eBooks: The “Next Big Thing”, Or Eternal Curiosities?

Finally … Christmas time is almost here … Snow, roasting chestnuts, lights and tinsel … and eBooks.

Yes, it’s that time once again when publishers and /or tech companies trot out their latest replacements for paper books.

You can make a great many arguments in favor of eBooks: They’re ‘green’ (few trees die in their creation or packaging, zero paper and ink means virtually zero environmental pollution, and much energy is saved in their transport), they’re convenient (a thousand books can fit into an electronic device small enough to fit into your pocket) and they’re cheap. Oh. Strike that last part…

I love the idea of eBooks in principal, but the obstacles to their broad adoption are huge.

Y’know, flat screen TVs were “just around the corner” for over 40 years before they actually rounded the corner and showed up on the consumer market. VCRs were commercial and ‘rich man’s toys’ for many years before they were made cheap enough for the consumer. (Note here: Just for perspective, the first consumer VCRs I recall for retail sale were sold around 1974 at Willoughby-Peerless in Manhattan for about $4000, while my new ‘loaded’ 1973 Plymouth Hardtop was $3580. Drive out.)  Home computers were still a pipedream as recently as 1977 … about three years before they exploded onto the market, and just 15-20 years before they became virtually ubiquitous.

EBooks and reader manufacturers have been trying to build a significant market since at least about 1998.

One might therefore argue that eBooks are pretty much on schedule as brand new, paradigm-shifting products that are ‘right around the corner’, but the obstacles to true common acceptance and ubiquity are actually quite large from the standpoints of publishers, authors, manufacturers and consumers.

For authors and publishers, the concern is copyright protection and preventing illegal copying. This is perfectly reasonable on their part, but conflicts with book buyers’ two strongest tendencies: one, the desire to back up a computer file, and two, the occasional wish to loan out a book to a friend. Most eBook formats don’t permit you to do either. One exception permits a one-time, two-week loan within the life of your ownership. This suggests that you either better not buy eBooks you like very much, or you better not have many close friends. Also, since many formats are incompatible with each other, read “life of your ownership” as, “until your eBook reader breaks and/or you replace it.”

Another serious drawback is that “life of your ownership” comment I made earlier. I tend to collect books. I like the feeling of having a library of the books I’ve read over my lifetime. EBooks are rather more ephemeral. You can’t see them. touch them, or smell them. (All book lovers will tell you that their books have a distinctive odor; rather like old-fashioned mimeograph paper, but you can’t get high on it.) Worse, if your computer crashes, you can lose them. It took a house fire for me to lose all my books. A bad hard drive could do the trick for eBooks.

Also, I  buy most of my books at a Houston chain called Half-Price Books. They sell used books, DVDs, etc., usually at half the original cover price. Can you buy or sell a ‘used’ eBook? I don’t know.

After technology and software, though, one of the biggest obstacles to eBook ubiquity is price. I go to Half-Price Books because I think that charging $9 or $10 for a paperback is ridiculous. Four or five bucks — at most — feels about right.

And yet, these electronics companies expect you to spend $200 and up for a reader with all of the above limitations plus possibly many more of which I’m unaware, AND the publishers expect you to spend $8 to $10 or more for an eBook; again, with all of the above limitations plus possibly many more of which I’m unaware.

Now let’s contemplate this: The publishers send out books that require no ink, no paper, no printing presses, no typesetters, no warehouses, no cartons, no trucking or shipping, no shelf-stocking, no returns or write-offs … No material purchases or handling of any consequence, and dramatically less financial risk to publish a book … and all they can come up with is maybe a 10% discount?? I’m still paying about $8 to $10 for a book?

If I’m going to spend hundreds of dollars on an eBook reader, plus tolerate all the disadvantages of the different formats, plus accept the transferral of loss risks and limitations-of-use that have now accrued to me as a book-buyer, that book better have a waaaaay bigger discount than 10% before I’m jumping into that pool.

EBook reader technology and software are usually considered and discussed as the biggest obstacles to widespread acceptance of eBooks by the reading population. To these, I’d like to add one more serious limitation.

Publishers’ greed.