Six Lines

E-books and Physical Books

Posted by Aaron Massey on 16 Aug 2016.

Recently a friend asked me on Facebook to weigh in on a discussion of e-books and ownership. In particular, he was interested in whether you own the right to bequeath an e-book after you’ve died. The short answer for most e-books is simply this: No, you don’t own your e-books; you’re just licensing access to them. If that changes in the future, it likely won’t be restricted solely to books. Digital inheritance is an active, important legal question, and it’s likely to grow in importance. In a world where your things are increasingly connected to servers and managed by your account, licensing agreements that prohibit access after an account holder’s death will eventually become unpalatable. In 2014, Delaware passed a comprehensive state law giving executors access to digital assets as if they were physical assets. If this happens in California, and it holds up in courts, then it’s basically game over for companies seeking to sell the same books to generation after generation.1 There are, however, more implications of preferring e-books over physical books than just those affecting digital inheritance.

I’ve written about one of these before: e-books offer a drastically different environment for privacy than physical books. Many e-book providers can track what you’re reading, when you’re reading it, what you’re searching for, what words you’re looking up, and what you’re highlighting. And they will use this information to market products to you. Don’t be surprised if you open your Kindle and see ad for a new pillow or mattress if you regularly read an e-book before bed. They may also manage your library for you, whether you want it or not. This could include “updating” a book with corrections, or simply deleting it. Ironically, Amazon made waves several years ago by deleting 1984. Ah, the joys of licensing rather than owning.

If this “different environment” seems entirely lopsided against using e-books, think again. Consider that you can now read whatever you want on a subway without other passengers surreptitiously spying what you’re reading. You also won’t have nosey neighbors trying to figure out your political or religious views by browsing your bookshelves. E-books also change the rules about sharing books with friends or borrowing them from the library. These changes aren’t necessarily bad; they’re just different.

Privacy is not the only difference. It is perhaps obvious, but e-books are, well, not physical objects. Regular readers and book collectors used to dread moving, but e-books can mitigate this. Perhaps your children don’t want to be forced to deal with all your stacks of books after you die. Or maybe they would love to inherit them, but they are terrified or transporting and storing several hundred additional books. It’s also easier to read that 1,000 page behemoth while lying down and holding the book with one hand. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s fallen asleep only to be beaten into wakefulness by whatever book I was reading. Also, good luck trying to find a book light that’s even half as good as the built-in lighting available on virtually every e-reader these days. A significant portion of my entire lifetime of reading material has been read at night, just before bed. I’m sure I’m not alone. This is not a small benefit.

E-books allow full-text searches that are impossible in physical books. Highlights or notes can be stored in the cloud, impervious to loss, whether theft- or fire-related. Unknown words can be looked up with ease, great for younger readers hoping to take the SAT some day. Great for older readers too, frankly. I’m not ashamed to admit that there are words I don’t know in the books I choose to read. That’s sort of the point of reading them! I’ve also used Amazon’s X-Ray and Wikipedia features from time to time.

E-books are phenomenal for anyone with accessibility concerns. They can provide instant large print versions, which is an awesome benefit to get essentially for free. The additional benefits are even greater if you’re blind: instant text-to-speech for everything published in an e-book format. Amazon just recently added a font specifically designed to make reading easier for dyslexic readers. Has anything like this ever been done for physical books?

If you’re in a family of readers, and everyone wants to be able to read some hot, new book at the same time, then getting the digital version is clearly better. Amazon allows you to put the same book on multiple e-readers at the same time.2 Thus, all that’s needed to is to download the e-book to multiple devices and put them all in airplane mode. Without access to the Internet, these devices won’t try to sync to the last read page every time you open the book. You’ll have to be careful about highlighting or note taking in this situation.3

Physical books have benefits over e-books other than inheritance.4 For one, the typography on most e-readers is utterly abysmal. This situation is theoretically capable of improving, but I’m not holding my breath. Doing great typography is extremely hard, and e-books will not match a well-typeset physical book in the near future.5 Yes, e-books are improving, but the simple fact that the layout must be done on the device itself6 means that it will continue to suck for years. Hyphenation, justification, and interword spacing are much harder than they seem. Avoiding orphans and widows in an electronic book that still needs meaningful page numbers and location data is also ridiculously hard. Books with special typographic needs, like religious texts or reference books, are even less likely to be handled properly.

Poor typography in e-books is not at all related to screen resolution. It used to be the case that screen resolution was awful compared to print resolution, making extended reading harder on the eyes. This is no longer the case. If you’re using a modern e-reader, whether it uses an e-ink display or a retina LCD display, you’re unlikely to notice a difference in the resolution quality. You may experience glare from institutional florescent lighting or from the sun on an LCD screen, but you probably won’t have similar problems with an e-ink display.

If you want to use an analytical approach (pdf) to reading or you simply want to be able to intelligently skim a book, then you’re almost certainly going to want a physical copy. Flipping from one place to another in a physical book is much easier. Using the tactile feedback how thick a book is to quickly skip to the end of a chapter or section you is not possible in an e-book. I think the implications of this are entirely unintuitive to most readers. Essentially, this means that you may want to buy a physical copy of books you want to skim or read analytically because the only real option you have if you get the digital version is to read it straight through, page by page. I would guess that most people would get digital copies of “books they don’t want to read in detail” and physical copies of books they want to pour over.

One of the more hotly contested differences between e-books and physical books is price. I could write several more articles on this alone. It has been the subject of lawsuits, academic papers, and interesting subscription model experiments. But I will spare you the pain of a detailed history of agency pricing. And it is painful. Many of the costs for printing and distribution of digital books are effectively eliminated by their being a digital product in the first place, so you would think that they would naturally be far cheaper than even a paperback version of the same book. However, most e-books cost about the same as a new trade paperback. More recently published books have a digital version that is priced somewhere between hardcover prices and paperback prices. If you’re buying something that’s been in print for a while, you may be able to get a used physical copy for pennies on the dollar, which isn’t possible with a digital version.

Finally, I should note that not all e-books or e-book platforms are the same. Some e-books are in the public domain. You can find them on Project Gutenberg or similar sites. Some publishers simply sell DRM-free e-books, in which case you actually own them rather than licensing them. This is popular with technical publishers, like O’Reilly or the Pragmatic Programmers. Of course, those publishers have the advantage of knowing most of their books will be out of date long before the copyright expires. If you’re technically inclined, then you’re probably capable of finding a way to strip the DRM from any e-books you’ve purchased by joining the ongoing arms race between publishers and pirates. It’s illegal, but sort are lots of other things everyone does all the time.

  1. In other words, one valid approach to solving the problem of digital inheritance would be to live long enough to see the law change. 

  2. An interesting move given that each account is theoretically exclusive to one person. This might make a compelling legal argument. 

  3. I suspect a ridiculous number of people are doing things like this right now. 

  4. In Delaware, of course, even inheritance is treated equally in the eyes of the law. 

  5. Eventually, I’ll write that article explaining in detail why Microsoft Word isn’t architected to create documents as beautiful as LaTeX documents. 

  6. Because it can be affected by user decisions, like font size or typeface.