How valuable are eBooks really?

(First of all, sorry for crossposting: this article was originally published in German on ocelot.de – but now that my fellow punk Kai has written something on the insane price politics of German magazine publishers, I thought I’d provide an updated English version here.)

According to Bitkom, now really is the time, now it’s happening, the breakthrough of the eBook market. German’s most popular reading device is flat and full of electronics and makes it possible to carry around one’s entire book shelf. With about 8 million eBook fans in Germany, both the name and the concept “eBook” have pretty much entered mainstream. Hardware manufacturers are patting their backs. For the entire book industry, the eBook is the symbol of innovation and, because of that, scary and motivating at the same time.

Since the eBook is spoken about in many contexts, it is worthwhile looking at more closely and asking what is actually being offered. Because first of all, not all eBooks are the same, and secondly, most of them are not nearly as innovative as is claimed everywhere. Unfortunately, with the majority of all titles it seems that eBooks are waste products which are created in the manufacturing process of the printed book and which are also sold by publishers. The books are usually designed for conventional production and thus quite naturally, the challenges and opportunities of digital reading are not taken into consideration.

What do eBooks and the Wikipedia have in common?

In order to illustrate this mismatch, I’d like to briefly refer to Wikipedia. This online reference is a good example of how to create and distribute encyclopedic content using the structure of the Internet. Due to its open structure, many authors review the articles and support each other. Content creation follows a discursive principle, which is easy to see by looking at the history of each item. The text genesis is transparent, understandable to everyone, thus taking advantage of one of the main features of the Internet: pieces of content are interlinked and different file formats such as photos or videos are employed. Therefore, Wikipedia is a product of the Web and thus something fundamentally different than simply putting the raw data of the Brockhaus online and hope it would enjoy a similar popularity. It is important to make best use of what the mechanics of the medium have to offer in order to create additional value.

Ebooks should be digital products which are attractive and which make clear that they were invented for the digital distribution channel in the first place. An example: your own bookshelf on the iPad  is much smaller than the one purchased at IKEA. This must have consequences for the cover design. Reading on non-paper, in addition, means that typographic quality plays an important role to facilitate the reading on a screen. An interesting project in this context is MySkoob, who sell classic literature in  new and attractive way. Works such as Robinson Crusoe were launched as Friday and create attractive new reading experiences which have garnered numerous design awards. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Following Gunter Dueck (Almost only multimedia books), in the future we will build virtual monuments which use image, video and audio material. How about an edition of Goethe’s Faust which comes with scientific commentary, videos and audio files of productions of the important monologues?

To avoid misunderstandings: It’s not about turning books into multimedia information landfills, but to create smart products for the digital market, which are well worth their money. The awareness of what exactly these clever products are and what the parameters look like will be an important characteristic of publishers in the future.

Most eBooks aren’t worth their money

On average, eBooks which you can buy today are 20% -30% cheaper than the printed version. This sounds interesting. At second glance, however, it shows that these savings will be neutralised by several disadvantages. In reality, eBooks are in fact more expensive than print titles.

The biggest hurdle is the DRM (Digital Rights Management). The majority of current eBooks will be shipped with this kind of protection, so that those titles cannot be copied. Each book is individually tied to the buyer’s account, be it at Adobe’s, Amazon’s or Apple’s. (The question of  how comfortable you feel about the fact that one of the three knows all about your reading habits, you have to decide for yourself. A couple of days ago, a report went through the Web that showed how Amazon just wiped a user’s Kindle without any explanation. All of her purchases were gone, which proves that ultimately, you don’t own DRM-secured files, but rather borrow them for as long as the provider sees fit.) The result is that you can neither give your eBook to a friend or family member or resell it. Reading culture is based in large part on sharing and the ensuing conversation about books. This culture is suppressed by the current practice. Right now, reading eBooks makes one pretty lonely.

What also must be taken into account of course is the purchase of the eReader devices themselves, which one has to subsidise via buying multiple eBooks. Even if one wants to use a cheap device like the crappy TrekStor Liro – a product that feels like a toy from Kinder surprise  – readers need to buy between 10-20 books (depending on the titles) to recoup the purchase price.

As mentioned before, the bulk of the eBooks provides no additional value, you read just what you would also read printed on paper. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a dynamic EPUB format, which allows font sizes to adapt. Otherwise you have to be satisfied with PDF – a static file format that was originally designed for printing and celebrates its twentieth birthday next year – nice, new, modern eBook world.

Content more importan than medium

Even if it seems smart to give yourself a modern touch by discussing these digital formats, it misses the real issue. In essence, it’s all about content, about the works themselves, which are received in a new format, via a new medium. Every reader has certain reasons for one or the other format. Be it a high-quality tome with gold trim, an inexpensive paperback edition, a fiction eBook with only body text or a well-designed digital book with multimedia elements – there is an incredibly diverse demand that has to be met, leaving apart snobbery, traditional methods and calls for politics. If there is any doubt left: it’s a market we’re dealing with here.

(Image by CarbonNYC)

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