Do You Really Own Your Digital Downloads?

Ebooks and ereaders like the Nook and the Kindle were supposed to change the face of reading. The book industry braced for a sea change that never quite happened. Oddly enough, one reason why may seem counterintuitive: Ebooks both are and aren't too much like physical books.

Consumer psychologists at the University of Arizona just released a study looking at the way readers feel they do or don't own their book collections. The factor behind that is called psychological ownership, and according to lead author Sabrina Helm, it comes down to three factors:

  • Whether we feel as if we have control over the object we own
  • Whether we use the object to define who we are
  • Whether the object helps give us a sense of belonging in society

"In the context of digital products, we [looked 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," she said in a press release. This bore out in her research. Baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials all reported feeling "a constricted sense of ownership of digital books." Not being able to share or manipulate the book in space contributed to ebooks feeling more like rented experiences.

This is not to say that physical books are "real" or more real than ebooks. Disability advocates and rural readers, for instance, fiercely defend the accessibility downloading books affords. But Helm suggests that ebooks might become more popular if publishers go in a new direction. One option would be to make them more like books, with the ability to write in the margins, for instance; the other is to make them more like an app. Either way, the way you read books really could change in the future.

"A lot of participants pointed out that they see digital books as too expensive for what they deliver, because they don't offer the same richness as a physical book; you read them and nothing is left," Helm said. "If it's different from a physical book, they won't compare it to the physical book anymore, because it's an entirely different form of entertainment."