There are times when a new model, a new way of doing business, is so clearly superior that it seems inevitable that the old ways will fall into the past like gas lamps and the telegraph.
One such example is Netflix. Way back in 2000, I could see the writing on the wall. Blockbuster (and its endless competitors) expected the customer to come to them, shop a limited inventory, and return the movies right on time or face exorbitant late fees. By comparison, Netflix allowed the user to rent movies using their web browser, from a staggeringly large library, and allowed the customer to keep the movies for as long as they like, days, weeks, months even. As soon as it was apparent that Blockbuster wasn’t smart enough to buy Netflix outright, I knew they would fade into extinction and the new way of doing business would prevail. Now that Netflix has gotten a commanding lead on streaming video on demand, I expect their lead to continue to grow. The biggest thing holding them back is the deplorable state of American broadband.
I would very much like to conclude that digital books and magazines offer a similarly compelling advance. And I say that as a current bibliophile, and a one-time bookaholic. As much as I love the experience of holding a book in my hands, the texture of the pages, the smell of paper, ink and glue, it seems inevitable that it will fall to the wayside like a dusty eight-track tape. There is every reason to expect a competing product that eliminates all of the costs associated with paper production, printing and distribution will triumph in the marketplace in very short order. If you’ve ever worked in a bookstore and seen unsold books stripped of their front cover and returned to the publisher so they can be destroyed, you’re probably already surprised the existing business model has lasted as this long.
And yet, a number of hurdles have been put in place that are significantly slowing the growth of digital books, and may even forestall their triumph until a later generation buys a clue. Here are the barriers I see:
Cost: Given the savings for publishers that I described above, there’s every reason to expect that digital books would be cheaper for the consumer. Much cheaper. And yet, prepare to be disappointed. As a quick metric, I looked at the top ten books for 2010, as selected by Amazon.com. Buy them as “real” books and the cost is $141.74. Buy them as Kindle “eBooks” and the cost os $104.53. The publisher saves on paper, printing and distribution, and the customer saves… about 25%. And better yet, one of those ten books is actually more expensive when you buy the digital version. There’s no reason digital books shouldn’t be much cheaper. Well, okay, one reason. Greed.
Ownership: When you buy a book, you own it, like you own your pickup. You can loan it to your partner, to your kids, to a co-worker, and when you’re done with it you can even sell it at a used book store for a (very) little coin. Tragically, the same is not true for digital books. eBooks from the two primary vendors in this market (Amazon and Apple) both treat the buyer as a lesee of the book, at best. Your ability to share a digital book with someone else is severely curtailed, as is your right to sell it when you’re done.
Portability: One of the strengths of traditional books is their longevity. You may have books handed down from your grandparents that are still perfectly useable. But the digital rights management (DRM) on eBooks is far from reassuring when it comes to longevity. Will the digital books of today still be readable on the hot, sexy new eBook readers of tomorrow? That depends a lot on who you think will be selling the next generation of readers, and how optimistic you are. (I’m not.)
I think the market is painfully in need of an open standard format for digital books; a standard that is free of DRM, capable of being supported by any vendor who so choses. And we need publishes who are willing to share the incredible cost savings with the buyer, and grant buyers full ownership of the books being purchased. If those hurdles are knocked down, I think we’ll see traditional printed books and magazines fade from the landscape in short order.
Until then, I believe digital books as currently defined will be severely stunted in their growth. Notice that Amazon refuses to even publish any numbers on how many Kindles (their model of eBook reader) have actually been sold.