The Problem with eBooks, Part 1


image I expect a fair amount of resistance to my next two posts, but I feel this needs to be written.  I’ve been tracking this space for a while due to personal interest and I keep seeing things that remind me that this is not a mature market.  There is some further maturation needed in the space and I am hoping that we’ll see some of that this year.

One thing to remember is that this post is not about the readers.  That is an entirely different topic.  This is about eBooks which can be read on readers, tablets, and computers.  The method for reading eBooks will evolve and improve but I’m not talking about that here.  This is focused on what we are reading.

My Reading Background

I’ve been accused of not being a reader whenever I say anything negative in this space.  That is far from the truth.  Since I was young, I read a lot.  I’d save all my money from my allowance and yard work to buy books.  When I was growing up, the rule in my house was in bed by 8 or 9, but we were permitted to stay up until later reading books.  image I even rigged a nightlight on an extension cord to read books under the covers after lights out.  This was because I grew tired of burning through the batteries on my flashlight.

My parents have a “library” that encompasses half of their walkout basement.  I have pretty much always had to invest in bookcases to store books.  In fact, I need new ones right now.  I still read at night, though less now that I have kids.  There is always work to be done and sleep is at a premium.  I still stay up late reading when I have a good book.  As sad as it sounds, I spent New Year’s Eve reading as midnight ticked by while my pregnant wife slept in bed next to me.

My mother has a Kindle and I have used it.  In fact, it was my purchasing of more Kindle books for her that inspired these posts.

Paper Book’s Market Appeal

For my mother’s birthday this year, I decided to buy her some books for her Kindle.  This was inspired by a few factors:

  • She has a book wish list on Amazon.
  • The eBooks cost less than regular books, so I could give her more to read.
  • I was running short on time and eBooks ship immediately for zero cost.

I went to buy them and it was easy, and very flawed.  Buying one Kindle book for someone just requires an email address for that person.  Easy enough.  My issues quickly became apparent:

  1. I couldn’t group the books into one purchase.  My mother received multiple emails and had to go through the process of receiving the gift and downloading each book individually.
  2. The email was sent immediately.  It would have been nice if I could have scheduled the email to arrive on her birthday.  I can gift wrap presents that I send from Amazon to delay gratification, why not provide delayed email delivery to achieve the same effect?

I probably should have sent them to myself as a gift and then written an email combining the links and having my email system send it automatically on her birthday.  She still would have had the multiple downloads, but at least the delivery would have been more timely.

These are items that can be worked through.  One thing that I saw while making the purchases was that while books were cheaper as eBooks than as hardcover copies, that wasn’t always true when looking as paperbacks.

This is very flawed.

image A paper book requires inventory control, shelf space, and packaging to delivery.  If you buy three or four of them, you can usually get free shipping.  The whole process costs more for the vendor with physical books, so why do some eBooks cost the same as the physical book?  That is ridiculous.  Even the publisher can make more money selling eBooks over paper books.

I understand the need to make more money, but dropping the price point would encourage adoption and lead to more overall profits.  I know people that would move into eBooks faster if the price was lower.  As a result, they would likely read more as they would have their books in more places.

Another issue is around the ownership of books.  If I have a real book, I can lend it for any period of time or even just give it to someone.  That person can then pass it along to someone else.  Amazon now lets you lend books for 2 weeks, but that just doesn’t work.  Oh, I love the fact that I would never lose a book, or have it destroyed, when I lend it out, but 2 weeks isn’t a long time.  For serious readers, 2 weeks works well.  For casual readers, 2 weeks isn’t enough.  Also, sometimes you lend a book to someone that isn’t ready to read it immediately as they have something else to finish first.  2 weeks just isn’t going to work long-term.

After all, if I own the copy of the book, I should be able to give that copy to anyone.  If I have less ownership rights with an eBook than with a physical book, then the price should also reflect that.

Of course, this ties back to the paradigm conflict I hinted at in my 2011 Predictions post.  That’ll be the topic of the next post.  I was going to talk about it here, but I’ve rattled on long enough.

11 thoughts on “The Problem with eBooks, Part 1

  1. Lee Dallas says:

    Here comes the negative response you asked for but I know you can read – I’ve seen you do it. So I take issue with the complaint itself.

    What you are complaining about is not eBooks the concept but eBooks the implementation. In both instances you have assumed that what is flawed to you must be flawed for everyone. That is not necessarily the case.

    I agree it is silly that you can’t schedule notifications and bundle gifts but you and I both know these are features that got left in the ‘Nice to Have’ column of the Shopping Cart annual change request and it has nothing at all to do with whether or not eBooks are right or wrong choice for a given consumer.It’s in the ‘next release’ 😉 It also doens’t keep you from reading the material and it certainly didn’t hurt sales this year now did it.

    Your pricing example might seem logical but it does not reflect the reality of the way retail pricing is done or even is most effective. You price for what they will pay and do whatever you can to get the gap between that number and your cost as wide as possible. If a buyer of an eBook title is from a wealthier demographic than the average paperbook buyer then any good merchandizer will tell you not to leave money on the table. You by the way are not the average buyer of a paperback.

    Your assumption that lower price in consumer retail always drives volume and adoption is not true except possibly in commodoties. If it were Apple wouldn’t be worth what it is today. The fact that the eBook is cheaper to produce is just a bonus – as long as you have the near monopoly in distribution we have today. If you want to talks about the commoditization of books then thats a broader topic.

    As to the lending thing – there is no financial incentive for the writers, booksellers or distributors to make that easier. It only works for consumers but it is a learned behavior not a “requirement” of reading. This bleeds into the shark infested waters of intellectual property and copywrite. Not enough room or lawyers to solve that in a comment.

    Buying a book has never granted rights to distribution. If by loaning a book you are providing another use of the physical manifestation of the thoughts of the author then give them your Kindle. Don’t try and tell me there is a difference because in this instance it is just a fancy cover.

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    • Okay, it is the implementation that bugs me, but as you can’t separate the two currently, not a big deal. That said, I appreciate your thoughts on this, and will likely need to write a post to respond to some of the thoughts, especially around pricing and rights. The recent purchasing issues are more specific and not an overall big deal. They did cause me to reflect and write this post, and the one tomorrow.

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  2. Ed Steenhoek says:

    As an early adopter of e-reading, I’ve had many thought simular to both of you. As long as ebooks are tightly coupled to paper books – mainly by price – we will go back and forth with arguments. If I pay the same amount, then why should I settle for less functionality?Books come from a rather complex industry. They start with hard cover books that will one day become paperbacks for less money. Carefully planned to make the most money out of it. Today they extend this in ebooks. Again trying to maxinize the money. Over here in the Netherlands with regulated minimum prices. All to protect. However, ebooks require a different operating model. Not bound to paper printing. A model where authors will benefit from increased volumes. Not only by title but alse by number of different titles sold to the same customer. One would be able to compensate for not being able to borrow a book, if the price would be significantly less compared the the paper version. You woukd end up selling two copies in stead.
    Just think of an upside down book industry. Everything is digital. You can’t buy a paper book. That would be a shock to a brick-and-morter branche that tries to keep itself a live today. If yoy need a printed copy, you will go to the local printshop and have it printed. At your cost. There would be no need for price regulation and rather high prices. Simply because the costly part of the paper books (printing, distribution and brick and retailers) no longer exist.
    When it comes to illegal usage of ebooks, one should always keep in mind that there is nothing I can do with an ebook that can’t be done with a paper book. Both can be copied in its original format, transformed into each others format, read by someone not owning the title or even multiplied. But I can put restrictions on an ebook I can’t put on a paperbook: prevent printing more than once e.g.
    There are, I must admit, still some issues with ebooks that I should be solved simply because they don’t fit in our current way of living. I should not buy a book more than once. Not even once I switch from iPad to Kidle or vica versa. Some resellers understand this and provide the book in multiple formats. Also, ebooks should be almost free if you simultaniously buy the paper book. I’ll never use the books at the same time but having an ebook available while being on the road can be very convenient.

    Anyway, looking forward to post 2 and 3 and …

    Ed

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  3. I love libraries and bookstores and the smell of musty old bindings. So I thought — despite being a gadget geek — that I’d sit out the e-book revolution. But I got a Kindle for my birthday this year, and have become a huge fan of of the Kindle device and of e-books in general. It’s great to be able to take books with me anywhere.

    Prices do seem high at the moment, given the potential savings to be had. I’m certain that e-book prices will drift lower as digital distribution becomes a part of the normal publishing workflow and as e-book formats converge to one or two standards.

    In my more philosophical moments, I try to think of it as a convenience fee for getting the book instantly and always having it available. But it does restrict the amount of e-books I buy and affects the kind of e-books I read.

    I think it’ll take a decade or so before most of the kinks in pricing and distribution get sorted out. It took years after the introduction of the MP3s for Apple’s iPod and iTunes to finally bring (legal) digital music to the masses. E-books will follow the same pattern.

    I’ll miss wandering the stacks, though.

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  4. Check out the Sony eReader. I and the wife and the kids each have them and love them. The main reason: no DRM. Fantastic eInk tech and good range of models. Kills the kindle every time IMHO.

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  5. I think it’s going to be interesting when the publishers and everyone else starts getting cut out of the equation. It’ll be just like the music industry in my opinion – and I don’t mean the illegal downloading part.

    There is far more access to music nowadays than there ever used to be. Yes, the major acts still dominate, but more and more people are expanding their listening habits. Will we ever see music domination by acts such as Madonna, Michael Jackson, The Beatles? Probably not – people have too much choice. It’s not that the acts aren’t as good (that’s another debate), but I can completely tailor my music taste – I’m not restricted to the top 40 anymore.

    Think how this will apply to the book industry. I think Amazon are already allowing people to sell books from their own websites. I think this is the right, idea, just inside out. I want a market place for all authors to be able to sell their books in one place and set the price they want. Not sure if Amazon let you do that yet?

    Once that happens, you’re just looking at the implementation and I, as the author, want to get my book to as many people as possible – which means choosing the best implementation. If that’s iBooks or whatever Apple comes up with, I go there, if it’s Amazon, I go there too. Bottom line – if my book is good, people will read it and it will be recommended by the book equivalents of Last.fm, Pandora and the like.

    At the moment, the publishers are clinging on, just like the record labels, but it won’t be long….

    Oh, and this comes from a UK Kindle user, who, even though I have a Wish List wasn’t able to have his family buy him books – they had to get me a gift certificate and I buy them myself. Why US get the “buy it for them” option but the UK don’t is beyond me….

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  6. Chris Campbell says:

    I find myself in conflict with my inner neo-luddite and technophilist in regards to eBooks. Personally, I find comfort in the physical paper format. It needs no batteries, can be read in all types of light; and more importantly, can last hundreds of years*. (* For the sake of argument, I’m ignoring paper-acidity, environment, etc.) As a geek, I’m fascinated by being able to carry my entire library in my pocket, being able to acquire new material out of the ether, and making the printed word truly “interactive”.

    After giving it much thought, my biggest hangup with eBooks (currently) is simple… it’s digital. “Digital” to me means that it can’t be around forever. I’m pretty sure that this fear or paranoia is born out of working in the content management industry. Most regulated industries have to worry about maintaining their digital data in seven-year cycles. Seems simple on the surface, but formats, media and interfaces change constantly within that time. (I have a bunch of ZIP disks that I’m sure contains something important…)

    Ick. Thinking about the possibility of permanently losing knowledge or great literary works makes me queasy. The burning of the Library of Alexandria comes to mind. Or “In the Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco. Could there be an equivalent disaster in the future… say the “Great Amazon Data Wipe of 2052”?

    Science will come up with an answer. Until then, for the time being my plan is to get eBooks of what I consider “disposible” entertainment and continue to get physical copies of books that are important to myself. Hopefully that puts an uneasy truce in effect to my inner turmoil.

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