Why Your E-Book Might Not Feel Like ‘Yours’

From The University of Arizona UA News:

Despite stereotypes that paint millennials as “all technology, all the time,” young people may still prefer curling up with a paper book over their e-reader — even more so than their older counterparts — according to a new study from the University of Arizona that explores consumers’ psychological perceptions of e-book ownership.

The study also found that adult consumers across all age groups perceive ownership of e-books very differently from ownership of physical books, and this could have important implications for those in the business of selling digital texts.

“We looked at what’s called psychological ownership, which is not necessarily tied to legal possession or legal rights, but is more tied to perceptions of ‘what is mine,'” said lead study author Sabrina Helm, a UA associate professor who researches consumer perceptions and behaviors.

People’s sense of psychological ownership is affected by three primary factors: whether they feel as if they have control over the object they own, whether they use the object to define who they are, and whether the object helps give them a sense of belonging in society, said Helm, who teaches in the UA’s John and Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Psychological ownership is important in people’s perception of how they value certain products or services or objects,” she said. “In the context of digital products, we thought it would be appropriate to look at how people take ownership of something that’s not really there — it’s just a file on your computer or device or in the cloud; it’s more of a concept than an actual thing.”

. . . .

These major themes emerged from the discussions:

  • Participants across all age groups reported feeling a constricted sense of ownership of digital books versus physical books, based on the fact that they don’t have full control over the products. For example, they expressed frustration that they often could not copy a digital file to multiple devices.
  • Along similar lines, many study participants lamented restrictions on sharing e-books with friends, or gifting or selling the books, saying this made e-books feel less valuable as possessions than physical books.
  • Participants described being more emotionally attached to physical books, and said they use physical books to establish a sense of self and belonging. Participants across age groups frequently spoke about their nostalgia for certain childhood books. They also talked about experiencing physical books through multiple senses — describing, for example, the sound, smell and tactile experience of opening a new book, and the ability to highlight or write notes on paper pages. Participants also said they use their physical book collections to express their identity to others who might be perusing their shelves. E-books did not have these associations.
  • Minimalists expressed a preference for digital books because they take up less physical space.
  • Many participants said the e-book experience feels more like renting than buying.
  • While almost everyone expressed strong attachment to physical books, and no one embraced a fully digital reading experience, older consumers, contrary to what one might expect, saw more advantages than younger consumers to reading with an e-reader. They referenced physical benefits that might not be as relevant to younger consumers, such as the lightweight nature of e-readers and the ability to zoom in on text.

Link to the rest at The University of Arizona UA News and thanks to Elaine for the tip.

From time to time, Mrs. PG explains to PG that he is unusual in a variety of ways.

One of those ways is that PG values the information contained in books, factual, emotional, historical, etc., far more than the books themselves.

If the book world were organized in a manner that required him to return or destroy each book after he had finished reading it, PG would not be terribly upset provided he could procure another copy should he want to reread the book or review part of a book (something that has happened on only a handful of occasions during his lifetime).

Impressive old libraries full of books are enjoyable to visit, but, for PG, impressive old castles or cathedrals or city centers are equally enjoyable to visit.

Because of this particular idiosyncrasy, transitioning from reading physical books to ebooks was simple, logical and satisfactory for PG. Ereaders are much easier to carry around than physical books. If you want a book you don’t have immediately available, the ebook comes to you rather than you going to a bookstore. You don’t have to decide what books to take with you on a vacation. You can instantly return any book you bought and didn’t like after you started reading it without searching for a receipt.

The most important thing to PG – the information the author put into a book – is identical in an ebook or a physical book.

This said, PG isn’t preachy about his preferences. He understands he’s an outlier and a great many people enjoy having physical books scattered about, caressing them from time to time and taking them to bed at night like a hard, boxy teddy bear.

22 thoughts on “Why Your E-Book Might Not Feel Like ‘Yours’”

  1. Absolutely! I haven’t read a paperback in years. Ebooks to me are a treasure–easy to acquire, easy to card around in their hundreds–in their thousands!–and they don’t take up space. And the book is the BOOK!! the text between the covers. Why fetishize paper which ages and becomes moldy?

  2. I liked the convenience of ebooks at first, but I’ve since decided that I prefer print books, and so I’ve switched back to them partly because I like having something tangible in return for my money and time investment in reading the book. Think of the print book like a diploma or a trophy. Would anyone be happy with nothing but a digitized college diploma? Why not just hand out digital Olympic gold medals, or entirely digital Oscars?

    • Because diplomas and trophies are representations of achievements. There’s no particular achievement in buying a book.

      I was going to mention that the only physical books that I attach to a sense of self are the ones I’ve published. Again, publishing them was an achievement. When I re-read some of them recently, I did it on my Kindle.

    • Tangible also means “heavy” and “takes a lot of room.” Last time I moved, I had forty boxes full of books and not enough shelf space for them. Never mind trying to find a book among dozens of double-stacked shelves. I’d much rather have my books in a Kindle where I can find any tome in a matter of seconds.

    • Look up “Digital Badges”. This is actually now a thing – a “verified” digital certificate of accomplishment, meant to go on your website or what have you. I just supported a week-long conference on Data Analysis which cost $2,000 to register, and provided a “Digital Badge” at the end for the participants.

  3. If PG is unusual, then I am unusual in the same way.

    I never got that “smell of a book” thing. In my experience, if a book smelled like anything, it was usually musty. Over my multiple moves, my collection of physical books has decreased. In fact, looking at my shelves now, it might be time for another purge.

    There are few books that I am emotionally attached to, and that’s usually because of the content, not the format. I will admit that it is harder for me to give away or sell a signed book. The signature somehow connects me more closely to the author, perhaps because it brings back memories of the book reading/signing where I got it.

  4. Older book-readers, like me, probably also like e-books for new acquisitions because we already have several thousand paper books around the house.

    These days, I buy specialist non-fiction in paper and everything else in e-format.

    • Also, our eyes are finding that the tiny print in many paper books is too hard to read.

      On an ebook, you read at a size – and in a font – that YOU find comfortable. Paper books can’t compete.

    • I collect vintage paperbacks, usually crime, spy, and action novels, and their readability is quite poor – tiny font sizes on low-quality paper, with the lines crammed in to fit maximum word counts on the page. They can be physically painful to read at times, for those of us with poor eyesight.

  5. I have never had any trouble returning a physical book I didn’t like to my local distributor. It’s called the Lincoln Public Library.

    Seriously, though, I rarely buy a book I haven’t already read, whether it’s a physical book or an e-book from Overdrive or Axis 360. My rule of thumb is that if I like a book enough to want to re-read it, I look for the e-book. If I keep going back to it again and again, I look for a paper copy.

    I’ve always looked upon reading like good sex: it’s not really fulfilling unless you can use ALL of your senses.

    Also, between the public library and the Prairie Archives (used and vintage books) I have found a lot of old, out of print authors who wouldn’t turn up on the Amazon recommendations unless they knew I was looking for them.

  6. I don’t care about owning physical books, and certainly don’t want to have to read them. My Kindle lets me use wide margins, increased font size, a touch of bold, and plenty of light.

    Something I do that I suspect is unusual is that I see no advantage to having a brimming library of ebooks, so I weed them out. Having a bunch of books in my to-be-read pile feels like I’m being nagged. I fixed that by going through my library and deleting books I’ve had (unread) for years because I find that I’m much more apt to look for a new purchase to read than I am to reach into books I’ve had in my library for years. And when it comes to the device itself, I keep only my current book on it, plus a few samples — titles that have caught my eye and I want to try them out. After I’ve read a book, I delete it not just from my library, but also from the cloud. If I ever want to reread it, I’ll have to buy it again — something I doubt will ever happen. The downside to these deletions is that landing on the product page does not alert me that I’ve already purchased the book.

  7. Yawn, yet another ‘study’ proving you should be buying paper, paid for by trad-pub and friends …

    Proof of this was their reasons ‘why’. Can’t copy the file to many devices? Can’t share with friends? Trust me, the kids and many adults have figured those bits out – which is what trad-pub fears.

    Only trad-pub loves the feel of paper more than they like the story printed on it (which helps explain the poor pay they offer the writers in their pens.)

    The only thing they got right, though they claim it’s a sale it’s only a lease of use contract; and yes, us old farts like the zoom feature.

    I will admit to printing out reference pages that I have to keep going back to, but everything else I prefer in digital form. True, I am one of the crazy ones that has ebooks sent to my email address to be side-loaded to my kindle, but that means I have a copy on my computer – and another sitting on the email server.

  8. I get the same sense of ownership when I buy ebooks that I am allowed to download and freely backup — for example, from Humble Bundle, StoryBundle, Smashwords, Weightless Books, DriveThruFiction (all fully DRM-free) and the DRM-free files from Kobo, Google Play and Comixology.

    So really, this limited sense of ownership only pertains to DRMd books and Amazon, which makes it difficult to “just download” an archive copy, DRM or not. Too bad that distinction is often not made.

    • “So really, this limited sense of ownership only pertains to DRMd books and Amazon, which makes it difficult to “just download” an archive copy, DRM or not. Too bad that distinction is often not made.”

      I thought at one time one of Amazon’s ‘buy’ options was to have it sent to your email (never used it so I may be miss-remembering …)

      If your Amazon kindle’s ebook is not DRMed (the ones I sell aren’t) you should be able to plug your kindle into your computer and copy the file to archive. I haven’t bothered with DRMed ones so I honestly don’t know how hard it might be to save/convert them …

  9. I download them all, strip them all, convert them to my ereader’s preferred formatm and back them all up. To the tune of several hundred titles/year. AND I can categorize them, clean up the metadata, provide the missing covers, and otherwise offset some of the poor quality of many trad publishers’ productions, while storing them in a convenient database.

    What’s not to like?

    Except for illustrated or non-narrative non-fiction, I just don’t burden my self with print editions anymore if there’s an ebook alternative available.

  10. I don’t get the same feeling of ownership of e-books that I purchase through Amazon as I do the e-books I purchase through Baen because according to Amazon, I am not actually purchasing the books. I’m only purchasing the right to read them as long as I comply with all their policies (which they are free to change at any time)

    most other e-book sellers are equally bad.

    You can loan a paper book to someone else, give it to someone else, sell it, pass it to your heirs, or do whatever you want with it.

    You can’t do that with e-books (Baen’s DRM free e-books come the closest, but it’s more because they trust the reader to be reasonable than anything else)

    • Baen in general has been much faster to see the potential offered by digital media for the publishing world than other sci-fi publishers have, mostly because Jim Baen and Toni Weisskopf have been much more interested in function rather than form.

  11. I’ve long since decided that any books I wanted to Keep, I should buy in paper, and for any books that I’d not be terribly put out if they vanished from my library, I can accept digital.

    I dislike DRM, but proprietary standards can be as corrosive to a collection. Some day, I may wish to re-read a file I have in .mobi format, and find that I no longer have something which will display it properly. This is far less likely for the books I have in .RTF, or .HTML.

    Digital, done right, is less vulnerable to the more typical concerns of a library. If I can copy my wallet-sized library, paying only a hundred dollars for a new pocket hard drive which will hold thousands, or even low millions, of titles, then I can protect my collection from fire, flood, temperature extremes, (I’ve found that both heat and cold are destructive to the glues used in mass market paperbacks,) and moth.

    Digital, done wrong, restricts my freedom to transfer a book to someone else, risks my losing access to my books, because the format is no longer common, and restricts me to reading when I have access to electricity, and maybe bandwidth.

    It is a trade-off, and I buy books in both digital and paper. Some books, I’ve been known to buy in both formats. I usually have devoured the digital copy well before the paper copy arrives.

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