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Did you feel that? That was a tremor in the publishing world. There have been many of them over the past several months, but yesterday’s announcement from Amazon could be especially game changing in my …

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Home » Books and Writing

Digital Books: Digital FAIL?

Submitted by Chris on Wednesday, 02/11/094 Comments

This week I had a lively conversation about Amazon’s recent Kindle mobile phone announcement with Wiley Author Reto Meier. I invited Reto to share his thoughts with readers on why he believes digital books have a very long way yet to go.

The future of publishing may be digital, but costly Kindles and eBooks on iPhones aren’t enough to trigger a digital book revolution. It’ll take more than the promise of a portable library to convince readers they’re better off without paper.

The iPod heralded a seismic shift in content distribution. Music downloads now seem as obvious as they were inevitable, so it’s reasonable to expect written content to follow music, movies, and TV down the path towards digital distribution. But to get consumers onboard, eBooks will need to supply a superior reading experience and better value for money than they currently offer.

Increased availability satisfies a demand that doesn’t yet exist

Last week Google released Book Search for mobiles and made over 1.5 million public domain books available on iPhones and Android mobiles. As well as introducing a revamped Kindle 2.0, Amazon has announced that its more contemporary range of Kindle titles will be made available for download to devices other than the Kindle.

Both companies are addressing the issue of title availability, but that’s not the eBook bottleneck. Having more titles is an important step, but it’s not enough to trigger a fundamental shift in people’s reading habits.

It’s easy to blame the slow uptake of digital books on nostalgia for printed paper

There’s a some good reasons digital books haven’t taken off, and the least of them is the ‘I just like paper books’ problem. Don’t get me wrong, like many people, I don’t think that the look, feel, and smell of books will ever be fully replaced. But it’s possible to imagine a future where convenience, cost, and environmental concerns make digital books a mass market alternative to the paperback, in the same way that paperbacks have become a cheaper, more convenient alternative to hard covers.
The true causes of consumer reluctance are more compelling, and more easily addressed, than an enduring love of paper:

  • Readability and the user experience
  • Value and the total cost of ownership
  • Flexibility: to sell, trade, and loan books

eReaders need the readability of a paperback printed on recycled paper, to last 12hrs, and be durable enough to throw in a backpack

Many books will soon be available on mobile phones, letting you read eBooks on hardware you already own, though at a cost to your battery-life and with poor readability. With better batteries, phones may yet become a reasonable platform for reading, but it’s hard to see such a small, eye-straining LCD screen leading to the mass desertion of paper.

Both the Kindle and Sony’s eReader use breakthrough technologies to offer improved readability and extended battery life, as such they seem the more likely catalyst for mass eBook adoption. They’re not cheap though, they cost over $350 and lack the readability, durability, and portability of a paperback. The hefty price tag doesn’t include a contrast ratio that approaches black text on white paper and the low resolution is a problem for the line drawings in text books.

Paper books combine content with the hardware needed to read it in one convenient package

Like CDs, books are a way to distribute content, but unlike music, electronic books introduce a new hardware cost for consuming written content. CDs don’t come with headphone jacks, so the removal of the physical media makes sense for content that’s always needed a separate ‘player’. Fully self-contained, books have never needed extra hardware to be read: no turntable, no CD player, no iPod. Electronic book readers need to be much better value and find ways to justify their upfront costs.

As a reader, what do I gain from electronic distribution?

People like the option of listening to a lot of different music, so an iPod that makes your entire music collection portable is a big win.

Digital books ask readers to sacrifice the advantages of paper for the same reward as iPods, but if you’re not at school or working in publishing how often do you want to carry around more than a couple of books? I’m a big reader, but I don’t often have more than two books on the go.

Until digital books can be traded as easily as their paper cousins, publishers must consider the implicit costs of digital delivery

DRM is a regular source of contention in the tech industry, and there’s plenty of debate over the use and effectiveness of rights management for books. Leaving aside the important arguments over fair use and piracy, it’s worth remembering that the exchange of books has been a powerful force in their marketing. I’ve borrowed, loaned, and traded a lot more books than I’ve bought new, but it’s the books I’ve borrowed that have fuelled my appetite for buying new fiction and trying new authors. It’s important to consider the implied costs of DRM if it means eBook readers won’t share books with friends and family.

Aside from that, by selling or exchanging their used books, readers have been able to subsidize the cost of further purchases. Digital editions, at a discount of only one or two dollars, don’t offer a payoff comparable to exchanging or selling used books.

Without the opportunity to experiment with digital music, it’s unlikely that its adoption would have been so fast or comprehensive

When music started shifting to digital, early adopters could rip CDs they already owned to MP3s. If publishers offered free digital copies along with every paper edition sold, wary consumers could experiment without paying twice. Eventually ‘digital only’ editions could be sold cheaper to encourage people to make the switch.

Until students, editors, and literary agents are reading textbooks and manuscripts on eReaders, there’s little chance that the general public will welcome them

Rather than focusing on paperbacks, publishers and book sellers should look to replace the backpack full of textbooks. Students, and people in publishing, are an obvious target for replacing a bag, or briefcase, full of heavy books with a lightweight, convenient device. At $350 it’s clear why this hasn’t already happened.

By targeting students, you can develop a market for digital fiction through an audience that’s already comfortable with electronic books and the associated hardware.

Free, durable hardware and cheaper digital content will make eBooks as inevitable as on-demand movie downloads

Where iPods offer a familiar user experience at a familiar price, with the convenience of having all your music on hand, eBooks on mobiles and $350+ readers offer poor readability at a premium price. Consumers being asked to consider taking their libraries digital aren’t being given enough reasons to take the plunge.

The future of print may be digital, but for a real industry shakeup we’ll need to see cheap, easy to read, durable hardware coupled with cheaper digital editions. If Amazon started giving away Kindles while including a free Kindle edition with every paper book sold, they could quickly become the iTunes of the written word.

Reto Meier is a mobile software engineer and author of Professional Android Application Development. He’s based in London and blogs about Android, technology, and programming.

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  • Lisa M said:

    I’m so glad you posted this very detailed and accurate analysis. I admit part of me was ready to jump onto the ebook bandwagon-perusing Amazon this morning and debating whether or not to get the Kindle 2.

    Anyhow, me and my mother and sister are always trading books. And, although I probably read 20 to 30 books a year, I just can’t justify plunking down $359 in this shaky economy with such a flaky (if at all) warranty. As you mention, it still isn’t cost effective.

    Just this weekend I was talking with some other people here in the Silicon Valley, mostly guys, engineers and they thought I was crazy for even considering buying a Kindle.

    I also want to see the Kindle first, before buying. Can’t go into Best Buy and preview it or anything.

    Excellent post

  • Philip Davis said:

    As a printer of books, I’m very interested in the evolution of ebooks and how they will impact book printing. I’ve often thought that once the technology was more available, the shift would begin in earnest. But Reto makes a very good point and that point is that shift won’t occur until a critical mass of people adopt the new technology, or rather, the new reading habit of picking up an electronic device to read a book.

    I’m now going to recommend to all our authors to include an ebook with every hardcopy they sell. You may think this odd if I make money printing books, but we print short-runs, say 100 to 1,000 copies and I think as the market evolves, we will see the print runs come down. I also believe strongly in the need for a tangible book to carry with you as you are out promoting your book so this new technology does not worry me. Not yet anyway.

  • ek6891 said:

    I haven’t considered changing over to ebooks yet, because I need to be able to make notes on most of the books that I buy. Until they have the ’student/academic’ version of the readers, it’s just not a worthwhile investment for someone like me.

  • Video Conferencing Freeware said:

    Hey there! Great post! I’ve been a lot of video conferencing these days on television like the advertisements of CISCO. It’s good to see that we are getting closer through communications.

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