The Evolution of Content Consumption
All Things "E": Google, Kindle, Apple, Nook & More

Making eBooks "The Next Big Thing"

Old booksOver the past year or so I've been seeing a few more Kindles in airports and elsewhere.  That's great, but ebooks and e-readers are far from a mass market phenomenon.  This article by Michael Honig on TG Daily reminded me that the vast majority of potential customers not only don't own a dedicated e-reader but probably haven't even seen one in person.  Here are a few excerpts and my thoughts about them:

You can make a great many arguments in favor of eBooks: They’re ‘green’ (few trees die in their creation or packaging, zero paper and ink means virtually zero environmental pollution, and much energy is saved in their transport), they’re convenient (a thousand books can fit into an electronic device small enough to fit into your pocket) and they’re cheap. Oh. Strike that last part…

Ah, the price factor.  Yep, couldn't agree more.  We're still in the early stages of this so there's plenty of room for improvement.  I still think we're looking at it all wrong though, which is why I wrote this earlier post about a different financial model and this one where I suggest a cheap reader with a smartphone tethering option.

For authors and publishers, the concern is copyright protection and preventing illegal copying. This is perfectly reasonable on their part, but conflicts with book buyers’ two strongest tendencies: one, the desire to back up a computer file, and two, the occasional wish to loan a book to a friend. Most eBook formats don’t permit you to do either. One exception permits a one-time, two-week loan within the life of your ownership. This suggests that you either better not buy eBooks you like very much, or you better not have many close friends. Also, since many formats are incompatible with each other, read “life of your ownership” as, “until your eBook reader breaks and/or you replace it.”

I'm starting to feel the ownership issue is going to be even bigger than the pricing issue at some point.  I already feel the pain today.  When I got a Kindle I promised myself I wouldn't buy any more print books unless a Kindle edition wasn't available.  I'm starting to question the logic of that approach.  Why should I lock myself in with one vendor when that vendor has such a closed DRM model with limited support for industry standards (e.g., PDF (some) and EPUB (none))?

I feel like the poor sucker in the '70's who converted his entire library to 8-tracks, only to see cassettes take over!  Sure, Amazon's got the Kindle iPhone app as well as the Windows and soon-to-be-released Mac apps, but it just doesn't feel right. I guess I'd be much more confident buying my next Kindle edition if I felt it could also be read on the Sony Reader, for example.  At some point, will all the early Kindle owners have invested so much money in Kindle editions that they'll find it too painful to change platforms?  That's obviously what Amazon hopes.  A better option might be to build an e-content library with a vendor who's not trying to force you into their hardware model.  That sounds an awful lot like the promise of Google Editions, assuming it ever comes to fruition.

Btw, someone's gotta come up with a better ebook sharing and reselling model than what we have today, which is pretty much non-existent, at least when it comes to DRM-protected books.  Even the Nook's model feels lame compared to the freedoms you have with a physical book.  Can't the genius developers on these platform teams come up with a way to integrate reselling into the service?  If I can resell a physical book on why can't I do the same with an ebook there?

Now let’s contemplate this: The publishers send out books that require no ink, no paper, no printing presses, no typesetters, no warehouses, no cartons, no trucking or shipping, no shelf-stocking, no returns or write-offs … No material purchases or handling of any consequence, and dramatically less financial risk to publish a book … and all they can come up with is maybe a 10% discount?? I’m still paying about $8 to $10 for a book?

Isn't it interesting how we publishers value the intellectual property but consumers (like Michael Honig) always seem to focus on the cost of goods, or lack thereof?  Perception is reality though and although Amazon generally offers significantly more than 10% off the print cover price, plenty of publishers don't want to cheapen the IP and wind up pricing the ebook at or very close to the print edition.  Btw, the current rule of thumb where I work is to price the DRM-free ebook bundle (including epub, mobi and PDF formats) at 80% of the print price.  Is that the "right" price?  Who knows, but we also experiment with even deeper discounts from time to time and it based on the results we still default to the 20%-off model.

That said, publishers everywhere often bellyache about the Kindle's $9.99 model, saying it sets a dangerous precedent for consumer expectations.  I say as long as these products are nothing more than quick-and-dirty p-to-e conversions, how can we really justify a higher price?  Btw, that's the subject of my talk at O'Reilly's TOC conference early next year.  I'm not going to steal my own thunder here, so you'll just have to attend the conference if you want to hear the details...



Yeah the Kindle is like an 8-track player but there are more than 2 choices of e-book format. That is why I only use TEXT files. They work on any computer. I can use them on my Archos PMA400 but I have a program that can convert them to any format, including Kindle.

The Kindle is too big though. If it won't fit in a pocket it is WORTHLESS.

I want auto-scroll though.

Making DRM schemes that support complicated transactions (lending, etc.) is the ass-backward answer. The answer is to stop believing that *this time* DRM will work. Give it up, settle on social-DRM, and keep things simple and consumer-friendly. The gains will outweigh the losses.


If all you care about is reading as opposed to owning books then it's fairly easy to read very cheaply if not for free. You just go to public libraries, borrow from friends or buy old secondhand copies off Amazon marketplace and resell them. The experience of buying and reading an ebook is a lot more akin to the experience of going to a library (no physical object, you can't lend it, you can't sell it) than the experience of buying a physical book. At the moment the book industry is still focussed on selling books as a commodity rather than as an experience. When will the industry come up with a pricing model for people like me who just want to read the book once but don't want to own it? Until this pricing comes out I'll just keep going to my local library.

Marilynn Byerly

The First Sale Doctrine which allows the resale of paper books does not apply to ebooks. It is illegal to resell an ebook.

I have a blog entry on the subject, and the links at the bottom of this blog entry are chock full of lawyer speak on the subject.


"The publishers send out books that require no ink, no paper, no printing presses, no typesetters, no warehouses, no cartons, no trucking or shipping, no shelf-stocking, no returns or write-offs...I’m still paying about $8 to $10 for a book?"

When publishers bypass e-book designers (e-typesetters) they too often add to the proliferation of typos and lousy formatting rampant in e-books today. With a text-only novel a "quick-and-dirty p-to-e conversion" might work OK, although those annoying typos and sometimes puzzling formatting almost always crop up in the results. It takes time, planning, and -- yes -- design considerations to make the e-book a comparably pleasant reading experience to that of a p-book.

Even trying to export a high-quality ePub from, say, the p-book's Adobe InDesign file rarely yields an e-book that doesn't need some fixing and tweaking.

Too many of the e-books I see (Kindle, ePub, whatever) are simply annoying to read, have a lot of errors, and are not easy to navigate through smoothly. And way too many of their publishers try to justify that rarely justifiable "magic price point" of $9.99.

In fact, an e-book version should be priced NO HIGHER THAN the price of a comparable mass market paperback, even if some bells and whistles have been added.

The comments to this entry are closed.