The Problem With eBooks

I love eBooks. Then why title my post as I did? Simple. We have problems in the eBook world that need solving quickly. Recently, I wrote about the state of Connecticut’s hearings to see if they could prove collusion by the publishing industry’s biggest eBook players. Do I think this is happening? Yes and I’ll tell you why:

The eBook market is set to go mainstream in the following 12 months. New reading devices are being marketed and what was once a two player market just two years ago (Amazon and Sony) now includes Barnes and Noble, Borders (who until recently sold only Sony products until it debuted its new Kobo reader in June), and several third party players. Readers are coming down in price and are adding a myriad of features to make it easy to take thousands of books with you in a tiny device. The nice thing about the new devices being made is that the consumer has a wonderful choice of features to choose to have or not to have. Maybe you don’t want wi-fi on your reader. Perhaps not having to worry about memory expansion is a priority for you. Now you have choices that can answer those concerns.

The problem with all of this comes into play with the eBook files you purchase for your device. These files are the heart and soul of your reading experience. Without them, you have nothing. The publishers know this and now that eBook sales are beginning to grab a larger market share than just a few years ago, the publishers want to control their profits and keep a handle on how they will allow you to use your eBooks. Prices have risen and now an eBook file can sell on Amazon (or Sony) for about 60-70% of what the printed version sells for. That is wrong. There is no reason the publisher can give for marking up the file to that extent. In my earlier posts, I highlighted the fact that eBooks have no storage problems other than a file server, there’s no printing set up and related publishing costs. There’s no shipping expense to get cases of a popular book to a bookseller. All of these expenses should be taken off the price of an eBook.

The other very large problem the eBook world has and the reason we will not see the eBook market grow as it should is the issue of “Digital Rights Management” or DRM for short. You can read a piece I’ve written about the issue here. In short, DRM is a silly protection scheme that forces you to use your files on a specific device.  In the very recent past, the makers of the reading devices had specific coding for their products that you purchased. Sony changed that by going to what is becoming a standard in eBook publishing with the ePub format. Files in this format can be read on all major readers except the Amazon Kindle (why I have no clue). But even with a standard file format, we still have the issue of DRM to deal with.

Let me try to bring brevity to this piece by saying that we need to separate the sale of eBooks from the readers themselves. A true eBook store would sell files that were in a standard format that could be read on any number of devices. The eBook store would be separate from any one reader but could be operated by those companies that produce those devices. It would simply force them to compete for pricing. Instead of shopping only in the Sony Reader bookstore, I could shop at Amazon or even Borders online and purchase book files for my device and if my reader ceases to work in the future, I could easily migrate those files to another device of my choosing. When the publishers learn to decentralize their eBook markets, then I believe they will see their reader sales go through the roof. Are you listening Sony? I mention them because they were the first of the major reader manufacturers to convert to a format standard like ePub. Imagine if their books were all DRM free and could be read on the Nook, a Bookeen, or a Libre device. Fans would flock to their store and purchase files by the bucket load while the other sellers would be scrambling to do the same.

Until the book publishing industry treats their eBooks the same way record companies treat their music files, the eBook reader will be seen as being on the fringe and the average reader will not buy into it. I have several friends who’ve asked me about my preferences in readers and the one thing they all have in common is asking me about being locked in to one device for life with the files they purchase. This needn’t be the case. I’m a very happy Sony Reader user but Sony needs to step out and take the protection off their files and allow their fans to re-download their libraries in a DRM free system. Strip away the layer of complexity that isn’t needed and I guarantee they will sell more readers because they will build brand loyalty just for making it a breeze to use their readers!

Are we ready for the next step? Publishers, talk to me if you think I’m off base. I know I have a few that read this blog and I’m curious what they think.

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The Problem With eBooks

2 thoughts on “The Problem With eBooks

  1. Will Foy says:

    My father was an English professor. Some of my most treasured possessions are his books, many of which were his teaching editions – and shh, don’t tell my long lost high school Brit Lit teacher, but his copy of Heart of Darkness saved my bacon that year. That being said, after nearly a year reading books on the Kindle “platform,” I find that I don’t equate Amazon with the bad behavior of a monopolist that you describe in your post. Specifically, ” we need to separate the sale of eBooks from the readers themselves.” Your following sentence shows that perhaps there’s some confusion on how the Kindle booksphere works.

    The very first book I ever read electronically in total was “The Shack.” I wanted to read it, and to see how e-reading worked. The device? My iPhone 3G. For Christmas, I used the money my family sometimes gives me when they can’t figure out what to buy for me, and bought a Kindle2. The text transfers over seamlessly. In fact, I can read on one device, and have the other “know” where I left off. I can still use dictionaries, and other features that are common to the iOS release, the Kindle device itself, the iPad (won at a conference in a drawing), or my wife’s blackberry. With this strategy, Amazon shows that it ultimately doesn’t care which interface one uses to read its content, it just wants you to read the content. Further, the preferred pricing strategy of Amazon actually does not use the publisher’s agency model, and instead, offers full features [ text-to-speech, etc ], at a lower price, with more (as a percentage) going to the author. In many ways, it’s a fairer split, which is why 5 of the Big 6 pushed for the agency model, now being questioned as collusion by the Connecticut AG’s office. The publisher [ not the author, or the innovative distributor ] makes more money that way, and seemingly protects the hardback market. Frankly, I really don’t buy hardbacks anymore, certainly not at retail, so they’re just cutting off early sales, but that’s a digression for another topic. Barnes & Noble, with somewhat fewer titles to sell, also shares Amazon’s platform approach with both having clients on multiple smartphones, PC and Mac, iPad. B&N also allows some third-party dedicated readers to work with theirs, and allows “lending” of texts to a limited degree [ limited by the publisher ].

    In short, it’s not really fair to say “A true eBook store would sell files that were in a standard format that could be read on any number of devices,” expecially since both Amazon and B&N, the leaders in the space, are doing just that. They tie you to their software, but their software is gratis(as in beer), if not, in fact, free (as in speech). Electronic publishing has the power to transform markets for authors, reduce costs of distribution to much smaller amounts (storage and transmission of comparatively smaller text files), reduce costs of reprints and editing, and put more books into the hands of more people, quickly, as well as reduce the need for paper and ecological costs of publishing. Nicholas Negroponte posited last week that electronic publishing is better for the developing world due to the high costs of transportation and production of printed books versus those for electronic books distributed on something like the laptop for One Laptop Per Child. Even factoring in the cost of the device, and periodic repair and replacement, such devices are FAR cheaper and more freedom-granting to the child and family than printed books, which are much less affordable, and thus, end up in the hands of wealthier people.

    I love my dad’s books, but I love the freedom to carry dozens, if not hundreds of titles in something the size of a small notebook, readable in many kinds of lighting situations, and with excellent battery life, in something the weight of a paperback or library-bound softcover. Ebooks will win. We can only hope that publishers realize or are forced to recognize the folly of artificially high prices and let the market decide [ as only Random House is currently doing ] what the price of electronic editions should be, just as in the print world.

    1. Will,
      You make some good points but I still disagree over HOW the publishers are conducting business along with the device makers themselves. That’s why I say it would be better for a true ebookstore to exist that would make a file available that would be “open” on any platform. In your example, you mention reading across several devices but you can only do so using Amazon’s model. They are very smart that way. You can get a “free” app for your iPhone or Blackberry that ties in with a Kindle (If you have one) and can do exactly what you said but it still doesn’t address my thought that the book you mentioned should also be able to be read effortlessly on a “Bookeen” or “Nook”. Now third party ePub files like those available through Google or ManyBooks.com are in a DRM free state so you can add them to devices that can read that format but purchased books are tied to the place where you bought them. I can’t read books from my Sony Reader on a Kobo and vice versa. That should change. When I buy music from Amazon, I can listen to it on any MP3 player of my choosing. Why can’t we do the same with eBook files? That is why I said, the reader devices should be separate from the books themselves. I should be able to buy a book file and read it on any hardware I choose.

      As for the collusion issue with publishers, that is a separate matter from the device/eBook issue. Publishers are reacting to an increased demand for product by trying to up their profits. There’s no way that they can justify selling an ebook for 60-70% of its printed version. They need to embrace a new model of sales and allow new bookstores to establish themselves on the net that will pay them a fixed price for the book and sell it for what they want just like Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Books a Million do now. That way, competition will develop and prices WILL drop.

      When these two things happen…Then eBooks will begin the steady move toward mainstream use that I’m talking about.

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