Using ebooks to connect with indirect customers
My 2016 ebook marketplace hopes and wishes

The ebook value proposition problem

Money-256319_1920My youngest daughter asked for a Harry Potter boxed set for Christmas. As I wrapped the heavy, bulky package I kept wondering why she didn’t opt for the ebook collection instead. On Christmas morning I learned why: each title in the boxed set comes with a new cover. Actually, they were supposed to have new covers but we got the wrong box, so the heavy, bulky package is about to be returned.

My daughter reminded me that ebooks are often inferior to print books. In this case, she values the ability to showcase her collection, something you just can’t do with ebooks. When we finally get the right set I’m sure she’ll smile every time she looks at the box on her shelf.

Let’s compare that to the ebook experience. My collection is a library buried deep within my iPad. When I look at my iPad I don’t smile…I just wonder if it’s fully charged for the day ahead. And although services like Goodreads can fill the digital void and help you show off your print and ebook collection, I stopped logging books there years ago; Goodreads can never replace the serendipity and conversation-starter capabilities of a physical bookshelf.

DRM and publisher pricing models also often make print more attractive than e. DRM prevents me from sharing a book with a friend or passing it along to a family member when I’m finished with it. Also, the the new agency pricing model means that consumers often only see a small savings between the e price and the print price. In some cases publishers are asking consumers to pay almost the same price for the e edition which clearly has no COGs, comes with plenty of restrictions and offers nothing more than a print-under-glass experience.

In short, most ebooks suffer from a value proposition problem. To address this situation publishers need to rethink their digital value proposition and invest in innovation.

Regarding value prop, publishers need to understand who is buying their content and how it is being used. For example, if the ebook is simply a digital alternative to the print version, offering nothing more than a print-under-glass experience, they might want to consider employing the digital companion model I described last week.

Innovation is where the real future opportunity lies though, and I’d like to illustrate that with a product that seemed to reach the end of its innovative life long ago maps.

Remember when GPS devices became affordable several years back? They brought an end to wrestling with enormous maps that required an origami degree to fold back into their original state. Then smartphones hit the scene and their built-in sensors made dedicated GPS devices obsolete. Google Maps on your phone showed you where you were and gave you turn-by-turn advice on how to reach your destination. It seemed as if there were no more innovation opportunities for maps…and then Waze arrived.

Waze brings the power of community to mapping and navigation. Thanks to Waze I see real-time warnings for debris on the road, stalled vehicles on the shoulder or congestion to avoid. Before I hop on the interstate I make sure Waze is up and running. And because Waze is community-based I try to be a good community member by contributing as much information as I consume.

The next time you think about your digital content strategy, try to avoid looking at everything through the simple, restrictive lens of print-under-glass. If maps can continue to evolve I’m quite certain books will as well.


jayakrishnan nair

very good analogy ...vcos I am seeing it happening in GPS vs smart phones

Michael W. Perry

I love your contrast between printed maps and a GPS. It illustrates to near perfection what ebooks should be doing to better compete with print. They should be doing—and doing well—what no printed book can do. Instead, most look like cheap printed books.


You're right. Covers are one of the glories of a printed book. Check out the last few books from my Inkling Books and you'll see that I've been taking that desire for a view-worthy cover into account. Rather than creating covers that are merely serviceable as before, I've created ones that their readers should be quite proud to be seen carrying about. And it doesn't hurt that the same cover is the only thing that seems physical to those buying the digital version. If it looks good, I'm hoping they'll think the same about the content.

More to William Morris is a good illustration of an older cover, as is Lady Eugenist. Lily's Ride is a recent one, as is My Nights with Leukemia. The girl on the cover of the latter actually developed leukemia shortly after that picture was taken.


Unfortunately, if you look at a selection of the covers of many recent self-published books:

you will see that many aren't that appealing in the "want to been seen reading" sense. The covers are too busy with content. The title is often unreadable. The colors are washed out (probably to make their printing cheaper). The color contrasts between text and background are either too much or too little. Many range between too amateurish to a cover designer trying a bit too hard to appear creative by being different or odd. Others, particularly romance novels, seem to try too hard to look like the typical genre cover.

Like all good design, a cover shouldn't make us think about itself for good or ill. It should make us want to read the book. For a parallel, think of how an elegant restaurant serves its food in contrast to the tray you'll get at a MacDonalds.

When you design or approve your covers, try to replicate that fine dining experience. Your readers will appreciate it.

Amy Sterling Casil

What a nice request for Christmas, Joe! My daughter just got a dermal piercing on her cheekbone.

She's awful proud of it and her friends like it.

Definitely haven't been up to par for most of this year, but looking for a better 2016. We are still working on the other books. Working with first-time authors is challenging. Working with longtime authors is challenging! But we are using the e-book and companion trade paper or hardcover model.

Victoria Hay

I'll cheerfully agree with you that the e-book can't replace hard copy in terms of pleasurable reading. But my guess is, must people don't read e-books for the same reason that print fans do. Possibly they're not looking for pleasurable, thoughtful experience but, in the case of fiction, simply to pass the time of day or to titillate themselves, and in the case of nonfiction, solely to seek facts, how-to guidance, or inspiration. That's different from kicking back in front of the fireplace with a hot chocolate or a bourbon and water in one hand and a real book in the other. I doubt if the electronic medium can ever replicate that experience.

Nor is it fair, I suspect, to compare e-book covers with print covers, as jayakrishnan nair does. The e-book has to do something different from what a hard-copy cover does. While it sort of emulates the look of hard-copy design, in a brick-&-mortar bookstore most of the stock will be shelved spine-out. When customers do see the front of the book, as in a bin or on a flat display, they see something larger, brighter, and easier to read than an e-book customer does. An e-book has to present type that can be read at a glance in a thumbnail image, with graphics that suggest something about the book's content -- also instaneously. So, genre novels tend to display hackneyed images that say, in a millisecond, "BDSM" or "fantasy" or "detective" or "sci-fi" or "romance." Nonfiction has to say, in a tiny fraction of a second, "cat book," "cookbook," "travel book," or whatever. Nobody is going to linger over the image, pick up the book, weigh it in her hands, leaf through its pages, relish its interior layout.

This would explain the washed-out look jayakrishnan nair observes in the examples of e-book covers: Cover lines have to stand out sharply against the background. In my experience with PoD vendors, the cost of a PoD cover is always the same -- doesn't matter how saturated the colors are.

It's like comparing cats and dogs. They're both furry domesticated meat-eaters, but you'll never get a cat to do what a dog does.

Josep M. Mas

The thing is - would we still talk about eBooks then? I don't think so. New value propositions for content will surely emerge (as a matter of fact, they already exist for Higher Education). But differentiation will remove these from the traditional parameters defining "books as we know them", whether print or electronic.


I take the points made in the article, especially about the beauty of printed book covers, and it would be good to more easily be able to share books.

But one reason I like using my Kobo is because it simply does what it says on the box, and nothing more - there are no ads, no messages/email/social media distractions. In a world full of noise, I think it's good to enjoy an experience that allows me to control when and how I engage with the wider world.


Really? No COGS for an ebook?

Nothing could be farther from the truth. The cost of developing an ebook is exactly the same as for paper: Acquisitions, editing, design, marketing, and everything else.

Joe Wikert

Hi Steve. Of course there are costs for creating any format book, print or e. My point is that the physical element costs, including paper, print, binding and returns completely go away with ebooks.

Jackie dobbyne

I've no idea what COGS means, but Steve is correct: many of the costs involved in producing a print edition are replicated in ebooks plus the costs of producing different versions for different platforms and testing them. This persistent ignorance regarding the true costs of e-publishing is frustrating and something publishers need to address.


As an ebook publisher, the most frustrating for me is not "this persistent ignorance regarding the true costs of e-publishing". It is the bad reputation of ebooks, due to so much poor quality ebooks on the market, resulting from automated conversions by non-professionals!
I also agree with your points:
- print books give more "physical" pleasure
- the ebook should bring an added value vs. the print copy and/or at a significantly lower price.
And I am also lucky: my daughter asked the (paper) integral of Tolkien for her birthday today :-)


COGS means "cost of goods sold." It's an accounting term that companies use to calculate their expenses and profits.

If I take the example of an 80,000-word paperback novel that retails for $14.99, the cost of physical production is about $1.50. Paper and ink have never contributed much (percentage-wise) to the cover price of print books. Hence, removing that expense does little to reduce the overall cost of producing that book. This has ever been so.

Joe Wikert

Steve, yes, you are correct that COGS have always been a small part of the total price of publishing a print book. The problem is that consumers don't typically see it that way. They figure if a publisher is delivering an ebook instead of print they must be saving a ton, so the ebook price should be significantly less than the print book price. This point of view is very clear in the data Nielsen shared at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year.

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