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Worlds Without End Blog

Buying Science Fiction: Paper or Digital? Posted at 8:31 AM by James Wallace Harris


At my blog, Auxiliary Memory,  I’ve been adding Amazon Affiliate links to all the various lists of science fiction books I’ve created. This tedious activity is quite informative. The most obvious trend I spotted, is we’re moving away from mass market paperbacks. They still exist, but far fewer in number. How many people are buying them? Even more surprising is how often I see a mass market paperback cheaper than the Kindle edition. A common price is $7.99 for the ebook, and $7.19 for the mass market paperback. And if you’re an Amazon Prime customer, the price of shipping is built into the paper price. Are they encouraging people to keep buying paperbacks? Or, are ebook prices fixed, and Amazon is discounting the paper?

kindlevoyage_cover1-100526979-origOn the other hand, many classic science fiction novels are only available in Kindle editions, or Kindle and Audible editions, so the only choice is digital. And the prices for Kindle ebook editions are all over the map. Currently, you can get many of Greg Egan’s great novels from the 1990s for $2.99 each. But other books from that era go for $7.99, $9.99, $11.99 or even $13.99. I can’t believe they price older ebooks equal to cheaper trade paperback editions. But then, the prices for trade paperbacks are moving closer to what hardbacks were not many years ago, and the prices of hardbacks are soaring.

I found it quite disturbing how many books are only available in digital. My all-time favorite science fiction novel, Have Space Suit-Will Travel can only be bought in an ebook or audio editions. The Kindle is $6.99. Several of Heinlein’s books are only available in these formats. Does that mean fewer people are reading Heinlein? Or, do his fans prefer digital editions? I can understand the flood of forgotten novels from decades past having only Kindle editions. I doubt there are enough buyers to make a print edition break even. And ebooks have been wonderful for bringing back classic SF long out of print. Recently most of Clifford Simak’s novels and short stories showed up in new digital editions.

I tend to think pricing for ebooks is related to the fame of the book or author. Dune, a classic from the 1960s, goes for $9.99. The Diamond Age by Neil Stephenson, from the 1990s goes for $11.99. In the old days, age meant cheap paper editions. I remember buying pocket books costing 35 cents off of twirling wire racks when I was a kid. It’s hard to imagine children plunking down $10 for a Sci-Fi wonder today.

Since I’m adding Amazon Affiliate links I have to decide which is the edition people will most likely want. For the most part, I’ve settle on Kindle editions because they are often cheaper compared to trade paper editions, the common print format. If you consume science fiction versus collecting it, going digital is more thrifty. Digital also seems science fictional too, but I do know that many people still prefer to read off of paper. And I have to wonder how many people prefer spending $14.95 for a trade edition over $7.99 to read a Kindle edition?

f4efc1c110a93a1156258e2ed996fe33I would love to know:  how many people still collect science fiction in hardback?

Since I’m adding links to the Classics of Science Fiction list, I’m assuming most people are going through the list reading the classics, and not collecting. I’ve been building my own digital library of the Classics of Science Fiction list on the cheap. The Kindle Daily Deals, BookBub, Early Bird Books and LitFlash all send me daily reminders of ebook specials. I’ve bought dozens of books from the Classics of Science Fiction list for $1.99 each. I’m still kicking myself for not buying Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick and Blood Music by Greg Bear from yesterday’s deals. I saw the emails and thought, “I’ll do that in a minute,” and then forget. Damn. Today they are $6.15 and $7.99. Jack Faust has no paper edition, and Blood Music is $13.99 for the trade paper. Although you can get a used hardback copy for $0.01 and $3.99 shipping.

Most of my science fiction collection is digital now, either Kindle or Audible. I only buy paper if it’s much cheaper, the only available format, or I can’t get it from the library. In this regard, I know I’m atypical. I think most science fiction fans prefer to build large collections of visible books. Yet, is that practical with the rising cost of printed books?

I’ve committed to digital. All my Kindle and Audible books are available on my iPhone, which goes with me everywhere. That’s rather futuristic, because I’m carrying around a couple thousand books in my pocket. In the past, when I moved and loaded 2,000+ books in boxes into a truck, it was a huge pain in the lower back. It’s hard to believe I now carry that many books with me everywhere I go.


GiantPanda   |   26 Aug 2016 @ 10:22

Ebooks mostly.

There are exceptions: Series I’ve started on paper, non-fiction (books to work through and possibly annotate rather than read), illustrated books, autographed books, some out-of-print stuff.

My problem is not the cost of printed books, it’s the limited shelf space at home and the weight when travelling. Plus, you can turn pages on a kindle with one hand on public transport.

Gloria   |   26 Aug 2016 @ 10:24

I was happy to see you mention the library-abet at the end of your article- but that is clearly the cheapest way to “read” through a list- as opposed to “collect”, of course. And only If the title is available. I have the luxury of using 4 separate big library systems, and what is interesting is how much they are also moving more into ebooks. I still prefer to read and hold paper, but I understand the appeal for convenience & compactness of ebooks when traveling.
Happy reading,

Sutton   |   26 Aug 2016 @ 10:39

Public Libraries are the way to go and they totally dispel, in my mind, the notion that people don’t read books Of any type anymore.

Jim Harris   |   26 Aug 2016 @ 16:34

Gloria and Sutton, I’m using the library more and more. During the middle of my life I stopped using the library. It seems I’m more library prone at the beginning and end.

bleebs   |   28 Aug 2016 @ 07:11

As public libraries in Belgium don’t have a lot of English books, and for sure not a lot of speculative fiction, I have to buy everything I want to read. I tend to prefer the hardcover if I have the option, or a larger format paperback, as imo mass market paperbacks are just too small to comfortably read.

The fact that I haven’t made the jump to digital (and I don’t think I will in the foreseeable future) is a problem for a lot of older titles: I have to try to find those used. There’s a good brick&mortar shop in Antwerp that has quite a lot of SFF titles, but if they don’t have it there (which happens more often than not) I have to resort to the second hand market on Amazon, or a Dutch site that groups a lot of independent second hand booksellers, The problem with Amazon is that a lot of sellers don’t ship to Belgium, and if they do, postage is sky high, especially from the USA.

All and all, I get by, and I like the feel of my physical library. Switching to digital would mean having two “systems” – someday, probably, but not yet. Place is an issue, yes, but as I sell all the books I didn’t really like, and keep only those I rate highly (lets say 1 book in 5), I end up adding only a book or 10 a year to my shelves.

Speculations Afoot   |   28 Aug 2016 @ 08:50

I’m a mass market paperback (with vintage art) collector of around the mid 60’s to around ’90 era. It’s kind of an obssession. Although, I’ve built my collection almost entirely though used book shop hunting over the years. I’ve luckily managed to aquire most of it within a $1 – $2 price range or free through mass trade/sale/credit deals. If you look at most of the major lists of canon/best of/masterworks titles, I have at least 75% of them and many others rated well and considered to be unsung/sleepers.

Anyway, there are factors that go in to obtaining books that way that can make it difficult to do exactly like that. With times-a-changin’ now, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. On bulk/space issues, sure. But they are well organized and already in boxes (sturdy transparent plastic) with a dolly at the ready if they ever needed to be moved. It’s a considerable collection but not something that can’t be managed. Like I said, it’s kind of an obsession, but I have restrictions on what I collect and great discipline in sticking to them.

As far as digital, I love that too. There are a lot of advantages to it, as mentioed above. In my perfect world, the pysical would never die out and both physical and digital would coexist with equal measure/power!

btw, I’ve recently gotten in good with a used bookseller in the region who gives me a special price of $1.50 on any pbks I buy because I buy several at a time. As well as the store, I’m also allowed to comb through his boxed stock in the back. But here’s the kicker, he is going to let me look through his “overstock” on a property external to the store, it’s well over 100,000 more books with tons of SF/Fantasy. So, there is also a lot of luck involved doing it this way. “Happy Collecting to All!”

Buck Ward   |   28 Aug 2016 @ 10:39

I’m with you – mostly Kindle and audio books. People tell me they prefer a printed book, and I guess I get that, but not really. I much prefer Kindle. Reading a printed book is my third choice.

Jim Harris   |   28 Aug 2016 @ 11:20

Bleebs, the two system problem is a problem for me too. I use Goodreads, or I try to use Goodreads, to keep up with all my books. But I have physical books, Kindle books, Audible books, ebooks I’ve downloaded as files I have to maintain, and audiobooks I’ve ripped from CDs that I have to maintain. So, that’s actually a 5-system problem for me.

I tend to solve the later two problems by avoiding non-Kindle ebooks, and non-Audible audio books.I probably have about a hundred audiobooks that aren’t Audible books. When I see them on sale at Audible I buy them again.

One of the selling points of Amazon is Amazon maintains my library of digital books, audiobooks, movies and television shows. That’s extremely convenient, but I do have depend on Amazon staying in business for the rest of my life.

JohnBem   |   28 Aug 2016 @ 17:08

I am 100% a physical book reader. Over the years, people have told me about the wonder and the ease and the convenience of Kindle and various other electronic methods for reading books, but I can’t bring myself to switch. I like physical artifacts, I prefer physical artifacts (I’m one of those guys that buys vinyl records as much as possible too), I get psychological comfort from being surrounded by my shelves and racks and stacks of physical books. I’m something of a nostalgist and an antiquarian, so those factors account for my preferences too. Like Speculations Afoot up above, I love collecting mass-market paperbacks from bygone decades, and I do so mostly via library book-sales, yard sales, and flea markets. I’ve probably spent hundreds of hours of my life digging through sweltering attics, cobweb-dense barns, and haphazardly stacked boxes and crates only to emerge with a single treasure. But sometimes, you get lucky too. Like the one flea market I encountered in a church parking lot: a lady had boxes of beautiful pristine hardbacks of classic fantasy and sci-fi novels. She had inherited them from a friend, she hated the genre (thought they were “weird”), just wanted to get rid of them, and sold them to me super cheap. I drove off with my car brimming with books that I had bought for pennies per title. A few times too I’ve been in the situation where a yard sale isn’t going well for a person: I buy a book or two and then am told, “Look, I just want to get rid of these; take all the rest, no extra charge.” I’m always happy to oblige. As Speculations Afoot mentioned, there’s a lot of luck involved in this ‘method’. Yes, I scour classified ads and always make sure to have some cash on me, just in case. But it’s a lot of luck. One last reason why I prefer physical books to electronic: there’s a wonderful pulp world out there that probably will never be translated to digital; in addition to genre books, I enjoy collecting sleazy pulps from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Who is ever going to digitize, for example, “The Amorous Dietician,” “The Fate of the Immodest Blonde,” or “I Was A Teeny-Bopper for the CIA” (all real titles sitting proudly on my shelves)?

Speculations Afoot   |   29 Aug 2016 @ 19:07

JohnBem, oh yes, library sales, yard/garage/flea markets, attics, barns, shacks, storage facilities, used book stores, boxes, crates, shelves. A passion no sweltering heat nor rain nor cobwebs could stop. I’ve been there and done that! It’s good to here from a fellow picker of such items. I also used to be into the music side of things somewhat but not so much anymore. That is one area that I have switched over primarily to digitization.

“Teeny-Bopper for the C.I.A”! One of those, “Its awesome and hilarious at the same time” moments. Looked it up, it’s Ted Mark. Oh yeah, author of “The man from O.R.G.Y.” series. I’m sure that’ll never be digitized either, but it’s got a better chance than Teeny-Bopper! [haha]

On another stroke of luck, I also belong to PaperBackSwap online and I checked it not too long after I posted my last post here and BAM!, two classics from my wishlist are on their way. Bernard Wolfe’s Masterwork Limbo (difficult to come by cheap, and at all before the SF Masterworks edition recently released) and Campbell Award winner “Buddy Holly is alive and Well on Ganymede”. Only cost me 2.00 a piece! Many strokes of luck from the site like an excellent condition, Canadian first edition pbk of Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?, vintage pbk edition of the 1st volume of Gunn’s classic 6 vol. anthology series “The Road to Science Fiction” (to complete the next three I already had), Riddley Walker and Dark Forces anthology.

Jim Harris, it takes a bit of work/time (kind of fun, actually), but I organize my books (physical and audio) with a manually created graphical/folder list system on my computer.

Walt Guyll   |   29 Aug 2016 @ 23:42

I have a Kindle and an IPad, but find the printed page much easier to read. This may reflect the years of practice I’ve invested in books, or that the tech isn’t quite there yet. The screen is less engaging, and the controls still awkward, but this will likely improve.

On a side note, I love comics, but for some reason can’t finish reading one on the IPad.

Smudge   |   30 Aug 2016 @ 08:04

I love ebooks, but as you pointed out many older books that are offered as ebooks are still relatively expensive compared to buying it as a paperback (The Diamond Age as example).

To me, this is the publishers/authors gouging their customer for an old product and justifying it as the cost of convenience. As many people do, there is the library. Reading a book from there is free and grants the publisher and authors nothing. If it is a book that I must own for my library I then visit half priced books (A large chain where I live) and I am able to buy the book literally for half the prices listed on the book. That means something like Diamond Age which might have sold for 5, 6 or 7 dollars when it was popular I can have for a few bucks. Again, publisher/authors gets nothing.

I draw attention to the fact that the publisher/author get nothing from me for older titles because if they would price the books fairly as an ebook I would most likely certainly buy it even it was just a dollar or two more than what I could get it used. But greed gets in way and as far as my dollar is concerned they get nothing.

Jim Harris   |   30 Aug 2016 @ 13:52

Smudge, one reason I like paying $1.99 for ebooks on sale is because the author gets something, and they don’t when I spend $2 at the used book store.

If I have to order a used book from ABEBooks, which always involves a $3.99 shipping charge, I consider the price of the ebook. If the used book is $5 with shipping and the ebook is $5 I pick the ebook. But if the ebook is $7.99, I’ll get the used book, unless it’s a book I want to own forever, then I pick the ebook.

I used to think of forever books as hardbacks, but now I prefer ebooks. The older I get the less I want to mess with owning things. So I actually prefer the ebook.

However, if I just want to read something and its not at the library, I spring for the cheapest option. Quite often, that’s buying the ebook. Some authors seem to know that ebooks really compete with used book prices, and price their ebooks accordingly. Other authors think of ebooks competing with new trade paper editions. I tend to think nice used hardback editions with good dust covers as competing with new trade paper editions.

For $10-15 you can get a lot of first editions used in very good to fine quality. Of course, the good stuff, goes for much more, like Gnome Press, or Wilson Science Fiction juveniles.

Smudge   |   31 Aug 2016 @ 08:09

Hi Jim,

I completely agree with you. I would rather spend the money on an ebook, even if it is just a couple of bucks more than used copy because I like the convenience and I do want the author to get some money. It is when the price of the ebook is over $10 (for an older title) that I find myself reverting to buying the used copy which is typically 3-4 dollars or visiting the library.

For new releases or somewhat recent stuff I am good with paying most ebook prices.

JohnBem   |   05 Sep 2016 @ 15:00

I’ll have to admit, as I follow this conversation, that I never really considered that, in the way I usually purchase used books, publishers and authors don’t get much of my money. I do buy a lot of new comic books and new role-playing game modules and rulebooks, so those publishers and authors do get a share of my money (I suppose). But it’s been a long time since I’ve purchased a new novel. On the other hand, my methods do cause my money to go into the coffers of a lot of local libraries. So I guess for now, as I continue to consider this aspect of things, I’ll salve my conscience with that fact and call it a wash.

pauljames   |   01 Oct 2016 @ 04:23

I normally don’t have any problem buying any book I want. If my local Waterstones doesn’t have it I will try online from them, sometimes only delivery can be done to their store. Then there is Amazon and bookdepository and finally I will use ebay however this is almost always a second hand book.

Garrett Carroll   |   09 Oct 2016 @ 01:30

I typically prefer to buy paperback books, mostly because of the aesthetics and feel to them. I enjoy knowing that I own a piece of writing as opposed to reading it digitally in my nearly limitless digital library. However, a large reason for wanting no digital books is the fact that my device is not big enough to read on. I need at least a 10″ tablet to enjoy reading on. Just personal tastes.

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