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Why is the Ebook Business So Out of Sync with Consumers?

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

ebook digital publishing ereaderLet’s face it, do you really own your ebooks? Even as someone whose day-to-day job is covering the book business as a journalist, I’m not entirely confident of what I think I know. Or as they in the American South, where I live, “I can’t say I rightly know.”

But I do know one thing: “reader” and “consumer” I’m as frustrated as anyone.

For the most part — and there are lots of exceptions, though these too are difficult to parse — you buy an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any of the other most popular “walled garden” retailers, you can’t transfer it freely between devices, you can’t cut and paste text from it and, perhaps of most importance to consumers, you can resell or give it away. Sure, your license allows you to “share” some ebooks, which is a poor, poor substitute. Bundling is all but nonexistent. (Yes, Amazon is promising to make it so — Kindle MatchBook went live yesterday.) Subscription services are still nascent and limited. Heck, even trying to borrow an ebook from the library — if you can get the book you want — is still a small chore (please, somebody euthanize Adobe Editions, stat). In Europe, despite the European Union, you still don’t have a single book market.

Heck, I honestly can’t even get the ebooks I licensed (or bought or pirated) to reliably sync my reading progress across my cloud, my computer, my phone, my ereader(s), or my tablet.

Yes, the ebook business is out of sync with consumers.

If you look at the Book Industry Study Group’s latest survey of “Consumer Attitudes Towards Ebook Reading,” you’ll find that the industry is more than likely leaving money on the table. Some highlights from the report:

  • Consumers are very interested in “bundling” print and digital versions of a book, with 48% of survey respondents willing to pay more for bundles.
  • Just over half of survey respondents would pay more for an e-book if it could be given away or re-sold.
  • Consumers do not distinguish between e-books published by traditional houses and independently published options when making buying decisions.
  • While the numbers are relatively small, there is an increase in the number of people who buy print and digital versions interchangeably with a slow decline in the number of people who exclusively buy e-books.

As Digital Book World noted, ebook growth is slowing. I wonder if it isn’t to some extent by design? The traditional publishing industry reluctantly gave in to the digitization of the industry; self-publishers, on the other hand, embraced it wholeheartedly — and look how well they are doing. Pretty well, I’d say.

Traditional publishers sought to raise prices on ebooks, but were in turn sued by the US government and are now being forced to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. Had we all been a little less greedy — consumers wanting more and more books for cheaper and cheaper prices, publishers wanting to retain the higher margins on their print business; Amazon wanting to “own” every single book buyer, Barnes & Noble wanting bricks-and-mortar dominance — might things be a little different?

Might we all have learned to get along and live in a peaceful digital/print ecosystem? Might we all be a little better off?

What if? What if?

Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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  1. Posted October 31, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Dear Ed,
    “Had we all bee a little less greedy – … – might things be a little different?” – I couldn’t agree more with you!

  2. Posted October 31, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I don’t think it’s greed so much as it is people’s tendency to take the path of least resistance. This is especially true for people in book publishing, who tend to be conservative in their habits (not so much in their politics!).

    I quarrel with the survey’s assertion that people will pay more for an ebook they can loan out or give away. No doubt they say so, but few if any people purchase media with that consideration in mind. It’s better for everyone, including authors, to have lower prices but no loaning. People want stuff for free, of course — they always do. But it behooves the industry (indies and mainstream) to be better at establishing the value proposition of ebooks, rather than allowing them to be given away, except for promotional purposes.

  3. Sandy Thatcher
    Posted October 31, 2013 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    There are a number of stylistic mistakes in this article, which you should correct, Ed, including what i assume you intended to say, viz., “you can’t resell….” On the substantive issue, publishers face a huge challenge in trying to maintain a legacy business while responding to the demands of a new digital marketplace, so it’s not surprising that they have been cautious; there is simply too much at risk if they don’t. Allowing the “first sale” doctrine to apply to ebooks would be one such risk; that would open a Pandora’s box that publishers would find hard to close later. In scholarly publishing, there is some reason to hope that open access may eventually prove viable enough to overcome many of these inconveniences to users. It’s not so likely that this approach will work for trade publishing, unless crowdfunding becomes much more than the marginal contributor it is now to the production of new books.

  4. Jonathan
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    I agree with the idea that consumers would spend more if ebooks could do more things, like be sold or shared easily. I’m definitely in that camp.

    I have recently gone back to buying paper books because they are just so much more flexible than ebooks, and, yes, I actually feel like I own them. Giving away books is huge for me, and lending ebooks is extremely hard, because most of the people I want to lend to just don’t have the devices I have.

    Because of things like this, I find that buying ebooks, even at a substantially reduced price from hardcover and softcover titles, always feels ultimately like a waste of money.

  5. Posted November 1, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Great comments. If the publishing industry had any market sense, they’d know that there’s a hole in the market big enough to sail a Nimitz-class carrier through. The major publishers whine about Amazon, but they could beat Amazon if they:

    1. Created a site to sell ebooks with a collection almost the same size as Amazon’s–meaning one that would allow any publisher to sell through it. You can only compete with the world’s largest bookstore if you too have a very large bookstore.

    2. Filled this gap in the market by having ebooks that are actually sold and whose format could be updated for new devices and that could be sold and gifted (through the website and after a certain delay) or transferred in probate. Amazon, obsessed with lock in, doesn’t want that to happen.

    That’d give those publishers something the desperately want–a direct link to those who buy their books.

    Also, here’s a comment about this: “Consumers are very interested in “bundling” print and digital versions of a book, with 48% of survey respondents willing to pay more for bundles.”

    Since that’s 52% who wouldn’t, I’m glad I just made the bundling of two of my digital titles free for those who buy the printed versions. Amazon was only paying me a miserly 40 cents for them anyway, so I figured “Why not?” It might sell more print copies.

    –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

  6. Posted November 1, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    One of the biggest things that ebook publishers are missing is community. There can be a much larger community around ebooks. Imagine being able to read a friend’s comments in an ebook.

    Physical books get shared not only for the book, but to share the notes in the margins. However, the comments in ebooks get locked away from anyone to read. Amazon starts to let you peak into the comments made in an ebook, but nothing like being able to open up an ebook, and directly see the comments in the margins.

    The key being IN THE MARGINS. Not in some disjointed space. Amazon allows you to read marginalia on kindle.amazon.com, but those notes are severed from the context of the book. Who wants to read random notes disattached from the original source?

    The same holds true for the goodreads integration. Sure, reading your friend’s book reviews from goodreads on a kindle is _kinda_ nice. But the real juice is being able to read your friend’s notes in the actual book itself.

  7. Posted November 4, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Are you under the impression that you own the applications on your computer or your tablet? And is the fact that you don’t going to send you screaming to never use it again?

    No. I thought not.

    As far as growth slowing, of course it is. And it is only slowing, not stopping. The easy money as off the table. Early adapters have already adapted. Now the rest will gradually follow along behind.

  8. SpringfieldMH
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    “Heck, I honestly can’t even get the ebooks I licensed (or bought or pirated) to reliably sync my reading progress across my cloud, my computer, my phone, my ereader(s), or my tablet.”

    Given that my ebooks automagically sync across my PC, smartphone and tablet with zero effort or expertise on my part, I have trouble taking the rest of this article seriously.

    And I buy, not pirate, my ebooks.

  9. Wilt
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    “Consumers do not distinguish between e-books published by traditional houses and independently published options when making buying decisions.”

    This is what publishers should be most concerned about. If consumers don’t distinguish, why do we need traditional publishers? What are they offering authors that independent publishing doesn’t offer.

    As for licensing ebooks—we’ve been licensing software for over twenty years, licensing movies and music and game downloads… why should ebooks be any different? Oddly, even though I’ve license all this content over the last couple decades, I’ve never had any of it taken away from me.

    And if you’re concerned about losing your ebooks, simply unlock them and keep backups, just in case. Just like we do with our software and music and games.

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