Does the Kindle pay for itself?

With e-books costing less than hardcover books, some argue that the savings you gain will offset the price of your e-reader within a year or two, depending how avid a reader you are. Is that really true?

A reader e-mailed me the other day with a request that I write a column on a specific topic. Usually, these requests involve explaining the differences between two technologies or products, but this reader was wondering why I hadn't yet written about how e-readers like the Kindle and Nook basically pay for themselves.

Avid hardcover buyers argue the Kindle Wi-Fi (not the DX pictured) pays for itself within 18 months. Amazon

Say what? Free Kindle? Free Nook?

No, not exactly. But the argument goes like this: if you're an avid reader who buys a decent amount of hardcover books, you can save some dough on each purchase by buying the e-book.

Before, when Amazon was selling most e-books for $9.99 or less, the savings could be in the $5-$15 range, depending on where you got your books (if you stuck to Amazon, you were looking at an average of $6-$8). However, now that a lot of new titles are running $11.99 and up, the savings has been compressed, but there are still some bucks to be saved.

Put succinctly, it's that old the-more-you-spend-the-more-you-save line of reasoning, and this reader, who estimates that she buys about 20 hardcovers a year, says she expects to pocket about $100 the first year after moving to an e-reader. At 18 months, she'll break even on her Kindle Wi-Fi and gets the added bonus of downloading all those free classics that are readily available in the Kindle Store.

Of course, the big counter-argument comes from all those folks who buy used instead of new--or get hand-me-downs from friends and family--and often spend very little on their paper books. Also, I've seen many a CNET message board post proclaiming the virtues of the local library, where you can, after all, check books out for free. The disciples of this philosophy bring a freegan approach to reading, and more power to them.

But let's go back to the question of whether an e-reader can really pay for itself. I suppose it could if you're the type who buys loads of new hardcovers the moment they come out. However, in examining my own reading habits, I'm not so convinced you save anything--and you probably spend more.

Here's how it works for me. I buy maybe one or two new releases a month. Half of those I would have bought as hardcovers on Amazon, half I probably wouldn't have bothered buying. Call it instant gratification or call it convenience, but the simple act of hitting a button and receiving a book within seconds spurs a lot of my purchases. It's also worth mentioning that when I buy a book to support a fellow author/friend, I now tend to buy it in e-book format, which does save me a few bucks. Still, when you add up my purchases in the new-release department, I'd saying I'm definitely spending more than I'm saving.

But then you get into that whole grazing, looking-for-deals mode that's akin to shopping for apps on a smartphone. That's when you end up buying stuff not because you're going to read it right away, but because it seems like a bargain and you can throw it in that digital library you're building.

A couple of weeks ago I picked up "Gone Baby Gone" (Dennis Lehane), "Brooklyn Follies" (Paul Auster), and "When Will there Be Good News?" (Kate Atkinson) because they were $2.99 or less. I don't know when I'll get around to reading them, but I felt pretty good about spending a total of $7 for three books, even though I know there are plenty of great paperbacks to be had at thrift stores and yard sales for less than a buck and sometimes less than 50 cents. But who has room for those?

While I haven't seen a study that shows just how much people are spending on books before and after buying an e-reader, a recent study by Marketing and Research Resources suggests people are reading more once they go digital. Of the 1,200 people who took part in the study, 40 percent said they read more on the e-reader while 58 percent said they read about the same (2 percent said they read less). Alas, the same study found that half of Americans aged 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure.

Perhaps the more telling statistic is one offered up by Amazon. It says that its customers buy 3.3 times as many books after buying a Kindle. Yes, there may be some savings mixed in there somewhere, but I tend to be a believer that the more you buy the more you spend. That's not a bad thing, especially when it comes to books, but unless you're super disciplined, your Kindle won't be paying for itself. Not in my book anyway.

What about you? Do you think buying e-books will save you money in the long haul, or that it'll just balance out in the end? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

 

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