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!

Throwback Thursday: The $9.99 e-book boycott

tux-161439_1280Yesterday, I was thinking that since the e-book market has changed so much since its inception, it might be fun to do a Throwback Thursday post about e-books.

A discussion topic for  Throwback Thursday: Do you remember the $9.99 ebook boycott? Back in 2009, when e-book prices started going up, a group of Kindle owners joined together and  started boycotting e-books priced higher than the magic $9.99 mark. (You can read the story behind the boycott here.)

With the advent of agency pricing, publishers began  to set their own prices for e-books and the prices went up.  Since that time, agency has come, gone and then come back again. Now, it is not unusual to see e-books priced at $11.99 to $14.99 and up.

Personally, the $9.99 e-book boycott had a tremendous effect on me. Even today, I still refuse to pay more than $9.99 for a mere license to read a book. The truth is, I don’t really own an e-book, I can’t sell or lend it, it has no first sale rights or value, and even the transfer rights to other  devices are limited.  Convenience in purchasing, immediate gratification and the ability to change font size are not worth the trade-off. I also won’t purchase e-books that cost the same as a physical product.

To me, it is actually sad to see older backlist e-books priced nearly as high as new books:  James A. Michener’s The Source, for example, has been ranging in price from $10.89 to $12.99. The book was first published in 1965. One title presently on my watch list, Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited, is currently selling for over $20. As much as I would like to read it, I really don’t anticipate buying that one in the near future.

Since I am particular about how much I will pay for an e-book, the issue has indeed affected my book buying habits. I read a lot of indie authors who price their books at reasonable prices. I read classics from Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive. I check out the free book listings. I watch sales, not only on Amazon, but also on Barnes and Noble and Kobo as well. I I use price watching services like eReaderIQ to track price drops. I have a subscription to Scribd that I use for backlist books that I think are priced too high. As it stands, I usually manage to read 1-2 books a week, plus re-reads and haven’t run out of material yet. 🙂

The $9.99 ebook boycott has fallen out fashion, especially among the Kindle owners who started it. Now, mentioning that e-book prices are too high on the Amazon Kindle Discussion forums is more likely to get you flamed than to see any support for the position. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that everyone has to find a price point that they are comfortable paying. There may be some indications supporting the view that e-book sales are down due to prices.

So what about you? Do you have a cutoff price point for digital books? Have e-books prices affected your books buying habits?  Let me know in the comments.

J.K. Rowling and the incredibly expensive unreadable ebook

Well, I have to ask: Is this the future of ebooks?

Today, probably the biggest book of the fall season, J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy, was released today. Folks have already been outraged by the unbelievable price of $17.99. (Remember, that is the price simply for the privilege of a license to download and read it –  you don’t actually own it or anything.)

And it that wasn’t hard enough to swallow, that ebook you paid all that money to pre-order was basically unreadable. You can see pictures of the formatting at PaidContent.

The price and formatting issues, as well as actual criticism and feedback on Rowling’s first adult novel add a surreal element. The varying points of view on this can be seen in the flurry of reviews on the book’s Amazon page which seem to break down into the following categories:

    1. Reviews based on the book’s price.
    2. Reviews based on the book’s formatting.
    3. Reviews based on the fact that people liked Harry Potter.
    4. Reviews from people who actually claim that they have read the book.

While this was said to be an unusual situation and the problem has supposedly been fixed, those of us who have been buying ebooks for a while now have a somewhat more cynical opinion. The truth is, typos, scanning artifacts and formatting issues are all too common in ebooks that publishers want to charge top dollar for. If major publishers can’t get it right on a release this big, I truly fear for the future of traditional publishing.

Kindle Serials (Part Three)

This is part three of a three part series. The series begins here.

There’s been a certain level of excitement about Amazon’s Kindle Serials announcement, including articles like this one from Jason Allen Ashlock on Digital Book World (in which, by the way, Moveable Type is announcing a serial of its own).

But, like the serial GAMELAND that we spoke of in Part Two, in reality,  there are already many popular serials being published on Amazon–they are just being published one episode at a time: Look at Hugh Howey’s  Wool or Sean Platt and David Wright’s Yesterday’s Gone. Prices for the episodes usually range from 99 cents to $2.99 each and occasionally, even free. Generally, when these series are complete, they are published in either an omnibus edition or a boxed set.

But for the new Kindle Serials, Amazon is only charging $1.99 for the entire series! Right now, no one knows whether that  price point is only an introductory offer or a vision for the future.. In his article “Kindle’s Serial Killer,” writer Mike Cane viewpoint is that “Bezos has just lowered the floor for eBook prices again.” His advice to writers is to “pass on this.”

Kate Sullivan of Candlemark & Gleam notes:

It looks like the current Kindle Serials available are $1.99, which seems to be a standard Amazon tactic – it’s sort of a loss-leader, positioned exactly at the novel-selling sweet spot these days. From that point of view, it’s a great price – it’s cheap enough to make people willing to take the risk on an unknown author and/or a format they’re not familiar with. From the point of view of someone who likes to see creative types paid a fair wage for their work, though, I really despise the 99c and $1.99 price points for full novels. We charge $5 for a basic serial, with additional content and rewards available at other tier price points, and I think that’s fair. But promotional pricing can be anything you want, and I’m going to look at the current $1.99 pricing on the Kindle Serials as just that – a way to get market penetration through encouraging people to take a low-priced risk.

Authors like Saul Tanpepper express concern that “$1.99 is too restrictive, for both readers and writers.”

Compare the $1.99 price tag to the price for Baen Books’ Webscriptions, where for $15 a month, subscribers get serialized versions of upcoming new Baen titles.

But it is not only the price point that may be restrictive for authors: Like the Kindle Singles program, the Kindle Serials program is curated. Authors must submit samples of their serial and get accepted by Amazon in order to get published. The fact that three of the serials currently offered are from the same Studio hints that there are obviously some agreements already in place for serials material. Just how open the program is to new material remains to be seen.

Customers have some concerns as well. Many of those concerns have little to do with price. What if the author doesn’t finish the series? It is bad enough for a reader when an author doesn’t finish a series of books. (Consider Sterling E. Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey or Dean Koontz’s Moonlight Bay series or Anne Rice’s never-written sequel to The Mummy, among many, many others.) But an unfinished serial is actually an unfinished book! That’s certainly not a recipe for customer satisfaction!

And anticipation may not be for everyone! I read some disgruntled comments about Tor publishing the next book in the Old Man’s War series as a serial. Some fans would rather wait for the whole book to be available. (Personally, I’m one of those –  Remember how I said I bought The Green Mile and The Blackstone Chronicles serials in the 90s? I actually waited until I had bought them all so I could read them like a complete book!)

The serials market is clearly going to be an important ebook market, with content, availability, delivery and price all being dynamic issues going forward. And it may not just be the ebook market pushing the boundaries. I just stumbled on a website for a new print serial called Ora et Labora et Zombie. Written as an epistolary novel, the book consists of 4-6 page letters (on watermarked stationary and with a hand-printed cover sheet) that are actually mailed to your house.  With 72 episodes priced at $3 each, the total price of the book may actually make agency pricing look good.

What’s in your ebook bill of rights?

One of the big issues over this last week has been Harper Collins’ announcement that they were placing limits on how many times a library book may be circulated. The last-minute announcement broadsided librarians and readers alike. (There are roundups of the blog entries and media coverage available and  you can follow the discussion on Twitter under the hashtag #HCOD.) EDIT: Sorry, but that hashtag no longer has the same meaning and that information is no longer available.

Ironically, the new limits went into effect on March 7, 2011, right at the beginning of Read an Ebook Week.

Those discussions have yielded a lot of interesting ideas about accessibility, DRM (Digital Rights Management) and the future of ebooks. One of these ideas is the aggressive promotion of an eBook User’s Bill of Rights, most frequently the one offered by Sarah Houghton-Jan on her blog, Librarian in Black.

Sarah’s bill of rights focuses on:

  • the right to use eBooks under guidelines that favor access over proprietary limitations
  • the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software the user chooses
  • the right to annotate, quote passages, print, and share eBook content within the spirit of fair use and copyright
  • the right of the first-sale doctrine extended to digital content, allowing the eBook owner the right to retain, archive, share, and re-sell purchased eBooks

Well known tech blogger Mike Cane tackled this subject as well on his own blog last August in his article the Ebook Buyer’s Bill of Rights.   His bill of rights focuses mainly on issues involving appearance and functionality: covers, table of content, bookmarks. Formatting issues are also important in his version:

3) You have the right to proper formatting by default.
a) Formatting should mirror a proper printed book.
b) Paragraphs should have indents without spaces between paragraphs.
c) Only after such proper default formatting should a reader be able to mix things up via a device’s software settings (typesize, spacing, margins — in other words, reflow overrides).

A site called the Reader’s Bill of Rights promotes rights for readers of digital books. Created by librarian Alycia Sellie and technologist Matthew Goins, the site advocates critical looks at the downsides of ereader technology and has an anti-DRM stance. The powerful graphic for Libraians against DRM shown above comes from their site. (Note that this site was registered in April 2010, well before the Harper Collins OverDrive announcement.) Its bill of rights focuses more on DRM and accessibility.

The Readers’ Bill of Rights for Digital Books:
1. Ability to retain, archive and transfer purchased materials
2. Ability to create a paper copy of the item in its entirety
3. Digital Books should be in an open format (e.g. you could read on a computer, not just a device)
4. Choice of hardware to access books (e.g. in 3 years when your device has broken, you can still read your book on other hardware)
5. Reader information will remain private (what, when and how we read will not be stored, sold or marketed)

The site also has an interesting blog entry about the ALA president speaking out about this issue on Facebook. The entry links to one of the best arguments I have ever seen for NOT joining the social networking giant.

Each of these rights statements makes it extremely clear that they are meant to be starting points for the conversation about rights. It is also quite obvious that each author has different priorities that are important to them, whether it is the first sale doctrine or DRM.

What I personally find extremely surprising, given all the discussion about eBook prices, is that none of these rights statements even mentions the concept of the price of digital books as an important factor.

How about you?  Is there something that you think should be included in an ebook bill of rights?  Is a fair price something you would like to see as part of the discussion?