10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

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10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby djf881 » 13 Aug 2010, 08:21

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.
Last edited by djf881 on 13 Aug 2010, 08:39, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: 10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby Margo » 13 Aug 2010, 08:26

I love reasons #2 and #3.
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Re: 10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby Down the well » 13 Aug 2010, 09:11

djf881 wrote: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.


As I was walking out of the bookstore yesterday, (only?) three paperbacks in hand, I had this very same thought. It occurred to me that lots and lots of people love gadgets and will buy the newest thing when it comes out. My father is one of those people. He bought the Kindle and loved it when he first got it about six months ago. But when I was at his house the other day and asked him about it, he didn't even know where it was. When he finally did locate it I took a look and saw that he had only downloaded two books. The Bible and The Red Badge of Courage ($1.99).

It was his initial enthusiasm that convinced me the e-book was going to eat the world. I mean, if my father is buying e-books, it really is the end of the world as we know it. But you're right. It wore off. And quickly.

I still think they are here to stay, but maybe they will reach a saturation point. Books aren't like songs and the ipod either. The ipod broke up the need to buy an entire album -- often ones that contained only one or two good songs in the first place -- so, yeah, it knocked a huge dent in the music industry. But the book is a whole entity, so the only question is: Paper or plastic?


djf881 wrote:2. Author autographs. Go ask Cormac McCarthy to sign your iPad and see what happens.


I heard he only signed seventy-five copies of The Road, and they are all locked up in a safety deposit box for when his son gets older. That's it.
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Re: 10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby polymath » 13 Aug 2010, 10:51

The three best things in life, loose shoes, good company, and a warm place to sit and read a book.
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Re: 10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby NHWriter » 13 Aug 2010, 11:32

An interesting proposition, but one I do not agree with. Here is why ebooks WILL eat the world.

10. I disagree. The book is text on a page, but reading is a much larger experience driven by numerous factors. Improving the experience improves the story. Imagine a book that comes with its own soundtrack, or that links out to reference material so you can better understand historical elements, or blah blah blah. Electronic delivery connects the book to a larger world and allows for a greater experience.

9. My life has DRASTICALLY improved with ebooks. I don't have to carry a book with me to work. When I finish that one, I can immediately switch to another one rather than waiting until I get home or having to carry multiple copies. I can browse books without having to be in the store. Much like my ipod, I can carry an entire library in a single device and read whatever I choose to read at that time.

8. I agree with this, but I think the market will push the cost of ebooks back down. This is a temporary bump in the road.

7. I agree with this as well. Much like AAC files for your ipod, it is an inevitability that software will become available that lets you crack your ebook format. If it doesn't happen on its own, it'll happen when a hacker nook user has to switch to a Kindle and doesn't want to use his library.

6. This is a false argument. There are plenty of ways for a book to become unusable that an ereader doesn't have to worry about. The whole "dropping it in water" or whatever just clog the discussion. Likewise, ereader batteries last longer than most electronic devices on the market (I charge my phone daily and my nook weekly).

5. This is incorrect. More people read on their phones than on dedicated readers.

4. While I think dedicated ereaders are better (I didn't enjoy reading on my Blackberry, yet I went through multiple books in that format), the fact that more people read on their phones than on ereaders negates this argument as well.

3. This is an opinion and not one I agree with.

2. This is true. Perhaps someone will create an app to allow for digital signatures in ebooks. :)

1. The greatest source of piracy does not come from ebook files. They are PDFs created by pirates who scan the book and upload the file. The reason for the ebook explosion is because of network infrastructure, % of broadband users/cellular network capability, and the creation of proprietary formats. The book on the shelf yields more pirated content than the Kindle version. (I create ebooks for a living and know this to be fact.)
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Re: 10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby Margo » 13 Aug 2010, 11:43

NHWriter wrote:10. I disagree. The book is text on a page, but reading is a much larger experience driven by numerous factors. Improving the experience improves the story. Imagine a book that comes with its own soundtrack, or that links out to reference material so you can better understand historical elements, or blah blah blah. Electronic delivery connects the book to a larger world and allows for a greater experience.


The additional media bonus is actually the reason I would stay away from this, the exception being links for historical reference, though these are readily available without the author or publishing company providing them assuming the reader is interested. I personally don't want someone else's idea of audio and visual bonus media interfering with my ideas as a reader. This is strongly related to the issue of overdescription of protagonists preventing the reader from making the experience their own. And, yes, this can even apply to book covers, but the more media you give a reader that conflicts with their experience of the story, the higher the risk. So, no, additonal media does not improve the experience or the story.

Plus, we already have something very similar to the multi-media e-book. Movies. They don't lend themselves to viewer partnership real well either.
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Re: 10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby Holly » 13 Aug 2010, 12:13

polymath wrote:The three best things in life, loose shoes, good company, and a warm place to sit and read a book.


Nice, polymath. I would add coffee and collies.
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Re: 10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby polymath » 13 Aug 2010, 13:01

Holly wrote:Nice, polymath. I would add coffee and collies.

I miss coffee and booze and carbohydrates and and . . .

My thing is I don't privately consider devices good company. Nor digital technology particularly as warm and inviting as paper technology. Digital devices have high convenience and portability factors, but I need to sit down and get comfortable to read more than a few lines without getting vertigo's nausea. Give me a paper book to read in the shade of a halcyon repose any day.

My head is spinning now from a week's worth of copyediting on screen a gruelling project and several smaller projects in between to break the larger one up. I've read and edited two novels worth on screen in the last eight days. I need a break from digital. John Steakley's Armor will do the trick once it arrives via interlibrary loan, a paper vacation, but a vacation from digital nonetheless.
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Re: 10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby djf881 » 13 Aug 2010, 13:48

NHWriter wrote:
10. I disagree. The book is text on a page, but reading is a much larger experience driven by numerous factors. Improving the experience improves the story. Imagine a book that comes with its own soundtrack, or that links out to reference material so you can better understand historical elements, or blah blah blah. Electronic delivery connects the book to a larger world and allows for a greater experience.


I should say I only meant to refer to trade books; reference titles have already been replaced by databases and online resources. I think most student textbooks will probably be software or web-based within a decade.

But I've seen book trailers, and I know the tools of "supplementary content": The hokey zoom-in on a static image; the public-domain music; the public-access level "acting." Even for very good books backed by significant publisher resources, this stuff is of embarrassing quality.

If you believe that the idea of what a book is will change; that we will read in the future by grazing through embedded links rather than by reading a linear narrative, then maybe the e-transition seems preordained. But I don't think we're headed toward a world where every story is "Choose Your Own Adventure."

8. I agree with this, but I think the market will push the cost of ebooks back down. This is a temporary bump in the road.


If what people choose to read is dictated by price, then the massive flood of self-published e-books will drive prices all the way to zero, and that will be the end of commercial publishing. If it's not, then the publishers will continue to hold the cards, and their idea of what content is worth will continue to prevail.

7. I agree with this as well. Much like AAC files for your ipod, it is an inevitability that software will become available that lets you crack your ebook format. If it doesn't happen on its own, it'll happen when a hacker nook user has to switch to a Kindle and doesn't want to use his library.


CDs can be ripped DRM free, and compatability issues with hundreds of millions of existing CD players prevented the music industry from protecting its content. So paid music downloads were competing with an already existing culture of widespread music piracy. Releasing a DRM-free commercial download when anybody can already pirate the file on bittorrent is a completely different thing from releasing a DRM-free file into a world where no such file previously existed. If it's possible to protect your content from piracy, you will.

The minute someone hacks the kindle file, everyone will be able to copy their entire library in a mass-email to everyone they know. It will be the end of paying for books.

6. This is a false argument. There are plenty of ways for a book to become unusable that an ereader doesn't have to worry about. The whole "dropping it in water" or whatever just clog the discussion. Likewise, ereader batteries last longer than most electronic devices on the market (I charge my phone daily and my nook weekly).


Dedicated e-Readers have very long battery performance because e-ink screens draw very little power. Battery limitations are real concerns for phones, iPads and laptops.

5. This is incorrect. More people read on their phones than on dedicated readers.


Questionable data. Amazon is very selective with how it releases its numbers and the context it presents them. Its conclusions are always misleading. I'm sure a lot of people downloaded the free kindle iphone app, but I would be extremely surprised if frontlist e-book titles were selling to people who do do not own e-readers.

4. While I think dedicated ereaders are better (I didn't enjoy reading on my Blackberry, yet I went through multiple books in that format), the fact that more people read on their phones than on ereaders negates this argument as well.


Reading books on cellphones isn't a threat to print.

1. The greatest source of piracy does not come from ebook files. They are PDFs created by pirates who scan the book and upload the file. The reason for the ebook explosion is because of network infrastructure, % of broadband users/cellular network capability, and the creation of proprietary formats. The book on the shelf yields more pirated content than the Kindle version. (I create ebooks for a living and know this to be fact.)


If my friend bought an e-book DRM free, and the file was 900kb, which is the size of my manuscript in Word format, I'd ask him to attach it to an e-mail and send it to me rather than pay for it. If I bought an e-book and my friends wanted me to send it to them, I'd do it.

And this is the way the world ends.

I doubt downloaded PDF files are doing much damage to book sales; certainly not the same as music. I don't know anyone who has ever read a scanned pirate PDF of a novel, and I don't know anyone under 35 who has never pirated a CD.
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Re: 10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby Nathan Bransford » 13 Aug 2010, 15:39

Man, I find it amazing that people find e-books so easy to dismiss. I lugged around two massive books on a trip because they weren't available as e-books and would have given anything to have them on my iPad rather than stuffing them in my luggage. The Kindle App on the iPad now has an instant dictionary function - all you have to do is highlight a word and it gives you the definition. No more distracting from the story to hunt through a dictionary.

E-books aren't the end of the world, but they are most definitely going to take over the world. Let's see how you're feeling in a few years.
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Re: 10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby polymath » 13 Aug 2010, 18:00

I haven't dismissed e-books. They have a place in my life. I've been screen reading print for more than twenty years. Carrying around an '80s era Compaq portable computer the size of a suitcase was no fun. It was more convenient to carry around than a mainframe. Early standalone wordprocessors were a little more convenient but only displayed a few lines of type in hard to read gray and black LCD displays. Laptops freed things up considerably. E-readers have convenient features and are getting better. They're still devices that add a degree of noticeable reader distancing separation which books don't. I don't see any practical way to overcome all the alienation effects devices create.

What paper book reading is like for me, the edges of the book disappear. My hand turns pages without a conscious thought prompt. I suspect my reading experiences don't match most readers experiences, They're deep trances usually, if the writing holds my interest. Device reading is like looking into a fishbowl where the fishbowl needs constant attention to distracting button pushing and rearrangement for comfortable holding and viewing.

Now, future generations who might never have ever touched a book might find the opposite true, but I have my doubts. The joy on children's faces when they pick their first books off a shelf knowing what they are tells me they distinguish them from devices as not toys. By the same token, I've not observed a young child initially treating a computer, an e-reader, cell phone, whatever device as anything more than a toy. Books are unlike any other thing; they have unique cultural coding identities because of it. Maybe, like immigrant cultural assimilation, it'll take three generations to fully inculcate society to e-readers. I won't be around two generations from now. I've got one generation's worth of life left to live.
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Re: 10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby J. T. SHEA » 13 Aug 2010, 18:03

Nathan, the solution to the heavy book lugging problem is simple. NEVER LEAVE HOME!
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Re: 10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby Mira » 13 Aug 2010, 23:48

I agree with Nathan and NHWriter. E-books are definitely the future. I'm not so sure about reading devices; I think those will go out of style soon. I read through the Kindle on my I-phone, and I will never go back. The ease of access - it's in my pocket, the fact that I am carrying all those books with me at once, that I can move from book to book, that I can buy a book and have it delivered within 5 minutes. There's just no comparison.

Yes, I get there's some nostalgia, but for me curling up with your phone is just as comfortable if not more so, than a book. Hardcovers hurt my hands. I'm always spilling things on paperbacks. And they take up so much storage space!! That's a really important point that not many people notice - but I have shelves and shelves of books. I've already started to give away some and the space is heavenly.

What always baffles me about this is that authors aren't jumping up and down for joy regarding e-books. E-books are our ticket to freedom, independence and power. Royalties are at least 4x higher. People may actually be able to make a living off of their writing. E-books are the best damn thing that has ever happened to writers - ever.
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Re: 10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby Adam Heine » 14 Aug 2010, 04:05

I agree with Nathan too. I recently wrote about why a pure e-book future wouldn't be so bad (along with a few things I will miss if it ever happens). I think the bottom line is that convenience will win in the end. And really, we buy books for the stories, not the paper, yes?
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Re: 10 reasons e-books might not eat the world

Postby J. T. SHEA » 14 Aug 2010, 11:03

Everyone is guessing at the unknowable here. Those who dislike E-books predict their (relative) failure. Those who like E-books predict their triumph over paper. Wish-fulfillment on both sides?
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