Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Whatever happened to that passing fad called e-books?

Four of the last five books that I read were old fashioned paperbacks. I realise that the global e-book market is doing just fine without me but I am curious to know why, despite living in a household awash with e-readers, tablets and smart phones I find myself migrating back to paper.

What surprises me most about my reverting back to paper is that I was an enthusiastic adopted of e-books a few years ago and I have written several blog posts about it. The small size of e-readers is a big plus for me because I do most of my reading sitting on public transport while travelling to or from work and an e-reader is far easier to carry round than a bulky paperback. I also firmly believe there is an economic inevitability that ebooks will displace paper books in the relatively near future but I think there are reasons why my personal ebook conversion has slowed.

The first big issue for me is book discovery. This has at least two facets: the number of places that I can discover new books to read and the ease of discovering new books in those places. Traditional books beat ebooks hands down on both those scores.  I see paper books everywhere. I see people reading them on buses. I see them on friends book shelves. I see them in shop windows. Even though I see plenty of folks clutching Kindles I have no idea what books they are reading. The process of discovery is much more pleasant with paper books than with e-books. Browsing a physical bookshop is an obvious pleasure but so is being handed a book by a friend or even picking up a random book left on a shelf. I know that online retailers and Amazon in particular invest huge effort into the process of discovery but the results to date leave me cold. I never go to Amazon looking to discover something new. I only ever go to Amazon if I already have a good idea of what I want.This is a really big deal because if I spot a book I would like to read in a shop window chances are I will  buy it there and then rather than trying to remember to look up the title on Amazon later.

The second big issue is price. In my opinion the major e-book publishers have been far too slow in passing massive savings in distribution costs on to ebook consumers. Ebooks should cost far less than paper books yet they often cost practically the same. If you consider discounted books and second hand books ebooks often cost more. A €10 paperback that is a physical tangible object I can pass on to my grand kids feels like a far far better deal than an intangible ebook for €8.  E-books often feel like a rip off which leaves a nasty taste to the whole experience. It is hard to say exactly how much I think e-books should cost but definitely not more than €5. I suspect that if all ebooks were priced at €3 I would never buy a paperback again. I understand that book publishers are trying to protect themselves and their profits but I wonder if they are going about it the wrong way. In the PC gaming market Valve and other retailers have shown that when it comes to infinitely reproducible digital goods cheaper often results in higher profits. A digital copy of a book or a game is not a treasured personal possession that people buy once and keep forever. It should be an impulse purchase that people buy on a whim to try out. It is telling that I spent as much on the Humble ebook bundle last year as I spent in total on Amazon Kindle ebooks.

As a counterpoint I should say that I have a teenage daughter who is still an avid consumer of ebooks on Kindle and tablet.  However most of the ebooks she reads are either free or low cost self published titles so the pricing argument still applies. She is definitely more comfortable with the process of online book discovery than I am and she will happily browse Amazon / Wattpad / Goodreads for a new book to read, preferably a free one. The ritual of swapping physical books with her group of reading friends is still very much alive though.


Isey said...

I read the ECONOMIST electronically but all other books the good old fashioned way.

Some audio (great for long drives) but yeah, there is just something about holding and feeling and smelling a book..

I am in some book clubs and the best part about reading an awesome book? Is to pass it on for someone else to enjoy. Can't do that win e-readers.

I am surprised as well =)

mbp said...

Hello @Isey, welcome to my blog. I fully agree that physical books have many advantages and are worth more to most people than ebooks. I also think that book publishers re holding up the adoption of ebooks by trying to charge similar prices for ebooks and paper books. However I think he massively lower cost of distributing ebooks will eventually win out. I believe that the price of ebooks will fall significantly and paper books will sadly be pushed out of the market.