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

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

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.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.