The 26 April 2010 issue of The New Yorker had an article on e-publishing, specifically the battle between Amazon’s Kindle and the new iPad from Apple, and the effect that these and other similar devices are having on the publishing market. Unless you’ve been living under a rather large rock lately you’ll know that the publishing industry isn’t doing so well, and e-readers such as the Kindle, Nook, and iPad are being cast in the role of saviour of publishing. It’s an interesting article, but passes lightly over a couple things that, in my mind at least, are quite important.
First, Apple and Amazon are both negotiating with the large publishers for rights to distribute the publishers’ content, but are also moving towards publishing authors’ content directly and bypassing the publishing houses. Fine and good, you might say, as an e-book doesn’t need the printing and distribution that a publisher provides. That much is true, but what about the other services that publishers provide? They nurture new talent, taking the risk of providing advances for authors developing and writing books, and providing editing and other advice to improve the quality of the books. Certainly any e-publisher can skim the cream and publish well-known authors’ books, but will they be willing to develop talent?
The topic that I felt really should have received some attention is that of DRM, or digital rights management, which prevents moving electronic content from one device to another. The New Yorker article covered the issue of pricing extensively, including a discussion of authors’ royalties, the costs of manufacturing, distribution, and returns for physical books, comparing that to the minimal cost of product and distribution, and non-existent costs of returns, for e-publishing. Apple and Amazon have made some efforts to ensure that authors are paid appropriately for their books, but when it comes time for consumer pricing it’s all a big guess.
What is an e-book worth? How much should consumers pay, and why? All this is covered by The New Yorker in a single sentence at the very end of the article: “No matter where consumers buy books, their belief that electronic media should cost less — that something you can’t hold simple isn’t worth as much money — will exert a powerful force.”
The e-publishers just can’t seem to figure out why consumers aren’t willing to pay the same amount for an e-book as for the printed version. And why is that?
Repeat after me: It’s because with a download I don’t own the damn book!
When I buy a hardback or paperback book, I can take it home, read it, and put it on my book shelf. I can loan it or give it to a friend. I can resell it if I want, or donate it to a library or book sale when I’m done with it. Or I can leave it on my bookshelf and reread it a year or two (or ten or twenty) later. But with an e-book, the book is stuck inside my device, whether it’s a Kindle or iPad or Nook. I can’t lend it (despite Nook’s claims) or give it to a friend, or donate it to the library. And I certainly won’t be reading this same copy of this book ten or twenty years down the road. The book is stuck inside my device, and it won’t come out.
Should my device fail I might be able to get another copy from Apple or Amazon as long as I buy another device from them. But if I buy a different device next year to replace the one I own now (there is, after all, always a new nifty device coming out soon), the books that I purchased will not move over; if I own a Kindle today the books that I’ve purchased aren’t going to move to the iPad I buy tomorrow, or to whatever device I buy ten years down the road. I’m locked in to buying devices from that same manufacturer forever, unless I’m willing to repurchase all of my books.
Books written by monastic monks a thousand years ago are still legible, and don’t depend on a device beyond our own eyes to be read, and every human gets their own. I can buy books from a couple hundred years ago and still read and enjoy them. A book I buy for my Nook is not going to last beyond the obsolescence of the device that it’s on.
That’s why I shouldn’t pay the same for an e-book as for the hardcover version. I don’t own the book; all I get is a license to read it on this particular device. I’m just renting the book or a year or two.
In addition, we’re facing the same issue as when our music was republished on CD, or our movies on DVD. Despite my owning a particular music album on LP or cassette (or — snort — eight track) if I wanted it on CD I had to buy another copy. If I owned a movie on VHS I had to buy another copy on DVD — though I at least got some DVD extras. So now I’m supposed to buy new copies of the thousand or so books in my library? I think not.
(But at least if I did have all of my books in electronic format I wouldn’t have had such a great time moving a few months ago.)
I do like my Nook for some things. It’s great on the airplane. I used to carry two or three books with me on flights because I never knew what I was going to feel like reading, or I might finish a book and have to buy another at the airport. Now I can take a couple hundred books with me. I’ve only bought one or two books through the Nook (i.e. by downloading from Barnes & Noble); almost all of my Nook content is from Project Gutenberg where you can get free texts of thousands of books — but just not the latest best sellers. That’s why I chose the Nook over the Kindle; the Nook supports the ePub format, which the Kindle doesn’t. But the Nook is a bit clunky; the processor is underpowered and the display is slow, causing long delays in opening a book and a very noticeable lag when turning the page. The button layout isn’t ideal, and the menu navigation is a joke. I’m considering the iPad as a big step up (you can call me an Apple fanboy, I suppose), especially since the iPad can be used as a lot more than just an e-reader. But even then I won’t be paying for downloads; if I’m not going to own it I’m not going to pay for it.