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The ebook revolution that didn’t happen

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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.

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