Time and tide

      3 Comments on Time and tide

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.

3 thoughts on “Time and tide

  1. Lance Bledsoe

    I’m definitely with you on this one, though my perspective on it is more in line with Mike Masnick of Techdirt. The new models (that make use of the internet to distribute digital goods) are clearly superior, but only to those of us who aren’t making a living using the old models. For those old-timers, the new models are just a threat to their livelihood, and they’re going to fight them tooth and nail. We’ve already seen this in the music and movie fields and we’re also seeing it in the ebooks field.

    I expect ebooks to follow pretty much the same path as music and movies. Upstart companies, or just people who want to read digital books, are going to provide ways for people to read and distribute books in the format they want and in the ways they want, existing companies are going to do everything they can to keep this from happening (e.g., DRM, too-high pricing models, etc.), and eventually the barriers will come down. It won’t happen as fast as some of us would like, but it will happen.

    (Also, as far as I’m concerned there’s already an open standard format for digital books: it’s called PDF.)

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  2. Lisa Creech Bledsoe

    Here’s my thought, with no statistics to back me up. Most ebooks are NOT sold by traditional publishing houses. I’ve bought and sold ebooks online and none were through Crown or Penguin, etc., they were purchased direct from the author in PDF and/or video format, and delivered via download link or email attachment. They range from $5 (for a notably good batch of short stories, from an author I so enjoyed that I made the effort to search her out on Twitter and we chat regularly now) to $50, for a PDF and video set (also very good; there were about 15 separate vids and PDFs, and I also had the option to download it all as MP3s). I’ve bought several that sucked, too, and I got my money back every time. No Nooks or Kindles involved, either.

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  3. Lisa Creech Bledsoe

    Meant to add: all it takes is a bit of technical knowledge. Authors put their books (as PDFs) on their websites or personal pages, set up the shopping cart system (or contract it separately) and voila. Income stream. Of course, you have to market them, too, or no one ever knows about your book. But there are lots and lots and lots of folks making a living and/or hobby money with it.

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