☆ ebooks – You Can’t Take Them With You…

Civic library, Newcastle, 18/9/1957, Hood collectionDigital books are loaned, not sold, so why aren’t they described that way? There’s a big market for digital books, but I think they’re being sold badly, almost to the point of dishonesty. I think it’s time the way their vendors talk about them was changed.

First some illustrations:

  1. My father just finished reading an e-book and was asking me how he could now pass it on to his nephew. He called to ask how, assuming there had to be an easy way. But there’s no way he can do it without paying for it again (and even then he will find buying an e-book for someone else challenging).
  2. When my wife and I go on holiday, we often like to read the same books. With paper books it’s pretty easy; all we have to do is use two different bookmarks and make sure we’ve a choice of books so we don’t have to argue about who gets to read! But with e-books, that’s not possible. We either have to share the same e-book account, or we have to buy the book twice.
  3. Our family are all huge fans of Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman series and of Terry Pratchett‘s Discworld books. We have a complete library of them in the house and everyone who lives here (and a few regular guests!) eagerly read and re-read them. If we had bought e-book versions, none of this would be possible (and the fan-base for both authors would be smaller as we’ve hooked several with strategic book loans).
  4. More than that, some of our books will definitely be bequeathed to our children sooner or (hopefully) later. We’re sure they will want to share some of those with their own children too. Some of the books here are transient but some are definitely here to stay.

Pros and Cons

Personally I have purchased very few e-books. They are usually priced near the cost of the physical book, yet come with few of the benefits. I do understand their attraction though – we have several Kindles in the family and I’ve used them on holiday. There are some compelling capabilities that aren’t present in the ink-on-paper book.

One is the ability to read using the device I happen to have with me (at least in Amazon’s case – Apple only support their own devices so there’s no Android or web readers for their books). Another is the ability to make marginal notes in the book that are non-destructive and reusable. But there are significant down-sides as well. For example, I can’t share e-books with others; I can’t pass them on; I can’t re-sell them; I can’t bequeath them.

e-books as library

There’s another source of books our house uses like this. It’s the public library. Even the books I get there are more shareable than e-books, but the serial use pattern of the public library seems to me a better analogy for the usage I’m able to gain from e-books. In addition, the rights I have to an e-book are closer to those I have to a library book than to one I have purchased. For example, Amazon’s Kindle store does not sell me a book; rather, it gives me a perpetual right to borrow it for personal use, a right they can revoke at will but which I can reasonably assume I’ll be able to exercise when I want to read the book again.

If the e-book stores had framed their business as a super digital lending library (with prices to match) I might be an avid customer by now. Instead, by saying I am buying the book, and charging prices that are a delta on the cover price rather than a delta on the cost of a lending library, they draw my attention increasingly to all the things I can’t do – lend, share, resell, bequeath – and I usually order the paper version. Perhaps it’s time for some reframing? Maybe for app stores too?

[First published on ComputerWorldUK]

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10 Responses

  1. I’ve had similar thoughts about e-books and made the decision not to purchase them, as a few pounds off the cover price is not worth losing the ability to share the book with friends & family, donate it to a library, sell it second-hand, etc. There is an obvious convenience to e-books in the ability to carry many of them around on your mobile and never be without something to read, and I do this with the many many books that are out of copyright and available via Project Gutenberg. But it’s not worth the downsides when it comes to recent books that I have to purchase.

    Even a lending library gives you more rights than sites like Amazon are offering through e-books. For example, most libraries are publicly funded and thus have no direct cost to the user, unless they incur fines. They also still give Amazon far more control. If a physical book you borrowed from the library is overdue, the most the library can do is send out stern letters and apply fines. They can’t break into your home and take the book back. But this is effectively what Amazon did with “1984” (oh the irony) when they removed it from devices remotely.

    E-books also cause a problem for libraries themselves, as all these restrictions (and DRM where applicable) get in the way of the role libraries have played for many years.

  2. I’m very much on the same page. I really wonder how much money the publishers are leaving on the table because of this lack of understanding of the market they are in.

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  4. As with most things, this is spot on. The problem is that most people won’t realise and/or care until it actually hurts them (by which time it is too late). Instead you’ll just get “but I can still use it now, can’t I?” and “it’s not as if Amazon are going to go out of business” and “but they don’t take up any space” and “but I don’t read any of those old books anyway”.

    Luckily, my son is only three years old so he’s still young enough to train and I’m making progress with my wife (who loves to read real books). On the Pratchett subject, books like the Unseen Library collection (do an image search) are just such wonderful collector’s pieces that you’d never get in the ebook world. All that kind of ongoing value is just lost.

    That said, I do often wish that physical books came with a free ebook (even if it was watermarked ala O’Reilly) so that I could have the book to read and have the ebook for the odd occasion I’m trying to search something. I don’t see why companies don’t do it – I’ve already bought the book, so it is not like they’re too likely to get an ebook sale out of me as well. Also, they’ve already covered their author and advertising fees (which I’ve been told is the reason the prices don’t differ much – apparently).

    • Bundling carries a number of logistical complications – publishers don’t want people simply scanning a QR code or going to an open website to download an eBook version of a paper book they’ve bought, because there’s nothing stopping someone from getting that eBook for free by scanning the code in a bookstore or library without purchasing the book. And a one-shot code printed in the back of the book isn’t logistically feasible at this point.

      Advances in short-run or POD printing are making it more likely that something like this could happen, and there are alternative methods for presenting the code to a buyer, which some smaller publishers are working on. The best arrangement, at present, is to offer eBooks bundled with purchases made direct from the publisher (which is, I think, what O’Reilly does, and what we do at Candlemark & Gleam) – it benefits the publisher most, offers some degree of control over the download going to the actual purchaser, and gives the reader the book they’ve purchased to read in whatever format they choose. Works for me.

      • Thanks for the useful input, appreciated. If the QR code to get the e-book was printed somewhere inside the book like the Preface, rather than in an obvious location like the cover, do you think the leakage would still be enough to neutralise the advantage?

        • I suspect so, yes, because as soon as people find out that’s where the free eBook lives, they’ll open the book and snap the code. The only way around it is to print the QR code in the book and then shrink-wrap it, which then precludes browsing or reading a random passage. There’s no good solution there, outside of A) direct sales and B) possibly giving a customer a code separately, with their receipt, which is what we’re going to be trying at some point…

  5. See http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2012/01/why_publishers.php for something that the publishers should do (but likely will not…)

  6. Well, Nook (on the ipad) is a good app – it lets you download and read books on any device – all your bookmarks are synced across devices. Kindle and others seem to read MAC addresses and so won’t let you read a book you’ve purchased on any other devices. Soooo, we buy books on Nook about 90% of time so we can share.

  7. Unfortunately, the market has already been set up as “selling books,” even though it’s really “selling licenses,” and that means that there’s going to be a lot of misguided expectations and misunderstandings. You’d need a wholesale reinvention of the market to get it right, and you might also have to renegotiate a whole lot of contracts if it were described as lending (accurately) instead of a sale. I suspect that, right there, is a huge reason everything is couched in the present terms…

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