Why e-books never caught on

In the movie Ghostbusters, Dr Egon Spengler (played by Harold Ramis) uttered a phrase that has remained in my head ever since.

"Print is Dead".

He was right, even then.

Here are two excellent pieces on the subject, from e-week magazine.

  1. E-Book Publishing Is Foundering for Good Reason
  2. Excuse Me, Mr. Coursey, But E-Books Rock

In the above articles, two pundits pontificate and disagree over whether or not e-books are succeeding. I agree with Mr Coursey's sentiment, but not with his reasoning.

I have been reading e-books for about ten years on Psion and Palm machines. I believe that the reason that e-books have not caught on has more to do with money than anything else. Like the RIAA, the book publishers believe that they are entitled to the same amount of money per copy that they have traditionally enjoyed, even through their costs with e-publishing will be almost zero.

The consumers, on the other hand, see the lower production costs and expect them to be passed on to them, and are unwilling to pay full price for a book with no spine, pages, shipping, production or retail costs/overhead.

If a Hardback costs $15-$25 and a paperback costs $4-5, an e-book should not cost more than about $2.50. Good luck finding one at that price.

To put it bluntly, e-books have failed to catch on because of the intransigence of the publishers (who want a license to print more money) and the stubbornness of the public (who won't pay more for less). The publishing industry has an annoying tendency to expect the public to pay more for less, while their customers expect just the opposite.

I believe e-books can catch on, and quickly. However, it is unlikely to happen until the publishers do three things:

  1. Agree on a common format. People will want to read their e-books on different devices, ranging from PCs to PDAs to dedicated e-book readers. Ignore this and they will ignore you.
  2. Quit trying to use restrictive DRM to "lock down" their products to individual devices. In the real world, stuff happens – hardware breaks or gets stolen; people upgrade. Do you really think that people will repurchase their entire collection of e-books if that happens? No – they will expect to be able to transfer or assign their purchases to another device at will, without hassle. That's called fair use rights, and the customer will demand them. Unless you have infrastructure to give it to them, don't bother.
  3. Lower the price to half the price of a paperback at most. Your customers know what you pay the Authors, and have a pretty good idea of how much you should make – remember that electronic publishing cuts out all sorts of middlemen and material costs – and what is left is almost pure profit. Those saved costs should be passed onto the customer, and not used to line the pockets of the publishers and their lawyers. Don't make the same mistake as the RIAA.

Until these three things happen, do not expect e-books to be universally accepted.

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  • By David.R.Gilson on November 25, 2009 at 7:27 PM

    Can Electronic Book Readers Succeed?…

    Examining the problems with the iTunes like ecosystem surrounding e-books and why we need a DRM free and open environment for true innovation. SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “”, url: “” });……

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