“What’s it worth to you?” The relative value of e-books and paperbooks

There have been many complaints about the prices of e-books. Those complaints quite often compare the price to paperbooks (p-books).

“They don’t have to print the books! They don’t have to ship the books! E-books should be much cheaper than paperbooks!”

Well, that situation is a lot more complicated than it looks at first, and is worth a more thorough examination at another time. There are more constant costs than a lot of people think, and the actual production of the book may not be as big a chunk of the retail price of the book as some people guess.

The price we pay for items has never been about the component costs of the item. When somebody buys a Wii game, the disc and the packaging don’t constitute anywhere near the price the gamer pays.

It got me thinking, though. A lot of publishers now set the Digital List Price (the price they recommend that retailers use for the book, and on which their payments from the retailer are likely to be based) at the same price point as the p-book sugggested retail price. When I first started looking at Kindle prices, I don’t think that was true, although I’m not positive.

Which one should cost more, though?

The Higher Value of P-books

The most commonly cited advantage of a p-book is that you can sell it or pass it along to somebody else.  That’s certainly true.  You might get 25% of the suggested retail price of a new, popular book at a used bookstore.  You can buy a copy of a p-book and pass it on to a friend who passes it on to another friend and so on.   You can’t sell an e-book (although you can typically share it with other people on your account, with certain limitations).   Point to the “p”.  🙂

Another value of a p-book is that it is “platform independent”.   In other words, you don’t need a particular device to read it.   That’s clearly an advantage, as your situation in life might change.  It also ups that resell and loaning value.  Point to the “p”.

The Higher Value of E-books

On the other hand, buying books from the Kindle store has its own economic advantages.

Lower storage costs: I’ve spent more money on bookshelves than a Kindle costs.  When we bought places to live, we always counted on a room for a library, and that really ups the cost of a home or condo.  Some people also have books in storage units.   Connected to that is moving costs.  Whether you pay money to a moving company or spend “friend points”, it’s expensive to move p-books.  Electronic storage costs are much cheaper.  Point to the “e”.

E-books (at least from the Kindle store) can also be replaced for free.  While it hasn’t happened a lot, I have lost p-books over time.  They certainly decay: I handle a hundred year old hardback pretty carefully, but they still show the fragility of age.  Paperbacks can be worse than hardbacks in that regard.  I’ve also had some books water-damaged (again, despite extra care), and had a few damaged though the actions of animals.  I know that sounds strange, but rodents will chew them up, among other things.  With the Kindle store, I can just download a pristine copy again.  I can do the same with books from a lot of free sites, or back them up pretty easily myself (even to external servers, using online storage)  Point to the “e”.

P-books do not adjust with you.  If your vision decays, you may just not be able to read them any more.   I’ve heard sad stories of people just getting rid of their lifelong libraries, when their vision became too weak.  With e-books, you can increase the text size, and for many of them, have a computer read it to you.  Point to the “e”.

How much time have I spent looking things up in a p-book?  A lot!  The search feature for an e-book saves me a ton of time, and time is money.  When I’ve taught project management, I’ve told people that you can calculate that you  “pay yourself” at your work rate even when doing things at home.   If you get paid thirty dollars an hour, every minute you save is worth fifty cents.   I’ve saved a lot of time using the search feature on the Kindle.  Oh, and copying things?  So much easier and quicker with an e-book.  Point to the “e”.

Through the Kindle store, we also typically have multiple device licenses.  We have three Kindles in the family.  We have put the same book on all three Kindles (like a travel book) for one purchase price.  Certainly, two of us have read the same book at the same time.  While that probably isn’t as good for most people as having a physical copy you can sell or give away, it works out better for us.  I’m going to leave that as a toss up.

I could keep going, but I’m curious what you think.  For me, I think the e-books are actually more valuable.  That doesn’t mean I’m saying they should cost more, of course.  🙂   Given a choice, though, I’d rather have the e-book than the p-book.

I suspect that not everybody feels that way, so I thought I’d try asking you:

If you have more to say about it than a simple click, feel free to leave a comment.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

4 Responses to ““What’s it worth to you?” The relative value of e-books and paperbooks”

  1. anieb Says:

    Really well thought out, Bufo.

    Agree with all our points both ways. One additional thing for me is I like history, travel, photography books (generaly non-fiction), and with e-books, all of these are with me whenever I’m out (too) and are then easy to reference any tme I need to know something. A boon.

    Just got a new look at your blog. Excellent start !

  2. bufocalvin Says:


    Yes, the first Kindle store book I bought was a non-fiction book I already had (in fact, I had a few different versions of it), because I wanted to have the search capability with me as I was “out and about”. 🙂

  3. Jonathan Henderson Says:

    Excellent summary. I agree that for a paperback versus an e-book, the e-book wins. Personally, I feel that the price for a paperback and an e-book should be the same.

    Where I have a dilemma is for a hardback copy. All of your points apply equally to a hardback vs. an e-book, yet I assign a higher intrinsic value to the hardback. To me, the hardback is much more “permanent”, and is less susceptible to some of the damage points your bring up. A hardback also holds up better for repeat viewings.

    So, for me, I have to compare an e-book against a hardback. At the $9.99 price point, the e-book wins in almost every case. But for titles where the e-book price is only a dollar or two different from the hardback… I wrestle with that.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks, Jonathan!

      I agree that a hardback is worth more than a paperback. I have one hundred year old hardbacks, and while I have to handle them a bit carefully, I still feel like I can read them.

      I also have fifty year old paperbacks. I generally feel with those that they could fall apart if I’m not really careful. I even have some held together with rubber bands.

      When I say “p-book”, I’m referring to any book made of paper, not specifically paperbacks. It counts hardbacks, too. 🙂 Honestly, the ecological considerations in buying p-books (hard or paper) has given me that extra nudge of strength to resist the temptation. 🙂

      Oh, and I do have to say: a hardback made in the last few years may not have the longetivity of one made in 1900…

      Thanks again for commenting! Great points!

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