There are millions of books on amazon.com, and on average each will sell around 500 copies a year. The average American is reading just one book a year, and that number is falling. The problem (to quote Tim O’Reilly) isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. Authors are lucky to be in a business where electronic copies aren’t considered substitutes for physical copies by most people who like reading books (for now at least).
The op-ed I wrote for Publishing Perspectives earlier this week, “E” is for Experiment (Not E-books), got an unexpected amount of attention and I’m pretty sure it’s the most I’ve ever seen a post of mine fly around the Twitterverse. Writing for someone else’s site is much harder than blogging on your own, so full credit to Edward Nawotka for a great job of editing it, helping me bring forward my main points and carving away the extraneous content, most of which went into my previous post!
One of the comments I got on the article allowed me to elaborate a bit on one of the points I made, that “e-readers will never have their ‘iPod moment’ for one very simple reason: books are not music.”
Dan from BookLamp mildly disagreed with me, making a point about the potential benefits of cost-savings and discoverability afforded by eBooks and eReaders, making a subtle pitch for his own platform that purportedly “matches readers to books through an analysis of writing styles, similar to the way that Pandora.com matches music lovers to new music.”
I replied to him there, but am posting it here, too, because it’s a point I’ve made several times in recent conversations but have never actually included in any of my posts about eBooks:
The first iPod came out 1.5 years after Metallica sued Napster for copyright infringment. The demand for digital music was already there, and Apple capitalized on it by coming out with a better MP3 player than anyone else had at the time. The iTunes store launched 1.5 years after the first iPod. The expectations that one of these new eReaders or even the Unicorn might do the same thing ignore the fact that a) the current demand for eBooks (legal or otherwise) doesn’t come close to the early days of Napster, never mind the iPod; b) Amazon’s ability to sell print and eBooks to a huge and loyal audience gives their “good enough” Kindle the advantage; and c) the kind of multimedia content the Tablet would be best suited for is currently limited, especially from book publishers.
Discoverability is another challenge for eBooks, especially as the relative “ease” of producing them will flood the market, much like blogs have flooded the Internet. BookLamp sounds intriguing, but what advantage does it offer over Amazon’s recommendations, or those from growing communities like Goodreads? Music sites like Pandora and Last.fm are passive, low friction tools; the latter’s scrobbling feature is far easier to enable than manually adding every book I read into Goodreads. Even Amazon’s recommendations can work off of purchases whether I ever review a single book or not.
It’s funny how the zero-sum mentality of most eBook discussions tends to make me feel like a Luddite when, in fact, I’m really a mild gadget freak; I have a practically new HP iPAQ from several years ago, and two Flip video cameras that I’ve used twice to-date. I’m more early tester than early adopter, but I “get” the appeal of eBooks and eReaders much the same way I get the appeal of jetpacks and teleporters.
In theory, they sound awesome; in reality, we’re still pretty early in the prototype stage.
NOTE: A funny story about discoverability in the digital age. The picture and quote above are not an endorsement of Mason’s book. I was searching “book pirate” on Flickr and found the picture, loving the irony of a print book about piracy on the beach where most eReading devices fear to tread. Intrigued, I checked out Mason’s site and thought the quote was apropos, but the negative reviews on Amazon make a pretty compelling case for not reading it.
PS: I prefer the UK cover (above) to the US cover, which sports a very boring business book look that, coupled with the negative reviews, pretty much killed my interest.