Saturday, 6 February 2010

Books Vs E-Readers - Conclusions

After having looked at the benefits of and issues with e-readers, along with Why E-Books Are Not MP3s, i think i have come to some conclusions.

I certainly wrote far more on my reservations about e-readers and it should be clear that there are currently some big issues to overcome before widespread adoption. However there are some things - in rough order of preference - that would make buying an e-reader a no-brainer for me.

If buying a physical book entitled me to a free (or very cheap) electronic version.
With this option you get the best of both worlds and a lot of the reservations are mollified. I would be happy to accept restrictive DRM because i would always have a hard copy to fall back on. While the publisher might be concerned that you would sell the physical book and keep the e-book, the DRM would at least prevent you sharing the e-book.  It would cost the publishers a negligible amount in terms of distribution and I would be happy to pay an extra pound or two for the benefit. What really irks me at the moment, is that e-books cost the same as physical books, despite not having any printing or distribution costs.

This could be where Amazon can fight back against the iPad. They have physical distribution as well as electronic. So if they were to offer me a Kindle download of a book that i purchased as i was checking out, for say £2, i would jump at the chance. It would drive hardware sales, it would provide extra revenue for minimal effort and it would make customers happy.

If e-books were encapsulated in a non-proprietary, DRM-free file, that was mine in perpetuity.
Similar to the above, this would remove a lot of my objections. If e-books were all a common standard (PDF for example), without DRM and the files could be downloaded, stored and used on any computer or e-reader, i would be happy to buy.

Though this is very unlikely to happen because there is currently a low level of e-book piracy (compared to music, films and tv) and distributing DRM free files, would increase piracy exponentially. But it could also be argued that it won't be long before people break the DRM on e-books and piracy becomes more common anyway.

If i could get electronic copies of the books i currently own, for free or at an extremely low price. 
This would be similar to being able to rip your CDs to an iPod, it would make the hardware more valuable to me because i could use content that i already own. Ok it is totally pie in the sky because how do you prove that own a book and haven't just borrowed it from a friend or a library. Also publishers would never go for it because in their eyes they should be able to charge you for every different format of the content. While this makes sense for audio books, where there is additional cost for recording, it makes little sense for an e-book, which has no additional costs.

Again Amazon would be in a good position to do this. They know which books you have paid for, so they could offer those books for free if you bought a Kindle. Perhaps you have sold the book, or given it away since you bought it, but the bottom line is that at some stage you paid for it and it costs them nothing to give you it.

Alternatively e-books could be priced more sensibly to reflect the real sales and distribution costs (next to nothing) and a small profit. If e-books were suitably cheap and you could afford to re-purchase content you already owned, again this would make an e-reader much more tempting.

I realise that the latter two are almost certainly never going to happen, but sadly even the first most realistic option is unlikely to happen because publishers are; 1) Protectionist. They are trying in vain, to protect the existing business model and margins. They are doomed to fail in exactly the same way that the film and record companies have. 2) Terrified of piracy. This is already an issue and no amount of DRM or lock-in will fix that. The only way to make piracy less appealing, is to provide extra value for purchasing the product. 3) Greedy. They are determined to try to extract every penny they can from you and by doing so, they make you spend less overall.

When i first drafted parts of this last Sunday, i was going to conclude that i was likely to get an e-reader anyway. But after looking at it in more detail over the week, i think i have talked myself out of buying one. As things stand, i don't see any major benefits and there are a lot of issues with the current system. I may well buy an iPad at some point as a tablet computer, but i won't be buying e-books for it any time soon.


  1. After reading your whole Book vs E-Readers series I still have one major problem with E-Readers... an E-Reader would suck to take to bed with you. I am a big fan of getting in bed, getting my book out and then generally falling asleep in the middle of a page then waking up so find myself sleeping on the book. I'd probably break an E-Reader that way!!

    I don't know, there is just something special about holding a book in your hands. You can take it anywhere, read it in the bath and it doesn't really matter if it gets wet. Drop it in the sand at the beach. They have that awesome book smell.

    Aaaahhh yep, I love books, I don't think I'd ever trade to a E-Reader!

  2. I suspect this is where i am different from the vast majority of the book-buying public. I am totally obsessive compulsive about keeping my books in perfect condition. The thought of falling asleep and squishing a book (breaking the spine or folding over pages) fills me with far more dread than an e-reader dropping off the bed. Also, hypothetically if i did take baths or go to the beach, i certainly wouldn't take a book anywhere near sand or open water ;-) Like i say, i am not representative of the average reader.

    However i do agree with you about there being something special about books; the feel, smell and weight of a book is strangely reassuring. But then the same could be said for vinyl records and they are now a seriously niche product. Convenience trumps tactile experience. I guess i have a certain resignation to the fact that e-readers are the future and most of my concerns are about what that future will look like.