April 10, 2012
I adore words, but let's face it: books suck.
More specifically, so many beautiful ideas have been helplessly trapped in physical made-of-atoms books for the last few centuries. How do books suck? Let me count the ways:
- They are heavy.
- They take up too much space.
- They have to be printed.
- They have to be carried in inventory.
- They have to be shipped in trucks and planes.
- They aren't always available at a library.
- They may have to be purchased at a bookstore.
- They are difficult to find.
- They are difficult to search within.
- They can go out of print entirely.
- They are too expensive.
- They are not interactive.
- They cannot be updated for errors and addendums.
- They are often copyrighted.
What's the point of a bookshelf full of books other than as an antiquated trophy case of written ideas trapped in awkward, temporary physical relics?
Books should not be celebrated. Words, ideas, and concepts should be celebrated. Books were necessary to store these things, simply because we didn't have any other viable form to contain them. But now we do.
Words Belong on the Internet
At the risk of stating the obvious, if your goal is to get a written idea in front of as many human beings as efficiently as possible, you shouldn't be publishing dead tree books at all. You should be editing a wiki, writing a blog, or creating a website. That's why the Encyclopedia Britannica officially went out of print in 2012, after a 244 year print run. In the straight-up match between paper and Web, the Encyclopedia Britannica lost. Big time.
The EB couldn’t cover enough: 65,000 topics compared to the almost 4M in the English version of Wikipedia.
Topics had to be consistently shrunk or discarded to make room for new information. E.g., the 1911 entry on Oliver Goldsmith was written by no less than Thomas Macaulay, but with each edition, it got shorter and shorter. EB was thus in the business of throwing out knowledge as much as it was in the business of adding knowledge.
Topics were confined to rectangles of text. This is of course often a helpful way of dividing up the world, but it is also essentially false. The “see also’s” and the attempts at synthetic indexes and outlines (Propædi) helped, but they were still highly limited, and cumbersome to use.
This is why the book scanning efforts of Google Books and The Internet Archive are so important – to unlock the knowledge trapped in all those books and place it online so the entire world can benefit.
In the never-ending human quest for communication, bits have won decisively over atoms. But bits haven't completely replaced atoms for publishing quite yet; that will take a few more decades.
An Argument for the eBook
While the Internet is perfectly adequate for basic printed text juxtaposed with images and tables, it is a far cry from the beautiful, complex layout and typography of modern books. Sometimes the medium is part of the message. That's what led computer scientists to create PostScript and TeX, systems of representing the printed page in code as pure mathematics that can scale infinitely, or at least to the best possible resolution of the particular device you're viewing it on. Packaging written content into a special file format preserves these beautiful layouts so you can read the text as originally designed by the author.
It's also fair to argue that writers should be fairly compensated for their work. Clearly nobody is going to pay 5 cents per web page. But there's a long established commercial model of packaging a set of writing together into a coherent format, or "book", and selling that.
You can't always rely on the Internet being available. What if you have no Internet connectivity, or intermittent connectivity? You could periodically harvest a bunch of related web pages every month and package the current versions into a file. And that file can be stored and cached locally on laptops, phones, and servers all over the world. Local files have built in, persistent offline availability.
No, the Internet will not kill the book. But it will change their form permanently; books are no longer pages printed with atoms, they're files printed with bits: eBooks.
The Trouble with Bits
The road from atoms to bits is not an easy one, and we're only at the beginning of this journey. eBooks are vastly more flexible than printed books, but they come with their own set of tradeoffs:
- They always require a reading device.
- They cannot be loaned to friends.
- They cannot be resold to others.
- They cannot be donated to libraries.
- They may be encumbered with copy protection.
- They may be in a format your reader cannot understand.
- They may refuse to load for any reason the publisher deems necessary.
- They may have incomplete or broken or obsolete layout.
- They may have low-resolution bitmapped images that are inferior to print.
- They may be a substantially worse reading experience than print except on very high resolution reading devices.
The copy protection issue alone is deeply troubling; with eBooks, book publishers now have an unprecedented level of control over when, where, and how you can read their books. In the world of atoms, once the book is shipped out, the publisher cedes all control to the reader. Once you've bought that physical book, you can do with it whatever you will: read it, burn it, photocopy it (for personal use), share it, resell it, loan it, donate it, even throw it at passers-by as a makeshift weapon. But in the world of bits, the publisher has an iron grip over their eBook, which isn't so much sold to you as "licensed" for your use, maybe even only for specific devices like an Amazon Kindle or an Apple iPad. And they can silently remove the book from your device at their whim.
In the brave new world of eBooks, book publishers are waking up drunk with newfound power. And honestly I can't say I blame them. After centuries of publishers having virtually no control at all over the books they publish, they've now been granted near total control.
How Much Do eBooks Cost?
Consider one of my favorite books, the classic Don't Make Me Think. How much does it cost to buy, as an eBook or otherwise?
Except for Amazon, all the eBooks are more expensive than the print version. This … makes no sense. How can the bits in the digital version, which require no printing, no shipping, no physical storage whatsoever, be more expensive than the atoms?
What Do eBooks Look Like?
What you actually end up reading when you buy the eBook can vary wildly. Here are pages 80 and 81 of my print copy of Don't Make Me Think. I attempted to take a photograph of the book, then realized it's incredibly difficult to take a decent picture of two pages of a book for a photography noob like myself, so I manually scanned the pages in instead.
If you buy the eBook from the publisher, you get a PDF which appears to be based on the exact same data used to print the book. Pages 80 and 81 are nearly identical to print, with page numbers, footnotes, layout and typography completely intact. (There are some unrelated minor differences on page 81 because the print version is from the second edition.)
But when you buy the eBook from Amazon, you get a proprietary eBook format which contains very little of the original formatting. Pages 80 and 81 are quite different. The footnotes are gone. The title font and font colors are lost. The layout and spacing is completely off, and to my eye the page frankly looks a little broken.
When you buy the book from Apple, you get yet another proprietary eBook format. For comparison, here's page 3 of Don't Make Me Think from the publisher's PDF, which as we've previously established is very nearly the same as print.
I downloaded the sample chapter of Don't Make Me Think from Apple's iBooks, and it appears to be an even worse representation than Amazon's. I have all the same criticisms of Amazon's eBook format here – page 3 has broken layout, no footnotes, missing title fonts and colors, plus now it takes four, yes, four pages to read that very same single print page.
So eBooks Suck, Too?
With Don't Make Me Think, I intentionally chose a book that highlights the remaining gap between atoms and bits in books. I've read dozens of other eBooks on Kindle and iPad, and generally the experience is good. For books that are entirely text, with very little layout, the various eBook formats do a great job. This may very well be a majority of books in the world. All eBook formats handle text and basic fonts perfectly fine. But then, so does the Internet. If an eBook can't outperform the Internet at layout, it loses one of the strongest arguments in its favor.
Still, there's no way Amazon's or Apple's current eBook versions of Don't Make Me Think are suitable replacements for the print version. Worse, you won't even know what you'll be missing unless you download a sample and compare it with the print version, as I have. That's disappointing, because part of the joy a book brings to the words inside is by expertly packaging those words into a whole experience. If an eBook can't capture the nuance of the layout at least as well as a hoary old PDF does, again, why bother?
We, as readers, are easily giving up as much as we're getting in the transition from books made of atoms to eBooks made of bits. To make it worthwhile, I believe publishers need to do two things:
- eBooks should be inexpensive. Because I can't loan them (with rare exceptions), because I can't resell them, because I can't buy a cheaper used copy, because I'm only licensed to read them at all on "supported" readers under whatever terms the publishers will allow me to, an eBook simply has less utility and value to me. Right now, eBooks are far less flexible than physical books and therefore a worse value. Yet they are far cheaper to produce and sell for everyone involved. The pricing absolutely has to reflect this. If I can get a used copy of a book for less than the eBook, no sale. If I can get a new copy of a book for less than the eBook, no sale and screw you.
- eBooks should be a near-perfect replica of the print book. With the advent of the iPad 3, it is finally possible for eBook readers to provide nearly the same visual fidelity as the print book. I don't want to spend money on an eBook with broken, inferior formatting and typography and layout compared to the print edition. Give me an eBook that I can potentially hand down to my children with the same confidence I could give them a print book, 30 years from now, and know that I am not totally compromising the experience.
Because I love words, I want to love eBooks. I want to buy lots and lots of eBooks. But unless the publishers are willing to treat eBooks with the same respect and care that they give to their printed books – and most importantly of all, adjust their pricing to reflect the brave new economy of bits, and not an antiquated economy of atoms – they're destined to eventually suffer the same fate as the Encyclopedia Britannica.
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Posted by Jeff Atwood
One of the arguments I've heard for why ebooks are so expensive is to keep the printed version's perceived value high. If ebooks are 1/3 the price of the printed version, given time no one will put value on the printed version and sales will drop.
Because of the volume, printing books is relatively cheap. It (allegedly) adds little or nothing to the final cost of the book but there are lots of middle-men that get profit from it. None of those people want the printed book industry to go away which is why the prices are such a mess.
In some countries print books are exempt from VAT which somehow explains the price difference.
You seem to imply that the problems you encountered with one ebook are inherent in the format: For books that are entirely text, with very little layout, the various eBook formats do a great job.
Do you have any reason to believe that the ebook version of this title was carefully prepared? There is real time involved in making the “footnotes, layout and typography completely intact” in an ebook (just like there would be doing it for the generic Internet).
If an eBook can't capture the nuance of the layout at least as well as a hoary old PDF does, again, why bother? Because the layout (and a PDF) are worthless on a phone.
Thanks for this great article, I've been having the same thoughts recently. The solution to marking ebook prices up will probably come from an entirely digital publisher (Google?) that isn't afraid to undercut. What's even worse is the 'rent' options from B&N for example which are extremely overpriced. It's pretty clear that the price point doesn't matter because they don't have losses if they're wrong, so they may as well make it on the high end of outright purchasing the ebook.
My issue is the hardware isn't suitable yet, short of iPad 3 (which I haven't tried). Why buy a reader if I can't read my technical or school textbooks? They're great for novels like you said, but just terrible otherwise.
I think we haven't seen the real power of ebooks. When they become really interactive, with videos, animations, audio, real reference links, they will be more usable than paper books. And a lot of paper books would have to be rewritten, becoming two different books. And prices are going to be established by that effort.
What we have now is just the adaptation of the old paradigma.
Most of ebooks look horrible, but still the idea of ebook looking exactly like a paper one is fundamentally wrong. Strict paging, for example, is absolutely unnecessary and misguiding on the variety of screen resolutions.
Imagine a paper book looking exactly like a handwritten scroll.
a nice rant and i hope you posted this review of the eBook on Amazon/iBook as well, but there is one thing where your vision is too short
eBooks should be a near-perfect replica of the print book
with eBooks the concept of "book" does not need to be repeated in digital form*, i'd rather see new forms, e.g. imagine the head first books with interactive learning
* at least not for all book types
> There is real time involved in making the “footnotes, layout and typography completely intact” in an ebook (just like there would be doing it for the generic Internet).
Would you even try to read a book with a necessarily complex layout on a small display device like a phone, though?
That said, this is an argument in favor of doing layout for the Internet first. There are lots of complex web page layouts that scale down fine to phone size these days. I see nothing on, for example, the page 3 screenshot that couldn't be done in reasonably modern HTML that would scale down fine to a modern smartphone. The footnotes would have to be hyperlinks, perhaps.
I'd also assume that PDFs can enter some kind of column based reading mode, even on a phone. Though I agree that full-bore PDF can be heavy for phone.
I recently bought a Kindle copy of Code Complete, and it's terrible. The images have comically low resolution. The code wraps around and is missing the grey backdrop found in the book. The layout is broken, with headers often appearing at the bottom of the page before the content. And the list goes on.
It definitely doesn't have to be like this. I've seen PDF copies of textbooks that are 100% accurate, probably because the final published book used some form of that PDF.
In addition to the remote removal of content, another issue you missed is the loss of historical content. If the author changes the content (or censors the content) in the new edition, how can we see the historical views on the information. Imagine if all books had been digital since the 1930's and Germany had won. References to the holocaust would be removed. As people who experienced it (Jack Tramiel) die off, that entire history is lost.
Also imagine as formats change, the history lost there. If you find a paper you wrote in the 1980's on a 5 1/4 floppy on a machine other than DOS, what are your chances of recovering that information? What do we leave behind for the archaeologists?
What I don't understand is why the eBook screens are so small, I tried to read a PDF on a Kindle Touch, and I couldn't get it to zoom so I could see the entire page clearly, it was really a hassle since the refresh rate is so slow. I believe that PDFs are the way to go, (most) books were never meant to be read on a page the size of your palm...
I think the belief that books will inevitably be completely replaced by ebooks is a misguided one. I think it's inevitable that they will become the predominant format, but not the only one. Like MP3s, CDs and Vinyl, the formats will co-exist, meeting different needs for different people. Some people, like myself, will always prefer a physical artifact. No doubt as the years go on, this will become less an issue for future generations, but there will always be a market for older formats.
The majority of books make very little money already, sales being counted in hundreds, not millions. Reducing prices at this stage in the game is a very risky strategy for publishers. Reducing prices does not automatically lead to raising sales. A book, no matter the format or the cost, still requires an investment of time on the part of the buyer. If cost led to more people choosing to read a book then a lot more writers would be receiving money from libraries, where the cost to the person choosing the book is zero. Reducing costs of ebooks brings a real risk of cutting the already small amount of money a title generates. Possible consequences are that publishing houses are less likely to take risks, there is less money and opportunities available for new writers and the market becomes even more saturated with celebrity memoirs, Twilight books and whatever you call those things that Dan Brown has thrown words at.
No argument that ebooks have to be at least as well presented as their physical counterparts, but the pricing situation is not a straightforward one.
Whoops, pressed enter before I was ready to post.
And I really hate how we don't really have a standard open format for ebooks. I really wanted to buy the iBooks copy of Code Complete, but I thought that I might want to read it on my computer at some point, so I settled for Kindle. And since I've never bought a Kindle book before, I now have two disparate sources and interfaces for reading books on my iPad.
Not to mention, I don't feel comfortable using my iPad while taking a bath or on the beach.
I don't know what the solution is, but I hope that meatspace books don't go the way of the CD.
"If an eBook can't outperform the Internet at layout, it loses one of the strongest arguments in its favor."
That seems a rather nonsensical statement for someone who doesn't think of computers as metal boxes filled with magic. Everything available on an eBook reader will always be a subset of what is available on a real computer/"the internet". If the layout ever looked better on my Kindle, one could just copy and paste the code to make it look just as good on my Firefox.
Did I misunderstand what you were trying to say there ?
As for the rest of your article, I must largely disagree based on the reality we live in: your arguments are all based on a perfect, theoretical world. In reality, a single word crushes nearly every single point you made in the article: "piracy". With piracy, bits can easily be copied, archived, or given to friends. The publisher do not have "near unlimited power", they have near none. If any book is popular in any way, you'll be able to put "bookname download" on Google and be able to download it for free within moments. As more draconian copy right enforcement like the silent removals happens, the willingness of customers to even consider paying drops. And as books are essentially simple things (compared to games), any kind of DRM scheme is easily broken. Bonus: the small size makes downloads of a few MBs that are worth thousands of dollars easily possible.
Just go and put "Star Wars novels download" in your Google search bar.
> Would you even try to read a book with a necessarily complex layout on a small display device like a phone, though?
Yes, I personally would (and have). In practice there are an alarmingly high number of people who are willing to read complex and/or difficult content on very small screens.
Footnotes are actually very trivial (bi-directional hyperlinks) and work better than print or PDF (IMHO).
For a concrete example of digital titles with some real (print) layout but effective, thoughtful electronic versions, check out http://www.abookapart.com/. (I think you can sample them on the iBookstore.)
You guys are completely over analyzing the pricing aspect. The price is set on the basis of what the market will bear to maximize revenues for the seller (not necessarily maximize the revenue of the eBook itself). It doesn't matter if bits are cheaper and blah blah blah. If everyone is wiling to pay $5 for an eBook, it doesn't matter if the physical version is cheaper or not, that is a good indicator of where the price will be set.
I agree with just about everything except this: "Books should be a near-perfect replica of the print book."
To expand on Yuriy's comment above, it's not a goood idea to use designs intended for fixed-size pages on devices with widely divergent screen sizes, especially when they don't even have the concept of "pages", per se.
To add even more fun, the reader is typically able to alter the font size, making a fixed layout even more fragile. Perhaps you could somehow prevent that from happening, but that would be a cure worse than the disease, IMO. I like to adjust the font size depending on how tired my eyes are, and to people with visual impairments that capability can be a godsend (no more hunting around for special "large print" books -- every ebook is a large print book).
In the bad old days, web designers would create sites with notices similar "Please set your monitor to 800x600, 256 color mode". The pros mostly know how to avoid that now. There's no reason an ebook can't do the same.
Both mobi (Amazon) and epub (essentially everyone else) are basically just HTML, so there shouldn't be a problem applying web techniques. In practice there are issues -- not all readers support the same subset of CSS. However, I think that problem goes away in time; the Kindle Fire and iBooks are much better than the older eInk Kindles.
What's the point of a bookshelf full of books other than as an antiquated trophy case of written ideas trapped in awkward, temporary physical relics?
Identity. Until I've seen someone's bookshelf, I have no idea who I'm dealing with.
eBooks and print books don't satisfy the same human need. It's not just about consuming the ideas in the most efficient way possible. It's also about the experience of reading as much as the ideas inside.
For the reader who wants to appreciate the sensual experience of reading the words, the various book types (from paperback to hardcover to illustrated works of art) offer that experience in a way they can afford that no eReader or eBook could ever.
The feel of the paper, the weight of the illustrations, the smell of the ink, the display on the bookcase (they *ARE* trophies after all), all have an effect on the reader's journey through the book in a way that no sterile hyperlink-illuminated dot could ever convey. Much like a digital comic could never compete with the mint condition comic book encased in plastic and lovingly preserved.
Granted, not all books need to be as important as the classics nor does all information need to be linear and static. For those books, the eBook digital format is most appropriate.
But the great works of our times (from The Bible to Code Complete) deserve to be presented as complete and coherent works of art, not just as raw data with hyperlinked annotations.
In fact...there's probably a good business model in taking Gutenberg books, formatting them brilliantly, illustrating them, binding them with quality paper and selling them for $100 a copy.
WRT to books as works of art: exactly the same arguments were made when hand-calligraphed and illuminated manuscripts were replaced with moveable type machine printing. Exactly. Printed books were seen as cheap, ugly, knockoff imitations of original works of art (which, of course, they were -- and are).
It didn't work.
Paper books are simple. eBooks are complicated.
If I buy a book, I own it. I'm done. Short of the total fall of technological civilization, I will be able to read it whenever I want. If I want to read it somewhere other than home, I bring it with me. It's a permanent addition to my store of knowledge. Short of fire or theft, nobody's taking it away, and books aren't exactly a hot item on the black market. Any situation that would threaten the utility of a paper book requires a response far beyond simply safeguarding books, so actually owning a paper book bears no cognitive load at all.
By contrast, eBooks make me think about things I never ever want to think about, like "is my reader going to run out of power?", "will the publisher revoke my ability to read the book?", "what happens if Amazon/Apple/whoever goes bankrupt?", or "why is the layout of this book so bad?". Even PDFs make me think about backup schemes. Why would I want to complicate my life with these kinds of questions?
That's not the worst example of horrible formatting. As far as I remember Amazon's version of "Applied Cryptography" has code formatted as pictures. I can't understand why publishers don't care about this. Books on programming are perfect for electronic distribution - they are heavy and nobody reads them from cover to cover.
I agree with all you say, but Barnes and Noble deserves at least a passing mention. Their eBook does a faithful representation of the book, it's $17.59 (cheaper than the publisher), and I am able to lend most of my collection.
Charles Stross has a fairly good once-over of ebooks, especially pricing but also layout: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/05/cmap-9-ebooks.html TL;DR version: you want someone to work to preserve the layout of your ebook. Who pays them to do that if the ebook is priced at the marginal cost of production?
I have an e-ink reader, and the small screen size is an issue, but AFAIK that's a manufacturing issue - bigger screens are available but cost a lot more. So I haven't bought one. PDF rendering is pretty reasonable, but it's really not a good format for a device that excels in the "pulp paperback" niche. e-ink has lower contrast than good paper, it's black and white, but there's nothing else that puts two weeks of solid reading into something with the frontal area of a trade paperback but 10mm thick.
For reading coffee table books I really think you want something like the iPad3 - colour, backlit (for more contrast), high resolution. Now all we need is decent screen size, because if anything is obvious about the coffee table book market it's that trade paperback is not the size that sells.
Pricing... doesn't bother me very much. For what we get at the moment (automatically converted with no checking) I think that free is often overpriced. But once the process is tidied up and ebooks are a designed output it gets a lot better. And worth paying for. I'm using an online e-magazine site for some of the foreign magazines I buy, and the high-res versions of their PDF's are very much worth while. Sure, you really need a 20" portrait screen to read them on, but I have one of those. And when those screens get to be a decent resolution the PDFs are already shipping with enough pixels to cope (image-heavy magazines so there are a lot of embedded jpeg/png blobs, but the output res seems to be a page ~3000 pixels high). And no DRM, bar the "must be able to run a PDF reader" requirement. Unfortunately with ExactEditions that's entirely up to the magazine publisher - they generate the PDF, EE just host it. But it is working, and for an early adopter it's usable. I expect that process will be cleaned up a lot as interest increases.
Just a few words from Cory Doctorow (Someone comes to town...) I think are appropriate right now.
"You've read all of these?" he asked.
"Naw," Alan said, falling into the rote response from his proprietorship of the bookstore. "What's the point of a bunch of books you've already read?" The joke reminded him of better times and he smiled a genuine smile.
Firstly, I was able to look up that quote easily because Cory Doctorow puts all his books on his website in a multitude of different formats. Also, it points out what I hate about books. There's so many books out there that I rarely read a book twice, even if it's good. So, there are a bunch of books I've already read, sitting on my shelves. I love eBooks because they take up almost no space, and you can forget about them after your done. You don't have to worry about if you have enough space before you buy one.
I think there's a balance between the bland and sterile world of pure digital work (further blanded down by the complexity of reading device layouts) and the master artisan slaving over a single perfect representation of yore.
I see a spectrum of offerings for a package of ideas: from a "quick and dirty" wiki entry, to a series of more thoughtful blog essays, to a presented and edited eBook, through hardcover bound books and up to semi-handcrafted artistic reprints.
In this case, the medium chosen is chosen by the weight that the consumer puts on the ideas contained and the care that the author, editor and illustrator puts into their presentation.
As a prime example, look at the difference between Joel Spolsky's early (and free) blog entries and his (not free) book compiling them. That difference matters and will continue to matter in the future I argue.
I am an avid reader - I enjoy turning pages. There is something about the feel of paper under the fingers when I'm reading.
That is for novels where I want to experience an interesting story. If I wanted it interactive I would watch a movie.
On the other hand when I want a textbook rarely would I prefer a paper version over a searchable reference. I am reading it mostly for information and I'll already have a vague idea what to look for.
It's not an all or nothing thing. I expect Books will continue to be printed on paper for as long as there are books. Instead of durable/expensive/beautiful hardcover and cheap/disposable/plain paperback, we will have durable/expensive/beautiful paper and cheap/disposable/plain digital.
Paper has many qualities that make it inherently superior to bits. In addition to those already mentioned by commenters (permanency, not ruined by water, not dependent on electricity), I can think of some more points in favour of continuing to print paper books:
1. You can give a gift of a paper book. Good luck wrapping an ebook file to put under the tree. Paper books can be collected and displayed on shelves. Ebooks, not really.
2. Paper books are nontoxic if eaten and don't make sharp shards of glass if jumped on. Which makes them kid and toddler friendly, unlike e-readers.
3. Paper books can be made in any size. If the information or art you're reproducing works best on a 11x17 or larger page, you can make the book that big, no problem. An 11x17 e-reader, not so much.
"Paper has many qualities that make it inherently superior to bits."
Damn. I meant to say, superior *in some ways* to bits, just as bits are superior in some ways to paper.
That's a rather inflammatory and unfair representation of not only the utility of books but the entire purpose of why people want to produce books and purchase books.
The cost factor description you give is also biased and myopic.
Look, I can dig the whole "Information wants to be free" spiel when it's not used as a synonym for "Screw intellectual property." So I'm willing to partially look beyond certain poor rhetorical choices here. But I don't feel it helps your argument at all to start off talking about why there's very little great about books and then spend a large chunk of the end of your article nodding at the ways books are superior to e-formats. I'd much rather read a clear-headed, evaluative piece that comes to your conclusion than one that starts with an unnecessary and pointless attack.
As for cost: ebooks cost what they do for 2 main reasons:
1) the physical component of the dead-tree books is a small part of hte cost. Production requires paying the writer, the editor, the proofreader, the proofer, the art director, the artist, the distributer, etc. You get rid of these things and you might as well plan on all novels being more or less like fanficiton.net.
2) the initial cost of ebooks is quite high because publishers make a huge chunk of money off hardcover. It's not about preserving a format. It's about preserving profitability. So that the staff in reason 1 can remain employed. Once the cost has been recouped, and the hardcover is no longer selling as well, the price of ebooks drops dramatically. Often to 1 or 2 dollars.
Rather than bitching about the price, though, doesn't it make sense to come up with technological solutions to the limitations of bit-formats? Then the price issue becomes less of a factor.
"But unless the publishers are willing to treat eBooks with the same respect and care that they give to their printed books – and most importantly of all, adjust their pricing to reflect the brave new economy of bits, and not an antiquated economy of atoms – they're destined to eventually suffer the same fate as the Encyclopedia Britannica."
Britannica isn't out of business, they just aren't publishing the print edition anymore. They're still doing the DVD-based product, and the web-based version.
Britannica *did exactly what you're saying*. Their DVD edition costs about $30, not the $1300 of the print edition. The DVDs has been that inexpensive for years and years. The web edition likely has a similarly affordable annual subscription price.
Britannica even tried being completely free on the web, around 1999-2001. They had topical articles in a portal-type arrangement, along with the encyclopedia. It wasn't workable, so they went to a registration model.
I'm surprised, Jeff. You just wrote an article lamenting how linkrot makes digital archiving a monumental task, and you think eBooks are a fundamentally good idea?
I have books from the 1970's and earlier that are still 100% intact. No DRM, no linkrot, no bitrot, no BS of anykind. They still fundamentally work. A good hardcover binding lasts for a very, very long time.
Most books I buy, I would consider to either be reference works of one kind or another, where I would go back and refer to the book as needed. For most home libraries, simple organization beats Google-style searching any day, and this is true for anything from code lookup to recipes to politics. I really doubt this will change any day soon. If a book's code becomes outdated (rarer than you think), that's not an argument that books are terrible but rather an argument to buy the updated book, and put it right next to the old book on the bookshelf.
Books are going to be like photographs.
We must take far, far, far more digital photographs than we took film photos.
But unlike film, we don't make prints of them all. We might make a print of one digital photo in a hundred, probably the one that really stands out.
If it's really special, we might get it printed in a larger format, frame it, and hang it on the wall. That might be one in a thousand.
Similarly, eventually we'll read ebooks most of the time, and only obtain hard copy of the books that mean the most to us. Perhaps in extra-nice editions.
Right now, your bookshelf probably includes some special books that really speak to your personality, and a bunch of books that are just there because it'd be a hassle to get rid of them.
Hear hear. Books need to reach the quality of modern mp3 -- great features (IDv2, cover images), near-perfect quality (320VBR) and certainly no DRM of any kind.
Not a chance. I stick with the paper, thanks.
* PDF isn't realistic unless your device has a screen as good/big as the iPad. Personally, I read on a 7" android tablet, so PDFs are a nightmare.
* all the non-PDF eBook formats can do a better job than your examples, but the publishers don't bother so far. They depend mostly on automated systems/services for conversion to various ebook formats.
* ePub *is* the standard, it's just that (a) Kindle doesn't use it, (b) ancient reader devices don't use it, and (c) Apple's new app uses a proprietary-extension of it to add new features.
* many of the downsides of ebooks you state are *currently* true for *many/most* channels (format choice + DRM/license), but not inherent in the format. O'Reilly is a nice counter-example. http://shop.oreilly.com/category/customer-service/ebooks.do
* though the couple O'Reilly titles I have don't have much code of image stuff to deal with, so I don't know how hard they work at the formatting, either.
* also note there's a "Books in Browsers" faction working on improving the reader experience with a browser reading from a local ePub (typically). http://webseitz.fluxent.com/wiki/BooksInBrowsers
I agree with Mrj0, the Nook deserves a mention. I received a Nook Simple Touch about four months ago and have since read about 10 books. Before the Nook I read probably two books a year (cover-to-cover). The biggest reason I've burned through so many books is because of its ePub support - I had a backlog from O'Reilly, PDF books and others I'd gleaned through the ages. Since then I've purchased additional titles from both O'Reilly and Barnes & Noble, and both work fantastically.
So far I've had the best of both worlds - digital distribution and (usually) no DRM thanks to O'Reilly and Google Books open circulation.
Besides the fact that copyrighting is immoral. There are a plethora of old books to be read for free from google e-books (I used to go to archive.org but google does a much better job) and other outlets. There are a plethora of lesser known writers that don't charge hardly anything (couldn't have happened without e-books). Assuming you can strip the drm from your e-book you can then use Calibre to format it to whatever form you like.
I love reading on my iPad, to the extent that I only buy print books now if they are unavailable in digital format, but I do miss the pleasure of lounging in the bathtub reading a good book.
But we're still in the "cassette Walkman" days of e-books. Give it ten years, and I'll be sitting in the bathtub shaking the drops off the waterproof, indestructible, wireless, one-plastic-sheet-with-a-network e-reader I picked up on sale at Walmart for $50, plus the monthly subscription (are you listening, Big 6?). I'll flick the corner to turn the page, and read the next story in the New York Times, in colour, with sound and animation. Maybe even 3D.
I bought a couple of books from pragprog.com today, and downloaded them in all three of the formats offered: PDF, mobi and epub. Surprisingly the layout and typography of the epub edition was nearly as good as the PDF, without the annoying need to zoom in on each page to enlarge the text to a readable size.
Copyright, pricing and fair usage after purchase need to evolve to keep up with the technology, but that's been an issue since photocopying became widespread.
I hearty disagree with your points against hardware books because many of your points have a good reason to exist. Let me tell you why every disadvantage of everything is important ...
They are heavy: Heavy things can be a burden or a benefit. Often its good to have the feel of touching an item that possess a weight. There's a certain satisfaction about it. Never occurred to you?
They take up too much space: Like everything made of atoms! If everything made of atoms wouldn't take up space, everyone of us would probably soon live in a 2x2m walkable closet.
They have to be printed: Which is good. It creates jobs and makes every book somewhat of a unique item. A keepsake!
They have to be shipped in trucks and planes: Again, more jobs.
They may have to be purchased at a bookstore: Double plus! You can take a walk to the bookstore! It's healthy and counters isolation. You can enjoy the atmosphere at the bookstore instead of slouching in front of your PC.
They are difficult to find: Rare books are good, makes them a prized possession.
They are difficult to search within: True but patience is a virtue.
They can go out of print entirely: Again, this makes books rare keepsakes. Everything that is rare has value. Things that exist in abundance have virtually no value, especially not as a collectors item.
They are too expensive: Everybody has to earn money to make a living!
They are not interactive: Why would you want everything to be interactive?
They cannot be updated for errors and addendums: Imperfections are an important trait and make things unique, which is very good. Nothing is more boring like everything looks or acts the same.
They are often copyrighted: again, somebody has to make a living. And eBooks are not copyrighted?
I'm not working for the printing press and I do like reading books on my iPad, too but every device that becomes more and more perfect also becomes more and more boring and soulless! Take an iPad: it can do a huge lot of things but at possesses almost no character (at least not for me). Take a C64 (or a Yamaha CS80) which (in comparison) can do only very few things, but they do possess ALL character! Please stop trying to virtualize everything, making the world a more and more boring place!
I almost forgot to mention one of the most important reasons why eBooks suck in comparison to paper books: You cannot smell them! Yes, smell! For example I possess several old West-End Star Wars RPG books and I would hate it if they were eBooks. The paper that West End Games used to print these has a very unique, pleasant odor. it's a joy to open one of these books and read them and the scent brings up a lot of nostalgic memories.
If I'm using a textbook to learn something (rather than a reference) I'm going to want the print version, though. Flipping from the problem sets to the chapters is a nightmare with scrolling single pages and the limited PDF readers we have on our computers and portable devices; I'm almost tempted to write a new document reader that understands that people don't want a mile-high (or, ok, a half-mile high with dual view) scrollable pagination for whatever they want to read.
You can highlight in textbooks too, or at least put in sticky notes for important pages. The customization options in PDF readers today are incredibly clunky and tacky in my experience; there's no nice reader I know of that just gets it right.
The printed word and the digital word are complimentary and one does not cancel out the other. Enough distinguishes them to allow peaceful co-existence, much like radio and television today.
A lot depends on our ability to sustain the current high energy lifestyles most in the developed world enjoy. Some combination of the two will be in vogue going forward. Currently we have a love affair with the digital because it is new and shiny, but it's ability to be so readily edited over time and controlled is (in my personal view) it's biggest drawback. I'd like to see how readable a PDF is or indeed these very words in 300 years! Nothing beats a musty old library :)
I'm a librarian and a software developer, so I really enjoyed this. Thanks! One thing I would add with my librarian hat on relates to these points you made about ebooks:
- They always require a reading device.
- They may be encumbered with copy protection.
- They may be in a format your reader cannot understand.
These characteristics of ebooks, and bits generally, typically make it harder for libraries to archive ebooks than physical books. The content of the book is inextricably bound up with the software needed to make it readable. I guess it is still early days, so we may (already?) see backwards compatible reading devices that are able to render older formats. From this perspective its great to see Kindle Format and EPUB reusing HTML, which (given the Web) will probably have reading devices for a while. Or perhaps ebook platforms will migrate data for us behind the scenes, and the readers will just need to deal with the latest/greatest format. I imagine some combination of the two will be what we see. But maybe a lot will get dropped on the floor, especially when you consider DRM.
The situation now is quite different with physical books. Like you said, when you buy a physical book you can do whatever you want with it, including put it on a shelf, and walk away for years and years, and come back later and read it. As a thought experiment, consider how different it is to put an EPUB on a filesystem, walk away for 20 years, and come back and open it up and read it. Maybe just think about one year. I guess a lot goes into making sure the shelf is there for 20 years as well, funding for the library, disaster preparedness, etc. But the nature of that is so radically different to the set of concerns that arise when preserving ebooks.
There are a lot of opportunities here I think for new library platforms, like those in the cloud at Apple, Amazon, Google, etc. I personally hope we'll also see best practices and tools that allow smaller collections emerge at the local and personal level...and that there will still be a role for public, academic and government libraries in all this.
On that note, your point about ebooks:
- They cannot be donated to libraries.
got me thinking of UnglueIt, which is a (just starting) crowdfunding platform for creating openly licensed (Creative Commons) ebooks for existing print books. The idea being that maybe we can all work together to make the Web into a library for ebooks. Full disclosure: I have consulted for UnglueIt in the past, so I guess this is a bit spammy, but I thought you might be interested.
Amazon simply decided not to display footnotes correctly. I have complained about that several times, but Amazon ignore complaints.
The Kindle is basically useless for scientific books or any books that rely on footnotes. I don't know why Amazon are trying to destroy the eBook format.
I stopped buying eBooks from Amazon and now use the Kindle for my existing books and for non-Amazon eBooks.
I don't see what Amazon have to gain from destroying the reading experience like that. It's not like making the footnotes difficult to reach makes "piracy" more difficult or anything like that.
Maybe foldable OLED screens can make a ebook look & feel more like a real book.
i've built a publishing system using light-markup which can:
1a) replicate an already-printed book in .pdf form, or
1b) create a well-designed .pdf for print-on-demand, and
2a) generate _user-customized_ .mobis and .epubs, and
3a) output a wide variety of .html versions of the book
3b) for web-mounting or use in machines-with-browsers,
3c) plus social-networking annotation/discussion purposes,
4a) with links from the offline versions to the online ones,
4b) for a synergistic whole greater than the sum of the parts.
i've programmed authoring-tools -- both offline and online,
in multiple languages (including basic, perl, and python) --
and viewer-programs that outperform currently-existing apps.
authoring is simple, since my light-markup system is easier
than markdown, and more powerful, as it's geared to books.
and my authoring-tools are split-screen, with plain-text on
one side, and formatted output on the other, for ease of use,
and a learning curve that resembles your favorite bunny slope.
this will ease the distance between authors and their readers.
when books are stored as plain-text files on our own machines,
we remove the worry of dystopian authorities censoring them.
if you'd like to see an advance look at what i've got coming,
i'd be happy to show it to you.
What if you live in, say, Iran? You've bought this collection of eBooks for your iPad (or whatever), and then the government says you're not allowed to access the Internet anymore. What happens now? Your library has been stolen from you and there's nothing you can do about it.
Similar situation if Apple went bust. Where has your iBooks library gone now? Basically eBooks are a walled garden which is so much out of your control that it's not fair. The same argument applies to games bought on Steam or other digital distribution methods.
I understand that in some cases (not Apple) you can back up your digital collection so that you can access it in future without the Internet or the parent company's permission, but even then you still lose a lot of the advantages you listed above (book updates, available whenever you want, etc.).
If I've got a physicaly collection of books, or films, or computer games, no one other than me has any say in what happens to them. I know you've mentioned this in your article but I think it needs stressing more, as there are many cases in which you can lose out using bits as opposed to atoms.
"What's the point of a bookshelf full of books other than as an antiquated trophy case of written ideas trapped in awkward, temporary physical relics?"
As far as "temporary" is concerned, I personally have carefully preserved copies of a few books that my mother's grandfather wrote in 1920's. Books hundred(thousands)of years old can be seen in museums all over the world.
How many ebooks do you have that are still readable and are even 15 years old?
"How can the bits in the digital version be more expensive than the atoms?"
Because it's Apple, and they charge more than everyone else on principal. How else can their fans feel superior to everyone else? They have to pay more for that narcissistic boost.
You omitted one of the greatest advantages, or potential advantages, of ebooks over paper books: built-in accessibility for people who are blind or have severely limited vision.
In this area, formats that emphasize structure over layout are inherently superior. Specifically, HTML is better than PDF. Because PDF is basically a stream of commands for constructing a printed page, accessibility is an afterthought. True, there's such a thing as Tagged PDF, but in my experience, most PDF files are not tagged.
I also think you're mistaken to place such emphasis on preservation of the print book's layout, down to the page numbers. We generally don't print out ebooks; we read them on screens. And I don't know about you, but I want the layout to adapt to my screen size, not to mention a comfortable font size. By insisting on faithful recreation of the printed page, you would take away a great advantage of ebooks. There's a reason why Kindle books and iBooks are based on HTML (or a derived format like EPUB or .mobi), not PDF.
Ebooks, for me, are an absolutely perfect format for novels. Hands down, I will never purchase another print copy of a novel (unless it's not being offered in ebook form). For reference books of any kind, where you want to be able to flip through the book easily (ie sequential reading from page 1 right through to the end isn't necessarily required or desired), or books where the page layout actually matters? I haven't seen an implementation yet that I like. Hopefully the Apple textbook initiative for the iPad (whatever they're calling it, I'm too lazy to look it up) is a step in the right direction for at least getting page layouts right, but I can't imagine a digital interface that would be easier than a physical book for the "Hrmm, where was that diagram I was looking for? I'll flip back and forth quickly and find it"
On so many levels this is like the vinyl to digital music shift in the 90s
The shortsighted assumptions about digital's real or potential superiority in product quality, durability, etc...
The greedy price gouging and dickwad invasions of ownership of digital products in a new market... Remember when the music industry actually tried to kill the used cd market??? God they got what was coming to them
...and then of course, some truly great things that the physical lit world just can't do, like in books, the Gutenberg project
Books will find a niche and stick around just like Vinyl did... For similar reasons
The only truly beautiful thing the Internet has done for literature as
If I buy a book today, I'll still be able to go back to it in five, ten, twenty years. I can take it off the shelf, go to the page in question, and acquire the information. It just works.
With an eBook, the format is really tied to the times in which it was issued. The format will have evolved into something unrecognizable or disappeared altogether, and with it, the support to read it. It's not really an issue for crappy novels that are read-and-forgotten, but it is for one who prides himself in his library.
Unlike music and video where advances in the medium resulted in an improvement of the content itself, the same can't truly be said of text. Yes, it is more convenient to have a stack of eBooks in one's pocket, but the words are the same whether they're printed or on an eInk display.
E-pricing vs. book pricing: This is mostly an Amazon phenomena. Amazon discount printed books hugely. They are often priced at a loss, making the print version pricing very attractive, while producing the illusion that quality books can actually be produced very cheaply. E-books, thanks to the agency agreement, are priced by the publishers and set at about what the publishers need to stay in business (remember, if the book publishers aren't making a decent profit, they'll be closed down by their owners and the money invested in something that does have a decent return. Owners don't keep publishers in business as an act of charity.)
Expecting that you can somehow have quality for really cheap is a pipe-dream, although it may be one that we destroy the publishing industry to try to achieve.
Bad formatting, etc in e-books: Decently and properly formatting documents is *expensive*. You can't hire recent college graduates who desperate to work with books at tiny wages to do decent electronic formatting. Which mean e-book prices need to be higher to support the expense. However, the publishers are no dummies. They know that people go ballistic over current e-book prices let alone one's increased to pay for the cost of decent formatting. Moreover, consumers get mad about pricing far more than they get mad at shoddy formatting.
So, in the end, publishers give the public as close to what the public wants without actually going bankrupt, and we all get badly formatted books.
I'd be more sympathetic if the publishers were rolling in money, but outside of extremely isolated sectors, they aren't. And that's while they're paying their employees as little as they can get away with. Anybody who expects that you can cut the amount of money going to publishers by 2/3rds and not have it make a fundamental change to the quality of books is dreaming in technicolor. Costs of Goods are significant, but electronic distribution is a *long* way from cost-free, as anyone in the business can tell you.
The article linked to by Andand is missing part of the story. The contracts with Apple for book deals also forced the publishes to sign contracts with Apple's competitors (B&N and Amazon) such that the competitors couldn't sell the book for less than the price agreed with Apple. The Reg has an article from a few weeks ago that goes into more details. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/03/13/apple_ebooks_cases_cost/
Personally, I care less about the infographics than I do about the textual content and the concepts in a book. Meaning that as long as the message being conveyed is the same, I'm okay with them changing the infographics. Now don't mistake me saying that I don't care, because I do. It's just that the infographics aren't at the top of my priority list for ebooks. I personally get nauseous reading off of a backlit screen like the iPad after too long a time. I personally prefer eInk readers like Kindle or Nook. Now keep in mind that this is something that affects me personally so it's not likely to be the same for others.
The prices on the other hand are absolutely atrocious, except for Amazon (MOST of the time). I've seen the publishers charge ridiculous amounts on there too. The thing is, that Jeff points out, is that there are virtually no production costs, not in the same way there is for a physical copy. Sure there is the cost of the author, the editor, etc, but there are no printing press costs, no shipping costs, no packaging costs, etc. This is true of all digital goods, not just ebooks. In a way ebooks are even worse than other digital goods. Let's contrast a game with a book. In the case of a digital game you should get a discount for the digital version for the same reasons stated above. Now the one major difference between the two is that in the case of many digital goods like games, you have the company that created it paying for the bandwidth of distributing it off of there site, that cost is still far less than the production costs, but there is still a minor cost there. In the case of ebooks the publishers aren't paying for that at all. All they have to do is give the digital copy to an online store like Apple or Amazon and they incur no charges whatsoever after the book is written and edited.
Overall Jeff, another great article. Thanks for posting it!
WRT ebooks disappearing/becoming unreadable: both of the current major formats (epub and mobi) are HTML inside a wrapper. HTML isn't going anywhere any time soon.
There's some reason for concern about books with DRM, but in that case your beef is with the publisher, not the format. Amazon does not require DRM -- that's an option when you submit the book, but you don't have to add it.
Its interesting that you mentioned about ebooks being over-priced as compared to that of the print edition - it seems that Apple (along with some other major electronic content publishers) has been sued by the US Department of Justice today for this very same reason! Here's the link to the BBC article:
That's one nice article.
I live in South America (Venezuela to be more precise) and publishers refuse to accept my money (even though I am trying desperately to throw it at them)
I have been trying to buy Artemis Fowl in Ebook format since november, and a couple of Android SDK related books, since the latter are way too heavy to handle an acceptable Shipping fee (60 dollars plus tax in shipping? What are they thinking seriously is books, dead trees not gold containers!) I decided to plunk down into an eBook edition.
guess what? I can't because I am not a resident of the US of America.
So let's see here:
My green bills are as good as any others
I will have the same limitations than anyone else
The kindle has a very elegant way of screwing its customers
Why in the name of peter can't I buy the cursed books? it is because they are afraid I will build a bomb with it (¿?)
Sometimes it makes me think that we are a long way to be a modern, globalized, digital world. Way too far. You say ebooks will replace books in a couple of decades, I say they will probably never be able to replace them entirely unless publishers get their acts together and commit to publish instead of labeling everyone as a stealing pirate and mistreating their customers.
PS: Apple is crazy if they think I am paying 40 Dollars for a color 100 page eBook that only runs on a new ipad 3.
Good overview of where we are and where we are going. However, you are hopelessly naive on this one:
"with eBooks, book publishers now have an unprecedented level of control over when, where, and how you can read their books."
Um, no they don't. They have less power than ever before, which explains why so many are hesitating with eBooks. With a physical book, the maximum damage from "privacy" is one fictional lost sale if you lend it out to someone. On the web, it can be replicated for free in unlimited ways. From virtually any country in the world, right now, you could go ahead and download 10,000 computer science eBooks for free and you will have them tonight and get away with it. Just because thats illegal and how it should be done doesnt mean it doesnt happen. Publishers have ZERO control, not more control than ever.
On a side note, here in the Netherlands, book resellers are not free to compete on book prizes. They are prized the same (minimum) in every store. Nobody knows why, its ancient legislation.
You say that ebooks are far cheaper to produce and sell. Did you do any research into the costs of creating an ebook vs a physical book? If you did you'd find that the cost of the physical book is only about 10% of final price. The rest goes to the author, agent, editor, graphic designer, layout (which as you've noticed doesn't come for free), marketing, publisher, retailer etc.
Self-publishing is one way to eliminate a bunch of those costs but good luck finding something you actually want to read from that slush pile. If anything having lots of self-published books on the market will only strengthen traditional publishing houses as their brands will become synonymous with quality.
I see no mention of the fact that a traditional book has the right of first sale, which means it can be sold, rented or loaned or whatever (this is in the US - some countries have restrictions on that, believe it or not). You can buy a book for $15 and resell it on the used market for $5 when you are done.
So some residual value is recoupable if you decide to no longer own the book, whereas with Amazon Kindle books, there are some lending options, but that's about it - you do not have "ownership" in the traditional sense - you have some kind of license. Thankfully it does not appear to be able to be easily lost right now (although there was that 1984 case on Amazon...), but is not transferable in the sense that you could move your license to Apple and manage your owned books in its ecosystem if Amazon were to no longer serve up content based on your license.
While the freedom to transfer the bits is somewhat true of DRM-free books, the resale value of a DRM-free book is what, given the near-zero cost of duplication and distribution?
My biggest problem with ebooks is that I now have to decide how I want to own the book out of all the modalities based on their properties. Do I want to buy the paperback and then lend it around my family and friends, totally relinquishing control as it makes its way through different circles? Or will I want to keep it on the shelf? Will I want it in paper as a reference where I might want multiple books open at once? Will I want to give it as a gift which has some meaning with an inscription or at least something they can unwrap? Will I want a whole trilogy for a long trip and so definitely want it on an e-ink Kindle (and not Apple iPad) which is the lightest and longest battery for a two-week trip?
Greetings, everyone, from Microsoft Press. We'd just like to share that our ebooks -- available via our distributor, O'Reilly -- are DRM-free. Here's a quick description of the program (from http://shop.oreilly.com/category/ebooks.do): "You get lifetime access to ebooks you purchase through oreilly.com. Whenever possible we provide them to you in five DRM-free file formats — PDF, ePub, Kindle-compatible .mobi, DAISY, and Android .apk. Our ebooks are enhanced with color images. They are fully searchable, and you can cut-and-paste and print them. We also alert you when we've updated your ebooks with corrections and additions."
By the way, we also publish a good number of free ebooks, which you can find via the "ebooks" tag at our blog (http://blogs.msdn.com/b/microsoft_press/). Our latest is the 10-chapter Introducing Microsoft SQL Server 2012, available here: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/microsoft_press/archive/2012/03/15/free-ebook-introducing-microsoft-sql-server-2012.aspx.
Thanks for your interest.
The e-books that I found worked the best were the ones on gutenberg.org. Accessibility bites PDF pretty hard.
I've been reticent about purchasing an eBook reader, and this does cover some of my concerns: mostly, how do the technical books I tend to purchase look on an e-reader? (O'Reilly books' pictures on the Kindle were my first concern; now that the Fire is out, that's less of one, but still...) The ownership points are also well-mentioned: writers SELL their copyrights to publishers, who now can LICENSE the intellectual property back to us. (Of course, the barrier to entry now in selling books can be much lower, and publishers are going to feel that pain in the same way that print newspapers are...)
There are public libraries for those who can't afford an "e" reading device. I like the compactness and the light weight of my cell phone which holds several titles, but the burden of carrying a few paperbacks can be over-come with a little excercise.
Now if electronic programming books would accomodate copy and paste...
This debacle reminds me of the early days of DVD, when they were little more than VHS copies transferred to the new medium. There was almost no attempt made to get the most out of the "versatile discs", instead you pretty much ended up with the same quality images and (maybe slightly better) sound, only with a break in the middle where you had to turn over the disc, or where the player had to skip back 1/2 way through to continue playing the film.
Sure you got a 'menu' that allowed you to choose where in the film you wanted to go, but it was pretty poor. Thankfully DVD's these days are somewhat better, bluray also, but I still feel they're not making the most of the format, that it is misunderstood and much of what's dumped on the disc as extras as nice-to-have but add nothing after watching them one. Sure I'm interested in the making of... and it's great to see interviews but it's still just video playing
You should try living in Australia - when the only way to buy most physical books is to order them from Amazon in the states, and wait over a month for shipping and pay more for it than the cost of the books themselves, eBooks seem a whole lot better, even when you often have to use a proxy server and pretend to be in the states to buy them.
I find myself in a similar position as you, Jeff. I would love to love eBooks, but just find them too limited at present.
Another issue, sadly with some relevance at the moment for me, is that of inheritance - it's very easy to leave a physical book to someone and leave different books to different people. It's very hard to do that with eBooks.
I think the problem lies more in the current standard than in the format itself. As soon as you can make a fully functional webpage within a single-file "book," then the eBook will be vastly superior.
Right now it's just a young technology. Give it time.
Why in the name of peter can't I buy the cursed books? it is because they are afraid I will build a bomb with it
Luis Robles, you cannot buy the book because Amazon does not have the right to sell it to you. When a book is sold, it's usually sold to a publisher with limited rights, specifically the right to sell it in a given geographical location.
It is quite possible, and even likely, that you are trying to purchase the book from the US publisher, who could be sued if he allowed it to be sold (through Amazon) outside the US.
As a Canadian, I sympathize. Often Canadian and US rights are bundled, but its not uncommon for them to be divided, and then worse, for the author not to find a Canadian publisher or for the Canadian publisher not to be into e-publishing yet. At that point, there's no legal means for us to buy the e-book. (At least the printed book and can be bought in the US and then physically carried across the border...)
There are many more advantages to real, physical books:
- if I lose one, I'm out $5-$20, not $100 (or more)
- can't break it (half the people I know with kindles have broken them). No worries about bringing it to the beach, throwing it casually into a bag, or whatever
- in rare cases (mainly travel guides) I can rip pages out of them if I can't carry the whole book
- many are small enough to carry in a jacket pocket
The list goes on and on. The real physical "feel" of the book and the cost (I buy most books used on Amazon, often for just few dollars, and sometimes the kindle price is as much as 5 times the used price) are the most important reasons, but everything above, as well as everything else mentioned makes physical books SO much better.
The *only* advantage that I see to electronic books is that they take up less space. There's a lot of stuff I could do in my small apartment with an extra 20 square feet of shelf space. But 1 - note that this is not really an issue when traveling because you'll have at most 2 books with you, and 2 - it doesn't come close to making up for all the benefits of real books.
I think there is one major aspect of the benefits offered by eBooks which printed books can never compete with: dynamism.
Unlike a dead-tree book, eBooks can change over time. One way that happens is through publishers releasing new versions of the same book. Depending on the software/hardware involved, you may be able to get the updated version, or only those who download it after the update will get it - but in any case, a new version is available without re-purchasing the book.
However, a form a dynamism which I find even more interesting is through metadata or as we like to call it, "Subtext" - because that's the name of our app which is built entirely around this idea. Subtext allows authors, experts, and everyone else the ability to enhance any eBook with contextual information, videos, notes, polls, etc.
I'm biased, of course, since I work on the product, but I honestly believe reading with Subtext adds a ton of value. More importantly it exemplifies an aspect/benefit of eBooks which seemed to go unmentioned here, so I wanted to call it out.
Subtext is currently iPad-only and supports the ePub format, including DRM eBooks purchased through Google Books. I agree with many other comments here that DRM, as it briefly did with music and currently is with movies, causes far more trouble than it is worth and hopefully will live a short life.
On the DRM front, I'll point out that J.K. Rowling recently launched pottermore.com where one can purchase DRM-free eBook versions of the complete Harry Potter series. She is using watermarking as a deterrent to piracy, which is an interesting approach. The industry is watching to see how that experiment goes and it may likely influence future publisher decisions around eBooks and DRM.
I'm sorry, but just no!
eBooks are simply inferior solutions to paper books in almost all regards. They are a convenience an should be respected for that.
But I have books from my childhood and books my father left me and his father left him. My oldest book is a late 1600 edition of Os Lusíadas, beautifully made. There's absolutely no way, no way whatsoever, technology can guarantee backwards compatibility over a couple of decades, much less across generations.
My eBook collection is probably as good as dead in 100 years. There's so much I will be able to guarantee in terms of format updates to keep up with whatever new technologies replace old ones.
But my oldest paper book is over 3 centuries old. Been on the family over many generations.
I like some qualities of physical books. I like a lot of qualities of eBooks.
One of the challenges that eBooks face over print books is scaling text. I read Kindle books on my iPad and frequently adjust the reading text size depending on the environment I'm in. Bumpy bus or car? larger font. Sitting in an airport? smaller font. It's a real challenge to accurately compare page for page when one device can have flexible text size. eBooks almost have to be designed with a more responsive, fluid technique. (sounds like modern Web design to me!)
ebooks are pretty good---especially with the development of e-ink which is easier to read for long periods of time than LCD---though we could use improvements in resolution and speed, and some user interface improvements (e.g. once we get the speed issue licked, a page-turn *knob* -- an analog control: roll it fast to skip way ahead, slow for one page at a time. Maybe a touch bar to go immediately to 3/4 of the way through the book, etc.)
Until then, while I use e-books if I want to travel with more than I want to carry, for normal bedtime reading at home, for ex., I stick with books having lots of atoms that don't need recharging and won't evaporate if the provider decides they shouldn't have sold the book after all.
For some weird reason I find myself not being able to concentrate enough when reading from a device like iPad or Kindle. Is it just me?
On top of that I actually like the look of my collection of printed books. I guess they make me feel more intelligent...
I'm struck by the idea that the new and improved digital encyclopedias are better than the dead tree versions, because they preserve everything forever, instead of slowly losing information through a process of attrition.
Digital information is constantly being lost through a process of attrition. Ever try to load that program you wrote for your home computer back in 1985? Ever try to load that brilliant paper you wrote in college, that you saved on a 360K floppy disk, as a file for some long-forgotten word processor that never used one of the more popular formats? Good luck with any of that. If you had printed any of those things out on paper, however, there's a good chance you'd still have access to them today.
I'm a big fan of books, and I think it will be a severe tragedy for humankind if we eventually stop printing them. Fake digital books are fine for computer- and other technology-related crap that will be laughably obsolete in a few years anyway, but for anything that adds any real lasting value to the body of human expression and knowledge, dead tree is the one and only way to go. Temporary, short-lived copies of dead tree books are just fine as a convenience, but please print them and stick them in a library somewhere too.
Too many words to read here so forgive me if I am repeating someone else...
There are two things you get with a book
1. The words/ideas of the author(s)
2. The physical medium on which it is produced
Some print books are beautiful, and deliberately made so. The experience is with the whole package (Physical interaction between reader, pages, and pictures/words) and you could not replace that experience. Children's books (e.g. the hungry caterpillar) would be a good example of this. Equally you are unlikely to want to travel with such a book, and the experience would be suited to sharing, via a Library perhaps, and the book worth having space for on your bookshelf. These are things of beauty and should be more expensive that electronic words and pictures.
Some books are just words - and the beauty is in them (I recently enjoyed a free version of H.G Wells' War of the worlds on my Smartphone - superbly written). For these an eBook is perfect - no need for pictures, easy to carry around etc.. I do want to share this experience with friends though and do not know of an easy way to do this.
So for me the eBook vs physical book debate is more about the user interface requirements of the media within it, and less about whether print and paper is better than electronic formats.
Great article - thanks for keeping us thinking.
You forgot two more issue with eBooks that need to be overcome:
1. The FAA
Until I can read an eBook on the plane during those "electronic blackout" moments I'll continue to carry a physical book along with my Kindle. Those types are the exact moments I need a book to relieve the insane boredom.
2. Zombie Apocalypse/ SkyNET
All power is cut in the nation, we have been thrown back to our agricultural days, no one remembers the pin-out of a USB cable yet we know there is secret knowledge locked away inside these devices that teach us to heal infections, which berries are edible and how to make the perfect cocktail. The quest to find a trove of books of knowledge somehow seems more noble than looking for The Sacred Adapter.
"What's the point of a bookshelf full of books other than as an antiquated trophy case of written ideas trapped in awkward, temporary physical relics?"
You've probably heard of leaving a bowl of fruit on display, so you eat more fruit. I find it works a similar way. A shelf full of books allows passive reading, where ebooks are more active. I enjoy my kindle, but I have yet to casually start reading it in passing as I would a book.
And if I'm in someone elses house and they're busy, I'll happily grab a book of their shelf and start reading it while I wait. It's a lot less invasive than firing up their tablet or browsing their kindle.
Yeah I'm one of those people who wants a house with walls lined with books.
As for my Kindle, it's a fantastic device, especially for reading on the move, and it's the closest reading experience to paper books I've seen.
But good jesus the Amazon store is a pain to buy things on. As an Irish reader, I'm subject to crippling market segementation, where you simply can't buy most kindle books.
Options are 1: lie about your address, risk losing access to your library.
Or 2: torrent your books instead
So far I've gone with 1. Not happy at all.
Funny thing, the same day that you posted this article, I heard about Apple getting charged with violating anti-trust laws regarding their e-books.
I don't know. I read lots of books on my Kindle and iPad, but I can't imagine still having them in 20 years, cloud or no cloud. They seem very transient to me. I have books from the 1930s in my library, and they still feel fantastic. I certainly can't imagine an e-book lasting as long as this 1400 year old beauty :
The formatting is the first issue for me with e-books (and I have a lot of them), but the inability to send in fixes is what drives me over the edge.
Kudos to O'Reilly and Microsoft Press for doing it right.
PDFs are most definitely not the answer for eBooks. I would argue that the old way of laying out content in a page specific format (e.g., for printers) is what should be dying out. Reflowable content is the best way to make content that works equally well on phones, tables, and desktop screens. This is what ePub is good for. Look into it! It's basically HTML and CSS plus a packaging mechanism.
The problem isn't that the formatting in Amazon's eBook format is so incapable, but rather that the authors didn't give it significant time because they felt that the eBook version of their book was an afterthought. Even Amazon's DRM riddled format uses HTML. The actual code syntax is not what people are complaining about when they boo Amazon formats.
So many people read this blog that opinions on matters you post often become standard accepted knowledge. I know that you just want to make eBooks better, but in this case, some research on the topic and discussions with other knowledgeable people working with eBooks would help to keep a lot of misinformation from spreading.
Why do sellers charge more for eBooks? Easy -- because they can. It's simple economics; sellers will charge that price which maximizes profits. How much an ebook costs to reproduce is utterly and completely irrelevant to that equation. If they could double their prices and only lose 25% of sales, they would.
The biggest problem with ebooks for higher learning is that you cannot quickly write margin notes. Highlighting is still somewhat primative too. The advantage of printed books is the physical interaction with the media upon which it is printed. You can quickly write your thoughts on them. Until user interfaces are substantially improved (far beyond what even iPad is offering right now), this is going to continue to be an issue for studying.
Another advantage with ebook is I can buy it from different country. I recently bought "Four Laws That Drive the Universe" by Prof. Atkins from Amazon through Kindle. It is not available in India and shipping it is very expensive.
Because I can't loan them (with rare exceptions)...
I'm not sure about strict licensing here, but what I think is overlooked is that you can now loan out your entire bookshelf at once with an eBook reader. If I've got 120 books on my Kindle and let my friend borrow my Kindle, well, isn't there at least a practical improvement?
Perhaps that's a civilly disobedient activity, but in some ways it's also a score for sharing.
Topics had to be consistently shrunk or discarded to make room for new information. E.g., the 1911 entry on Oliver Goldsmith was written by no less than Thomas Macaulay, but with each edition, it got shorter and shorter. EB was thus in the business of throwing out knowledge as much as it was in the business of adding knowledge. rent in london
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