The two biggest problems I see facing e-book acceptance (outside of legal issues)?

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Summary: Putting legal issues aside, the two biggest problems that I see facing ebook acceptance are: the sameness of interbook experience and the various debates about who wants what from them and who gets what they deserve.

Friday, 11 December 2009

(15:10:02 CST)

The two biggest problems I see facing e-book acceptance (outside of legal issues)?

Just about every week, I hear of someone else who had been previously hating on e-books use one, and find out that they are not that bad. Some old-hat arguments like "I hate to read from my screen" fall away when people realize they read from their computer screen for hours at a time (if anything, it is the sheer distraction available that hurts the most) and classic bibliophile concepts like "I cannot curl up in bed with it" change when there are plenty of devices that fit into your hand easier than most books. Even the old trick-ups like format wars and formatting are starting to settle down some, though not completely. At the same time, as ebook readers become more and more humane, the legalities and economies surrounding them are becoming increasingly more complex. If I were to put aside the question of who owns what and when and say that the biggest problem with ebooks is that people are trying to forge a new set of legal terms out of what boils down to only a new medium for an old art, then the next two issues facing the ebook are the sameness of interbook experience and the question of economics.

First, The Interbook Experience: If I read any book on my Kindle, let's say Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and then move on to any other book, let's say Strand's Single White Psychopath Seeks Same; I am going to have two wholly different books with different sorts of characters and concepts coming at me in the exact same way. Same font, same kerning, same line spacing, same weight, same speed of page turning, same shape pages. If you have an e-reading device, try it out. Read two entirely different books back to back without doing something like changing settings on display. You can just change the settings on display to appease the eye a little bit. You can tell the Kindle to rotate the page a different way, to display the font and line spacing different. Adjust the margins. You could even put some kind of casing on it that change the weight and feel. All of these are artificial in a way that the natural differences between books are not, though.

Real books have different size pages, different weights to the paper, different fonts and subtly different shades of black ink. You get inkspots and errors of printing. You get food stains on them. As you turn the pages, they start out kind of harsh and sharp and soften as your thumb plays over them. You get a light whisp of a sound that changes from book to book as the pages turn. You get different covers in your hand and different annoyances as some books refuse to stay open and some keep opening to the same page. I'll even admit that you get different smells. All of thse are faint, and practically omnipresent the entire time you read a paper book. You get none of these, per se (some are experimenting in changing fonts book from book), when you use an e-reading device.

You do not feel it right away, I only notice if I do three or more books in a row on my Kindle. I am guessing that not everyone will be sensitive to what I am talking about, and some people will be more sensitive to than I am. The solution? I do not think there is an easy one. Skinnable displays, a more robust series of fonts (pre-load the Kindle or nook or Sony Reader with ten or so, and let the ebook publishers decide which one by default to use). Books that change margins or have the ability to have headers and footers might help, the kind of simple thing that allows for a fancier top and bottom to the page. There is a trade off with screen economy. Make those optional features that the reader can turn off at his or her device? Maybe even a subtle weight technology that starts heavy on one end as you read and then moves to the other side. Nothing really heavy, just a suggestion of weight.

Secondly, The Question of Economics: Stephen King and his people held off the publication of ebook copies of Under the Dome to help drive up hardcover sales, in his explanation, at smaller bookstores. I wrote about this in my post, "The end of hardcovers? Maybe. Bargain books, price wars, loss leaders, and epublishing", and how it did not quite work out as planned. The King camp is not the only one who advocated this concept. For example, look at one, two, and three. The first two are from the blog. The last one is from the Wall Street Journal. All three cite the economics of the situation. To sum up: if there is a book that is $25 and a book that is $10, who would dare buy the $25 book? Therefore, they conclude, remove the $10 book from circulation. All three fail to note that your e-reader populace is not merely your p-reader populace on a budget (because, you know, desperate-for-deals people always spend $300 on a device to save money). Two of them (the latter two) cite a specific book as proof that they are right, in this form: "Book B did not have an ebook version. Book B sold well. Therefore, books are cannabalized by ebook editions." They, of coure, point two highly anticipated books. Arguably two of the most anticipated books of the entire year. As proof that not having an ebook version is what made the book sale. Lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics.

Absolutely no mention of cross-publication studies, customer satisfaction studies, or to what degree those ebook sales (quoted as being from anywhere near 2% to upwards of 15% depending on which link you are reading) equate actual lost sales from hardcover printing. Admittedly, the publishers who are pushing to delay ebooks are doing so in stages which means they will be testing relative sales in comparison. If the books released in hardcover only are always more profitable than books released in dual nature format then they will have something like proof. If, however, they are not then who knows what will happen. Will they continue to stick with the way that was?

The first article (both it and the second hold that ebooks should be treated the same as paperbacks: the cheaper edition that comes later) cites the economic times and posits that as money runs out, books will be chosen on price tag alone (I mean, don't we all buy just the cheapest edition with no other consideration, I know I sure do!). I feel that I must point out one huge missing gap in the puzzle: what is the pass along rate for your average hardcover? If an ebook is about 40% of the cost of a hardcover (well, more than 50% if you go by discounts), and let's say the profit is about the same percentage, then if you the pass-along rate of any given hardcover exceeds 2 or even approaches 2, then the argument is null. Are people, in this perilous economic time that prevents them paying more than $10 for a book if they have the option despite all the inherent factors of difference, going to forget about libraries, bookswaps, pass-alongs, gifts, used bookstores, and borrowing from friends?

There is, of course, this article: The ebook windowing controversy has subtext. What's the subtext? That publishers do not want Amazon (and specifically Amazon) to decide how much they can charge for books. You wrap up all of these supposed economic arguments about how Palin's Going Rogue did fine without an ebook version with the standard "Do you hate poor, crippled authors who dedicate their entire life to bringing joy to everyone else but themselves?" You do this to avoid saying "We want to choose the price of ebooks and make it our game," because, really, there is nothing like an old hat in a new bag to make people fight over the bag. And sure, us ebook reading demographic folk are just as guilty in the control-o-war. We demand that our ebooks not be the price of the hardcover (why should they be? why should I pay $25 for a book that would have been cheaper in hardcover and I have less rights-as-reader over?) and we demand them right away. If we really wanted hardcovers, wouldn't we just buy hardcovers? The articles quoted above suggest not, that enough of us are only ebook readers because we have the chance to save money. I find that crazy. Especially since these same hardcover publishers are not withholding the actual hardcovers from Amazon's and Walmart's "half-off" plan. How does the $15 edition of some big new bestseller not hurt more than the relatively cheaper to make $10 bestseller? I don't know.

This is all failing to factor in another important economic thing: that a certain handful of stores, with their personal dedicated readers, are being allowed to lead the push to ebooks over third-party devices and that these "second-party" devices collude pricing and ownership in a very tricky way. This generates a choke point where certain figures make most of the decisions that further overcast independent and third-party participants in the Game of Books. That is a topic for a whole other post, though.

Si Vales, Valeo


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