eBooks: The first step of a long change

eBooks: The first step of a long change

Summary: After polling all of you about the right price for an eBook device and the kinds of documents you are buying, as well as doing a lot of research over the last couple months, it's clear that the eBooks market is growing. It's also clear that there are huge hurdles to overcome before we, as readers, migrate away from paper.

TOPICS: Hardware, Mobility

BooksAfter polling all of you about the right price for an eBook device and the kinds of documents you are buying, as well as doing a lot of research over the last couple months, it's clear that the eBooks market is growing. It's also clear that there are huge hurdles to overcome before we, as readers, migrate away from paper. Not the least of these barriers to adoption is the very idea of the eBook itself. It's not a book anymore, nor is it the idea of selling a "copy" of a book the right model for pricing.

What I plan to do is write a long research report about eBooks, reading devices (including phones and PCs), and the ideas we need to throw out. Anyone out there who would like to sponsor the research should contact me by email. For now, though, let me share a few ideas that I plan to test as I go into this research process.

1.) Devices are optional. The focus on sales of eBook readers is misleading, because the first challenge is to change the book itself, so that it delivers far more value than the paper edition with which we are familiar. Kindle sales, which I estimate are approximately 160,000 units as of this writing, are a great indication that people do want an alternative to hauling a pile of books or to reading on a PC. BeBooks has sold 30,000 of its reader devices—people want this option.

However, we are at precisely the same stage in the digital book reader device market as when Audible saw the first challengers to its portable digital audio player emerge, in 1998. Music had not changed—that is, it hadn't been unbundled from the concept of an "album"—and did not change until the iPod appeared.

Amazon's Kindle, which I have used extensively, remains the most impressive device based on price and functionality, in my opinion. The Sony Reader needs broadband connectivity and substantially improved navigation and note-taking ability in order to keep up with Kindle. The iRex Reader 2nd Edition, a $699 Linux-based reader with Wacom pen technology, is really impressive, but way to expensive to be a viable competitor in a world where readers of this blog want a device that is $99 or less. New flexible display technology from Plastic Logic promises good things, too, however the main problem remains not how to display text, rather it is how to link different versions of the same text together for use across devices, because what we call "books" today are now available in many different contexts and interfaces.

2.) Format is the suicide king. "We have to be careful not to let the technologists take control," Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords Inc., a developer of eBooks with a growing stable of authors and titles on its publishing/bookstore service.

More than 30 formats vie for adoption by device and eBook software developers, authors, publishers and, most importantly, readers. You cannot buy an eBook and expect it to work on a particular device, unless you buy it through the developer of your reader. This means we have a bunch of sites trying to be iTunes, the provider of titles and the interface for reading, rather than a lot of standards-based titles competing for the reader's attention, which is analogous to the MP3-based music market that has shattered the music business.

So, getting too close to one format closes doors, both for authors, who want to be read by the largest possible market of readers, and book purchasers, who want to read without having to choose only from titles available in their reader-based silo.

The market needs a robust standard format, which the ePub format appears poised to deliver, especially when the DTBook XML vocabulary is implemented to preserve page location in a form that can be used to cite page and edition for a highlight, note or copied text.

To date, the format wars in eBooks have undermined the most important feature of a paper book, the ability to point to a part of the text on a certain page of a specific edition, which is the basis of academic and professional citation, which is the key to dialogue taking place through books. Without support for citations without losing one's location because the reader software/device has reflowed the text for a particular device, eBooks are less than paper books. That's the biggest barrier to wider use today, because even authors cannot use electronic versions to refer to another work.

3.) It's a new medium, stupid. Once authors begin to use eBooks in citation, they will start to recognize how the medium can be expanded by use of linking and augmentation with, say video or audio. Some folks object to the fact eBook devices don't currently display color or video, but, frankly, the people who make books need to take some steps to expand their horizons, through less sophisticated features like hyper-linking, before the creative urge to do more with books takes hold.

The fact that it takes half a second or more to turn a page in an eBook reader today is a more important and basic problem than the lack of rich media support. But authors also need to be thinking about the cross-references, the way links could reinforce and extend foreshadowing and references to ideas, before we start incorporating color and video intelligently, rather than just to have checked off more feature requirements on a mythical product manager's specification.

4.) How many ways can one copy be used? Fact is, we can make copies of books quite easily. We've been buying multiple copies of books when we need to during the paper epoch. I used to have a copy of a Chilton manual that lay on the engine of a Datsun 510 while I worked on the car—it was covered with grease—and another I used to study what I needed to order in replacement parts. But that's just one prosaic example of the way information in a book has the ability to reconfigure itself to our needs. eBooks need to be prepared to do this with greater subtlety.

But they don't today. For example, in order to have access to a copy of The Cambridge Companion to Kant, a book I've been reading along with the works of the philosopher this summer, I had to buy the paper edition ($29.50 retail), the Kindle edition ($28.42) and the "Amazon Upgrade" PDF version ($7.39) in order to access the book physically, through the eBook reader I own and the PC I use, respectively. Netted out, I spent $65.31, or 2.21 times the price of the paper book—and the copies are completely separate, isolated from one another. Notes made on the Kindle don't appear in the PDF version, and neither of the electronic versions is linked to the paper book efficiently. The Kindle version reflows the book without maintaining any page location, so I can't make a note in the Kindle version and, when reviewing those notes, refer to a page in the paper book.

I'd happily pay for more use of the books I buy, if that use is an extension of the information and not simply a fee for reformatting. Many folks take a DIY approach to this today, and there are ample libraries of eBook files out there, but when we really have figured out the business of publishing knowledge rather than simply text, there will be new, as-yet unrecognized but forehead-slapping obvious enhancements to text that most people will pay for instead of doing it themselves. Just connecting my different versions, PC and Kindle, together migrate highlights and notes, would be a step in the right direction (this is obvious as an analogy to bookmark and contact synchronization across multiple PCs).

There's much more to cover, but that is why I am preparing a research report. Thanks everyone for the help in getting my head around this exciting complex publishing and business problem.

Topics: Hardware, Mobility

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  • Amazon should learn from Razor Companies

    To wit, make the Kindle $99.95 to make mucho profit on
    books, etc, for the Kindle
  • RE: eBooks: The first step of a long change

    Isn't it a suicide Jack, not a suicide King?

    Anyway - the #1 Absolute Top Priority for me in deciding to purchase a Kindle had nothing to do with the ergonomics of the device or the extra capabilities it had. It was the book selection. Sony, iRex, Plastic Logic - they could give away the devices for free and I still wouldn't be interested unless they had a wide selection of NEW* books available and a Grandma-easy way of buying them and getting them into the device. That's what Amazon did with the Kindle. The rest is gravy. The device will improve over time in terms of ergonomics, size, features, etc., but since Amazon has made the purchase cycle of buying e-books so easy, they won my dollars.

    * Many people out there point out the huge availability of "free" books in electronic format. I have no interest in reading Great Expectations again, or any of the other classics that are frequently mentioned. All those free books don't mean a thing to me, and most likely don't mean much to other potential e-book buyers as well.
    • Yes, indeed.

      It is a suicide Jack, but I was playing on the "content is king"

      I might be interested in Great Expectations, if the eBook had
      links to historical information Dickens knew, how the book
      had informed later books -- through links to those books,
      Mitch Ratcliffe
  • RE: eBooks: The first step of a long change

    For a small publisher like us (in Italy), any kind of e-book reader would be welcome to all families who must spend hundreds of dollar per child in schoolbooks. Schoolchildren too would welcome an updated Kindle which would solve the problem of their weighty (and terribly expensive) schoolbags.
    Not to mention that it would greatly increase competition between big and small publishing houses. We wouldn't mind having to pay Amazon for the distribution of our books.
    In the not too long run we'd expect to see an updated version of Kindle, with formatted pages (with well designed page layouts as we usually do in paper books) and nice coloured images.
    I like your project and mean to add more detailed ideas to it.
    • Would you be willing to sell parts of your books

      to school kids for use in class, so that they are introduced to
      your titles and can decide whether to purchase the full text
      for their own enjoyment or education? I think that is going to
      be a key to how publishers of all sizes use the digital
      channel, regardless of what it ultimately looks like. Lots more
      sampling to expand awareness. School use, because schools
      are hard-pressed to keep current, would be a public-spirited
      way to engage the market.
      Mitch Ratcliffe
  • You missed the biggest problem

    Next year, you book collection will be unreadable. Either the format wars will go on (with you a casualty), the DRM will lock you out, or something similar.

    Meanwhile, I'm looking at paper books that were printed before Benjamin Franklin was born. They're still perfectly readable.

    When so-called "e-books" can last as many years as those books have centuries, we might talk.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • So, you are saying we will still be using papyrus?

      I agree that there are problems with ebooks, but
      suggesting we are not going to be using more digital
      forms of knowledge (as compared to just plain
      information--because books, to me, represent an
      investment of intellect, as it is clear they do to you) is a
      short-term perspective, at best. Maybe, if we don't just
      give up on this, we'll get something that is better, rather
      than less than a paper book.

      But I own 4,000+ books not hand-written on vellum or
      parchment that, despite their lack of antiquity, are
      valuable. I assume we'll see additional changes in the
      delivery of text in our lifetimes.
      Mitch Ratcliffe
      • Deliberately missing the point

        [i]I agree that there are problems with ebooks, but suggesting we are not going to be using more digital forms of knowledge (as compared to just plain information--because books, to me, represent an investment of intellect, as it is clear they do to you) is a short-term perspective, at best.[/i]

        That's nice, and about as useful as the prediction that someday we'll have a cure for osteoarthritis such that I will be able to repair my knee instead of replace it with a crappy titanium imitation which can never go back to original equipment: neither is useful as guide to present decision making.

        Right now, so-called "e-books" are like newspapars, with the added drawbacks that you can't clip stuff worth keeping, you have to buy a different reader for each paper every year that costs more than the papers do, and you can't let others read your papers.

        An "investment of intellect" that has a shorter useful life than a newspaper on high-acid pulp stock doesn't impress me.

        [i]But I own 4,000+ books not hand-written on vellum or parchment that, despite their lack of antiquity, are valuable. I assume we'll see additional changes in the delivery of text in our lifetimes.[/i]

        Let's not confuse the medium for the content. I'm sure that digital media will change, just as printed media have. Printed [b]content[/b], however, remains as readable today as it was when the Domesday Book was recorded. How readable are the warehouses full of planetary probe data that NASA collected in the 80s?
        Yagotta B. Kidding
        • Seriously, not missing the point

          I have seen hundreds of thousands of words I took the
          time to write -- for money -- go missing on the Web. But,
          that doesn't mean this is a dead end.

          We absolutely must have a way to liberate data that has
          been lost in format obsolescence. There are, however,
          analogous shortcomings in the history of books, which
          were notoriously easy to destroy for much of their history
          (not simply the single book, but every copy of a book
          could be lost in a single fire).

          And I have a titanium neck.
          Mitch Ratcliffe
          • The philosophy of "live questions"

            [i]We absolutely must have a way to liberate data that has
            been lost in format obsolescence.[/i]

            But that's not a useful guide to decisions [u]today.[/u]

            [i]And I have a titanium neck.[/i]

            As I said, "someday" doesn't cut it when you have an immediate need. Fortunately, the decision on my titanium tibia was easier, since there really isn't much of a downside to it (as distinct from the knees, which are temporary kludges at best.)
            Yagotta B. Kidding
          • Live in the present, make the future

            I guess I don't see why, from the perspective of trying to
            make a better ebook, we have to limit our thinking to today.
            As a perennial early-adopter, even with regards my spine, I
            buy a lot of stuff that will fail, but I do it in order to think
            through how to make it better. Hopefully the neck will be
            useful a lot longer than the current iterations of ebooks, or I
            am screwed.
            Mitch Ratcliffe
    • that's what they DON'T want

      Industry lives from people buying the same thing over and over. Think about how many times you've bought the same film or audio track: first on tape, then DVD, now blue ray. Industry wants things to become obsolete, forcing you to buy things again. Have you seen an "blue-ray upgrade option" for someone owing a DVD title? Of course not.

      Now combine that with the fact that eBooks are ridiculously priced, kind of following the Vonage model of ripping you off while convincing you that you are winning.

      Maybe I'm getting older, but I've reached a point where I've become very skeptical about new technologies. I have the feeling that they just wanna drain my money, and only once in a while they make my life easier.
  • personallized anthologies: or collecting favorite short stories.

    I see one great benefit for eBook readers. I am a fan of short science fiction stories. There are vast collections of printed short stories from the masters and the struggling. If there was some way to collect my favorite stories from "I, Robot", "Martian Chronicles", "Cats in Space" or, "Other Worlds, Other Gods" I would be happy. "Cats in Space" has vanished into a black hole, and "Other Worlds, Other Gods", is hard to find,

    Another benefit would be the availability of out of print books usually available only through used books stores, if at all. A central server like at Amazon could hold millions of "lost" books. www.archive.org is an example of how this would look. Now, that service is a far improvement over Gutenberg.org

    With eBooks, we are closer to Gene Roddenberry's goal of no paper on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

    As far as price of the devices go, unless they can be programed to be like a large PDA, $150 is a viable max price. Or sell apps to use on existing Win mobiles or Palm handheld.
  • Don't dismiss Palm and Windows Mobile

    Device manufacturers would love to confuse you into thinking that the eBook == their device, but nothing could be further from the truth. The eBook is not and never will be the device.

    Thus far the very best eBook readers I've used are Palm and Windows Mobile devices, which trump devices such as the Kindle merely by being small enough to fit in your pocket.

    The eBook is not the format, either... it is the content. In order to be successful, an eBook must be portable and device independent. For instance, your problem of having to make three purchases is largely due to the use of the Kindle. As a user of a PalmOS device, I can buy an eBook in PDF, PDB, or PRC format (or as a Word doc), and read it on my PC or on my Palm device. Any device requiring a format that's unreadable on other devices is off the table for me. Any device that will not read documents that I myself have authored (or charges me for the privilege of converting them, as does the Kindle) is likewise off the table.

    But the big deal for me is portability in a physical sense. I can slip my Palm device in my shirt pocket. I can't do that with a Kindle. And I get other features that aren't possible on a dedicated eBook reader.

    Obviously, other people have other reasons for preferring their eBook reader devices. My major points here are that any discussion of eBooks needs to separate the eBooks from the eReaders; and portability (both physical portability and device independence) are absolutely necessary components of a ubiquitous solution.
  • What would you like to see in a pen interface?

    Beyond the issue that E-Ink screen refreshes are slow (supposed to be solved as the technology develops) and expensive (hopefully will be solved with increased scale although perhaps not for some time as market gossip says that E-Ink is trying to push up royalties because it is still not making money), the performance of E-Ink is unsurpassed as far as providing a paper-like experience in the digital domain.

    Which brings me to the question of what makes sense to you as a best way to e-write on e-paper?

    Simple annotations, syncing annotations to PC versions of the same documents, handwriting recognition (changing handwriting to text) are all possible, but not implemented even to this level. The iRex products remain unique in this respect.

    How else should you be able to "write" on a digital document? Should e-readers also become e-notepads? I think these would be interesting questions for your research.
    Pen Insider
  • Kindle = Techno-nonsense

    In this supposedly eco-friendly era, I can't believe people are seriously pushing a single-purpose machine that, during manufacture, releases more poison into the environment than a dozen boxes of paper.

    Plastics release toxins. Smelting metal releases toxins. Etching the PCB releases toxins, and the battery is completely toxic.

    Add to that the fact that paper is recyclable, while our nice Kindle will end up in India being disassembled in a "recycling" facility... you get the idea.

    It's bad enough cell phones get tossed every couple years.
  • RE: eBooks: The first step of a long change

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