E-Books: A Lousy First Date

Publishing Reading Technology

According to the research, which examines eBook reading and purchase behavior from print book readers who recently purchased either an eBook reader or an eBook, eBook sales went from 1.5% of all book sales in Q1 2009 to 5% in Q1 2010, with 33% of eBook buyers entering the market in the last six months. "We are expecting exponential growth," said Gallagher.
-- EBookNewser


I'm just throwing this out there, because I'm at Book Expo where everybody's buzzing about e-books and the impact they'll have on the always turbulent publishing industry. I'm going to do a full #BEA10 wrap-up later, and tell you about the all fun I'm having (and some new novelists I've enjoyed meeting) at this crazy annual convention. But for now I just want to repeat something I said to a friend on Tuesday, because I think this is an important point about the future of print and electronic book publishing.

I want e-books to succeed. I have always been an e-book advocate. But there's a big problem with the product model, and I don't understand why the book publishing industry is now twisting itself up into a state of hysteria about e-book pricing and piracy and distribution without addressing this big problem with the product model. The problem is this: consumers don't like e-books.

We don't like them. We took a look, we tried a few devices, and we've agreed that none of them deliver what we want. Look at that strange quote at the top of this page. E-book sales went from 1.5% a year ago to 5% today. "We are expecting exponential growth". When is this scheduled to begin? The Kindle was introduced, with a disappointing thud, in November 2007. Amazon's aggressive initial publicity push tried to position the Kindle as the literary equivalent of the iPod, and the e-book as the literary equivalent of the MP3. But consumers loved the iPod and swarmed to the MP3 format. It doesn't take consumers three years to catch on to a new fad. We've seen e-books and were not swarming.

Being a consumer is like being on a first date, specifically a blind date. We gather our first impressions very quickly. Ten seconds after we meet our blind date, we know if we like the person or not. Maybe it takes a further ten minutes to gather enough supplementary evidence to support (or, in rare cases, to change) the original impression.

As e-book consumers, we've had our ten seconds and we've had our ten minutes. We don't really like the Kindle or the Nook or the Sony Reader, nor do we like Stanza or Aidiko on our phones, nor the iPad as a reading device. The user experience just doesn't feel right. Cold glass and plastic and aluminum, it turns out, don't please us when we're reading.

I'm not writing this right now because I want e-books to fail. I still believe they are extremely important for the future of publishing, the future of writing, the future of reading. And of course I think they will endure, and will gradually change the way we read.

But I'm not predicting exponential growth anytime soon. There are some indicators too powerful to ignore, and I think publishing pundits ought to stop ignoring the one indicator we all see. Consumers do have some sway here, and business analysts who project a gigantic sudden move towards electronic formats must be ignoring what they themselves as readers already know. E-books have been a lousy first date.

19 Responses to "E-Books: A Lousy First Date"

by Matt on

I can't speak for everyone in the world, but my own experience with eBooks appears to have been drastically different than yours. I adore eBooks. I get disgruntled if a book I want to read isn't available in my platform of choice. I actually prefer reading a book on my Kindle to reading a printed book...especially a large hardcover monstrosity.

Of course, I'm not the kind of person who ever romanticized the smell of paper, and tactile feel of books. I've moved apartments 26 times in the last 14 years, and I have a markedly different opinion of printed books. Namely, I hate them. For me, the most important thing is not the feel of the book while I'm reading it, but rather, the actual words. As long as I can read the words with eye strain, wrist strain, spending 1/4 of my monthly income, or ending up with a Hoarders-style apartment full of dusty books I have no intention of reading again, then I don't really care about the delivery method.

I think the significant growth of eBooks is inevitable...but perhaps not as looming as many might think. What will propel growth is, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, death. As younger generations, without the ingrained romanticism surrounding lumps of dusty, bound, printed paper, then I think the eBook craze will explode...but it will take some time. Give it another 5-10 years, and I truly believe that eBooks will become the dominant method of delivering the "printed" word.

by Adam Jury on

I think it's important to note that the iPod helped with the adoption of MP3s in a commercial manner, but people had widely been consuming MP3s for about 4 years before the iPod came out (and there were hardware MP3 players years before the iPod). People loved the iPod because it played MP3s, they didn't love MP3s because the iPod played them.

Commercial and illicit ebook distribution both pre- and post-Kindle is divided into many more digital formats and, of course, isn't as widespread because everyone listens to music, but not everyone reads books. So it's harder for any one ebook reader device to be "the one" that unites readers around it, simply due to the multiple formats issue.

by Mayowa on

Great post Mr. Asher....sort of an emperor with no clothes observation.

Ebooks are offspring of the digital age and are simply joining the family of publishing platforms instead of destroying all other members as pundits are fond of claiming.

Enjoy BEA.

by frsh on

Reading on a computer sucks. The truth is that people who like books usually don't get too thrilled about tech gadgets.
Unlike video gamers who get all awed and excited about shiny technological thingies, people who read move on another intellectual level where we are not too worried about the "next big thing" but about reading, plain and simple.
I don't really trust technology, and I grew up around computers and video games (I was an 80's child), but I just don't make technology and buying gadgets the center of my life. I'd rather buy books.

by Bud Parr on

The sales figures you quote show over 300% year-on-year growth and you think that the consumer is not adopting e-books? Adoption will grow exponentially, particularly now that there's a race to improve (and probably cheapen) devices and resolve all those things like pricing and formats and drm issues that the consumer doesn't care about unless it gets in the way of her reading what she wants when she wants it. And a greater availability of titles will spur sales. 

If nothing else was clear from BEA, it was that digital is now mainstream. That CEO panel might have shown some out of touch execs (and yes there are some crazy experiments out there now, but can you blame them?), but every single digital conference was so crowded as to be a fire hazard.
 
I think the wrong way to look at this is to think it's somehow print vs digital. They will both coexist nicely well into the future (I don't think periodicals will, but books, yes). I think that within just a few years not all books will be printed (thankfully) yet all new books will be available digitally. The book as an object will become ever more important-enhanced editions, nice printing, etc.

I could go on, but maybe it will suffice to say that there is also an explosion in the number of books published in any format, which means that there's a greater need for people such as yourself to write thoughtfully about them. Keep doing that.   

by Bud Parr on

Oh, and one more thing. I agree with Matt's comment, mostly. I'm fond of my books and the way I interact with them and the way that if I want to find something I actually have to look through the book instead of search (though one could argue just don't do the search in the e-book).

But for what it's worth, as an avid consumer of books, I prefer reading on an e-reader; in my case an iPad. Despite what people say, i find it easier to handle than a physical book, particularly since a lot of my books are not slim. I don't have to hold the pages down, it's easier to read in bed. Super easy to look things up in the dictionary (some readers have lame dictionaries built in, but i use the oxford shorter English dictionary on my iPad). The size of the text is to my liking. You can take inline notes very easily. And so on.

And of course, when you finish your book, like I just did, you can click over to check out your favorite blogs without going to your computer. Like I just did.

I understand the convenience factor in an e-book but that's the only positive aspect in my thinking.
They're becoming a common sight on the morning train but I'd rather look out the window. Or read the morning paper, if someone's left their copy on the seat. And while an e-book can hold several titles (I assume) in its memory I think most people would still prefer a paperback - which is, by comparison to an e-book, still relatively cheap to replace.
Bud Parr - I take your point about switching easily from book to blog, but hell, I spend enough time already staring into a computer screen! Getting back to good ol' print on paper is a relaxation for the eyes and the mind alike.

I agree with you in almost everything you said. The change will not be exponential but is imminent and books will be in minority the same way typewriters and goose feather are not here anymore. Alos I am amzed how much people read from LCD screens on their computers and at the same time complain about eReaders and iPad which have better screens.
I am in love with eBook concept it is just that I find it too early to jump in because readers are not there yet and the whole concept is still expansive for what it offers.

by Alex on

I am tempted by e-books, but to be honest - in the UK at least e-books are more expensive than the real books. With 3 for 2 discounting on real books and competitive pricing between stores, which does not seem to apply to e-books, the reason for spending £200 on an e-book reader to read more expensive digital editions does not appeal.

There is also a legacy issue - I can read any book I've ever owned by picking it off the shelf. I can't read my early adobe PDFs I bought from Amazon, nor my dissertation which I wrote on a computer back in 1994 because nothing can read the floppy disks I saved them on.

Will the e-reader I buy today still work in twenty years time, or will I be struggling to find a battery for it as what happens with laptops and MP3 players today?

I don't want e-books to fail. But for it to succeed I think it needs more tweaks.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for comments, all. Glad to see all these valid points brought into the discussion.

Bud, I did give serious thought as to whether the jump from 1.5% to 5% indicated exponential growth, which is what the quoted analyst is suggesting. It is a big percentage increase, but my point is that the actual percentages are so low -- the Kindle was on the cover of Newsweek magazine in 2007, and e-books are only accounting for 5% in 2010 -- as to indicate niche acceptance rather than explosive growth. But, of course, only time will tell. If the number jumps to 10% or more by next year's BookExpo, I will agree that we did see something like exponential growth. Let's revisit this in a year and find out who was right.

Another relevant point -- like Gregory, I am also occasionally now seeing a Kindle or iPad reader on a train or airplane. Not very often -- it's rare enough that I always notice it -- but it does seem to be happening more and more. It's funny, though, that I didn't see a single Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader or other dedicated reader device during three days at BookExpo. Not one.

I don't think you can compare adoption of music devices and digital formats to the adoption of ebooks. Music is used as a narcotic by the majority of the population. Books are not.

It's easy to sell music to an imbecile. It's hard to sell him or her a book in any format.

by Bud Parr on

That's what I've always liked about you, Levi. You remain stubborn, despite the facts.

I didn't see a single Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader or other dedicated reader device during three days at BookExpo
Incredible! That's like going to a porn convention and not seeing fake breasts.

by Milton on

Levi, you've got some great points here. I like to think of myself as a perfect test subject for these sorts of brave-new-world technological advances. On the one hand, I'm totally comfortable with new technologies and not too nostalgic about the old ones. On the other, I don't fetishize new gadgets whatsoever, and I sometimes need to be talked into moving on to new things.

It took me a while to come around to mp3s. I love vinyl, and at least used to love the experience of buying a CD, devouring the linear notes and listening to it front to back. It wasn't until many years after the iPod came out that I finally got one. But it won me over -- the new experience of having my entire vast catalogue of music readily available and easily storable came to feel like a worthwhile trade for giving up my old habits, and my iTunes library is now just as precious to me as my attic-sized record collection was three years ago.

But as for books -- frankly, I haven't yet seen anyone try to convince me that I NEED an e-reader. With music, I often find myself wanting to listen to some random record on the commute home from work; with books, I pack two or three in my bag and that's always plenty. I can typically buy books quite cheaply from used stores, or just check them out from and the library, so availability is almost never an issue. And while I'm at home, holding a paper-based book in my lap while I sit on the couch is a completely comfortable situation. And I'm not sure how it will directly improve my reading to change any of this.

In other words, no one has ever tried to make the case to me that my life will be better, or easier with an iPad or a Kindle. It's like it's just assumed that the notion of a functional e-book will make me come a-running. And I do like the idea of a single little gadget on which I do all my reading -- I'm totally pro e-books, in theory. But I'm still waiting to hear the first good marketing pitch to get me to go there, to drop $300 and radically change my reading lifestyle. I haven't heard a good one yet.

by Milton on

PS -- Yo, totally sorry about the length and rambling nature of the preceding comment.

by Levi Asher on

Bud -- I don't think what you say is fair. My response was that we should revisit this conversation in a year and see whether or not e-books have grown exponentially. How am I being stubborn or ignoring facts?

by tolmsted on

Levi - I'm in complete agreement regarding your statement that consumers don't like e-books. I bought a 1st generation Kindle and for the first 6 months really enjoyed it. But once the novelty wore off I found myself drifting back to traditional paper & ink. I can't really say why, in wasn't a conscious decision, other than I found my Kindle's limitations frustrating. Not all e-book releases coincided with the print book releases. It doesn't use page numbers, so browsing is slow and frustrating. Even the wireless download, which is great, has its faults - namely that browsing the bookstore on an e-reader is slow, cumbersome and difficult to navigate. (I usually download a lot of samples from my computer and go from there). Now that most e-books are no longer less expensive than the paper & ink versions it seems ridiculous not to invest in a book that I can later re-sell to a used bookshop and recoup at least some of my money back.

I spent a decent amount of time at the digital zone at BEA and saw several new readers, but none that impressed me. They're still ugly. They still have awkward ui's. At one point, I passed a booth where two men sat side by side at the front table. One reading from his reader, the other with a traditional book. So what does that say?

I, too, would like to see e-readers succeed. But the problem is that the hardware still has far to go. And I don't believe the iPad is the answer.

by tolmsted on

And it was wonderful meeting you at the Harper Collins reception - thanks so much for mentioning my blog in your BEA post.

by Michael on

Then there's the problem that libraries face of lending ebooks. As a librarian mentioned at a symposium this month at Gerald Ford Library here in Ann Arbor, Amazon has shown zero interest in "lendability."

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