eBooks: The False Dilemma

kindle_etch04 by adafruit
kindle_etch04 by adafruit

People will continue to read printed books for a long time, just as some people still watch movies on VHS. But the printed book will be “dead” in a few short years in the sense that the bulk of the adoption curve, the pragmatic majority, will have moved on.

–Arvind Narayanan, “The death of the printed book is closer than you think

Narayanan’s post is the latest addition to the tiresome “print is dead” meme, and like the vast majority of digital evangelists, he presents a false dilemma, posits a zero-sum scenario, and evokes the tired and largely irrelevant example of Radiohead to make his point. By his “logic”, it could be argued that POD and podcasting should have already killed the publishing industry, and eBooks are simply dancing on its grave.

Ryan Chapman offered a much more pragmatic and realistic take on where the current eBook format fits in the big picture in his post for Digital Book World — A Brand, A Plan, A Channel: eBooks and Mass Market — noting: “After the digital transition, we’ll find that certain books fit an eBook audience, while others are meant for print.”

It really is THAT simple, and all else is linkbait blather and much punditry about nothing.

My two cents? Books are not LPs or CDs, and eReaders are not (and will never be) iPods. No one is ripping and sharing copies of Chapter 16 of The Lost Symbol, and the appeal of carrying more than 3 books around at once is limited to a niche audience of gadget freaks and heavy travelers.

If anything, eBooks are a great opportunity to expand the market, especially for novellas, short stories and anthologies of all kinds, as well as custom publishing of textbooks and how-to content, both of which several publishers are already experimenting with successfully, including Pearson and F+W Media (my employer). Plus, the same way TV evolved past televising radio broadcasts into its own unique format, there’s huge potential for digital books and mobile apps that incorporate audio, video, kinetic typography, geolocation, databases, etc. — formats that can no longer appropriately be referred to as “books”.

On a personal (and somewhat rambling) note, I bought my wife a Kindle last year for her birthday (thanks to Oprah’s $50 discount code!), and while she loves it, she’s frustrated by the lack of books she’s interested in reading. She’s an avid reader, but not a big popular fiction reader, and even when she’s found a good book (e.g. The Omnivore’s Dilemma) she’s been frustrated by the inefficiency of backtracking, bookmarking, and, of course, sharing.

For her birthday this year, I realized there was no gift-giving equivalent for eBooks that matched the personal touch of a physical book, so I bought her a print copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as well as the Young Reader’s Edition, which is also available on the Kindle but would make reading it together with our nine-year-old son difficult, and sharing it with her students impossible. She loved both, and having finished reading The Lost Symbol on her Kindle, is now reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma with our son, and is halfway through My Appalachia: A Memoir, one of millions of books NOT available on the Kindle.

Over the past year, I’ve actually downloaded two books to her Kindle, and one sample:

1) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: Downloaded the sample last December, read it, enjoyed it, but didn’t buy the full version. Finally bought the paperback this weekend and added it to my (always visible) to-be-read pile.

2) I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams: Bought/downloaded it in March when it was released, read a couple of chapters, never finished. Plan to buy the paperback next March when it’s released.

3) Free by Chris Anderson: Downloaded it for free during its promotional blitz this summer, read the first chapter, haven’t looked at it since and have no plans to buy the print version.

Like the majority of readers, I’m neither a Luddite nor an early adopter; I love books and will likely always prefer the printed “artifact” over the “digital manifestation”, but with the right user experience– from discovery, to purchase, to formatting and shareability — I can see myself fully embracing eBooks for certain types of content.

The fact of the matter, though, hype aside, is that eBooks and eReaders simply aren’t ready for primetime.


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32 thoughts on “eBooks: The False Dilemma

  1. >>>the appeal of carrying more than 3 or more books around at once is limited to a niche audience of gadget freaks and heavy travelers.

    You present your own false dilemma right there. You left our people who LIKE TO READ.

    Given a choice of 1,000 printed books vs. 1,000 eBooks (even in craptastic primitive ePub), I'd go for the e. Then I can carry my damned library on a frikkin *SD* card when I move instead of lugging damned cardboard boxes.

    >>>“After the digital transition, we’ll find that certain books fit an eBook audience, while others are meant for print.”

    I don't even know wtf that means. Unless he's talking about the kind of souvenir books a firm like Taschen produces. And those usually go to people who see books as souvenirs.

  2. 1) Moving boxes of books is a pain in the ass that people who LOVE to read typically accept as part of the deal. Also, how often does the average person move? Portability of books is not the same as portability of music, though.

    2) Chapman's point is that there are whole categories of books that will remain best-suited for print, even if/when your imaginary Apple Tablet finally manifests itself and, years later, becomes affordable.

    Overall point: it's not an all-or-nothing scenario. Multi-format, multi-platform is the future, and print will still be in the picture.

  3. >>>Moving boxes of books is a pain in the ass that people who LOVE to read typically accept as part of the deal. Also, how often does the average person move?

    Balls! And I've moved SIX TIMES in my life so far. And there are still more moves ahead. Enough is enough with the packing, lugging, unpacking, and re-shelving.

    I don't believe I've ever said it's an all-or-nothing prop. But I do think the majority will be e with p relegated to souvenirs for people who don't *really* read.

  4. Just because I prefer holding my books in my hand, rubbing the crisp paper between my fingers while my eyes devour the printed words on the page, rather than on an electronic device doesn't make me any less a *reader* than you, does it? I love reading books and once complete, I place them on a shelf among my the rest of my beloved books. Does that, too, mean I'm not a *real* reader because I enjoy collecting them as well?

    I'm not saying that e-books are not part of the future, because clearly they are. I just have a hard time swallowing the idea that just because someone still prefers the original format that they are not a *real* reader (whatever that means).

  5. There's an undercurrent of elitism to the eBook evangelist's gospel, both philosophically and socio-economically. That, coupled with a HUGE sense of entitlement, is what makes the “debate” especially tiresome for me.

  6. >>>But I do think the majority will be e with p relegated to souvenirs for people who don't *really* read.

    Oh, Mike Cane. I disagree vehemently with this statement. As an early adopter (*really* early—I was reading Peanut Press books on the Palm V in 2000), a so-called *real* reader (as opposed to a fake one? I suppose you mean casual readers?), an ebook maker and enthusiast, a publishing industry worker, and someone who has moved four times in the last five years, I absolutely appreciate and love the fact that my library contains absolutely no cheap mass market paperbacks, or casual trade purchases. I lug those cardboard boxes with love, because there's no filler, thanks to ebooks. But if you think an ePub file (or the Jesus Tablet, for that matter, and I'm writing this as an unabashed Apple fanboy) will replace the leather-bound, fine press editions in my library, the books I've hand-bound myself, or my inscribed books that hold sentimental value, you're on crack.

    I've purged my library of any books not worth keeping, and have instituted a personal policy of buying only e initially, and after I read it the first time on my iPhone, Kindle or Sony Reader, if it's a book I really enjoy, and want in my collection, I hunt down the nicest print edition I can find and/or afford. E is wonderful, and I can absolutely see it eventually killing both mass market and trade paperbacks (mass market will go first. Trades have a bit of life left in them, but I wouldn't build any long-term business plans around 'em), but it will not entirely replace the printed and bound codex, any more than the TV replaced the radio.

    That said, e really doesn't always work: aside from Taschen, you're single-handedly dismissing all sorts of books that don't seem to fit in your horizon: children's picture books, comics, art books, large-format editions, pop-up books, craft manuals, pattern books, etc., Granted, there will eventually be digital solutions for many of these, but you're still not leaving room for more immediate, (admittedly) short-term concerns regarding accessibility: people who can't afford an eReading device, people who aren't interested in renting out DRM-infested files, people who live outside of the areas where Amazon and other ebook vendors sell their ebooks, etc.

    As much of a cheerleader for ebooks as I am, and as much as some of us in publishing are working very hard to make ebooks more accessible, I'm with Guy on this one: the “print is dead” meme is indicative of short-sighted, reductionist thinking, and usually denotes a lack of nuanced understanding of how people interact with books on a fundamental level.

    If there's one thing that the digital revolution has taught us, it's that digital can enable many more non-zero-sum scenarios. I find it highly ironic that some of the more vociferous proponents of ebooks can't seem to internalise that concept, and instead opt to be proponents for a shallow and loud, binary, either/or false dichotomy.

  7. Spot-on, Guy. And—again, as an ebook proponent—”a HUGE sense of entitlement” is an understatement. Glad I'm not the only one who thinks so.

  8. I agree with you, Guy.

    I didn't click the reply button when I left my last comment. I meant to reply to Mike Cane's comment (perhaps that's why I still read printed books as opposed to eBooks. I'm so computer savvy, aren't I? NOT!). (:

  9. Wow. You said it better than I could. I once again came to this same conclusion while reading Martha McPhee's upcoming book, Dear Money http://marthamcphee.com/2009/11/29/novelist-bec….

    I mostly read on a Kindle these days, and that seems convenient and preferable to carrying heavy print books around. However, there are times (like now), when I cherish a book and love it so much that I want a printed version to keep in my collection and go back to and read parts over and hold, etc.. Ebooks feel fleeting to me, which is fine for most of what I read.

    I will go buy a print version of Martha's book when it comes out next Spring. There are not many books I feel this way about (unfortunately)…..but when I do, I'm reminded that ebooks can't replace all pbooks (for me, anyway).

  10. If it's not an either/or prospect, why continue to fan the flames in this comment? No one is forcing anyone to choose e over paper. And painting those who advocate for more and better availability of eBooks as eBook evangelists and somehow elitist? I may be missing something in contextual (perhaps I've misread the thread), but regardless – try and think beyond the here and now when arguing that those who are fans of e-books are somehow elitist and have a sense of entitlement. The incredible opportunity that mobile reading represents to the people of underdeveloped nations and even here in good old USA can not be discounted. Mobile phones will mean mobile books being made available to millions of people who have had limited or no access to books due to cost and availability.

  11. Thanks for the compliments and the thoughtful discussion, Guy. I remember a few years ago, before I worked in publishing, I read that memoir and cookbooks were the strongest selling sectors in trade publishing. I couldn't believe it, since I purchased ~75 books per year and none of them were memoir or cookbook.

    Not only does this help me remember how fragmented readership can be – and the danger in assuming I'm the rule, not the exception – it points out how some genres like memoir could work fine electronically while others, like cookbooks, are best produced in a format resistant to stains.

  12. You're missing the context. CM was responding to Cane's condescending tone, something that's being noted on the Facebook thread, too, and one that's very common to the average eBook evangelist rant, including Narayanan's. (Though, I will say that Cane is far more militant than condescending, and generally has a better sense of the big picture than most.)

    As for mobile and accessibility, that's a whole 'nother thesis, one that most eBook evangelists only pay lip service to, if they bother to acknowledge it all. Krozser's one of the few I've seen give it any serious attention, and even she admits to not always seeing the big picture.

  13. Personal benchmarking is a serious pet peeve of mine, and something that's really hard to avoid, especially in the world of social MEdia! The world of publishing is so much bigger than the average e-pundit realizes, but few can step back and see the big picture because it would weaken their “faith”.

  14. Smashing post Guy,
    As always you spark some good debate. What much of this misses (imo) is the cost problem of keeping print books going if 20-50% of former print readers shift medium.

    It is a cause of endless bemusement to me that this is not discussed more. Considering the margins on the majority of print runs, the only possible outcome if 20% or more shift to digital is reduced runs and a higher retail price.

    Given that lower sales of pbooks (even at higher prices) will surely hurt booksellers we can expect to see bookstores closing, reducing the shelf-space available to pbooks.

    There is a real danger that these two problems will tip off a downward cycle in print as digital books become more attractive options to customers for a host of factors including price, convenience and availability and p books become a greater burden to publishers (much as actual newspaper printing and distribution is hurting news organizations).

    At the very least, print infrastructure will have to be radically pared back to cope with reduced revenue (even if the full % who stop reading in p shift to e, revenue will be lower).

    As for the idea of expanding the market via digital books, I'm skeptical of there being much room for this. I absolutely see substitution and perhaps some marginal extension at the edges, but is there a body of readers who currently do not read books that will suddenly shift to digital books, I remain unconvinced, but willing to be shown evidence.

    I guess the question that no-one has answered (nor, do I believe given current information levels, can they) and which remains crucial is this:

    Will current readers read more with digital?

    I suspect they won't because their mobile devices (which hold the best promise for digital books) will also be open to a host of other entertainment options including games, music, news, video and things I've never even dreamt of.


  15. No question the bookselling model needs to change, but that's a fact right now, regardless of what percentage of total sales eBooks grow to tomorrow. I think estimates of 35-50% are exaggerated, except for popular fiction and mass-market genres, some of which are probably already at or close to that tipping point. As Ryan noted above, that's just a slice of the overall publishing pie, though.

    Smart curation and a community-oriented business strategy will eliminate the bloat and keep the print business alive.

    (Side note: The next DBW webinar is on exactly this topic, Indie Booksellers and the Digital Transition: Opportunity Knocks? (http://digitalbookworld.com/showevents/)

    I do agree with you that the mobile opportunity is suspect as reading will compete with several other activities on those devices, and probably not successfully. Look at the iPod Touch; it became a gaming platform because that's what its users decided it was best suited for.

  16. Completelt agree,

    I think much of this debate is specifically trade publishing oriented, after all, digital for educational publishers is actually a fairly decent opportunity.

    I'm not nearly as negative as my above comment might appear! I think there are huge opportunities for growth if the right strategy is adopted!


  17. A different angle to consider … We are just stopping the outsourcing and starting to produce our own e-books in-house at my publishing house (same as Guy – F+W Media – but in a different division). It's a cost effective measures and it's also making us take a closer look at which books will be more suitable for e-readers and more suitable for PDF e-books.

    Many of our books depend on the design to get the humorous or kitschy idea across and stripping out all of the design for an e-reader is not going to help the content. On the other hand, they are also meant to be “gifty” – a lot of our books seem to be given as gifts – so I'm not sure if making a PDF ebook version for those titles will work either.

    One thing for sure – we'll be figuring this out together, as we go along.

  18. My fear is that print will suffer and then resurge, but that the period of ash will coincide directly with my efforts to make a career for myself. The value of individual stories is going to drop before it rebounds, and I fret that space between the fire and the phoenix. If all of this were to happen in one summer, and then it was just done and we lived in the post-print world, where print is not dead and e-readers were as ubiquitous as paper, that'd be one thing. It's this slow-mo spiral that's agonizing.

  19. @KatMeyer: Some of us *are* forcing e over paper, that's a bit of an issue. I've written extensively about the elitism in the quibbling about electronic versus print, so I won't go there for now. (Also commented about the clunky technology which makes me not want to pay any attention to the e-reader argument until someone works it out.) But from another perspective, not the reader, but the writer, I can attest that releasing my works electronically is imperative, and that printing it is secondary and mainly a waste of time–according to my writer peers.

    Personally, I disagree, but what do I know. I'm hawking my e-copies on my blog and on Smashwords for a requested donation (otherwise they're free) so that I can subsidize printing the books. I will sell the books, though most likely not even through indie bookstores which still follow archaic rules about what kinds of content they will carry. I'll be out there on Avenue A hawking my books on a card table for $10, o/b/o.

    Books matter, they always will. Whether the e-revolution will bring down print publishing as we know it remains my favorite spectator sport. Ok not really, but still…


  20. Mainstream print publishers have been around for, arguably, 500 years or so? I don't think that model will come crashing down like Enron. They'll figure it out soon enough how to adapt to the marketplace. That is capitalism, and it's a strong foundation. What we can't expect them to do (and what they're struggling with now) is to *replace* their print model with a digital one and expect the same results.

    I wish I could remember the post I read just yesterday about a small, local newspaper that switched its model from free to all content behind a paywall. Readership plummeted. It was a success. <–What, you ask?

    Yes, it was a success even though readership plummeted. It was able to subsist now on increased advertising dollars because the eyeballs reading the content were more valuable.

    As readers and writers ourselves and big proponents of independent everything, we aren't seeing the business model objective: revenue.
    I expect readership will plummet in digital formats, but revenue will have to soar in order for them to claim success. Their metrics for success are much different than ours. Hence the inherent conflict between capitalism and morality.


  21. Hey, Colleen! Adams' books are a perfect example of where “e” isn't ready for primetime, especially when it comes to gift-giving and impulse buys. Too many people seem to think there's an easy button for eBooks, and usually only think of straight narratives.

  22. Quality over quantity is why many smaller circ magazines and niche book publishers are weathering the economic storm better than their mass-appeal counterparts. It's the foundation of the 1,000 True Fans theory, and while not literally applicable to every situation, it is fundamentally sound.

    Mass scale is dead; the conglomerates will consolidate further or crumble; but publishing as an industry and an avocation will live on, in print and in digital form.

  23. Yes, at O'Reilly you definitely have your fingers on the mobile pulse; I've always referred to you as the canaries in the coal mine because you have the hardcore early adopters and see the trends before most others do.

    Sometimes a bit too early, it could be argued. 😉

    I think it's telling that gaming is the common denominator in that hardware user growth chart. Reading a print book competes with many other activities, but it does so on its own terms, as an individual experience. eBooks, OTOH, will have to compete for both time and mindshare as small fish in the huge digital pond, and how long before expectations change and replicating the print experience isn't enough?

  24. not a lot to add to this for once Guy, other than I'm sorry I was so busy with Free-e-day it took a while to get here. Yeah, Chapman's right. And Mike, whilst it IS true that I think there'll be a surge in special edition and “souvenir” books – I see that as a very cool add-on to ebooks that aren't out on regular print – basically, there are genres that suit print and those that suit digital and although we can speculate from demographics of readership the answer is we don't really know yet (after all, five years ago I'd have put romance in the print market, but it flourishes electronically, largely because romance readers are SO voracious). All we can do, as I keep trying to get across, is stop being set in our ways and keep trying things and see what works.

  25. Good post, Guy. I especially liked this point:

    …its own unique format, there’s huge potential for digital books and mobile apps that incorporate audio, video, kinetic typography, geolocation, databases, etc. — formats that can no longer appropriately be referred to as “books”…

    You see a lot of cool ways of sharing information on youtube. They're not quite films, they're not quite written stories, they're something new, something in between.

  26. I agree. It just seemed like you were talking about money when you said the value of individual stories is dropping. What did you mean by that?

  27. yeah, the whole “certain books fit an eBook audience, while others are meant for print” thing just sounds like my old Enlightenment to Revolution lit prof who has a weird obsession with old school title pages of 18th century lit and a huge collection of prints of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. In my opinion the only people allowed to be against digitalization of literature are phD's…but even they need to embrace it to a degree…its what's next.

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