My First Ebook: Why Physical Books Aren't Going Anywhere

I'm finally getting around to reading Anna Karenina, thanks to modern technology. Seems odd that a book lover like myself didn't download the year's best-sellers as soon as my iPad showed up, right? Well, here's something even stranger. I used my Amazon app to order the hardcover version of Dennis Lehane's new book, Live by Night, and the paperback version of John Irving's latest, In One Person. It seems a bit sacrilegious, huh?

Let me explain.

I was excited to start using my iPad as an e-reader. I quickly downloaded the Kindle app and explored iBooks. I found the purchasing process in the Kindle app a bit onerous-though I was hardly a picture of patience-but before I moved on, I decided to search for the same book from Amazon and Apple to compare prices. And when Anna Karenina popped up for free on iBooks, I realized something: Ebooks provide the perfect way to read all those old, public domain titles you've always wanted to read but never got around to.

For years, if you suddenly got a hankering for Dickens, Tolstoy, or (my fellow Hartfordite) Mark Twain, you had a few choices. You could go to the library and borrow The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for free. You could head over to your local used-book store, hope to find War and Peace, and fork over a dollar. Or you could go down to the bookstore and pay a pretty penny for Great Expectations. Now you have a fourth choice: You can get the ebook. Although some companies have the nerve to charge for an ebook version of titles that have long been in the realm of public domain, there are also plenty of free versions.

Reuse your old content. That's what we're always telling you in the pages of EContent. Book publishers have long known that their backlist titles were the silent workhorses of their catalogs. And for many years, booksellers such as Barnes & Noble knew they could mine the public domain for profit by printing and packaging the books themselves, and selling them by the register. Now, ebook publishers and sellers are figuring out the same thing.

They know luring me in with the promise of free (or cheap) classics is a great way to get me to actually buy something. Just ask the folks at The Book Barn in Niantic, Conn. Last summer I headed down there and spent hours wandering the sheds, garages, and creaky old house filled with used books. I came away with a giant stack of books for less than I would have paid for one new hardcover, and it included everything from Graham Greene's The Quiet American to Louisa May Alcott's Little Women to Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors. (I'm still working my way through that stack.)

But, as I mentioned at the outset, it's not just the used paperbacks that I'm still amassing. I'm also picking up new releases as well. Why? Well, because the obsessive-compulsive side of me needs to complete my collection. I've got shelves lined with complete (or nearly complete) author collections, from George Orwell to Toni Morrison. The same goes for Irving and Lehane. I've already got all of the books from those authors, so I can't stop collecting them now. I imagine a lot of people feel this way. It's one thing to buy an ebook from some new author, or something for your book club. But when your favorite author comes out with a new release, you'll probably still want to add it to your (not-virtual) bookshelf.

And while part of me does wish I could grab Anna Karenina off my shelf and lend it to a friend the same way I would with The World According to Garp, the thought of having to track down and buy every classic I haven't yet gotten around to reading is utterly exhausting. I much prefer to let a search engine and my Wi-Fi do the legwork for me.

Surely not everyone is as backward as I am, downloading books written more than 100 years ago to my iPad while waiting for new releases to show up on my doorstep, but I think there are enough of us out there to assure a future for both ebooks and the printed word-at least for a while longer.