Did we really win the e-book debate?

award-smallThis week, the Guardian published an article by Anna Baddeley definitively declaring the reading public the winners in the digital debate.

E versus P. Digital versus paper. That, for Baddeley, is evidently the essence of the digital debate. According to her, readers have now “won” and we get move on to other issues:

More serious questions about the book industry now have space to be aired. Are we publishing too many books? Why are the authors whose books make it into bookshops overwhelmingly white and middle-class? Is there a crisis of mediocrity in nonfiction? Is the hardback/paperback cycle outmoded?

Huh? To reduce the digital debate down to simply digital versus paper is a vast oversimplification and totally ignores a large number of important issues that readers struggle with every day.

In her piece, Baddeley describes the e-book debate of three and a half years ago and concludes:

The answers tended to be very black and white. You were either an ebook zealot or a luddite refusenik.

I started this blog around the same time (January 2011) and agree, at that time, E versus P was a huge part of the dialogue about digital books. But even then, the digital debate was about so much more than e-book versus print and it had been for a long, long time. While Amazon may have had the first commercially successful ereader with its first generation Kindle in 2007, it was by no means the first e-book reader. According to Wikipedia:

There have been several generations of dedicated hardware e-readers. The Rocket eBook[42] and several others were introduced around 1998, but did not gain widespread acceptance. The establishment of the E Ink Corporation in 1997 led to the development of electronic paper, a technology which allows a display screen to reflect light like ordinary paper without the need for a backlight; electronic paper was incorporated first into the Sony Librie (released in 2004) and Sony Reader (2006), followed by the Amazon Kindle, a device which, upon its release in 2007, sold out within five hours.

Even at that time, other issues affected digital readers. Pricing was also a big issue. Back in 2008, the Dear Author blog had a post on how publishers were trying to price e-books the same as hardcovers.  The digital bookstore in question was the now defunct Fictionwise, not Amazon,  and the article mentions very high prices from Avon, Macmillan and Penguin as well.  Some of these were priced at twice the cost of the paper versions.This was long before publishing’s 2009 collusion with Apple, or the 2010 kerfluffle with Macmillan over buy buttons and pricing.

The same 2008 Dear Author post also talks about the issue of Digital Right Management (DRM) and the problems that this created for readers of e-books. The post implies that publishers at the time were blaming high ebook prices on having to incorporate DRM for various formats:

It is true that margins in ebooks are not as great as one might perceive what with Hydra of Lake DRM. In other words, because of the many formats that exist, publishers have to spend $$ to convert into each format which raises the overhead and reduces the ebook margin. I don’t feel sorry for publishers because this cost could easily be eliminated with say, excision of DRM. What an idea, right? And no, I don’t want to hear about the dangers of piracy because guess what? E publishers sell their books with no DRM and still manage to make money.

There were quite even more digital issues coming to a crisis point.  Windowing, the practice of releasing an e-book version months after the hardcover. You can read the publishers’ justification here and the reader take on the issue here.  When Harper Collins decided in early 2011 to limit library e-books to only 26 checkouts before a new copy had to be purchased, there was an uproar and a boycott by both librarians and customers.

Back in 2011,  I wrote an article for this blog on the discussion that were taking place about an ebook bill of rights.  Most of the issues talked about are still issues the digital reader has to contend with.

For example, we still do not have the freedom to buy, sell or lend ebooks that we have bought and paid for. All the shopping buttons still say buy now, not license now.

We still can’t freely transfer an e-book to another device. And no, Kindle, Nook and Kobo app being available on every device is not quite what we had in mind.) Try transferring a book  from your Kindle to a Nook or a Kobo without using a thrid party application like Calibre .

DRM is mostly still there. A few small publishing houses release books without it. Amazon gives authors the option not to add DRM and Smashwords doesn’t add it at all. For other publishers,  the face of it may be changing to other types like watermarks, but for now  it is still there on many books. For some readers and privacy advocates, it is more of an activist issue than ever.

In the area of fair pricing, many ebooks sell for as much as their paper counterparts. With the return to agency pricing in 2014, most traditionally published books are higher, especially for new releases. (See my last blog post about that one….)

Library pricing practices for ebooks may very well be worse than it was in 2011 when the Harper Collins boycott was under way. Recently, the Toronto Public Library city librarian called e-book pricing “unsustainable,” then went on to say:

According to information provided by the library, the Big Five, large publishers that provide about half the library’s books, charge libraries roughly 1.5 to five times the price average consumers pay for ebooks, and some stipulate they can be used only a certain number of times or over a certain period.

The highest prices come from Random House Canada and Hachette Book Group, which charge up to $85 and $135 per book, respectively.

HarperCollins Canada appears to have the strictest usage restrictions, allowing a book to be used only 26 times. Penguin Group and Simon & Schuster make libraries repurchase the titles after a year.

That is a big, big  jump from even the $13.99 that I personally think is too much to pay.

So, have we won the digital debate? It may well be that publishers boil the argument down to P versus E, but I think that the rest of us don’t. While we may have solved the debate over whether or not ebooks will cause the downfall of literary civilization and while many more books are available in e-book form, we are a long way from winning here. Forgive me if I don’t start the victory party just yet, okay?

What about you? As a reader, do you feel like you have won the digital debate? Or do you have issues you think still need to be resolved? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

4 thoughts on “Did we really win the e-book debate?

    • It is, isn’t it? 🙂 While I can truthfully say that a lot of things have gotten better like more availability and choices, IMHO, we still have a long way to go with rights and pricing.

  1. The market will decide–and is deciding already. I don’t think big publishers understand how most readers have been accustomed to passing books to family and friends, borrowing from the library and buying used books. Print books have value; ebooks that can’t be shared do not. However, the big publishers’ hold-out for high ebook prices helps create a market for lower- priced ebooks like mine! 🙂

    • Sometimes, I wonder if big publishers DO know, but just don’t care. 🙂 Early on (back in 2008-09), they were quite clear about wanting to set the terms and pricing for buying e-books. I think they know what readers want, but just don’t think we should have it. They have a monopoly on their authors and know it. I read and enjoy a lot of indie authors’ e-books, but if I want Stephen King or Patricia Cornwell or Val McDermid, I have to go to big publishing to get it legally. Or let my library pay through the nose…. I really hope the market gets on that right away!

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