Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Ebook Tangle

The Kindle and other e-readers are gaining popularity. They are small portable devices, with long battery life, that excel at mimicking books. People who have bought one love it, swear by it and claim that it has enhanced their reading experience.

I'm just not convinced. I've been trying out the Barnes and Noble Nook which is a promising product. But once you look past the novelty value, there are a lot of things that are broken with the ebook model.

First, let's look at costs.

Here's the rough breakup of costs for a bestselling book:
  • 45%: Retail
  • 15%: Author royalty
  • 10%: Wholesaler
  • 30%: Publisher, of which printing is roughly 10%, marketing is roughly 7%

That is for a bestselling book. For the average book, author royalties are lesser, and the publisher takes a bigger cut since the average book fails more often. Publishers buy back all unsold books, which raises their costs. So logic would dictate that for average books, which are inherently riskier to print, ebook prices should be dramatically lower.

For a $10 book, the printer, the retail and wholesale contribute $6.5 to the cost of the book. Ebook distribution is nearly cost-free, but even if we say that the distribution of the ebook costs $1, we can reduce printing, retail and wholesale from $6.5 to $1, bringing the price of the book down to $4.50 from $10. Why aren't ebooks at this level? Many books I've seen at Amazon and Barnes and Noble are roughly the same price as a discounted paperback. At that price, and free shipping for orders over $25, why would I bother with a book that requires a special device to use?

Some Kindle books are cheaper: these are usually mass-market paperbacks. But even here, the paperback version is discounted to be about the same cost as the ebook. This is true of many books on Amazon, and only in rare cases are there differences between the paperback and Kindle edition. Hardcover books are more expensive than ebooks, no doubt.

Ebooks aren't currently cheaper, which is usually countered by the argument that ebooks are a superior product. I don't agree with this. Ebooks are closer to book rental than book purchase. Amazon doesn't allow you to loan a book you have purchased. Barnes and Noble has a feature called "LendMe", which allows you to loan a book to someone with a compatible reader. For 14 days. Once. I couldn't believe this till I saw it myself. What's worse, I'm reading an old translation of "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy, which is in the public domain. I bought that on Barnes and Noble's Nook reader. It costs $1, which is reasonable, even though it is in the public domain and available on Feedbooks. But the real problem is that I don't get any rights over this content, even though the copyright has long-since expired. The LendMe feature just allows a single 14 day loan of this public domain book. After I am done with a book, I usually give it to a friend who I know will enjoy reading it. In many cases, I don't want the book back, and I won't be reading it again. But my friend certainly can enjoy it, and perhaps loan it out to somebody he knows. This cannot be done with ebooks.

An often hyped feature of ebooks is the ability to keep your entire library with you at all times. I doubt I'll be reading Anna Karenina again, at least for a decade. How often do people re-read a fiction book, anyway? This notion that people would like to carry their entire collection at all times is marketing make-believe. The only books I'd like to do this to are reference books or textbooks, both of which are currently unavailable in ebook format. Students might benefit the most from being able to carry a single device rather than a heavy backpack, but look at the textbook publishers. They aren't about to give their lucrative monopoly on textbooks away for nothing. I haven't come across any college textbook that is either cheap or electronic.

Another problem with ebooks is that you don't actually own the book. When you buy a paper book, you have some rights as the owner. You get a first-sale right: you can sell it to your friend for half the price you got it at. This keeps the textbook market lucrative for second-hand shops, and affordable for students who drank their summer paycheck away. You get the right to lend it to friends and family, for as long as you'd like, without letting the store know. You get the right to leave it in a busy train for the next commuter to read. None of these are available to you with ebooks. With ebooks, you are purchasing the right to read the book, and nothing else.

As a book rental, ebooks might work. The screen on the reader is crisp, and it makes for easy reading. But it is no better than a real physical book.

At the very least, I'd want a few fixes before I subscribe to this model:
  1. Ability to lend/borrow books without constraints. Multiple times, and with no time limit.
  2. Ability to transfer ownership: even if it is a limited number of times. Publishers are fine with physical books changing owners because physical books degrade over time. In that case, allowing a book to change hands fifteen times seems reasonable.
If ebooks are going to cost as much as paperbacks, they should carry the same privileges. If you want to restrict the rights the owner has, you have to make them cheaper.

Edit: August 2, 2010: In case it isn't clear from the article: I think ebooks hold a lot of promise. I'd be happy if I could substitute my heavy bookshelf with a lightweight device. I have tried looking for textbooks (Computer Science and Statistics), and those are unavailable. Two recent purchases were: Introduction to Data Mining, and India After Gandhi. Both these are unavailable as ebooks.

Also, I'm aware of Feedbooks and Project Gutenberg, which is how I read books on my phone. I wanted to see if buying a public domain book (from Barnes & Noble) granted you the rights you had. It doesn't.

Finally, if people have websites from where they buy ebooks, especially technical content, I'd be glad if you could leave a comment for everyone to read. A person pointed me to, which is a good website. O'Reilly media sells ebooks too, though they are more expensive than Amazon's price for the paper books.

Cheers, and thanks for the comments.