The personal economy of Kindles: Or, “Say what????”

I admit I’ve been a little hesitant to buy a Kindle, not out of lack of interest or complete antipathy to e-books. Indeed, I’m kind of intrigued if not totally convinced. But the biggest thing stopping me has been the cost. When I realized this I just thought I should do a little mental calculating.

Professors aren’t as well off as people tend to think, but on the whole full-time professors–a diminishing breed–are still solidly middle class. My salary as a full professor with about 8 years of post collegiate education and 16 years of full time teaching experience is in the low 70s. And, to be honest, most professors, especially at small schools or third rank state schools make a lot less than I do. In general I make less than a high school teacher with similar experience and education; who, am I kidding, I make less than my plumber.

Yes, I’m griping, but I’m also realistic that this isn’t a bad life. I remember being thrilled a couple of years ago when I started realizing that I could afford to purchase hard cover books–it mattered not a whit to me that books were on their way out. Indeed, one of the reasons professors can be paid so little relative to their expertise and experience is that they are pleased with so little. Give me a book and four or five weeks clear of having to prepare for classes or other administrative work in the summer, and everything seems like gravy.

Still, I’ve hesitated on the Kindle. 400 bucks is at least an hour or two of my daughter’s prospective college education. Who knows, with interest I may be able to add an hour or two. And it makes me wonder just a bit about the business plan associated with dedicated e-book readers. I would be, I think, a prime candidate for an e-book reader. But on the other hand, I’m an absolutely atypical American when it comes to books purchasing. Most Americans say they buy five books a year and read four. My guess is the other sits on the shelf in order too look kind of impressive even though it’s never read. Reading as many as 12 books a year is considered being a dedicated reader by a lot of folks, and was the benchmark employed by the NEA in some of their recent pronouncements.

So let’s start with the typical American reading, or claiming to read, four books a year. For fun, I went to the Amazon web site. It’s not nearly as much fun a bricks and mortar store, but book lust may still be fed even online. I compared Kindle books prices to standard paperbacks, using the sale price for new books. I leave aside the fact that I could get the books much more cheaply via the Amazon sellers system. Let’s just be fair and try as much as possible to compare apples to apples, a new paperback versus a new e-book.

Roughly speaking I found that the e-books saved about three to four dollars on the e-book. I realize I could add to this if I considered shipping costs, but it’s not inconceivable that a person would buy four books at one time and have no shipping costs at all. Still four bucks. Not bad, you say. True. Who wouldn’t want to save four bucks when they can. This means that the average American book reader would save 16 bucks on the four books they read during the year–this is the best case scenario of assuming that all four of those books were actually purchased new instead of being borrowed from a friend–something hard to do with e-books–or borrowed from the library. Or shoplifted.

This means that it would take the typical American reader approximately…wait…I have to get my calculator. Yes, I wasn’t wrong. It would take the typical American reader about 25–that’s TWENTYFIVE!!!–years to pay off their 400 dollar investment in a Kindle.

But let’s be fair, there’s also a marginal cost of gas to drive the mile to Barnes and Noble, so let’s say it will take 24–that’s TWENTYFOUR!!!–years to pay off their 400 dollar investment in a Kindle.

Let’s assume that there are enough readers like me out there to sustain a Kindle investment. I probably buy about 25 books a year–whether I actually read them is another story. Many of them are hardbacks I get via Amazon resellers for a fraction of the original price, but let’s still go with the new paperback price, even though its more than I often pay for hardbacks in good condition. I won’t count the multitude of other books and journals I read or look at from the library, since, after all, I get them for free and I wouldn’t pay 400 dollars for something I now get gratis.

Assuming I buy 25 books a year and I can save 4 bucks a book–questionable, but let’s say it’s possible–I can payoff my Kindle in 4 years.

Now, I still have books on my shelf that I bought 30 years ago, and my parents still have books on their shelves that my grandfather bought and read 100 years ago. So far in my 20 year marriage we have gone through four computers and are on our fifth. That’s a new computer every four to five years. Can someone at Amazon promise me that I will get a brand new Kindle for free when mine wears out, or when I drop it in the lake, or when they upgrade so far that it can no longer read the e-book files which are created six years from now? Somehow I truly doubt it. This means that I’m likely looking at shelling out four or five hundred dollars every five years just to maintain my collection. That means the cost of my e-book purchase keeps increasing throughout the lifetime of the file, simply because I have to keep investing new money in order to maintain my e-books. (To be fair, this increasing cost will continue, but diminish if I maintain more and more books. But it will increase)

I freely admit that paperbacks have some similar marginal maintenance costs. A new book shelf every once in a while will cost me a 100 bucks–or 15 if I’m willing to have cinderblocks and boards–but on the whole, this cost is made up by the fact that I sell old books or donate them to charity, something I can’t do with Kindle books at all.

In other words, I actually think Steve Jobs is probably on to something when he says people don’t read anymore and so there’s no future in e-books. This isn’t quite literally correct, but it seems to me that the long term business model depends upon an extremely small demographic. People like me who read a lot of books, but also people like me who would be willing to shell out what is ultimately more money per book than the cost of a paperback.

And why exactly should I do this again??

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