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Why you shouldn't buy an e-reader

While many e-reader owners love their new digital reading devices, plenty of e-readers rarely, if ever, get used--and there's no reason to get a device if you don't think you need it.

Some e-reader owners say they rarely use their devices.
David Carnoy/CNET

As someone who covers the e-reader market, I get a lot of questions about which e-reader is the best and whether it's better to read on the iPad and its large LCD or an e-ink display like those found on the Kindle, Nook, or Sony Readers. That's all well and good, but in my e-reader travels I've discovered a disturbing trend: a lot of people barely use their e-readers and sometimes even relegate them to what I fondly refer to as the-drawer-where-gadgets-go-to-die.

I can't give you any real data (which is why I've included a poll below), but my own informal survey suggests that about a third of e-reader owners rarely spend anytime using their devices, another third does some reading, and finally, the last third is made up of heavy users. The latter group seems to be made up of voracious readers or frequent travelers/daily commuters who find an e-reader incredibly convenient for storing a lot of reading material, including newspapers and magazines. Some of these folks are actually reading more now than they ever did before. Kudos to them.

Of course, many people never asked for their e-readers (they received them as gifts), so you can't blame them for not embracing their new gadgets. One woman in our office who counts herself in this category says she prefers paper books ("I like holding the actual book") and while she reads a lot, she didn't love reading on her second-generation Kindle. When she did try it out, she says she found herself downloading free or very cheap books and thought most of them were really bad. Some of these were self-published.

"I admit it," she said, "I'm kind of cheap. And if I'm going to pay like $10 or $12 for a book, I'd rather get the paper version." So oddly, she began to associate her reading experience on the Kindle with cheap, bad books and has left it in a drawer for months.

Another friend told me he'd only bought two books on his Kindle. "I was kind of excited at first so I downloaded some free classics and a book on Einstein that I was interested in," he said. "And then I just kind of lost interest. There were enough paper books lying around--or you know, people just passed on books. I had plenty of stuff to read."

A lot of people complain that e-books are too expensive and that they expected them to be cheaper when they invested in an e-reading device. Recently, for instance, a few best-selling hardcover titles (see Ken Follett's "Fall of the Giants") have had lower prices than their e-book versions, which enraged a vocal group of hard-core Kindle users, who encouraged a boycott of the e-book.

There's some truth to those higher prices tamping down purchases, and whole threads on Amazon are devoted to discussing not only overly expensive e-books but bargain ones as well. However, at this juncture in the digital reader's evolutionary cycle it appears as if some people are simply a good match for an e-reader and some aren't.

Fellow CNET editor Scott Stein recently purchased the latest Kindle for his mother, a big reader. He said that he was worried that she "wouldn't take to it," and while her initial reaction to the device was very positive ("she was excited to get it and liked how light it was"), he was still concerned she wouldn't use it much because she had a stack of physical books to get through. However, he felt that spending $189 on the new Kindle presented less of a risk than giving her a pricier iPad, which she might not use either.

"It's gotten to the point where these e-readers are cheap enough so it doesn't matter so much whether the person you're gifting will actually use it," he remarked.

That's the kind of thinking that e-reader manufacturers are banking on this holiday season and expectations are high that millions of e-readers will be sold. I've long been a fan of digital readers--and hope they do sell well. But there's just something sad about a slick new gadget that ends up in a drawer, unwanted and underutilized.

In other words, we here at CNET can give you advice about which e-reader to buy, but we can't tell you whether you'll actually use it. If you think the answer is maybe not, you might just want to hold off. These devices are only going to get better--and presumably cheaper--moving forward, so you'll have plenty of time to get on the e-reader bandwagon.