Read any good ebooks lately?

Apr 12, 2010 | Opinions

The brouhaha over Amazon and the larger publishers setting the price of ebooks has become rather deafening lately. Doom and gloom all around; writers lamenting the death of traditional publishing; the impending Apocalypse. You’d think that everyone has stopped buying books in dead tree form altogether.

Well – it could just be me. I read a lot of publishing blogs, and I get the feeling that many people are uncertain and worried. The Internet wreaked havoc with the recorded music industry after all, and the publishers have had long enough to see how well EMI and Sony are doing with the digital medium. Perhaps they see their own business suffering in the same way. Perhaps they’re already forecasting the rates of ebook piracy. Perhaps, perhaps.

The New York Times has an interesting article on the ethics of pirating ebooks when you already own the title in hardcover or paperback. This has already gone around the writers’ blogpsphere, and opinion in general seems to be that the Mr. Cohen is talking crazy. The first thing I noticed about the article, unfortunately, is the improper use of the word ‘illegal’ – downloading a pirated copy of an ebook is copyright infringement, to the best of my knowledge. Illegal and infringing are not the same thing. He also refers to it as theft – again, not the correct term, as theft implies that you have deprived someone else of ownership of an item. A digital ebook copy cannot be stolen, but it can infringe.

Anyway, pointless word games aside – Mr. Cohen states that it is indeed ethical to download a copy of an ebook if you have already purchased the dead tree version, and the writers and publishers that I like to keep tabs on take serious issue with that. Their position, predictably, is that writers and publishers deserve to get paid regardless – that Mr. Cohen seems to be advocating that if you buy a book once, you should automatically gain free access to every version of that book, such as in audiobook format or as a movie or what have you. On one level, they do have a point – but, of course, I don’t fully agree with them.

Writers and publishers should get paid, but the point that seems to be missing here is that arguing about being paid will not stop people from pirating books. People will justify it to themselves using Mr. Cohen’s rationalisation, or they will do it out of convenience, or they will do it because they have no money, or just because. It can’t be stopped, and trying to slow it down may backfire spectacularly – see the RIAA shutting down Napster, for example. People went to the bittorrent networks, and now that that’s being restricted or throttled in some places, they’re going to VPNs that cannot be traced. The lesson that should be learned here is that trying to get people to pay for music after they’ve spent years getting it for free is just not a good use of your time, especially when the pirated version is better than yours.

With the price fixing going on at Amazon for ebooks, I’m very much of the opinion that the publishers have not really learned anything. The recorded music industry might be in much better shape if they had made music available cheaply and easily online. It would have sent a great message to consumers – here’s the music you want, when you want it; all high quality, with extras like cover art, and it costs very little for this great convenience. But they chose to keep it expensive, and DRM made it inconvenient, and people had no reason to go back to their services no matter how hit and miss pirate material was.

Publishers have the opportunity here to avoid that mistake, but it’s not going to happen. Amazon have set the price of ebooks around $9.95, $12,95, $14.95. It varies depending on the release. And you’ll buy a Kindle copy that you can only read on your Kindle device, that you can’t give to someone else, that you can’t doodle in, that is far more fragile, that needs to be charged, that may delete your books without your consent at any time. If it breaks or is stolen, you lose access to your library. And the main trade off is that you can have hundreds of books on one device.

Colour me unimpressed, to be honest. Part of the reason I don’t own one already, despite being a geek, is that I don’t want to pay for what I view as less functionality. I’d rather have a paper book that doesn’t need batteries, that I can spill coffee on without it being a disaster, and that I can sell to a second hand store or give away once I’m done with it. I’d rather have a library all around me instead of one locked up into one little white tablet.

I really think they should drop the average price of ebooks to about $3 to $5 across the board, and less for out of print titles. They should be portable to any device, and DRM free. Publishers should concentrate on making ebooks bought from them a hundred times more convenient than trawling bittorrent networks, and set the prices good and low wherever possible. Offer ebook discounts to book clubs and libraries, for example. Bundle the ebook with the paper version. Let schools pay a set fee for all ebooks released, and let their students order the paper version or audio books at a discount – and include bonus material where you can. Make it simple, make it cheap, make paper books worth hanging on to – and believe me, they have not gone the way of the dodo yet, so there’s plenty of space there for a company with a great marketing team to make money.

It galls me that publishers have the most powerful communication medium in the history of mankind at their disposal, where their customers are closer than ever to them and to each other, and all they seem to want to do is drive people farther away. From the perspective of someone on the outside looking in, they seem to want to stop people from spending money on their books; they seem to be working very hard to kill all the wonderful possibilities of the Internet with shortsightedness. I hope I’m wrong, and the Amazon price-fixing works out, but… well. Time will tell, I guess.