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The Boston Globe


Bookish | Matthew Gilbert

E-books as gifts? Yes, please

Ocsi Balazs

It’s the day before Christmas, and there’s one conspicuously unchecked name — a crazy book lover — glaring at you from your gift list. It’s too late for FedEx, and deep down you know that your magical thinking about Santa’s miraculous bag of gift books is (spoiler alert) in vain.

Your fate appears to be a generic gift certificate, printed out in low-res color, tucked into a holiday card that you fill with over-compensatory words of affection. Jerry-built, the gift will be just this side of an IOU, but at least you will successfully avoid a yuletide shame spiral.

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Or wait: You can give an e-book. There is definitely more dignity in an e-book than a gift certificate, more intentionality and specificity. You can even feel a bit of pride, since you’re personalizing your gift, which will make a timely landing in your giftee’s e-mail queue on Christmas morn.

Only: What if it looks like spam?

So an e-book gift is not an object, which is still just a little taboo in some pockets of the hardcore gifting community. In the ethos of purist givers, one must come up with a tangible and enduring present, unless it’s a trip to Turks and Caicos. One must have suffered through some shopping indignity. And one must have wrapped the gift, no matter how asymmetrical or pointy, employing hospital corners and neat bows.

But for the rest of us, who are reading this column when they ought to be bumping elbows at Porter Square Books or Trident Booksellers, e-book gifts needn’t be a dishonorable option. You’re giving content, which is what a book of words is ultimately about, right? You’re giving a particular story or a collection of stories because you think your giftee will like it — and it’s the thought that counts. What’s second-rate about that?

“It really is the equivalent of giving someone a book, always a lovely gift,” says Margo Howard, longtime syndicated advice columnist.

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Permission, granted.

“A lot of people look at a gift card and think, wow, you didn’t exert much effort, did you,” says Mercy Pilkington, a senior editor at “Whereas if you’re picking out the book for them, they think, ‘You really do know me, you know what I like to read.’ Even if you’re sending it electronically, it’s still a lot more personal. And it’s growing in popularity.”

Most e-book providers enable specific book gifting, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and, this season for the first time, Apple. Find the book, click to the “Send as gift” option, and fill in the special message box, in which you are absolutely not allowed to apologize for your decision to go digital. Even if you’re an early shopper, you can tell the provider exactly when to deliver the book, and enjoy the fact that there will be no weather crises or mail mishaps to keep it from arriving on time.

If the person you’re giving the e-book to doesn’t subscribe to the service that you use to give the gift — say you’re using Amazon’s Kindle — then they may need to start a Kindle account in order to receive the gift book. But then they can read the book on their own device, with a Kindle app.

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the dark underbelly of the wonderful world of gifts: Returning. Rejoice, because you can. Most e-book providers will allow a gift recipient to return a title for credit, which, in the case of Barnes & Noble, you can use online or in a store.

Re-gifting? Alas, you’re out of luck. But then you would never re-gift, would you?

The only downside: If you’re a gift giver who wants to make sure you’re supporting your local independent bookstore, “It’s complicated,” says Kat Meyers of Brookline Booksmith. Most local indies such as Booksmith and Harvard Book Store are partnered with Kobo, so if you open your Kobo e-book account through that store, the store will get credit on your purchases.

But when it comes to sending an e-book gift and crediting an indie, it’s impossible, according to Ben Newcomer of Harvard Book Store. “The word is that that will be changing,” Newcomer says. “It’s a technical problem more than an absolute policy issue on Kobo’s end.”

In the meantime, get clicking. Downloading is the new unwrapping.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.

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