A Digital Expat — and an Answer to Hugh Howey

In Hugh Howey’s Confessions of a Digital Immigrant he asks for other people’s story about their adoption of digital reading. So Hugh, here you go.

If Hugh is a digital immigrant, I am an expatriate. I swore years ago that I would never abandon print books for ereading. And yet, I have. My reading is about ninety five percent digital.

My ereading story begins in 2010. I am transgender and I was preparing to take a trip to Thailand for my final surgery for my transition. I would be there for a month. I read at least two or three books a week normally, but I would be spending a lot of the month recovering from surgery, so I figured I would read more. How could I possibly bring enough books? Could I find English language books in Bangkok, Thailand?

The answer was to purchase my first kindle. I got it about a month before my trip and as soon as I started using it, it was magic. The device fit easily in my purse, dramatically reducing the amount of weight I carried.

My first kindle. Broken now but still loved.

My first kindle. Broken now but still loved.

Before my kindle, I carried a physical book everywhere. I used to joke, “happiness is a small book.” Small books are great for when you are waiting in line, stuck at the doctor’s office, or have a few minutes downtime at work.

There were two problems with this. Big, thick books are happiness, too, but they don’t fit so well in a purse. The second problem was that I often carried more than one book. If I was more than three quarters of a way through a book, I’d become afraid of finishing while I was out somewhere, and not having the next book to read. So I’d figure out what I was going to read next, and then carry that one as well.

With the kindle, those problems went away. It didn’t matter whether the book is long or short, the kindle still weighs the same. The next book is already there, on the same device. I downloaded what I thought would be a month’s worth of reading and headed to Thailand.

Two things occurred while I was in Thailand. I didn’t have all the books I needed. I was stuck there longer than expected and I needed more books. That was okay, I could easily shop and download more. That, too, was magic. To be sitting in a cafe in Bangkok, Thailand and buying books from the United States on Amazon, and then downloading them instantly, was magic.

The other problem was with my computer. To make a long story short, I needed a couple of reference manuals to fix what was wrong. In print they would have been big, expensive and I would have had to mail order them. On the kindle I was able to download them instantly for a fraction of the price.

In Hugh’s blog he claims that its older readers that have adopted ereading the most. That seems counter intuitive, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. When I came back from Thailand, now in love with my kindle, I started looking around the house. Could I replace some of my print books with ebooks?

Just one of the five bookshelves that used to fill my house.

Just one of the five bookshelves that used to fill my house.

I understand what he says about young people loving their print books. I was like that once upon a time. Now I watch book bloggers on youtube, flashing their copies of their five favorite novels and think, “five? That’s cute.” A life-long reader at age forty five, I could be smothered by a fraction of my favorite books.

Looking around my house at the end of 2010, I had one book shelf in the entryway to the kitchen just for cookbooks. I had another in the main room for books I kept for reference, or because I frequently picked them up and read portions of them. I had a library with three more bookshelves. That’s five full book shelves.

And then there were the flats. I had discovered years ago that paperback books fit well in those plastic underbed storage boxes. That became the most convenient way to store and move most of my books, which were trade paperback science fiction and fantasy. By 2010 I had stacks of them in my basement. Somewhere in my late twenties and early thirties a love of books had crossed the line into hoarding. I had to do something.

My love of books crossed into hoarding. I had stacks of these in my basement for years.

My love of books crossed into hoarding. I had stacks of these in my basement for years.

The kindle became the solution and the excuse to declutter my life. Many of the reference books that I had to have were classics, books of poetry, mythology, etc. I would never know when I needed one for a quote, or to settle some debate.

(What? You’ve never suddenly needed to know what it says in the Bhagavad Gita? Or needed a quote from the finnish epic Kalevala? You haven’t been to my house, then. It happens.) The kindle and the Gutenberg project cut deep into that shelf.

I have a problem letting go of novels. The reason is that I’ve bought many books two or three times. I’ll buy a book, read it and think, “that was good but I’ll probably never read it again.” I give it away or sell to a used bookstore. Five years later I want to read it again and buy another copy. Then I get paranoid about giving up that copy, because who knows? In five years I might want to read it a third time. But the book collection keeps growing and there’s only so much room.

With my kindle I don’t have that problem. If I choose to keep a book, it doesn’t add any weight or take up any space. If I let it go, it’s still in my cloud somewhere if I change my mind later.

What else?

A lot of the same things that others have said about ereaders played a role in my adoption as well. I will admit that being able resize text is a lot easier than admitting that I’m getting older. Cheaply priced ebooks are a godsend to active readers who plow through many books in a month.

The ability to shop at home was another huge factor. I love going to the bookstore, I do. Going to the library is another treat for me. But let’s face it, life gets busy and sometimes it’s a pain. Just getting there isn’t the only problem. Buying books once or twice a month at the bookstore means knowing what I am going to want to read after I finish my current book. Sometimes I finish a book and find myself in the mood for something similar, sometimes I want something different. Pulling the next book out I would discover that I got it right, some of the time, and I would get it wrong some of the time. Now I choose what I want to read next when I am ready for it.

A note on Indie authors and pricing

As an ereader I’ve become far more price sensitive. There are three reasons. The most obvious is that I read a lot. The choice between one book at 9.99 and three books at 2.99 is an easy one for me, especially if I am just looking for something to read.

The second reason I am more price sensitive now is because there is one real downside to digital reading. Its not nearly as easy to share a digital book. With print it’s easy to hand the book off to a friend and say, “here, read this. You’ll love it.” When you are trying to tell someone they should lay down money to read something because you think they’ll like it, it’s a different ball game. With a cheap book, 2-3 dollars, I have no problem expecting friends to fork over for their own copy. But when publishers price their ebooks over ten dollars it creates a lot of frustration for me. Knowing I can’t share the book and feeling like I can’t recommend it, takes a lot of pleasure out of reading for me.

The third reason I am so price sensitive has to do with being an indie author myself. I have, or feel like I have, a good notion of how much work and cost goes into an ebook. I understand how the market works.

I track my expenses on each book and I know how much I have to make for each to break even. I hire a professional editor and professional cover artist. Once those set costs are paid, the cost of keeping an ebook on the market is marginal. I sell most of my books for less than five dollars. At the 70% I make from Amazon, it will take a few hundred sales on average for a book to break even and start making money.

So when big publishers tell us that they need to price the latest Patterson book at twelve dollars to make money, I don’t believe them. He has hundreds of thousands of fans. His books will start turning a profit almost as soon as they are out.

My point is that when major publishers push higher ebook prices, I assume they are just fleecing consumers, using ebook sales to prop up less profitable portions of their corporate structure. Maybe that’s just me, but it’s an important reason why I read so few big names these days, and so many indie authors.

My writing shelf went digital as well, for many of the same reasons. Here are the hard copies from before I started relying on cloud backups.

My writing shelf went digital as well, for many of the same reasons. Here are the hard copies from before I started relying on cloud backups.

Do I buy any print books?

Yes, I do still buy print books. There are three reasons I still buy print.

When I meet a fellow author at an event or signing, I buy copies. I have a growing collection of signed copies from authors I know personally. I am very proud of that collection and I look forward to adding to it. That said I often come home, put the book on the shelf and then download the ebook to my kindle to actually read the book.

I recently decided to read a couple of books that are pretty popular. Unfortunately, the ebooks were more expensive than I usually care to pay. So I went to the local half price book store and found one of them for less than the ebook. That might be seen as a win for the “high ebook price to help conserve print sales” theory, except it was a second hand book and didn’t help the publisher.

There are a few books that aren’t available for the kindle. It’s getting rare in these days, but it happens. Current authors are almost all available in digital forms. Books old enough to be public domain have probably been uploaded by someone. In between, books old enough to have been published before the digital revolution but not so old as to be public domain, may only exist in print.

So there you have it, the confessions of digital expat.

 

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One Response to A Digital Expat — and an Answer to Hugh Howey

  1. Pingback: More Reading Habits | Hugh Howey

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