What I Think About When I Think About Ebooks

The eventual widespread digital distribution of books and other media is taken now as a foregone conclusion; the modest success of products from Sony, Barnes & Noble, and (notably) Amazon put the issue in the public eye initially, but the biggest splash came last week with Apple’s introduction of the iPad — a category killer almost for sure, given its additional capabilities over its e-reader competitors and its likely ability to consume books from both its own store and Amazon’s Kindle store. (There’s a Kindle app for the iPhone already.)

Also very public at this point is the spat between Amazon and publishing house Macmillan over ebook pricing. Amazon wanted to hold the line at $9.99, but the publisher wanted half again more; the situation devolved enough that Amazon actually delisted all physical and electronic copies of Macmillan books for the duration of last weekend, and has in fact still not reinstated all of them despite acquiescing to Macmillan’s demands.

The whole situation reminds many of the sturm und drang surrounding the widespread adoption of MP3 players, and the resultant rush to find ways to sell music online. There, too, we find Apple at the forefront (it’s a safe bet to assume that, with the Kindle, Jeff Bezos and Amazon were hoping to imitate Apple’s musical success in the ebook market). A quick survey of the history here might lead you to believe that the book situation will evolve similarly, but I for one am not completely convinced, at least not with the current pricing and parameters.

Let’s look at music for a moment and consider what’s gone before, and then see how that applies to books.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the MP3

Ten years ago, only serious nerds had any kind of digital music collection. The market was anybody’s, and it stayed that way until “anybody” became “Apple.” Not the first or even most feature-laden MP3 player, the iPod instead represented the first one normal people actually bought to use.

Back then, there was no legal online music; you bought your CDs and ripped them at home, using one of several formats (most famously MP3, but AAC and Ogg and WMA are out there, too), before using some purpose-built software to copy those files to your player. It was a bit of a hassle, but high-capacity players like the iPod made the tedium pay off in your ability to carry hundreds of albums around with you all the time.

Then people started selling music online. The most successful, obviously, was Apple, at the benchmark price of $0.99 per track. This price mirrored, on average, what we pay for CDs in music stores — most albums have 10 to 15 tracks, and we pay $10 to $15 for a CD.

I bought very, very little of this music. Why? Because the seller was giving me a less useful product, but hadn’t lowered the price. By buying digitally in those days, I was getting locked-down, DRM’d music at a limited bitrate that would only work with one firm’s devices. Apple’s approach was more benign than some, but it was still a pain, and it limited what I was willing to buy. One-off, single song purchases to satisfy an earworm? Sure. Some top-40 crap I’m pretty sure I won’t care about in 5 years? Absolutely. But for anything real that I actually cared about, I bought a CD — and in so doing, I acquired a few more things for my money:

  • A physical artifact. This may be a boon or a bust, depending on your POV.

  • The ability to easily format shift — despite trying, nobody ever made a genuinely unrippable CD, which means every one sold will play in any CD deck, and can be ripped into any digital format I want.

  • Additional fidelity. Early digital music was at lower bitrates, which produced slightly lower quality than actual CDs. This doesn’t matter for most people (or for headphones), but I have a nice enough stereo that naive, non-nerdy listeners can usually tell a low-bitrate MP3 from CD source.

Since the digital and physical prices were the same, a digital purchase gave me less for the same money. That’s a bad deal, so I behaved accordingly.

In the years since, a couple interesting things have happened:

  • Nobody is selling music with DRM on it anymore (not counting streamed, subscription services, which are a different creature). Music bought from Amazon or Apple is actually yours, and can’t be turned off or zapped remotely anymore.

  • Most digital sources are offering higher bitrate files, essentially indistinguishable from CD source even on nice stereos.

  • Some “digital albums” come with extras, like booklets and linernotes and even videos, which helps create a better “album purchase” experience and make up for the lack of a physical object. We still lack that, but, as I noted, this can be seen as a feature or a bug, depending on your POV.

Consequently, I now buy most of my music online, generally from Apple or Amazon. The price is about the same as physical, but what I get (easier storage and retrieval, immediate gratification) is a fair trade vs. what I give up (the need to store a physical CD, some theoretical level of fidelity).

Why this won’t happen for books

The music market, though, has a couple fundamental differences from the book market.

  • With music, I don’t have to choose one format over the other. Format shifting is simple. A physical CD can be ripped for use on my iPod; a digital album can be burned to CD to play in the car. You can’t easily go either way with books: if you want a digital copy, give up reading it in the bath. If you want a physical copy, prepare to give up space in your carryon. If you want both, they want you to pay twice. Fuck that.

  • In contrast to the modern e-music market, the book market remains a DRM’d wasteland. If you buy content with rights-management crap attached, you don’t own it. You only get to use it (legally) as long as the DRM vendor thinks it’s okay. If the authorization servers go kaput, your content may not work anymore. (More here.) Amazon made this abundantly clear when, after a rights dispute, they removed books that people had purchased from their Kindles. Apple will be no better in this regard.

  • Notwithstanding the prior points, publishers are working hard to ensure the ebook price is nearly the same as a hardback despite the fact that the electronic versions are, for all practical purposes, defective by design.

It seems clear to me that selling me (or, rather, renting me) an inflexibly formatted version of a book is worth vastly less money than a robust, flexible, physical tome I can keep in my house forever, loaning or reselling as I see fit.

Adding to this absurdity is the fact that, for books (just as with CDs), the physical aspect of the artifact is responsible for a huge chunk of the final cost. Books must be printed and shipped all over the place, and then (potentially) shipped back for remaindering. None of this is true with digital distribution; this, to me, means that the publishers’ attempts to push ebook prices to hardback parity are nothing more than transparent attempts to screw the consumer. (I’m all for authors and musicians getting paid, but let’s be honest: the middleman here is the guy who needs to justify his share of the deal, not the content creator. If ebooks get real traction and free writers from the need to use a printing press and physical distribution network, we’ll see more authors disintermediating the publisher just as more and more bands skip the exploitative deals that used to define pop music success.)

This matters more to me for books because, at the end of the day, I give up little functional utility with a digital music purchase — it’s more or less the same to me. As outlined above, though, ebooks suck compared to physical ones, and can’t ever be “mine” in any real sense that matters under the current terms of the deal.

Would I buy DRM’d, limited-use ebooks at any price? Sure. But that price needs to be much, much lower than even the $9.99 Amazon was pushing for. Maybe none of this matters for some use cases — you’re a voracious consumer of disposable paperbacks you inevitably sell to Half Price Books just to get ’em out of the house, or you travel as much as I did this summer — but for general reading, it’s a complete nonstarter.

It’ll be interesting to see how quickly folks realize this, and how the market evolves.

A final note: Something that I would buy, and that I think people would be interested in, is nondiscounted hardbacks (at what, $25?) that include the digital edition. That way, I’d get format shifting if i wanted it, I’d get loan-ability and shelf appeal and fault-tolerance, but I’d also get the portability and searchability that digital books excel at. But you can be sure that, in such a situation, I’d have zero interest in paying $15 for it on top of a $25 hardback.

4 thoughts on “What I Think About When I Think About Ebooks

  1. Oh, I’m certainly not saying that there’s no room for a middleman’s value here, but I am saying that it appears that a mostly-digital world will make it easier for authors and musicians alike to reach fans with less overhead, and that publishers and record labels are fooling exactly no one when they try to keep prices the same while having lower costs.

    The middleman is the guy who needs someone like Scalzi to write a little play explaining what he provides. Some of that matters to me (editing); some of it doesn’t (I wouldn’t enjoy a Scalzi book any less if it had plain white covers). I’m not alone.

    And, of course, my primary thesis is simply one of value for money: You can’t really expect me to pay the same price for something less functional. That’s the sort of behavior that pushes music buyers to bittorrent. Not, of course, that I’d EVER do something like that personally.

    As far as you know.

  2. 1 – I’m not paying as much as you for the book. Yes I realize I had to pay ~$300 for the device, but you had to buy a bookshelf or take up space on the back of the toilet. $9.99 is less than $24.99 every time. Are publishers trying to come up with a scheme to make us pay the same. Yes. Will they be successful? Unlikely.

    2 – I am getting more functionality. Can you highlight and annotate text across hundreds of books and look it up in one place? Can you lend your book instantly to a friend in another state? Can you scan your whole book/hell your whole library for a certain phrase? There are some significant functionality pluses with e-books.

    3 – Do I think B&N/Amazon/Apple might decide to take back my particular book? Not really. It could happen, but more books will get left on buses, eaten by dogs, burned by Crusaders and stolen by Chinese literary gangs than will be forcibly removed by Jeff Bezos.

    All that being said, the ebook market will not look like it does today in 3 years. Doubting technology has not proved to be successful in anything in my lifetime. I don’t see books being any different.

  3. Thanks for commenting!

    $9.99 is still more than a paperback, though.

    Electronic highlighting and annotation is interesting, I guess, but I’ve always been more of a note-taker than a book-mark-upper, so it’s not interesting to me. It is true that electronic books give us a few things we don’t have with paper ones, but their fundamental impermanence makes them less appealing on a number of levels, as I outline above.

    As far as repossession goes, not only can it happen, it HAS, and Amazon retains the right to do it whenever they want. There’s nothing else we buy that this is true of, and I’m not about to start supporting that as a business model now.

    You are, of course, completely right that the ebook market will evolve a LOT in the years ahead. I don’t doubt that, and it seems at least plausible that it will evolve in a direction that favors liberty, just as electronic music distribution eventually abandoned DRM. However, to be interesting to ME at price parity with physical distribution, the digital version has to provide all the same utility (i.e., just as digital music does). I don’t see that happening. It’s a less valuable product, packed with more profit margin. Right now, I’m passing.