eBooks: The first step of a long change

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.
Written by Mitch Ratcliffe, Contributor
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. 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.

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