Ebooks – Is A Breakthrough Near?

With the press coverage that has accompanied the release of the latest Dan Brown ‘novel’ (I’m not a fan!), I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to look once more at ebooks and share a few thoughts of my own experiences, as well as what I think publishers need to do to ensure the success of the format.

It has been nine months now since I first got my hands on my Sony Reader.  Although I have always read a great deal, I am not particularly precious about hard/paperbacks.  The thing that has always been of primary concern to myself is the actual content.  Now, some may say that there is nothing like the smell and feel of owning a book, and that may well be true for them but I don’t buy books for smell and appearance, I buy books because the content interests me.  That’s not to say that the opposing view lacks legitimacy, it’s all about personal preference.  At this point I feel I should re-iterate my position on ebooks and their place in the publishing world.

In my view, ebooks are simply an alternative format for the delivery of text.  They will not replace paperbacks or hardbacks anymore than audio books have displaced paper copies.   My attitude to ebooks is much the same as it is to MP3s.  Some bands I set out to purchase hard copies of everything they release (in my case everything by Pearl Jam or Radiohead).  Some other bands I will mainly buy hard copies, but the odd EP/single I will download (for example, I own all Bloc Party’s albums, but I only have digital copies of their EPs), whereas some others I will simply buy the digital download and that is all.  For me, this is the same with ebooks.  Should it be a book by Bret Easton Ellis, I will purchase a hard copy without hesitation.  If it is an author I am less interested in, I will simply download a copy of the text (I have recently downloaded Slaughterhouse 5 having never read a Vonnegut before).  To me, it is not a case of either/or, there is much more to it than that.

Anyway, I digress.  I have been very happy with my Reader since I received it as a gift.  I find it exceptionally easy to read from the screen and although there is a slight delay when turning pages, it has become barely noticeable with time.  I like the way that I can carry a whole library of books around with me and dip in and out of any of them at any moment (aided by the fact that you can have multiple bookmarks on as many books as you like).  I like the fact that I can organise them into collections (such as ‘non-fiction’, ‘fiction’ and ‘classics’ – you can categorise however you see fit) just like I was carrying my own personal library.  One of the biggest benefits, however, has been when travelling.  On my last trip to Spain I had read all the books that I had taken with me, leaving me nothing to read on the flight home.  However, instead of rushing to the nearest bookshop and hunting down an English language text (both hard to find and ridiculously expensive), I visited the WHSmiths ebook store, found an appropriate title and downloaded it, all in a matter of minutes.  Thus I ensured that I didn’t have to endure the flight home without something to read.  Overall, my experiences with my Reader over the past 9 months have been very positive and it has become one of my best loved gadgets.

Despite my attachment to my Reader, there are a great many people out there who are very sceptical about ebooks.  A recent poll in The Guardian suggested 77% of people would not consider using an ebook reader (although the poll itself is flawed as it uses the common either/or dichotomy which is not appropriate as I have already indicated).  The comments that follow certainly seem to support this viewpoint (although they are perhaps misled by the false dichotomy of the poll in question).  Whilst a number of comments relate to the physicality of books and an emotional attachment, there are a number of valid comments from people regarding the format itself.

Although the potential for ebooks is great, there are still a number of factors that need to be addressed for the sceptics to be won over and for ebooks to become a popular alternative:

  1. Reduce the price of ebooks and readers – The cost of ebooks is still far too high compared to paper copies.  When you also factor in the cost of the equipment needed to read ebooks, it is clearly an expensive option.  A case in point: Dan Brown’s heavily promoted novel is retailing for £13.29 in ebook format and the hardback is available for £4.99 at Amazon.
  2. Publish more ebooks – Although more and more ebooks are coming onto the market all the time (and perhaps more will after the release of Dan Brown’s latest), there is still not enough choice to warrant the purchase of a reader.  Even now, it is quite a rare thing for me to find something that I really want to read in ebook format.
  3. Support one format –  The best way for ebooks to succeed is for one solitary format to be the preferred method of delivery.  Amazon are still promoting their format over all others for obvious reasons.  EPUB would be the preferable option (in fact that format is pretty much accepted as standard now so one wonders how Amazon intend on proceeding with their format).
  4. Address DRM – Digital Rights Management is still a concern.  Whilst some ebooks have been relaxed regarding DRM (Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science allows 35 copies every 7 days) others off no such relaxation.  If ebooks were to take off, the DRM issue needs to be seriously considered and addressed, particularly with the associated danger of losing your entire collection.
  5. Improved retailing – At present, ebook retailing in the UK is pretty poor at best.  There is a very limited choice of retailers (at present you can only purchase through Waterstone’s, WHSmiths and Borders) and the actual purchasing experience through any of these retailers is pretty poor (the fact that WHSmiths of all places is the best tells you all you need to know about the state of ebook retailing in the UK).  There needs to be a dedicated UK based ebook retailer who can provide a much better purchasing experience).

Although addressing these issues would not necessarily ensure a bright future for ebooks on their own, they would remove some of the doubts in people’s minds about the rationality of purchasing an ebook reader.  If these issues are not addressed, ebooks are in danger of becoming very much a niche product that will never break into the mainstream, no matter how hard manufacturers try to appeal to the iPod generation.

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6 thoughts on “Ebooks – Is A Breakthrough Near?

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. I recently bought a Sony Reader and have barely put it down since but for ebooks to be a truly viable text platform they need more support from publishers. The iTunes Store combats music piracy because the software works so well: for ebooks to come into their own, they need a dedicated and well-organised store.

  2. Not quite sure how I overlooked your comment for so long! I agree, the retailing side needs to be seriously addressed if ebooks are really to take off. The current offerings are rather poor to say the least.

  3. I suspect a lot of book buyers DO buy books for their appearance as well as their content. That is certainly true of me when buying non-fiction (though less so for fiction though even then if there are several paperback editions of the same title, I would select the one which looks the most attractive to me). I suspect that retailers are reflecting this when pricing their stock for sale in both print and electronic formats, i.e. more people will go for the more attractive, traditional format, rather than the no-frills, electronic format. Do e-books contain photographs, maps, charts etc, and can these be viewed effectively by your e-book reader? (correct me if I am wrong). Certainly, for non-fiction,for me, the supporting material in the form of maps and photos are an ESSENTIAL part of the content. I’ve just been reading Stephen Fry’s account of his travels in America and without the photos, this book wouldn’t have the same appeal at all. And in terms of public library stock, obviously attractive looking books are going to generate more issues than ones with plain covers. i think we have to recognise this too when deciding whether public libraries should stock e-books.

  4. I see what you are saying. Even with an ereader, there are certain books I will buy (mainly by authors I really like). I can’t see that changing. As for images, yes there are images in ebooks. Slaughterhouse 5 as the same drawings in the ebook as in the book. And they are as easy to view as the text.

  5. Pingback: The New Kindle « Thoughts of a [wannabe] librarian

  6. Pingback: Will the iPad Kill the Kindle? « Thoughts of a [wannabe] librarian

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