The big discussion around ebooks is usually: Should ebooks be cheaper than printed books? This is the wrong question!
The pricing of printed books and ebooks:
two fundamentally different ways to charge for content
Buying an e-book cannot be compared to buying a printed book:
You buy a paper book. Then you own it, it’s yours. You can give it away or sell it as you like.
But you don’t buy an ebook, you license it. You don’t own the file that you paid for and downloaded. You cannot give it away and you can certainly not sell it. However, Kindle and Nook allows you to loan your ebooks to friends for 14 days.
This means that the price of a printed book cannot easily be compared to the price of an ebook.
The gut reaction of many is that this difference is negative for ebooks: “If I pay for an ebook I want to own it, to be able to control it…” But in my view the licensing model of ebooks is actually better for us book lovers in several ways.
Also, when you think of it, we are in fact used to this licensing model for other types of media, more on this further down here.
First about the price itself:
Why on earth is the discussion of ebook pricing still based on production and distribution costs?
People seem to think that since the cost to distribute ebooks is very low, they should be very cheap. This is just as silly as the old argument “Why are movie DVDs so expensive when a recordable DVD only costs $0.50?”
There are more problems with this reasoning:
The biggest part of the production cost is the authoring and the editing, not the physical printing.
The price of any product has never been set based on production costs only. We pay for the status of the brand, the design, the usability, the convenience of the delivery and packaging, for being first with a new product, for additional features etc. Why should digital media be any different?
For example: the price difference between a hard cover book and the same book as paperback is only slightly based on reduced printing costs, it is about access time and status, even though the content is identical.
I have a feeling that we will let go of this urge to own and possess many types of books (but not coffee table books etc) just like we have already stopped buying CDs with music.
The obvious pricing model then becomes subscriptions. “Subscribe to books? What a silly idea!” you might react. But consider the giant book club industry? And an ever bigger subscription based media business that has been around for 50 years:
The Cable-TV model
We are used to paying for cable-TV packages, such as bundles of channels for sports, feature films, child programs, documentaries etc. And the ownership of these programs are similar to ebooks: you can record them for personal use, but you do not own them and you cannot resell them. We have never seen this as a problem, so why not implement the same model for ebooks?
The subscription model is already growing fast in digital music, with services like Spotify, Grooveshark and Rdio
And there are a growing number of ebook publishers that are now starting to go this way, for example 24symbols.
Ebbok subscriptions will soon become a very important part of the ebook business, once the publishers learn how to reach out and demonstrate the advantages. But there are several other interesting pricing models that will also be important in the digital transition of the book industry.
I will dive deeper into the subscription model and other ways to monetize ebooks in my upcoming post: “New business models for ebooks”, so stay tuned!
This is post #4 in my series on the ebook market and development.
updated Sep 1, 2011
This is a long post, but with many goodies if you are into books:
Basic e-features that enhance the reading experience
How to expand the life span of books
How to help the readers to drive your sales
Powerful sorting and searching
How to encourage book reading with tracking and reminders
Five reasons why ebooks aren’t here yet – or are they?
Ebook lovers usually have these basic reasons for liking ebooks:
You can bring your ebooks along easily on commutes and travels
You save shelf space
They usually don’t mention the core of ebooks, that the they are digital and therefore have more functionalities than printed books. As I pointed out in my previous post, “Early ebooks and why they failed“, already at the beginning of ebooks 20 years ago the main selling point was the enhanced digital functionality. So why are ebooks today still not using much of all these digital features?
One main reason for this is fragmentation. There are numerous user interface designs and no common standard for how these e-features look or work. And conservative book publishers still don’t see the value of user communication, social media communities etc. So most ebooks are just converted print books with no e-functionalities.
These are basic functions that should be integrated in all kinds of ebooks:
Notes, being able to write my own notes into the ebook and decide if I want to share them with others, see other’s public notes
User-selectable fonts, font sizes, background colours (for example light text on dark background for reading in dark rooms)
Online sharing: being able to easily recommend the book to my friends by email, Facebook, Twitter etc
Rate the book online and read both professional and user reviews
Copy quotes from the text
Search for text in the book
Multiple-device support: being able to read it on my laptop, mobile, tablet, and auto-sync where I am in the book
Integrated audio book: Listen to a voice reading the book, for example when you are driving is a feature that is now becoming more common, supported for example in Apple’s iBooks and in applications like these:
A demo of the integrated audiobook function from Enhanced Editions of their ebook novel “The Death of Bunny Munro” as read by the author himself, Nick Cave (highly recommended ebook!)
Then there is the whole spectrum of more advanced things that enhance certain types of ebook, blurring the distinctions between books, games, learning etc:
Video inserted into the ebook, either illustrating the content or a short talk by the author.
Animations that explain and visualize the content
Interactivity such as game functions, move around in photo panoramas, play sound effects or music, quizzes etc.
But the above is just the first step, there are many more e’s that should be utilized now that we have the online possibilities to improve the reading experience and business of ebooks!
E as in Extended life time
One of the biggest problems in the printed book business is not discussed much, but it is solved by ebooks. Or it could be solved, with a bit of forward thinking!
It’s about shelf life, the short longevity of printed books.
All publications, including books, can be divided in two types
Short life-span, needs to be updated often: non-fiction, user manuals, school books, most management books, travel guides etc
Long life-span: Novels, cook books, some types of reference books etc
E as in Edition updates
Since it is so difficult and expensive to print a revised edition of a paper book and re-distribute it to the readers of the original version, this is never done.
In contrast to printed books, ebooks can easily be updated by the author. This is of course an enormous advantage for books in the short life-span category described above. This both prolongs the shelf life and increase the value. You can charge more for a business ebook that comes with an offer that it will be updated for free to the buyer.
Also, this opens up a direct communication link with the readers, requiring them to register for the updates and also receiving information about the authors next title etc. So why is this business opportunity still not used?
But we need much smarter search and catalog systems for ebooks, as well as recommendation engines that work across all the publishers, small and big, globally.
E as in Enlighten your friends
Help the readers to drive your sales! Make it very easy to spread the word about an ebook they like. And make it equally easy to receive such a recommendation and act on it by buying the book directly, on the spot, even if you are on a bus.
Imagine that you have a number of book shelves in different rooms at home, but you could only put books from one specific publishing house in each book shelf. So to find a book you first have to know the name of the publisher, then in what room and book shelf the book is in. Not very reader-friendly, eh? Well that’s the way it is with ebooks now!
Compare this with your collection of ebooks: You cannot search for book titles, authors or content, and you cannot sort them with tags for different categories.
Your ebook collection is just a database, sitting inside a powerful computer. So technically they should be possible to sort in any way you want!
With a physical book shelf you have to choose between sorting the books alphabetically, by the title or the autor, or sort them per category. With a data base you should be able to sort your books in all these ways and more!
Here are my current ebook apps in my iPad:
Some of these apps, like Kindle and iBooks, contain multiple books of many kinds that I have purchased from these ebook stores. Others are independent publishers of niche types of ebooks or services for ebook lovers. And some are for individual ebooks. Can you tell the difference?
Looking at this collection of icons, how do I find a certain book that I have on my iPad? I can certainly not search for an author’s name or a specific word of phrase that I know is inside one of my ebooks, like I can in every other type of document I have on my computer.
So I want a view where I can see and search for all my ebooks, independent of its type or publisher.
E as in Enhanced tracking and reminders
I usually read several books simultaneously, and sometimes forget what book I was reading. With printed books it is somewhat easier: I see it lying on my bedside table. With ebooks, it is very easy to lose track of what books I have started reading. In my screen shot above from my iPad there is no way I can see what books I have started or finished reading.
So how about a clock-type little visual indicator on top of all book icons, showing how much I have read? It would also be nice to have automatic reminders: “Henrik, this is Sunday afternoon and you have 11 unread ebooks and 4 that you have started reading”.
And a function (like Runkeeper) where I can automatically post the reading status of my books in my Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Wired Magazine had an interesting article in June 2011: 5 Reasons Why E-Books Aren’t There Yet. In the article, the author argues: “There are some aspects to print book culture that e-books can’t replicate (at least not easily) — yet.”
I agree with some of these reasons, but find others can be fixed now or are already here:
1) An unfinished e-book isn’t a constant reminder to finish reading it.
I also have this problem. But as I say here, it is possible to create smart reminder systems and social media functions that inspire me to finish my books. I have not seen these functions anywhere yet, here is room for innovation!
2) You can’t keep your books all in one place
Yes, indeed, see above!
3) Notes in the margins help you think.
How come the author has missed that this feature has been in ereaders since 1992? Perhaps because it is sometimes not so easy to understand how to use it, we need more intuitive interface designs.
4) E-books are positioned as disposable, but aren’t priced that way.
I agree, but pricing is a complex issue that the market will fix eventually. Interesting that the author compares with library loans, but not with the emerging subscription models. More on this will follow in my upcoming post “Re-think the pricing of ebooks”
5) E-books can’t be used for interior design.
This is not a problem really, just old-fashioned thinking. Like “kerosene lamps are so beautiful that they will never disappear”. We will continue to buy beautiful coffee-table books to decorate our homes. The ebooks we will use to decorate our social media profiles.
This is post #3 in my series on the ebook market and development.
Amazon started the recent ebook growth in late 2007 with the Kindle e-reader. And Apple put another big booster into ebooks in 2010 with the iPad. In February 2011 another milestone was passed, when ebooks became the biggest format of all kinds of books in the US.
I see many similarities between today’s disruptive book market and the multimedia business that I worked in during the 90s when my company Ahead Multimedia produced numerous interactive presentations and learning programs on CD-ROM. They had chapters, headlines, body text and illustrations, just like ebooks. we called it “interactive multimedia”. They looked like many of the ebooks you see now, but they also had more interactivity, animations and video than most ebooks have today.
Another similarity was the problems of competing and incompatible hardware and software platforms and varying screen sizes. My company thrived because we produced B2B communication for corporate clients so we could control the delivery platforms.
Here is the first ebook that I bought:
The novel Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, an ebook on a 1,4 MB floppy disc, introduced in 1992!
This was the first title in the Expanded Books series produced by the famous Voyager Company, these ebooks were designed for the brand new Apple Powerbook computers. I attended the launch at the MacWorld expo in San Francisco in January 1992.
Note that they called it Expanded books, their pitch was that it offered extended functionality compared to printed books. “Electronic text is a dynamic medium that enables you to become a more active reader”
Notice the features such as being able to dog-ear a page or put a paper clip on it, and type in margin notes, search for any words in the book etc.
Notice also the absence of all communication tools, remember this was before internet and email so there was no social media or online communities to share your book experiences with!
Also note that they used real- life metaphors like adding a paper clip or dog ear a page, something that we still have not broken free from, compare with the wooden book shelves in Apple’s latest iBooks application:
I think it is time to move to user interfaces that build on today’s digital possibilities and get rid of these old real-life metaphors! I am glad to see that others are also realizing this, such as Swedish startup Readmill in this post: When we founded Readmill there were a few things we were fed up with. One was imitations of wooden bookshelves, the other that everyone was building closed ecosystems where no innovation could thrive. We decided to go the other way.
So why did those early ebooks fail?
They only worked on Macs and there were few Macs back then
They were difficult to install, the users had to manually install fonts and manage the application memory etc. (This to some degree remains a problem, just try to buy an ebook in the epub file format online and install it on your computer today…)
Cumbersome distribution on floppies (then CD-ROMs came, but they were just as cumbersome)
But of course the main factors were:
People where not used to consuming media on a computer, and there were no mobiles or tablet computers.
People were not ready to pay for digital media (that problem still persists to some degree, 20 years later…)
There has been a djungle of platforms and formats for ebooks and ereaders introduced in the 90s and 00s, see these enormous charts.
2011 – the breakthrough year for ebooks
Right now it seems that in the US, the Kindle and Nook dedicated ebook readers are leading the pack, while the iPad is totally ruling among the more general-purpose tablet computers. Note that the Kindle ebooks can be read on Kindle ereaders as well as on PCs, Macs, iPads, iPhones, Android mobiles etc, according to Amazon’s vision “buy once, read anywhere”.
So the ebook took a long time coming, but it finally looks like the time is ripe now and the ebook market is booming, especially in the US and other English-speaking markets. The ebook market is growing everywhere, but in much varying degrees in different countries, here is a report from spring 2011 on the global market in 2010.
We now have computers and mobiles everywhere and wireless connections and much smarter development tools for ebooks than ever before. Most print book publishers are scrambling to get on the ebook bandwagon. It is clear that ebooks are growing everywhere, but there is still lots of confusion on how the market will develop, what kind of ebooks will succeed first etc.
But in my view the product itself is still in its infancy when it comes to exploiting all these opportunities and offering the reader a better experience.
Already in 1992 the main argument for ebooks was “extended functionality”, smart digital features that increase the reading experience. So where are all these new e-features?
More on that in my next post “Where is the e in ebooks?”
This is post #2 in my series on ebook market and development.