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!

International Day Against DRM

No DRM for the Web FBToday, May 6th, is the ninth annual Day against DRM. Digital rights management in one of the primary limitations affecting digital goods. It places controls on the access to books, movies, software on devices. It is a feature that keeps us from truly owning the content we purchase.  As digital content continues to rise in popularity, DRM, geo-blocking, licensing terms and file format types are important issues that affect our digital lives.

You can visit the official Defective by Design website for more information.


Image credit: From Defective by Design via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

Daily Links: Kobo downloads, Bendgate, more

From the Digital Reader, How to download Kobo books (including the ones they don’t want you to).

Apple apologizes for IOS 8.0.1, from Mashable and then denies the “Bendgate” problem, fromRecode.

From The Next Web, Google’s latest Chrome build has a hidden game that to play offline.

Cosmixology celebrates Nation Comic Book Day by giving away 25 free comics, from The Digital Reader.

From The Ebook Reader, How to export and edit those Kindle notes and highlights.

Daily Links are interesting links I discover as I go about my online day. The frequency and number of links posted depend upon the daily news.



Daily Links: Free Kindle e-book and audiobook pair

From The Ebook Reader, this month’s free kindle e-book and audiobook bundle for users of the Amazon Kindle App.

From Make Use Of, an interesting infographic on breaking the cycle of e-book theft.

Daily Links are interesting links I discover as I go about my online day. The frequency and number of links posted depend upon the daily news.

The future of the library and the great content divide

As someone who tweets a great deal about public libraries, this article from TheDigitalShift, Ebook Strategy and Public Libraries: Slow Just Won’t Work Anymore,  speaks volumes.

The article addresses many of the important issues at the heart of the library ebook problem such as Overdrive’s monopoly and publisher’s refusals to sell ebooks because of fears of the library model. But it is the following paragraph which presents a truly terrifying scenario:

The perfect storm formula of a monopolistic environment and the actions (or more accurately, the deliberate inaction) of publishers have resulted in the creation of a significant shift in public policy in this country. After more than 100 years of public libraries circulating materials to users, we are no longer able to provide access to critical content that now exists in digital form. As a result, two very distinct scenarios are emerging in the communities we serve. Affluent users in prosperous neighborhoods have universal broadband access, numerous ebook hosting devices, and a credit card with the disposable income to acquire whatever content they want. Low-income residents in poorer neighborhoods do not have this sequence of resources and run the risk of not being able to access digital content that will allow them to fairly participate, compete and contribute to the digital economy/world. This content divide goes against the very principles that attracted so many of us to this profession –supporting democracy by providing access to information in the broadest possible context.

The issues so succinctly raised in this article are ones that all of us, as a society, should be very, very concerned about.There is much more in the full article, including suggestions about how to work towards a solution. If you care about public libraries, this is a must read article!

Just the facts…

I just listened to an interesting podcast of the Kojo Nnadami Show on E-Books: Chosing a reading device and a bookseller.

While there were some interesting points to the broadcast, as an ebook aficionado, I found it a little disturbing that people considered experts in the field could be totally unaware of certain facts about the ebook industry.

Among the misstated facts:

  • Amazon deleted 1984 off customers’ Kindles last year. In fact, it was 2009.
  • It is unusual for someone to own more than one ereader.
  • Typos and scanning errors are no longer a problem with ebooks.
  • It seems that there is also some confusion about the program Calibre and its capabilities. Calibre can convert one ebook format to another; it does not strip DRM from ebooks. There are third-party plug-ins for the program, however, which are rumored to do that.

The broadcast does make some valid points about the ownership issues surrounding ebooks.