The year of the ebook, take n

Ebooks seem to be hot again, at least for slightly warm values of hot. I’ve seen more articles mentioning them in the past month than I had for quite a while before that. Most prominently, both the Washington Post and New York Times had survey-of-the-industry articles, the Post’s pegged to a review of the Sony Reader.

The more interesting development was that the Times article and a BloggingStocks post bring up the idea of iPhone as ebook reader. One of the difficulties for the industry has been that current devices and before them the Rocket eBook cost real money, $300 and $500 respectively. Most people don’t want a separate, expensive device just for reading on pixels. iPhones (or future iPods with a similar screen) could make ebook readers widely available – at which point more people would start using them.

Then the problem becomes the cost of the books. Charles Stross, science fiction writer, pointed out in March that “the economics of the commercial ebook market are sick”. Ebooks are sometimes being sold for almost the cost of hardcovers, which is crazy. Audio editions I can understand being worth that much, since they have added costs in the form of voice actors and sound editing, and they still have media and packaging costs. Ebooks? The simplest way to produce an ebook is to distribute the Word document you’re working from. You’ll still have costs for editing, promotion, distribution channel, etc., but none for paper and printing. How can that require charging as much as for a hardback?

I like physical books because I can see them and be reminded to reread, which (even with something like Apple’s CoverFlow for book covers) is unlikely to happen with ebooks. I like physical books because I can decorate my apartment with them. I like physical books because I can easily loan them to friends – and given the fog of DRM around most ebooks (there are exceptions like Baen), that’s not going to be possible any time soon. Ebooks aren’t worth as much to me as dead-tree editions, and I’m not sure what price would be right.

Some publishers are starting to think about the price problem. Baen’s ebooks cost a little less than paperbacks. Toby Buckell notes that Stross’s publisher was persuaded by his arguments to price his books’ electronic editions at three pounds. And of course the romance e-publishers have consistently kept their prices comparable to series romances, less than single title paperbacks. But most traditionally published books aren’t available as ebooks for anything like an appropriate price. Hopefully that will change soon.

Note: this is about ebooks-as-purchased-content rather than ebooks-as-freely-distributed-marketing. The latter strategy is going strong, with HarperCollins expanding its sample pages program to an iPhone-compatible website, authors posting first chapters on websites, and ebook authors expanding their work for traditional publishing deals.

About Jennifer Berk

I'm an analytics and data leader with a marketing and product mindset. I like online newspapers, science fiction and fantasy, and ugly fish.
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