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Vox looks back at the ebook. It hasn’t made progress in a decade.

Publishing spent the 2010s fighting tooth and nail against ebooks. There were unintended consequences.

Source: The 2010s were supposed to bring the ebook revolution. It never quite came. – Vox

Long time readers of this site will know to expect ebook scepticism. Ebook readers do little for me. Yet that’s not the main objection: the ebook business model is wrong. 

Apart from a handful of exceptions, it is hard to understand the attraction.

Let’s get those exceptions out of the way first.

Flyers: Ebooks are great for avid readers who are long distance flyers. The hardware weighs a few grams and is not much bigger than a phone. You can carry an entire library for less space and weight than a paperback. It’s a strong argument. 

That said, I find my eyes tire much faster with an ebook than with a printed book. And, for reasons I can’t fully explain, probably to do with lighting, it’s not as relaxing if you plan to read before snoozing on the flight. 

These days I carry a couple of printed books in my carry on bag and another one or two in the stowed luggage. Yes it’s heavy and takes up valuable room. I can live with that.

Textbooks: There’s a case for publishing textbooks as ebooks. Indeed, many textbooks are only available in a digital form.

When I was a student carrying three of four weighty physics books back and fourth to the university was a serious workout. An ebook, especially one that fits in a pocket makes more sense.

There’s an added bonus, it’s easy to update an electronic text book. Doing that with print is hard. 

Large print: Being able to adjust the size of print so that ageing eyes can read is another argument in favour of the ebook. As the Vox story explains, this is one reason older people are keener on ebooks than younger folk. 

What’s wrong with the ebook business model?

In a word: greed. It costs far less to distribute photons and atoms that mashed up dead trees sprayed with ink. There’s no manufacturing, no shipping, no shopkeepers taking a reasonable but still heft retail margin. 

And yet ebook publishers ask customers to pay as much or almost as much for digital books as for printed ones. Their margin for each book is way higher than for printed books. As an aside, do authors get paid the same for digital copies?

Publishers can’t justify this. But it gets worse. If you buy a printed book, you can hand it to someone else after you have read it. You might sell it secondhand or donate it to an op shop. Either way, it retains value after it is read. Restrictive licences mean that’s not the case with ebooks. In other words, publishers get another bonus. 

Given all this, an ebook should cost a fraction of the price of a printed book, somewhere in the region of 10 to 20 percent. They don’t. The savings are not passed on to customers. 

If ebooks were priced appropriately, they’d sell, it’s that simple. Almost everyone carries a device which could act as an ebook reader. They could do better. 

The Vox story also makes a valid point about publishing and retail monopolies, which, if you think about it, also come back to greed. 

What could have been a revolution is, in part, a victim of greed.

19 thoughts on “The ebook revolution that didn’t happen

  1. Agree – I do buy cheaper ebooks, both fiction and non, but only ones with less restrictive licenses. For me the big problem is visibility: I’d like a coffee table (or something) that showed all my recent books. They’re invisible otherwise.

  2. Going to have to disagree on this one Bill. The costs of publishing, up to the point of distribution, are exactly the same for print and digital – and then only if the publisher has digital production embedded in their workflow. If that’s an add-on, that’s extra cost, not less

  3. The ebook revolution presented benefits for fiction and illustration-free non-fiction writers, publishers & readers. Illustrated non-fiction (which NZ publishes a lot of) doesn’t sell as well in digital

  4. Are you saying it costs as much to produce a printed book as an electronic file? I can’t believe that. I’ve worked in publishing and written books [and seen the accounts;) ], the cost per printed book runs to $s, a digital file costs almost nothing or am I missing something?

  5. Then add distribution, which isn’t huge but could be 10%, wholesale margin, retail margin.

    ebooks have a retail margin, but that’s what? 30%?

  6. You can’t lend an ebook to a friend. And university libraries don’t allow ebooks to be loaned to alumni, as hard copy books are. Also, if you have footnotes or endnotes, an ebook is a nightmare.

  7. What’s wrong with the ebook business model?</blockquote?
    In a word?

    Capitalism.

    It’s the monetisation strategy, of producing returns for shareholders, that produces a bad result. That greed that you were talking about.

    It’s possible to digitise every single book in the world and to then have every book freely available to everyone via a single digital library. Have it so that every author, but only the author, gets a small monetary amount for every time their books are read.

    It’d have to be run by the governments of the world of course. Couldn’t leave it in the hands of the capitalists as then they’d be looking for ways to restrict and charge for access – exactly as they’re doing now.

    The present ebook environment is another example of the profit drive bringing about the worst possible result for society.

  8. @Matthew

    I make the first few points in my story. Because you can share or pass on a printed book, it has far higher value than something that can only be read by a single person.

  9. I understand the argument against eBooks Bill, that we remember more when we read in print and that the experience is better. However, the hidden benefit to eBooks is in regards to accessibility. I often ‘listen‘ to Kindle eBooks using the accessibility functions on an old iPhone or using Google Books on my Android phone.
    In regards to publishing, I think that Verso Books has it right when they often offer substantial savings for eBooks as well as free eBooks for physical purchases. They also allow users full access to the text to load to whatever platform they choose.
    This all reminds me of Craig Mod’s piece arguing that the future book is here, it just wasn’t what we expected.

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