Thursday, November 27, 2008

Ebook Parity: What needs to happen for the e-book industry to succeed

Every few years someone predicts the demise of paper and ink publishing. This usually happens after the release of some shiny new ebook reader. Most recently Amazon's Kindle has stirred such speculation. Certainly, it is an attractive option from a publisher's point of view. With virtually no production costs profit margins would soar. So, what has kept e-books from achieving any type of parity with paper and ink?

Before beginning to answer that question, let's look at some of the "success" of ebook publishing. As a college instructor, I am seeing more textbooks come with an online downloadable version for purchasers of the paper and ink book. These versions are fully searchable and often have active links to various web resources. Of course, it is still considered an adjunct to the traditional text and not usually bought as a "stand alone."

An increasing number of reference volumes are acheiving some sort of success, especially those which might be used while a person is still at the computer. I have my E-Sword Bible open much of the time with its ten translations, three commentaries, Bible atlas, Bible dictionary and three lexicons. I rarely use paper and ink for quick Bible reference any more. Of course, for more in depth study, few electronic resources match the depth I can find in paper and ink. And I don't even know where my paper and ink dictionary is. Who needs one when you can simply right-click and pull up spelling, definitions and synonyms.

Some business oriented ebooks for the busy professional written in abreviated style and able to be downloaded onto a PDA or smart phone have also acheived some measure of success.

Lagging behind, though, are books read for pleasure such as fiction, poetry, biographies, histories, etc. Yet, even in the "successful" fields we have seen little that approaches parity with paper and ink publishing industry wide.

Okay, I can see some of you saying, "Oh, but what about ______?" I want to be clear I'm talking about the industry as a whole and not just a single success story here and there.

I also want to make clear that I am not opposed to e-books, nor do I believe they will not be a major player eventually in the field. I even have one of my books out as an e-book option. And being a gadget freak, I want a sony ebook and a Kindle both, but I can't afford them.

Which brings me to the first thing that has to happen before e-books is for the cost of the reader to fall. Sony's e-book sells for $299 and Kindle for a whopping $359. That type of sticker shock is a major impediment to widespread use of this technology. With an average savings on an e-book of only $3-5 you need to buy 60-100 ebooks before you even pay for the device. And the "cool factor" alone for most of us is not enough to shake $300 out of our pockets, especially in tough economic times.

A related issue is the cost of the ebooks. Aside from public domain "classics" most ebooks offer little savings over paperback versions of the same books. At you can still be paying over $20 for an e-book. I can guarantee you that the author isn't receiving any higher royalties than on the paper and ink version of the book. The extra is all going into the pocket of the publisher and People simply are not going to pay close to the same price for something they download. Until the average price of the readers fall below $100 and the price of the books offer at least a 50% discount the average reader is not going to consider the "convenience" of carrying an entire library in their purse to be worth the cost.

Of course, one could argue, that many, if not the majority of e-books, are sold in .pdf format readable on any computer screen. This is true. However, backlit computer screens are hard on the eyes for extended reading and even laptops are not that portable. I'm not going to take my laptop to bed to read the next chapter of my mystery novel or pop it open next to me on the counter at the diner over lunch. Reading for relaxation needs simplicity and portability. Computers are far from simple and only marginally portable.

PDA's and smart phones provide an attractive possibility. I download books on my Palm e-book reader. I am reading Wuthering Heights right now on my Palm. However, my thumb gets tired. I have nearly about four inch by two inch screen. That means about 25 words fit in one screen. My thumb hits the scroll button every few seconds. Also you have the backlit screen issue causing more eyestrain more quickly. Improvements in screen technology will probably help correct this issue over time. But the smaller screen will still mean constant scrolling. Special dedicated readers optimized for reading at a price an average person can afford is necessary if ebooks will take off.

E-books also need to play to their strengths. Marshall McLuhan claimed that each new medium initially draws it's content from a previous medium before developing its own forms. I suspect that e-books are at that stage. Many of the "problems" with e-books result from them trying to substitute for paper and ink books rather than play to their strengths. Again, I'm reminded of E-sword. It doesn't pretend to be a "book" with pages that you start at the beginning and go to the end with. It is searchable. You open it up, choose your translation, run a search term to find your scriptures and then chose from them. Click on one and bring up the commentaries and lexicons. That's something I can't do with paper and ink. I can have 10 reference works open at one time on one screen and rapidly compare them and then move to another scripture and they all update with me at once.

The power of such nonlinear content creation is obvious for reference works. What about entertainment? Again thinking outside the chapter will help. Interactive fiction is an obvious concept. Take a mystery novel. You follow the detective and then come to a decision point like does Joe (a) interview the hotel manager (b) check the autopsy report (c) look for clues in the hotel room. The reader jumps to that scene and then has other decisions to make.

What about muliple POV's for a single story. Tell the story from the POV of more than one MC and allow the reader to switch between them. After Marianne has told her parents she is going to marry Phfttchgh a purple alien from Alpha Centauri we could continue to follow Marianne, listen in on what her parents have to say or jump to a scene where Phfttchgh tells his four parents why he wants to marry the pale pink Marrianne.

Now, good multi-pov interactive novels, that just might make me part with $300.

With nonfiction the possibilities become even more interesting. For instance, being able to cross reference several books at once. Consider reading a history of Egypt and reading about Ahknaten. Then you could highlight his name, search all your other books for that name and pull up a set of links to those references. Imbedded links to websites or online encyclopedia or journals maybe with a one-time access fee charged to your credit card for pay-as-you-go services could also be an option.

The ability to insert video and audio clips into the text is another strength. Consider reading a history book about ancient Rome and then click on a link and the author takes you on a tour of the Colosseum.

So, yes, there is a future in e-books and in paper and ink. After all, they are pretty convenient, read in reflected light, portable, relatively inexpensive and the smell of the pages is intoxicating. (Okay, that may just be me). However, for e-books to become truly an equal alternative to paper and ink the cost needs to come down on both the readers and the material and the b00ks themselves need to begin to play to their strengths and break free of the paper and ink models.