Saturday, June 10, 2006

Every Book is an eBook Waiting to Happen

Why can’t we all get any and every book in eBook form? Most books are never released digitally - because the rights to publish these books as eBooks are held by companies who are traditional, or print, publishing houses. Why don’t these publishers want to generate additional revenue without additional expense by adding eBook selections to the forms in which they offer their print books? Good question.

As far as I can tell, there are three main issues at play here:

  • Sentimentality about the current form of books
  • Fears about piracy and DRM
  • Concerns about competition with existing products


The participants in this industry have a romantic notion about books. The books that they grew up with will be held out as an ideal. Often, when you ask someone to tell you about their early experiences with books, they will tell you about the classics that they read and the deep and meaningful relationship that they built with the written word.

Ok, this happens. I read my first classic fiction when I was eight; “The Chronicals of Narnia” and “The Nancy Drew Mysteries” in the stairwell at my aunt’s big suburban house in Edina, MN. They were wonderful and truly ignited my imagination. I also read my first erotica (semi-porn) when I was eleven. It was wonderful and truly ignited my imagination. It was one of those “books” that the publishing industry forgets all about when they become entranced by the idea of a book. The cover was torn off – and even so, I only read it in the dark – behind a locked door. Gee – a backlight would’ve come in handy then.

My point here is simply that it was not the medium, paper, which delivered the book to me that I built a relationship with. Rather, it was words, ideas, second-hand experiences that became an essential part of my human experience. Had those same books been eBooks, they would’ve been equally seminal in my formative years.

If, as I’ve heard so many times, it’s the smell of paper that does it for you – I’ll invent a scratch and sniff sticker to adhere to your eBook reader, so that you don’t have to miss a thing!


Traditional, print publishers fear piracy. I’m with JFK – the only thing to fear is fear itself. I get it, someone might steal the digital version of your book and use it without paying for it. Most likely, someone will. But, the VAST majority of the consuming public is honest and lazy. A great combination if you want to sell us something. I do count myself in this group.

When you are looking for; ham radio channels, wireless internet access, or content on the internet you must weed through what you don’t want to find what you do – this is called the, “signal to noise ratio.”

I will digress for a moment, indulge me, this is relevant. One of my dear friends, an exception to the laziness bit about the consuming public … but steadfast in honesty … told me about a signal/noise experience. He is my age, 29, and reads books primarily as eBooks. When the sixth book in the Harry Potter series came out last summer, he wanted to read it, but he didn’t want to carry around the hard cover. Harry Potter was not being offered as an eBook by the publisher. So, in order to consume this product by his own preferences, while still honoring his conscience, he ordered the hardback from Amazon, then went about searching for a scanned, digital copy for his personal use. After reading about 100 pages of terrible dialogue, and painfully trite plot … his hardback arrived. It turns out that someone has taken the time to author a fake Harry Potter, 600 pages of it!

This is only one example of the kind of noise (what you don’t want) that you may have to filter through when you get signal or content (what you do want) from illegitimate sources. Worse yet, if you try to get a pirated or illegal version of an eBook (or any other digital file) you can get a virus and ruin your whole computer system.

Thus, the end user (reader) would face both nuisance noise and virulent noise in trying to obtain the signal in an illicit fashion. So not only is piracy a very limited issue because most consumers are honest – piracy is a very limited issue because most consumers won’t put up with that level of aggravation in order to get the product they want.

FEARS ABOUT DRM (Digital Rights Management, for the unjargoned)

OK – this is a hot button issue for those who know. How can you protect content and preserve copyright and intellectual property values? The various schemes by which this can be done are known as DRM or Digital Rights Management.

DRM technologies essentially give the user (reader) restricted access to the content they purchase. Instead of buying an eBook outright, the reader buys what amounts to a use license. The schemas of protection are endless; access for a particular period of time, limited sharing between devices (you can only transfer or copy the file one or two times), embedded technology to track illicit sharing (to allow prosecution of pirates), etc.

The long and the short of this is that there are a number of clever ways to protect your content, but NONE of them are 100% pirate proof.

The point here, piracy is a fact of life. But the ways to combat piracy are more effective all the time. DRM is helpful, but not foolproof. However, it is much easier to photocopy a paper book, or to scan it to create a digital copy, than it is to crack even a dumbed down DRM schema.

Not offering an eBook edition of any book as a means to prevent piracy is a self-defeating approach. That’s like declaring, “I refuse to sell $100 jeans to teenagers at the mall, because some of them will shoplift the jeans and I’ll loose those profits.”

Publishers, like retailers, simply need to build the best theft deterrents possible. Then take the unavoidable (but minimal) loss to theft as a deduction against the (potentially very large) profits from the honest consumers.


For this, let’s go back to the example of the jeans retailer at the mall. Let’s imagine that the retailer has been paying $20 wholesale for the jeans, plus the cost of having them delivered, plus the cost of keeping the inventory warehoused, plus the cost of delivery to the various retail locations, etc. … then selling them for $100 … he nets $10/pair. The retailer finds a new brand of jeans that is made by magic elves. They are $15 wholesale, and the elves can deliver them magically to all of the retail locations perfectly folded and beautifully merchandised for NO additional cost to the retailer… he nets $85/pair…or $65 if he decides to sell more jeans for less – say $80 price point, instead of $100.
The only catch, the retailer must accept that magic is real.

Back to “Books” as eBooks – the magic is real – it’s called technology. Our whole world depends on it in one way or another. Technology allows publishers to use a product that they already have to create a new product and a new revenue stream with no additional investment.

So what if someone chooses to buy the eBook instead of the paperback or the hard cover? Great! Then, a large portion of the costs that would normally be taken out of the profit (printing, binding, shipping, freight, warehousing, etc) are negated by the magic of technology. Books are the $100 jeans with all of the built in overhead – eBooks are the $80 jeans with all of the built in profit margin.

Please excuse my silly examples and allegories. I'm constrained by the reality that while I am a geek, I'm still a girl.

THE POINT, in case I didn't make it clear:

It’s not hard math. Here’s the simple equation:
No eBook product available = 0% of the potential revenue from digital sales.
eBook product available = X% of the revenue from digital sales
Where, X is always greater than 0!!!!

To Be or Not to Be, silly question!
Traditional print publishers: some money from digital sales, or no money from digital sales? That is actually the question that some in this industry are still asking!


Pat Palmer said...

Good points, eBook Girl!

The only point you could have taken further was the "sentimentality" factor and allaying the anxiety of those trepidatious about eBooks and that would be: eBooks are an alternative NOT a relacement. No one is saying eBooks are the ONLY way people should be reading; No one is saying eBooks are going to take over traditional print and wipe it out. I have great sentimental feelings about my books from childhood - hell: I'm sentimental and completely attached to the paper books I've read recently that I love! But the truth is, eBooks and eBook reading devices are COOL! And they travel well, and they are helpful (in terms of annotating and bookmarking - and yes: those backlights for closet-porn and other dim-lighted needs are fabulous), useful, and less expensive. They are also eco-friendly.
Another thing about sentimentality (and this is geared towards authors/publishers): Hmm: sentimentality v. exposure. There are lots of people who enjoy and appreciate eBooks. There are more that might if more eBooks were available. Why wouldn't a publisher or an author want to make available books for as great a readership as possible?! Beats me!

Catherine of DPP Store said...

Thanks, Pat!
I agree. I didn't get into the details of why I also love my paper books. I believe that I will always own paper books as well as eBooks... but my children may not care to build expensive teak bookcases and fill them with exquisite books read long ago. As long as they build expansive minds and fill them with ideas and words from long ago, I don't care how they consume them. :)

Jon said...

My analogy - feel free to use it - is with dear old Auntie Dora, who surprised everyone in the family in the mid-90s when she got on the Internet and started an email account. It wasn't until a few weeks later that cousin Arthur discovered a huge pile of paper next to the computer. "I get the emails, dear, but I couldn't possibly read them from the screen, so I print them all out." she explained.

Well, Auntie Dora got with it eventually. So will publishers, and all the people who still send me emails (!) saying they couldn't possibly read off a screen.


Anonymous said...

Sorry but JFK did not say "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," it was FDR during his inaugural address

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