E-books are a fantastic invention. Just think, you can carry a whole library’s worth of books in a single hand. It allows for enhanced books with links to supplemental material. It could free students from backbreaking backpacks and make all their course books readily available wherever they want to take them.
The benefits of e-books are apparent and people have quickly adopted them. In July of 2010, Amazon reported that sales of e-books surpassed the sales of hardcover books from their on-line store. Less than a year later (May of 2011), e-book sales at Amazon surpassed the sale of all printed books.
And this doesn’t even include the efforts at Project Guttenberg and Google Books where many books which have moved into the public domain have been digitized and are available for free download.
It seems pretty clear that the future of book publishing is electronic. Brick and mortar book stores are closing. Borders, the national book store chain, filed for bankruptcy in February of 2011. The publishing business is changing.
So, we have yet again another longtime business that is being disrupted by technology. And, like other business sectors before them (music, movies, newspapers), the business leaders hope to cling to a business model that no longer works. They are no longer able to control the business in the way they used to, but they seem unable to come up with a new business model that accommodates the new reality. So what do we see? We see the same sort of thing that happened in the music business and is happening in the movie business. We see an attempt to protect the product by implementing “Digital Rights Management (DRM)”, backed up by laws passed by their friends in Congress such as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (passed October 1998), and various extensions of the length of copyright protection to the point that copyright is no longer acting per its original intent.
We see spectacles like Amazon erasing books remotely from Kindle devices when it discovered that it didn’t have the legal copyright to the books it sold. These are books that customers bought which “magically” disappeared from their Kindles. To be sure, Amazon reimbursed the owners and recognized that it was a bad PR move to have removed them, but the more important point is that the action was even possible. Think of it, Amazon can remotely change the contents of a device you own, removing content that, again, you ostensibly own, all without you being involved in the action.
So what does that mean regarding book ownership? When I buy a paper edition of a book, I do truly own it. I can do with it as I wish, including loaning it to someone, reselling it, giving it away, or destroying it. Most of those actions are not true with e-books. You can’t loan them, can’t resell them, can’t give them away. In what sense do I own an e-book?
The publishers are also working out ways to keep libraries from “misusing” e-books. The current mechanisms allow them to check out an e-book to a library customer, but they can’t check out more copies than they have purchased and many books have a check out limit, after which the library must re-purchase the book if it wants to continue to carry it. I guess this mimics the wear and tear that happens to physical books, but in many cases physical books can be repaired. And of course, libraries can’t resell the books they may have purchased that they no longer need.
Many publishers are also setting prices on e-books commensurate with the price of a physical book. Publishers are allowed to try to get whatever price they can, but as a customer, I have to scratch my head and question this approach. E-books cost virtually nothing to reproduce. There are no printing costs, no warehousing costs, no handling costs, distribution cost is minimal. The only costs include royalties to the original author, publicity and promotion cost and profit for the publisher. These have to be a lot lower than the costs for a physical book. For example, I was looking at buying a paperback a couple of weeks ago. The paper book price was around $12.00. The e-book price was $11.00. Guess which one I bought. For $1.00, I got a version that I could write in the margin of, could loan to a friend, could do whatever I wanted with, and there weren’t a lot of restrictions placed on me.
Is the convenience of a e-book worth what we are giving up? In my case, the answer is a pretty strong NO, but I am fighting a losing battle agains the tide of technology. I like books. I am really to sorry to see the way the publishing industry is moving. But I suspect that the industry will change, it’s just that it make take some years for that to happen and that’s just sad.