With the advent of e-ink and e-paper, the only thing missing is the electronic content: e-books. E-books offer several clear advantages over print media: students able to tote all of their textbooks back and forth to classes in one 7 ounce e-reader; traveling the world with detailed guidebooks and foreign language dictionaries for dozens of countries; the ability to store hundreds of your favorite books in a tiny urban apartment; and finally, the potential to revolutionize libraries around the world (more on that tomorrow).
Many analysts agreed that e-books would revolutionize publishing. In 2000, Accenture predicted that e-books would make up 10% of the book market by 2005. Unfortunately, e-books didn’t live up to their great expectations. In fact, e-books only made up .07% of the 2.3 billion books sold in 2005: less than 1 of every 1200 books sold was in electronic format. Moreover, sales of e-books were flat between 2004 and 2005.
So why has the public rejected the digitization of print media? One problem is that, unlike CDs, there is no way to digitize your current library of paperbacks. E-books and e-readers also present the classic chicken and egg conundrum. Without most titles available in e-book form, expensive e-readers lose their appeal. And without flashy new e-readers to energize consumers (as iPod did for digital music), publishers are naturally less willing to commit to the new format.
“…the iPhone could either kill the nascent e-reader business or take it to new levels. We’ve been saying just about forever that the problem with dedicated e-reader is the fact that the consumer isn’t seeking a device that does only one thing. With its “smart” orientation features, the iPhone could usher in the mass market e-book era.”
Even as Apple might revitalize the market, if they insist on Digital Rights Management (DRM) as they do in the music market, they may undermine their potential success. Just as Apple iTunes makes it difficult to share digital music downloads with friends, some e-book sellers impose similar restrictions. That makes the paperbacks more attractive than DRM-controlled e-books: you bought it, you can share it with friends. Not so with DRM e-books.
Traditional publishing houses are also delusional when it comes to pricing e-books. If you want to read Tom Sawyer’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, you can buy the Penguin Classic paperback for $5.95, or for a modest 10% discount, you can download the same Penguin Classic from ereader.com.
But consider this: Copyrights on many classic titles have entered public domain. This means that almost everything written before 1923 in the United States is free to use.
In the past, Penguin Classics made profit by reprinting classic titles that would otherwise be unavailable.The Internet changes the equation. Take away the public’s need for the printing press, and e-books would seemingly be a major threat to Penguin Classics.
Fear not, for lovers of classics there is good news: Project Gutenberg has taken the Wikipedia approach to sharing e-books in the public domain. With 20,000 free e-books in their catalog - including Huck Finn - Project Gutenberg claimed more than 2 million downloads last month. Contrast this with the 1.7 million e-books sold in all of 2005 and we see once again that consumers of e-books are extremely price sensitive. (More on price sensitivity in music here.)
And the pricing premium for e-books isn’t restricted to the classics. Jimmy Carter’s bestseller, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is actually cheaper in hardback at amazon.com ($16.20) than the e-book version at ereader.com or fictionwise.com ($16.99).
Publishers seem wedded to the paper publishing business model. This antiquated pricing model is bad for consumers and worse for the environment. If the 2.3 billion paper books sold in 2005 had been e-books, we would have saved more than 7 million trees. Until publishers drop prices and loosen Digital Rights Management restrictions, the convenience and sensibility of e-books may remain a pipe dream.
But what if our public libraries could help revolutionize the e-book market? More on that soon.
Sources: Statastic research, Accenture, International Digital Publishing Forum