. On the other hand, I also wouldn't bother reading a poorly formatted digital version of a technical book for any price—let alone having to pay the full price of what that book would cost in paper to then be forced to suffer through bad experience after bad experience in which technical books have consistently let me down. And because neither option is very appealing, I find myself in limbo in which I keep adding technical books to my wish list, but never end up actually purchasing them.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.