Can Readers Save by Switching to Digital?

By Louis DeNicola, Cheapism.com

Print books may not be dead yet, but ebooks are undoubtedly the future. They're space-saving, environmentally friendly, and often cheaper than their dead-tree counterparts. Ereaders and tablets are more affordable than ever. So, is it time for budget-conscious consumers to dump print and go all digital? Probably not.

Are eBooks a better bargain?

Related: Our cheap ereaders buying guide

The price point for ebooks has been in flux. Apple, one of the largest ebook sellers, is headed to court in June over an alleged price-fixing scheme. A Justice Department lawsuit accuses Apple of conspiring with publishers to put pressure on Amazon and up the cost of a new ebook from a standard $9.99 to $12.99 or $14.99. Still, ebooks are often cheaper than their paper cousins. While the Kindle edition of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is going for $12.99, the bestselling hardcover costs $16.25 on Amazon. Overall the average price of a top-25 ebook has fallen in recent months, according to Digital Book World, and seems to be stabilizing around $8.

Many classics and pre-1923 titles that have moved into the public domain are available for free from major bookstores and websites that specialize in free ebooks, such as Project Gutenberg. Public libraries now offer ebooks that you can "borrow" for several weeks (plus, no late fees). Members of Amazon's Prime program have access to an ebook lending library and one free book a month.

Related: How to get the best buys on college textbooks

At one time the question of ebooks vs. books was meaningless for frugal shoppers because ereaders were priced out of reach. No longer. Dedicated ereaders from the likes of Sony, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble cost as little as $70. Many book lovers now use tablets, which are more versatile but lack the specialized screens that make ereaders easy on the eyes. Cheap tablets have proliferated and now start at $159. Either way, if you buy a lot of books, it may not take long to make the upfront investment worthwhile.

Save money on summer reading.

Another factor to consider in the books vs. ebooks debate is that digital books can't be resold. While that's not a big deal for a romance novel, it can make a huge difference if the book in question is a college textbook. With textbooks often priced in the hundreds of dollars, students spend an estimated average of $1,200 a year on course materials, according to the College Board. Often there isn't much difference in the price of used books vs. ebooks. By way of example, we found a first-year chemistry textbook for $150 in a digital version while a used copy was available online for $160. It's almost a no-brainer for the non-chemistry major who won't need the text again: Drop $10 more and resell the book when the course is finished. For more information on digital textbooks, read Cheapism's guide to college textbook websites.

Related: Top budget tablets on the market

For books that are several years old, prices drop dramatically for both electronic and physical copies. Just as books can be found at garage sales and used-book stores or online for a few dollars, a number of ebooks sell for $1.99 on Amazon. With the difference amounting to only a dollar or two, the decision comes down to the reader's personal preferences. Keeping a digital library on your device (or in the cloud) and accessing a variety of titles from a small, light device can be convenient, but some still prefer the experience of turning pages.

The book business is certainly moving in a digital direction, but most people are hybrid readers, consuming some books digitally and others on paper. With no obvious cost savings either way, it makes sense to choose either side or straddle both realms -- at least for now.


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