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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.

Neilsen says New Zealanders buy almost five million hard copy books a year. Meanwhile the Book Depository says out of the 160 countries it sell to, New Zealand is second only to Australia. We are ahead of the UK and the US.

These numbers come from a media release put out by the Book Depository. This may not seem remarkable, but the Book Depository is owned by Amazon.

The shopping giant may have started out as an online bookshop, but it has poured millions into developing the e-book market. Amazon still sells its own Kindle brand of ebook reader; the most popular standalone reader.

books
Book shelves still growing

In other words, the world’s largest retailer of ebooks is happy to let everyone know that hard copy is still more popular with readers.

Scratch the surface and it seems the e-book market topped out about a decade ago. It hasn’t grown significantly since then. Meanwhile hard copy book sales continue to climb.

As far as it can go

I wouldn’t say this means Amazon has thrown in the towel on e-books, but it seems the market has gone as far as it is going to for now and hard copy sales are rising. Hard copy books have some practical advantages over e-books.

Neilsen’s New Zealand specific market research found 80 percent of people in this country only read hard copy books. A mere five percent only read digital books. The rest read a mix of the two.

Books are still popular online. Almost 600,000 New Zealanders bought a book from a website in the last year.

Book Depository says orders to NZ have climbed 45 percent in the past three years. Although this might be because buyers are switching from other sources both online and offline. Still 45 percent represents significant growth, remember e-book sales are static.

A third of the books sold here by the Book Depository are for children. So the next generation is already invested in print rather than digital.

Part of this could be parents wanting to prise kids away from digital devices for a few moments, but there’s also more pleasure in reading a hard copy book together than sharing a screen.

Books expensive in New Zealand

I suspect one reason New Zealanders are enthusiastic online book buyers is because prices are far higher than elsewhere in the world.

This is particularly true for popular fiction books which are often discounted in large stores overseas. In some cases we pay more than twice the price paid by UK or US readers.

There are a few crumbs of comfort in this for local bookstores. While huge sales are going to offline online booksellers, the fact that readers continue to buy hard copy books in such large numbers means there is still a worthwhile market here. It’s doubtful that books will die in out lifetimes. Whether they can compete on price is another matter.

If you find Apple Pages 5 puzzling or you want to get more out of the software Michael E. Cohen’s US$20 Take Control of Apple Pages is a good starting point.

The 266 ebook is published by TidBits Publishing (ISBN: 9781615424320).

On one level Cohen has written a comprehensive user manual for the software. The user manual no software developer writes any more.

Cohen steps you through the app starting with something as simple as finding Pages on your device. If you read the book through to the end you’ll learn the secrets of collaborating with others to create joint documents.

Recipe book

Yet I doubt many will plough through the pages. This is not a novel and it isn’t written to be read sequentially. It’s more like a recipe book where you find yourself dipping in to learn how to cook specific dishes.

The book is well written. Cohen keeps things simple and clear. He has a light touch without being patronising or over-chatty, something that’s irritating in a technical book.

Take Control of Pages is neatly organised. That’s more important in an ebook than on paper where flipping through pages is a cinch.

Multiple headline levels, captioned figures and clearly marked breakout paragraphs break up the pages. This makes the book easy to navigate. You won’t have trouble finding the information you need in a hurry. And let’s face it, most of the time when you’re hunting for clues you are in a hurry.

A word processor…

Apple Pages 5 is often described as a word processor. It does that job well.

Pages is also a page layout programme. It does that job better.

On one level Pages 5 is easy to use. You don’t need much help getting started. Just type and characters, then words appear on screen.

Layout is trickier, but with trial and error you’ll get up to speed in no time.

Pages suits most people from beginners to expert users.

Beyond word processing

But there’s more to Pages than basic word processing and layout. Hell, there’s more to Pages than just the Mac or iPad or iPhone or whatever device you first used it on.

Pages lies at the heart of Apple’s productivity offering. The same programme works on Apple computers, tablets and smartphones. If you’re away from Apple kit there’s also a web version: iCloud Pages.

The nuances of what that means in practice and how you can benefit from cross-device integration isn’t immediately obvious. Nor is it obvious how to use the software this way.

And that’s where Cohen’s book scores. It’s the only book on word processing I’ve seen that covers writing on computers, smartphones, tablets and in web browsers. More to the point the book covers working across all four versions of the software. Cohen also deals with Apple Continuity, which can be tricky to use at times.

Likewise moving to Pages 5 after using, say, Microsoft Word or even an earlier version of Pages is no walk in the park. Take Control of Pages is a good investment for someone coming from another word processor facing a new user interface.

TidBits Publishing has made good use of the eBook format. There are PDF, EPub and Mobipocket versions which means you can read the book on almost anything. If, say, you download the book to a Mac, you can also read it on an iPad or iPhone. The publisher also promises readers will get updates if they become necessary.

ebook reader

Five years ago I wrote why people read less online than with print:

People spend less time reading online news than reading printed newspapers because reading a screen is more mentally and physically taxing.

I’ve no hard and fast evidence to offer. This is just my observation. It would make a great research project for someone.

Last week The Guardian reported on similar research in Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper.

The story says researchers at Norway’s Stavanger University asked people to read the same short story on a Kindle and on paper. Those who read on paper did a better job of remembering the events than those who read on the e-books.

A similar study looked at a school student comprehension test which shows those who read the paper document performed better than those who read digitally on screens or e-books.

Tired eyes when reading e-books

None of this surprises me, it mirrors my experience. I’ve noticed I get more from reading print than digitally. Also my eyes tire much slower with print.

If I have a serious editing or sub-editing job to do, I’ve learnt that proofreading a printed document is more accurate than working directly onscreen.

I doubt knowing readers absorb less with digital books will change anything. Nothing is likely to stop the world moving from print to pixels. But with e-books there’s a danger we’ll know more and understand less.

Dymocks New Zealand
Dymocks New Zealand closed in 2012, now the company is retreating from ebooks

Australia’s BRW magazine reports Dymocks exits ebook publishing after 15 months. The company told BRW the program was a ‘innovative experiment’ but the challenges were too great.

Dymocks managing director Steve Cox told BRW:

“We learned a lot about that market and those customers but unfortunately the constraints of the platform and business model meant we couldn’t fulfil the vision”.

This story doesn’t make it clear if there’s something systematically wrong with ebook publishing or if the closure is part of Dymock’s winding-down. The company closed its New Zealand business in late 2012 and appears to be in retreat.

I’m interested to know if there’s a viable space in the ebook business for a quality operation sitting between the giant, global powerhouses and the niche publishers. What do you think?