The scam that is called e-books?

Amazon made a big splash when they introduced the Kindle back in 2007. It was one of the first e-book readers out there and sported an E Ink brand electronic paper display which shows 16 shades of gray, and was connected to the Sprint network that allowed the use of Amazon’s own Whispernet which allowed it’s owner to download books over the air. We saw several iterations of the device, and at a certain point Amazon saw it fit to release the Kindle as an application for different platforms, allowing books to be synchronized to other devices and read from any platform that was able to run the Kindle application.

Other vendors soon picked up this trend and introduced their own e-book readers. Examples of that are the Nook from Barnes & Noble, or Sony’s Reader. All of them having the basic function of reading books in their respective supported formats, some sporting their own unique features to set them apart from the rest. Besides the introduction of devices which were pretty similar, the e-book market was fairly quiet with Amazon dominating the market.

Things pretty much looked like that, that is, until Apple made a splash by entering the e-book reader game with their iBook application on their recently introduced iPad.

Now, I don’t want to turn this in to a review of the iPad. I’ll try to follow up on the iPad itself with a seperate post. But I do want to take a closer look at the e-books that I am reading on my iPad, because some of you might not be aware of these things when considering to purchase an e-book reader.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.” – Laozi

Several of the people I talked to lately were considering the purchase of an e-book reader. Their considerations were all quite valid, thinking of things like the reduced weight while traveling but still being able to take several books along for the trip. Heck, some of them would be happy to have an e-book reader because it meant that they would still be getting their favorite newspaper synchronized to the device while they were abroad.

As I just wrote, I can fully comprehend what they mean. But, the journey towards the digital print usually ends up being a bit more then just reading your books on the road. Even though that seems to be such a simple request, you get much more then you bargained for when you finally decide to make the switch.

First, there’s the choice of your device. You could use a Kindle which is great when it comes to battery life, you can even read it with direct sunlight on the screen and you can read your books or magazines on a lot of different systems now because the Kindle application is pretty wide spread. But then you might think back to remember that Amazon actually remotely wiped a copy of George Orwell’s novel “1984”.

To me as a simple user, I would say that this means that I did not purchase the book itself, it seems to be that I just purchased a license to read that book via my Kindle account. Things like the proprietary Kindle document format (.AZW) and the Terms of Use that forbid transferring Amazon e-books to another user or a different type of device just make this feeling stronger.

I could go with a different reader like for example the Sony Reader. With that one, the ties to my single user account are not that strong. The Reader can read e-books that have some form of <abbr title="Digital Rights Management"DRM, but at least I can transfer my purchases to and from the Reader. I also have some added features (depending on the model) like a touch based screen, or the fact that I can use a lot of open formats which in turn saves me time on converting my documents, or even use Sony’s partnership with OverDrive that let’s me get e-books from the library. On the other hand, I miss out on the connectivity that a Kindle offers me and synchronizing books, or on reading the same books from the point where I left off by using digital bookmarks. And lending a book to a friend is going to be hard no matter which type of e-book reader I purchase, although there are plenty of people who wouldn’t loan the book anyway.

Second, you will never be able to combine the emotions you might have with a printed book. Depending on who you are, you will feel differently about handling an actual book. The feel of the covers, the choice of a hardcover or a pocket edition, the weight in your hands, the look in your book closet or even the touch of the paper that is used. Even something simple as they way a collection of books looks on a shelf.

Reading is all about emotions and knowledge. You usually read because you need or want to learn something, you read to pass the time at the barber shop, or you read to get lost in a different world where you yourself get to decide what just exactly how green the jacket is that the hero in that latest part of the sci-fi trilogy is wearing. It’s all about feeling it, and it’s just the same when it comes to reading something that is no longer on paper. Some people will like the color screen of the iPad just because it makes magazines or books about photography come to life. Others loathe the fact that the iPads screen is glossy or that the battery life is much lower than that of the Sony Reader. Then there are those folks that say that looking at an e-Ink or iPad screen is way too tiring on the eyes when compared to paper, but they like the option of having a screen with back-lighting so that they don’t have to keep the light on in bed when their partner is trying to get some sleep.

All in all

When you look at the previous two points, you will have some things to make you wonder if going the e-book route is right for your. Well, if that made you wonder, hang on to your socks because the third one will probably be even more simple but way harder to comprehend. It’s as simple as…

the price of the e-book!

Not some sort of cool things like make fonts larger or smaller, or something like a preview option or handy things like my book spoken to me by a cool computer voice. It’s just the simple pricing mechanism that sort of ruin the e-book experience. And the problem gets far worse when you are taking a look at books that are not considered main stream.

Let me just give you some simple examples:

  • VMware vSphere and Virtual Infrastructure Security: Securing the Virtual Environment – Edward L. Haletky
    • Amazon – Paperback: $34.98
    • Amazon – Kindle: $39.09
    • Sony – Reader: $39.99
    • Hotbooksale – Paperback: $35.12
  • Angelology: A Novel – Danielle Trussoni
    • Amazon – Hardcover: $17.97
    • Amazon – Kindle: $13.79
    • Sony – Reader: $9.99
    • Hotbooksale – Hardcover: $12.95

Now, that’s just two books. From all of the stores combined you will probably have around 600,000 to 650,000 books to choose from. But how can it be that only the popular books are cheaper as an e-reader? These two examples are not that far apart, but another example would be the “Solaris Internals: Solaris 10 and OpenSolaris Kernel Architecture” where the price difference is a whopping $26.69. I could buy a different book just by looking at that price difference.

And that’s the part that I don’t understand. With some digging you will note that the printing costs are about 10% of the total costs when it comes to publishing a book. That’s not that huge a difference, and let’s also take in to account that the publisher actually has to do something extra to create a separate copy of the book in it’s electronic form.

But then I also need to take a look at the costs that will fall away in it’s electronic form. Things like the number of trees that are not cut down, or the whole carbon footprint that comes with creating the paper, shipping the books, or even something simple as the space it takes to display and stock the book.

In the end

I do truly think that actually distributing or selling books in their digital forms would be cheaper than doing the same in it’s actual printed form. And even if that’s not the case, why are publishing companies not experimenting with these new types of media? Why not have a pricing model that allows me to loan the book for a certain amount of time? Some folks mentioned on twitter mentioned the option of using a ticker to display ads and create additional revenue that way.

The new media open the way to interactive books. Could you imagine reading Winnie the Pooh that mixes a story with animations that pick up the story where the text stops? It could be a different way of learning your kids to read a book. And advertisers could combine that with small games or the option to purchase different endings to a story. It all boils down to how creative the publishing companies are, but so far there seems to be little motivation to actually achieve a pricing model where e-books are cheaper when comparing them to their printed counterpart. It almost seems that the publishing companies are as dusty and static as an old printed book.

As for myself, I have made the switch to reading digitally where I can. And I’m just starting that journey, but there are still some bumps along the way. In a certain way it’s a shame that I will try to reduce the amount of printed stuff that I purchase. On the other hand, I’m on the road enough to appreciate just having that one device with me and reducing the weight of my bags a bit. In the end it all boils down to your own preferences, but if you do decide to go down that digital road, be prepared for some surprises and try to educate yourself before you find yourself pinned down in one area where you didn’t even consider ending up when you started the trip.

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