The idea that e-books are going to largely replace regular books is quickly becoming conventional wisdom, and the market has grown quickly in two years. But I wonder if the e-book audience won't soon reach saturation instead of continuing to grow. Maybe I am like the people who thought music lovers would never give up their shelves of music for iPods, but I think there are some real structural reasons why e-book sales might not continue to grow as fast as predicted:
I was an early-adopter of the Kindle (I have the first-gen model) and I've read a number of books on the device. For me, the novelty has worn off, and many people will likely come to this conclusion in the next year or two. If my experience is common, I think sales will plateau sooner than many analysts expect.
Here's why:10. Conventional books can't really be improved on.
A book is text on a page. You can't make a book better by making it a digital file; there's no way technology can alter or improve the experience of reading text on a page. A book cannot be remastered in high-definition. You can't make it faster. The best an e-book can possibly do is match the experience of reading a conventional book. 9. Switching to e-books doesn't improve your life.
Imagine it's 2002 and you're switching from music on CDs to an iPod. By adopting this format, you've gained access to a lot of new functionality and a lot of convenient features. You can now carry all your music with you, which is something people want to do. You no longer need to have a huge multidisc changer in the trunk of your car, or a multi-disk carousel in your home stereo. You no longer need to commit to listening to one artist or mixtape when you go for a run, and the physical device you will carry is much smaller than a CD player. You can construct playlists for various purposes, or you can shuffle all the songs on the device.
By contrast, consider how your life improves when you switch to the Kindle. You can carry a bunch of books, but do you really need to? Most people only read one book at a time. There's no playlist or shuffle-type features that you can utilize with your book library. The device is smaller than a hardcover, which is convenient if you're carrying it around in a handbag, but it's about the same size as a trade paperback.
Instant delivery of e-books is nice, but it's not compelling. I buy several books at a time, and I rarely run out of stuff to read, so I never need a new book immediately.
E-readers really offer no features that make the format or the device indispensable. There's no killer app here that makes an e-reader better than a book. 8. The price differential is disappearing.
Theoretically, e-books should wipe out conventional books because of efficiency. A conventional book must be printed and bound and shipped and warehoused and often shelved and sold in a bookstore. Each of those things costs money. An e-book is an electronic file and distributing it is as trivial as sending an e-mail.
When Amazon first started selling e-books, it paid the same wholesale price for an e-book that it paid for a hardcover book, but it sold them at a loss, for $9.99. Hardcovers were selling for $17 a couple of years ago, so an e-book cost about half as much as a hardcover. Now, though, publishers have pushed back on Amazon's $9.99 pricing, and many e-books cost more. Meanwhile, hardcover pricing has been pushed down to about $15. So an $8 price difference has shrunk to around $2-3. And for titles published in trade or mass-market paperback, the e-book price is often the same as the conventional-book price.
Some authors will take advantage of the costs cut by e-distribution to make money by selling e-books for very low prices. But readers aren't indifferent among books. Assuming that major publishers continue to distribute the content most people are interested in buying, they will probably hold the line on their interpretation of what a book is worth. This means that you won't save much money buying e-books if you want big publishers' content.
It's possible that some readers will skip major publishers' titles to buy $3 self-published e-books, but many readers will not be interested in exploring that territory. I think a lot of people who own e-readers are likely to do what I've done lately; buy conventional books when the price difference is less than a couple of dollars. This is because...7. E-book formats have significant disadvantages.
E-books are distributed on proprietary formats. You cannot read Apple books on a Kindle. You cannot read Kindle books on a Nook. You can read all kinds of books on iPads or PCs or phones, but you need a special app for each format. If you break your reader or decide to upgrade to a newer device, you must buy a new one from the same vendor or your old books will be incompatible with the new device. If your vendor goes out of business, your software may no longer be supported. You cannot sell or lend or give away an e-book when you finish reading it.
These are things people like to do with their books, so, to that extent, e-books are less convenient than conventional books. This inconvenience is tolerable when the e-book costs half as much as the same title in hardcover, but that may not be true if the difference is only a dollar or two.6. Books never run out of batteries.
The iPad lasts ten hours on a battery charge, and, as anyone who uses electronics knows, those batteries degrade over time, so the battery becomes less efficient. Batteries also tend to lose a charge if the device is left unplugged in standby mode. Best case scenario: an iPad battery ill last long enough to read a novel and-a-half. That kind of sucks if you want to take it on a weekend camping trip.
Dedicated e-readers do a much better job as far as power consumption. They only use power when they draw a new page on the e-ink screen, so they're off most of the time you are reading. The batteries can last weeks depending on how much you read. But there's still a chance you might pick the thing up and find it's out of juice when you want to read without being plugged in.
You never have to remember to charge a conventional book. 5. Requiring hardware limits the audience.
Despite apps that make e-book content available on PC or cell-phones, most e-books are sold to people who have e-readers. The subset of people who have e-readers is a small fraction of the total number of people. Even if this number grows exponentially in the next few years as devices get better and cheaper, it will still be far smaller than the total number of potential readers.
If e-sales begin taking a big bite out of print sales bookstores become an endangered species. There's no way publishers can achieve sales growth by focusing on the smaller audience of e-readers if bookstores are closing en-masse. I think that the relationship between publishers and bookstores is symbiotic, and publishers likely need many people who are becoming e-book buyers to patronize bookstores, to keep the stores solvent to provide a forum to sell to more causal readers who will probably never purchase dedicated reader devices.
There have already been discussions of delayed e-releases of frontlist titles, and publisher pushback on low e-book pricing. It's possible that e-books will become a genie nobody can stuff back into the bottle, but for now, the growth and spread of these devices is heavily contingent on support from major publishers. There have been fights between publishers and e-vendors in the past, and there are big new feuds on the horizon. Uninterrupted geometric sales growth of e-books seems unlikely if publishers push against it, and Amazon may not be as willing to go to the mattresses as the market becomes more segmented and its share of e-book sales shrinks.4. Multipurpose devices aren't good for reading books.
An LCD screen like the one on the iPad is back-lit. It displays an image by shining light through the screen. A lot of people don't like doing close reading on these kinds of screens for hours at a time. E-distribution of books has been possible for years, but there was never a market before e-readers came out. Now many analysts believe e-books will conquer the market by piggybacking on devices like cell phones and iPads. But these devices use the same kinds of lit screens as laptops (and the screens on smartphones are very small).
These screens can also be difficult to view from certain angles, they're hard to read in sunlight, and they drain batteries pretty quickly. The experience of reading a book on an iPad is significantly worse than reading on paper. Even if these devices become ubiquitous, I think most users will continue to buy conventional books.
On the other hand, if you are reading this, you are probably reading on a backlit screen. And screens have replaced a lot of paper in many office uses; e-mail has displaced a lot of fax printouts and photocopies.
Some people think advancing technology will fix all these problems; Shatzkin predicts an iPad that folds or collapses into an iPhone. On a long enough timeline, anything is possible, but the perfect magical device that is both phone and pad, both e-ink and LCD is not coming anytime soon.3. E-readers aren't good for anything but books, and are worse than books at being books.
Dedicated reading devices like the Kindle use a screen technology called e-ink that "prints" the page onto a non-lit screen. These screens come close to simulating the appearance of paper; they look good in direct light and consume very little power.
The screen contrast isn't great; instead of black ink on white paper, you get dark-gray text on a light-gray background. But the screens are improving, and the delay when a page "turns" and the device draws in a new one is likely to shorten as well.
These devices bring some nice features; you can change the font size, and a text-to-speech robot voice can read books to you. But you can't flip back and forth as easily as you can with paper. And it's a technology device. If you drop it, you break it. If you sit on it or step on it, you break it. If you fall asleep in bed with it and roll on top of it, you break it. If it gets wet or if sand gets in its guts at the beach, it probably breaks. And if you leave it someplace you're out a lot of money. A book can survive most of these stresses, and if you lose or destroy it, you're out $16 bucks at the high end.
E-distribution of books has some obvious potential business efficiencies, but from an everyday-use perspective, an e-reader is a flawed solution to a problem that doesn't exist.
Obvious exceptions to this rule: literary agents and editors who have to schlep a lot of manuscripts around, and students who have to carry lots of textbooks. E-readers can make such cumbersome tasks much easier.2. Author autographs.
Go ask Cormac McCarthy to sign your iPad and see what happens.
Actually, that would be hilarious. If I ever meet him, I am going to do that. 1. Piracy.
Because books are an analog format, they have a sort of built-in copy protection. You can't "rip" a book the way you can copy a music CD. To upload a book for file-sharing, somebody must either scan every page or transcribe the text into a computer file. Because of this structural difficulty, books have been largely spared the piracy troubles that music has struggled with over the last decade.
However, with e-books, if somebody manages to crack the encryption on one of these e-book file formats, then everyone's content will be available for free in clean, publisher-formated digital versions.
It seems likely somebody will eventually crack one of these formats. What will happen when that occurs? How will publishers and vendors react? We know Amazon can remove files from Kindles; they've done it before. Maybe vendors will wipe all the devices to prevent books from getting ripped. I think that would deal a serious blow to consumer confidence in e-books. On the other hand if they don't take an extreme response, widespread piracy could quickly devastate legitimate sales.
By the way, I originally wrote this essay for my blog, http://somethingpersuasive.blogspot.com
, where you can read it with various embedded links and funny pictures.