The eBook Problem and The eBook Solution

May 28th, 2008 · 24 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

I am increasingly convinced that ebooks are not going to be the next big thing. While every pundit waits eagerly for signs of an ebook “surge”, ebooks will increase market share in a slow and steady way. By the time it’s noticed, ebooks will simply be part of the mainstream reading mix. It’s closer to reality than you think.

I worry about that lack of consumer input in the epub standards debate.

I remain ever-convinced that the publishing industry doesn’t really know what’s going on out there in consumer-world; if they did, then they’d see how ebooks are being purchased and read by real readers. If you limit your definition of the average ebook reader to tech-savvy, male, or living on the West or East coast (or Austin), you really don’t understand this market.

It is important that we don’t confuse the failure of devices with the failure of ebooks. Devices, as is their nature, come and go as consumers try them on and deem them worthy or unworthy. That most e-reading devices haven’t caught fire isn’t a reflection on the market for electronic books. It’s a reflection on the failure of device manufacturers to understand the final link in the book chain. I am intrigued by the fact that the discussion about ebook standards and devices is taking place without the input of the key — the key — constituency: readers. Anyone ever ask them what they want?

No seriously, anyone ever ask the average ebook reader what she wants? This is where the music industry missed the boat. They were all about this standard, that standard, this DRM, that DRM, this device, that service, and in the meantime, the music consumer was like, “Dudes, we’re happy with MP3. Give us something that works with what works for us. We’re cool.”

So while the industry fiddled, music consumers gave up on the industry. They had something that worked just fine for them, yet, sigh, the music biz kept on trying to find something else. Anything else.

Please do not be confused. The consumer was once a placid, almost passive, beast. No longer. You cannot tell the consumer what they want and then expect them to desire it. No, no, no. Please, if you want to be successful, look at what is already embraced by the consumer — you don’t have to accept that as the standard, but you must surely build upon those successes. You are no longer in charge.

I’m going to say something that might hurt: nobody cares about your proprietary system. Consumers — for those who haven’t been paying attention, they remain the ones who pay for your product — want it to work. They want it work whenever, wherever, however. They don’t care that you’re debating standards and devising the “best thing for the industry”, because, well, if it isn’t the best thing for the readers, who gives a rip if the industry is singing hosannas? If you don’t have a market, a serious market, then the debate might have been exhilarating, but the outcome is moot.

Readers, baby, readers.

It is instructive to consider what is happening in the already-existing, already-robust ebook market. You know the one, where normal readers are already purchasing and reading ebooks with a vengeance? The one you keep pretending doesn’t exist while it flows right on by? The one of your are poaching for talent? The one that is making money. Without benefit of a Kindle. Without a Sony eReader. Without special software or technology or standards or even, praise be!, major corporate backing (imagine what this industry would be if some big publishers had gotten religion in 1998). It may not be the mega-market we were promised all those years ago, but it’s market on the way to becoming mature.

And from that market, we can discern key points of success:

  1. Portability — Successful ebook publishers “print” their books in formats that work across platforms and devices. Mostly, avert your eyes, o weak ones!, as PDF files. PDF is a good format for ebooks (Harlequin you lost me with your new Adobe whatever…couldn’t activate it, the server was down, and I associate the experience with cranky frustration). Sure it doesn’t have all the crazy DRM stuff that you seem to love, but it has that ease-of-use that really attracts consumers. I can read a PDF on my laptop (Mac), on my work machine (PC), and, hopefully someday!, on my iPhone. PDF works on still-used-by-many Palm Pilots and boringly-ubiquitous Blackberries (though these latter devices don’t necessarily handle PDF with grace and ease). At a bare minimum, the future must contain ebooks that are as trouble-free and device agnostic as PDF.

    The recently released .epub standard promises this level of flexibility, except, well, even though publishers provide the .epub files, the sellers get to convert the files to proprietary format. It’s like, wow, wipeout! You get a standard but it’s only a conduit for passing the files to sellers instead of a way to make the reading world a better place for readers (I don’t want to make light of the reduced burden this single standard places on publishers; it’s a great thing). If publishers are serious about ebooks — and I believe they are — then they need to fight for end-user standards and devices that use them.

    It will be suicide if a commonly held standard is not adopted and utilized consistently across the industry — from publishers to reading systems. Do not make it hard for consumers to enjoy books; do not make the mistake of trying to force proprietary standards or a type of DRM where one isn’t needed or wanted. Already it’s happening: despite the announcement of the standard and subsequent industry enthusiasm, the Kindle, the first e-reader that could provide unfettered access to .epub texts, uses its own proprietary format. Is it really so much to ask that I get to choose when and how I read an ebook?

    Don’t I, the consumer, deserve the flexibility to read a book I’ve purchased in the manner I deem most suitable? Who are you to tie me to a device or platform. Would you do that with paper books? Would you really say that the couch is fine, but the bathtub requires a second purchase? Your customers are not criminals.

  2. Chunks and Alternative Content — Some books lend themselves to chunked information, chapters, sections, even paragraphs. If you want to know how to attached beaded board to a wall, do you really need to buy an entire tome dedicated to home remodeling? Or do you just need that one section and maybe a video? Ditto for computer books. Since O’Reilly’s Safari program began, we have reduced our household purchase of doorstops…books bought because some of the information was necessary, but that information was only available if you bought all the useless stuff surrounding it.

    John Wiley & Company are offering chapters, following the same principle. They’re even doing this without traditional DRM. So far, the world has not ended.

    Ebooks are not “books” and the information doesn’t have be presented in the same old format. Live a little, respect the content, have fun. Re-visioning content to make it more relevant and usable is a really good thing.

    The ebook of the future will almost certainly take different forms as the information demands. There will be straight text, there will be hyperlinked text, there will be rich text, audio, video, and mash-ups of sorts. Technology won’t change books, per se, but technology will allow books to become all they can be (sorry, couldn’t resist). But this will only work if the books continue to meet the above basic standards.

    And books? What are books? Shouldn’t this really be about information? While I am certainly talking about books in the context we all know and love, any future standards must consider other forms of content. Perhaps we should recall that as we look to the future, we are not talking about “books” as much as we’re talking about “story”.

  3. Reasonable Prices — Ebooks are not the same thing as, physical matter wise, hardcover or paperback books. Consumers — real consumers, the ones who talk about buying ebooks, who buy ebooks, and who simply don’t understand why publishers don’t understand the differences in product — don’t like paying hardcover and trade paperback prices for ebooks.

    What is even more amusing is that ebooks are priced competitively with physical books that offer a higher degree of flexibility, portability, and readability. What up? Are you trying to build a market or kill a market?

These are the things that must be considered if you want to succeed in the world of epublishing. It is one thing to be dominant in your industry as it exists now, but, like all other industries, changes are happening. You may not have the luxury of recovering from a slow start, a botched beginning.

I like the debate about ebook standards and how the future might work, but I worry about that lack of consumer input. I am an ebook consumer. I have been reading ebooks since 1998 (which, to some, makes me a latecomer). I read in varying circumstances…shouldn’t I have a voice?

Extra Credit Reading:

File Under: Non-Traditional Publishing

24 responses so far ↓

  • Mark Coker // May 28, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Hi Kassia, you’re pretty much describing what we’re doing with Smashwords. Low cost, DRM-free, multi-format ebooks. Our tag line is “your ebook, your way.”

    I agree with all your comments except your praise for PDF. PDF is a horrible format if someone wants flexible font sizes and reflowable text. It’s good for ebooks for which strict formatting is essential to the readability or enjoyment of the book. But then again, we let the reader decide. If they love PDF, so be it, we offer it.

    For books that are straight form narrative, it’s advantageous to liberate the words from strict formatting so the reader can truly consume the book however they want.


  • Heather S. Ingemar // May 29, 2008 at 6:09 am

    Bravo! Bravo.

    This is what the industry gurus need to hear.

    All the best,
    Heather S. Ingemar

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  • Don Linn // May 29, 2008 at 7:59 am

    Once again, you’ve nailed it. Stay tuned.

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  • Diana Hunter // May 29, 2008 at 9:03 am

    What Kassia said.

    Well done!

  • Sam Wilson // May 30, 2008 at 11:44 am

    I want to be able to write notes and make highlights. PDF suits me for legibility. It would be nice to be able to transmit comments back to the author and to buy updates/revisions too.

  • carol stanley // May 30, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    E books have their place..esp. for “how to” subjects…But I still enjoy reading a novel curled up on my sofa…That does not work so well reading off a computer.”For Kids 59.99 and Over”

  • seedee // May 30, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    I’m not sure e-books are the way to go for mainstream fiction. There’s something about a Kindle that just doesn’t get it for me…

  • J L Wilson // May 30, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    I don’t buy ‘real’ fiction books anymore, I just buy ebooks. I have a Kindle, a Palm, and an Ebookwise, and it’s pretty simple to find what I want at either Amazon, Fictionwise, or Ebookwise. Ditto for downloading and ‘translating’ files to the correct format. Once you know the routine, it’s easy. It would be nice to have a universal format, but I remember the angst when technical pubs struggled with that (HTML? XML? SGML? there are still debates). I don’t expect agreement any time soon.

    I was in a bookstore last night, meeting a friend, and couldn’t remember the last time I bought something in paper, either magazine or book. I had one of those “wow” moments looking at all that paper. So much of it will go to waste when it’s not purchased. The amount of books that are returned and trashed is truly scary.

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  • Kassia Krozser // May 31, 2008 at 9:56 am

    I am one of those who has little patience for “smell of books” people — it’s not that I don’t like the smell of books, but it’s that I don’t see ebooks/print books as an either/or situation. You like physical books? Good, because they will exist a long time. You don’t/won’t read electronically? I think you’ll find that your habits will evolve as more information is migrated online…but you still get your books.

    There is not a debate that ebooks are the future. In my mind, that’s settled. The only question on the table is how the industry side of the equation can make the best of all possible experiences for the user side of the equation.

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  • book lover // Jun 5, 2008 at 12:49 am

    Great points Kassia.The Trendsspotting reports somewhat similar to your views – more on Kindle however.
    “Amazon Kindle Buzz – Was that a Hype?”

    One comment that caught my attention there “Kindle’s doesn’t address any need that paperback and hardback books don’t already address perfectly well” – very true.What you say?

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  • Jodi // Jan 23, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Well said! Love the comment about the couch is OK, but a second purchase is required to read in the tub.

    I like the mash-up, buy what you need idea too and I think that ebooks may turn out to be better for manuals, how-to guides, etc. Publishers will have to make their books an experience

    However, for a curl up and read story, a paper book is still my preferred choice. It’s much easier to read, and I can lend it to someone, donate it to the library, or just admire the cover, when I’m finished.

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  • Kenneth H. Fleischer // Jan 4, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    As an author, I DO have my novella, “Murfi,” available both as a “trade” paperback and as a .pdf download. There’s no DRM, and I have read that newer Kindles can use .pdf files.

    I saw this revolution coming over a decade ago. And the problem is, indeed, publishers sticking to proprietary formats and DRM, a way of telling readers that the publishers don’t like them. I do like readers.

  • Rand Fazar // Jan 5, 2010 at 4:13 am

    I got here from a ref from WXPNews (Sunbelt Software) and am glad I did. Your remarks are excellent and unfound by myself before this.
    Thank you.
    Also, could you please proofread your copy a little better? I’m one of those people who often don’t have to read something to see its mistakes. A blog/column on books really should have the mistakes down to max: 1 per issue.
    Thanks again.

  • Barc // Jan 5, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    There are the individual publishers who publish multi-format. My own favorite, since I like SF & fantasy, is Baen Books ( ). Theirs are available in HTML format, Bookwise/Rocket, Mobi/Palm/Kindle, EPUB/Stanza, Microsoft Reader, Sony Digital Reader, and RTF.

    Also of note is their Free Library, comprising a large number of backlist titles. And, yes, FREE!

  • John B. Anderson // Jan 6, 2010 at 7:41 am

    I also was referred by Win XP news. I like your views Minus the PDF I preferred HTML reading… My reasoning is that Everything Reads HTML and it’s easier to format to my liking then PDF but everyone likes their standards. (Love these guys “the Baen Free library”) – My first intro to E-Books I’ve bought several on Hardback because of it.

    As with the Music industry and the Movie one will find out too… No one likes DRM it’s a pain for us to use. It limits what devices we can use our Media on. More problems are caused by DRM then fixed.

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