Friday, February 05, 2010

An opinion on e-Readers

My boss said something interesting that I think bears repeating. She does not own an e-Reader (I do) and she really feels that publishing companies are shooting themselves in the foot in a variety of ways in getting in these huge, confusing fights with Amazon, Sony, and Google over eBook rights.

Until the technology vastly improves and the price drastically drops, she doesn't see e-Readers as a viable format and therefore a threat to publishing as we know it. Amazon claims to have sold 500,000 Kindles, a very impressive number until you realize there's 308,618,000 people in America, so if my math is correct (which it rarely is, so double-check), only one in every 617 people own one. The main reason, though, is the price tag. The huge purchase of an electronic reader serves as the gateway to eBooks, which then have to be paid for individually - as opposed to people simply buying the book they want. It becomes an entrance fee to books, which previously had none. Are only rich people going to be buying books? Because you have to have a decent income to afford one of these devices (I got mine for my birthday). Do we really want a culture where information is available primarily for the wealthy?

Putting out an e-Edition of the book also messes with sales projections, as a ton of people buy it the day it comes out, and then interest drops tremendously, it drops tremendously in rank, and it's hard for word-of-mouth to build on a book with a small opening. I can't plot out all of the economics here, but it's not a good buying trend.

I've felt for some considerable time that the answer to publishing is libraries. Publishing needs to put huge money into supporting and promoting libraries. You may think that's crazy, as libraries lend books out for free, but where do you think they get those books? Libraries serve as huge buyers for books, and in the case of many academic books are the bulk of sales. So really, if someone could get cracking on making libraries not seem like the most depressing places on earth, that would be great.


Unknown said...

Publishing is such a low margin business that any chunk of revenue lost or gained is important to the viability of a publishing house. So although the numbers seem small right now, it's already a big enough niche to make a difference. The readers are not the game, it's the fact that there is an electronic edition at all, on a platform that works on multiple devices (computer, reader, cellphone). If you want to get a book electronically, and you can't find a way to even read it on your laptop, that's a lost sales opportunity for the publisher.

The Rejecter said...

I'm not saying it's worthless, but people are really freaking out about it in a bad way, because they're worried the revenue stream is going to explode, which it isn't, not for a few years anyway.

Travener said...

Seems to me your boss is half-right: e-readers are expensive now, but won't be forever. If I were in publishing, I'd handle e-books the way Hollywood handles DVDs. First, release the movie (book), wait six months to get all the theater (hardcover) revenue you can, then release the DVD (e-book). E-books may be the paperback of the future.

pussreboots said...

My library's a cheery and lively place. I live in the Bay Area... a tech savvy place. I have only seen one person with an e-reader. Now I know of a few more who read via their iphones but what I do seen on a regular basis... people reading books.

~ Rebecca Harbison said...

I saw an interesting article that compared eBooks to the music industry -- I'll have to dig it up for you. It was interesting, and showed that maybe someone in publishing learned something from that mess. (They would learn more if they would strip out DRM from things.)

lynneconnolly said...

It's not how many that are sold that is important, it's the type of user who is buying them. And that's the heavy reader, the one book a day person, where a lot of the revenue is concentrated. It's worth their while for a number of reasons, even at the current price points.
So the people who buy the most books and are invested in the industry are the ones buying the readers.

Anonymous said...

I bought my first e-reader a month ago and love it. I've always been an avid reader, but I'm now finding myself reading even more -- and buying more too. Not only because many books are noticeably cheaper than their paper counterparts, but also because I'm more inclined to try out books or buy books I know I'll only read once and never again -- books I otherwise might have told myself to get from the library but, realistically, would ultimately forget about.

Anonymous said...

To save libraries, we need to encourage Jim Trelease's advice: to look at stores like Barnes & Noble who make reading attractive, what with all those overstuffed sofas, coffee shops, and display tables. Perusing book spines admidst rows of hard, wooden carrels just isn't as fun as a trip down to the pimped out B&N, dontcha think?

Shelby said...

currently Kindle free.

loving it.

here's to spines and covers.

Murphy Jacobs said...

You should also include in your calculations the many people who read eBooks not on Kindles, but via the Kindle app on their iPhones. And, of course, via other eReaders and other phones (I read eBooks on my Sony reader and on my Blackberry).

DED said...

Amazon claims to have sold 500,000 Kindles, a very impressive number until you realize there's 308,618,000 people in America

Well, those people might be buying a disproportionately higher number of books than the average American.

Also, the Kindle is only one e-Reader, though I think it's the most popular. As you know, laptops and pc's work just fine when reading eBooks, provided DRM isn't an issue.

For the record, I don't own an e-Reader. I prefer paper. :)

As for libraries, my town is in the middle of renovating its library. Unfortunately, they ran out of money about 2/3 of the way and fundraising the rest has been slow. But what they've finished is rather nice and certainly far from depressing.

M. M. Justus said...

Speaking as a former librarian, I cannot agree with you more.

Now, about my query... [g]

Bron said...

I think that's one reason the iPad might be a good thing for book purchasers. It's more expensive than an e-reader, but I'm guessing more people can justify paying for a device that has multiple functions beyond reading.

Of course, if you can't afford either device then it's a moot point, which is why I hope paper books continue until well into the future.

Anonymous said...

I've said elsewhere that I believe ebooks will eventually replace physical books. But most likely not in my lifetime.

It's a thing for the next generation, who will no longer care about having physcial copies of anything. They'll watch their movies and TV online instead of buying the DVD, they'll read digital comics while listening to music they downloaded, and they will not care that they only get to keep the massively DRM restricted ebooks so long as Amazon or Apple allows them to, or until their mobile entertainment device breaks and they have to buy a new one.

Physcial books are for old fogeys like me, ebooks can't replace them but might serve to supplement them.

Anonymous said...

I do own an e-reader, but since I have fairly old-fashioned (public domain) tastes in books and also use it for my own projects it has already paid for itself.

I think, though, that they are being marketed to the wrong sector. For the average person, they're a status symbol, a convenience, and they do add an "entrance fee" that never existed before. As a status symbol, clearly what you want is the reader with the most bells and whistles--something that will read you a story, connect to the internet, play a symphony, and look really cool. This adds more and more to the price tag, and pushes them further and further out of reach.

The way that I would market e-readers is to the publishing industry, itself. I would pare the thing down to barebones--screen, battery, maybe a couple of buttons. Make it cheap. And you could make it very, very cheap. The markup on electronics is staggering. (Look at one laptop per child)

The people who have the most to gain from my having an e-reader are the people who would otherwise have to pay for the paper, the ink, the production machines.

So, once you have something that doesn't play MP3s or read bedtime stories, or dance jigs, you give it away. You focus on reader groups that have a steady, predictable consumption of materials. Romance readers, Science Fiction readers. Subscribers to the New York Times. And instead of giving away a totebag, or a spiffy book-cover, you give them a reader.

It's worth noting that newspapers generally cost more than the subscription fees to produce, anyway, and make their profits through advertising, so reducing their costs could mean that they would be making a profit off subscribers for the first time.

Anonymous said...

As with most new technology, prices are sky-high when the product is first introduced. Just look at plasma TVs and PCs. I believe e-readers will eventually become a lot more affordable for most people. Not that I plan on buying one.

Kat said...

Libraries are depressing?

Okay, I'm lucky. I live in a city that has beautiful, cool, well-stocked libraries (Toronto). Sometimes I go to my local library just to hang out and read something I've already borrowed or bought.

I agree with you that libraries are a great way to promote books, though. I've definitely bought books after borrowing them, or trying to borrow them and getting frustrated with the hold queue!

I'm not sold yet on e-readers, although I have read some books in PDF format on my tablet computer. My main beef is that e-readers are Yet Another Electronic Gadget that can break, run low on batteries, or not work the way I want it to. Then there's the economic aspects you already covered. I just don't see the benefits outweighing the drawbacks, especially after Amazon surreptitiously deleted those mis-sold copies of (oh irony) 1984.

Thomas said...

There are also a number of formatting, compatibility and access issues that will have to be solved for the Kindle to take off. That's above and beyond the price.

There's also a price issue for the e-books, themselves. I'm not willing to pay for a virtual book unless it's substantially cheaper than it's paper and ink version. I consistently see e-books that are in the same price range as their printed versions. If I'm going to pay that much, I want the artifact.

_*rachel*_ said...

I think I've personally seen just one ereader in real life. And the only reason I'd get one is overseas travel.

I have heard that my former school corporation is considering giving students ereaders and etextbooks, and letting them keep the readers when they graduate. I hear it's been done before, anyway.

Old Kitty said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you for mentioning libraries.

And the only reason why they may not be the snazzy Friends type lounge coffee bar area is that they are completely underfunded and horrendously over-looked in any budget.

Love your libraries! Use your libraries. Support your libraries.


Take care


Anonymous said...

I know at least a dozen people who have ereaders, and none of them are Kindles. I've been told it's because if you have a Kindle you can only read Amazon books (which you'd have to pay for on top of the reader). Everyone I know has I think a Sony reader (I will never buy a Sony product b/c of past experience) and they all get ebooks from the library, which is also where I get 95% of my paperbacks.

Anonymous said...

There's a reason computer companies haven't invested in e-readers.

The market is too nitch.

For example, Apple has sold over 35 million iphones. I'm going to go out on a limb, and say the ipad is going to sell even more. I don't really give a rats ass about the e-reader. The ipad is freaking cool. But if I bought one, I'd probably buy some books too just because I could, but that's not why I'd buy it. That's not why most people are going to buy it. This is isn't a question of e-readers.

It's a matter of what happens to the e-book market when you give 35 million + people access to it?

Frankly, we could see (and I predict will see ) e-book sales equal to or better than paperback sales in as little as five years.

S.D. said...

Hallelujah, Amen, and everything like that.


The Rejecter said...

I don't have a Kindle. I have a Sony e-Reader and it sucks. The screen has glare, it's hard to sync to the computer, and the battery drains on its own over time, even when it's not turned on.

But you can load books on it that you got from Google Books, which is why I got it.

Robbin said...

I agree with you. I get so many of my books at the library because I cannot afford to buy all the books I want to read. Nor can I afford one of those electronic reader thingies. Nor would I even want one. If they stop publishing books I guess I'll just have re read what is already out there.

Matthew J. Beier said...

I got a Barnes & Noble Nook for Christmas, and while it has some kinks, I will only ever go back to buying paper books for the books I truly love and want to see displayed on a daily basis, simply because they make me happy (think the seven Harry Potter books, all in that beautiful, colorful row).


1) Shelf space can be a huge issue for those who like to buy books. I stopped buying books for this reason, because moving books is a pain in the ass. I owned enough books I had not yet read to make this okay. I still wanted to buy new books...but I held off.

2) As others have mentioned, Kindles are only a slice of the e-book market. iPhones are already great for eBooks, and the iPads will make them even more popular. Not to mention Nook, Sony, etc.

3) Production costs? How much can it really cost to format and eBook, compared to printing, distribution, etc.?

4) Libraries are great, but only if you want to wait for books. We live in an impatient, instant-gratification culture!

5) Books can be very bulky. Now that I have my Nook, I'm no longer looking forward to carrying "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" on the train with me when I finally decide to reread it again.

6) Electronic everything is the future. Not embracing this fact just seems silly as can be.

7) As someone also said, I will buy eBooks for books I'll plan to read only once. No brainer.

8) Also, they do not feed the used book market, which is where I used to buy 80% of my hard copy books...which did nothing for the publishing business!

Your boss might have some good points, but to me they seem shortsighted.

Maria said...

You don't have to buy an e-reader. I downloaded both the Kindle for PC and the Nook for PC and stanza. Anyone with a iTouch, cell phone, or computer has access to ebooks. I downloaded the free apps because I have three books published on Amzaon, B&N and so on in e-form. And then I discovered the bargains and ease of downloading a book--instant gratification.

Your boss is right. The publishers are not doing themselves any favors. When I'm shopping on Amazon, I have the option of "download now" for books that are priced just under the paperback copy, or looking around for a copy to be sent to 3 to 14 days...if the ebook is available and isn't priced ridiculously (macmillan, yeah, I mean you) I buy it. Easy. Cheap. COOL.

I don't even have an e-reader, but I've read 4 books on the FREE download apps and have 10 more in the bin waiting.

Sure, it's not for everyone and it's not for every book. But there is nothing cooler than me not having to go to the store or wait for a package. Click. Mine. Now.

Maria said...

P.S. I have nothing against libraries! I think eventually they will lend more ebooks as well (I understand they already lend quite a bit for the sony, but Kindle has a ways to go.) I've also nothing against paper books either. If they are cheaper than ebooks, I'm going to buy the cheapest version...unless, I just HAVE to HAVE the book, that

Gordon Jerome said...

Well, it's not academic. Agents, publisher, libraries and brick and mortar bookstores all need paper books to survive.

Authors and readers don't.

And for a long time yall've been in-between the two. Time to get out of the way.

Hans Flagon said...

Those thinking that eBooks are cannibalizing the sales of traditional books need to remember- many of these sales are sales that would not have otherwise occurred.
Or at least, may not have occurred until a hardcover has gone to remainder.

I buy both dead tree and ebook media, and I have to tell you, the markets seem entirely different to me, more complimentary than overlapping. If you are forced due to availability into an alternate choice for a title to read, those alternates differ between either form.

As far as the hardware devices themselves, I did not jump in immediately as I realized the number of books (from the available pool of ebooks) I would have to buy, at a lower price, to justify the cost of a Kindle, or Nook, may be a number that would take some time to reach.

I think for most people getting eReader hardware, they are not buying a price point as much as convenience, although, they certainly do use that price point to justify their hardware purchase AND they also expect the lack of shipping and storing costs for electronic media to be reflected as a lower price.

But for many it means they are just reading the book they would have waited for Mass Market release a year or two earlier than otherwise. An Author, and Publisher could have their costs recouped SOONER, rather than having their Premium Price Windows completely shattered.

M. M. Justus said...

A friend of mine got her first MP3 player free (or for the price of joining the equivalent of a book club) as part of an Audible promotion. Now she basically won't be without it, not for music, but for audiobooks. It's been a godsend to her because of problems with her eyes.

Somebody needs to do that sort of promotion for ereaders. Buy so many ebooks, get the reader for free. The opposite of what Amazon's doing -- and if Amazon marketers had any brains whatsoever, that's what they'd be doing. After all, once you've bought an ereader, you won't be buying one again for a long time. But people often buy multiple books. On the same day, even.

Unknown said...

I think e-readers are going to be huge, but it's not going to be a trend driven by the casual reader. Instead, it's going to become something college students will begin using instead of lugging huge text books around campus. I can see that in ten years, maybe a bit longer, some kind of e-reader will be the norm for every child in school.

In the long run, it'll be cheaper for school districts. A child can use an e-reader for at least a few years. There are some coming out that are much more durable than a Kindle (the Skiff, for example and I'm sure that more in in the pipeline.)

15 years ago, families were considered well off if they had one computer in the house, now it's more likely that there are at least two.

Tiger said...

Hello. This is an argument that I have a great investment in. I got my kindle through the local agency for the blind. I have a complex visual condition involving both my eyes and my neurology. I only truly realized how much I was avoiding reading--something I love--when the ebook reader arrived. Certainly the price is very high for the technology, but its implications, at least for the disabled, are huge and largely positive. Take that in light of the next edition of kindle, which will have features specifically for blind readers, and it's hard to condemn the ereader out of hand.

Your points about price are why I think ereaders are not likely to replace physical books. Frankly I would rather pay more to have access to information I couldn't otherwise use.

Smaranda said...

I tend to agree with this, but at the same time, it's just so much easier nowadays (for us lazy ones, anyway) to just buy a book online. Especially when it can be instantly delivered to your computer or other e-book reading device. I mean, I've recently (as in, yesterday) uploaded a short anthology to the Kindle website (, and two people have already bought it. And I'm pretty much no one as far as people knowing me and my writing goes. So I think publishers would really be missing out if they didn't choose to publish e-books as well as regular print books.