Wow. What a weekend. Views for The Question of Value continue to pour in from every corner of the web, from everywhere from news aggregate sites to tumblr. And with those views came comments, questions, concerns, and even discussion.
Now, I did my best to read each of the reactions I got to The Question. In fact, I even went as far as to not just read the aggregate listings and response pieces, but comments posted there as well. And while some simply retreaded things that had already been discussed (one even tackled the dead horse subject I pointed out I was going to ignore … so I did ignore it) I found there was a lot being said.
The conclusion? I may have been the one to voice it, but this topic, this question of how we value the mighty ebook is not something that I alone have been thinking on. There are a lot of you out there who’ve got opinions and thoughts on the matter. Even better, a lot of these thoughts overlap and coincide. For example, in comments I read just here, on my sister blog, and in one response post, at least five different people brought up the topic of resale. Several brought up durability (and at least one amusing comment brought up multiple people citing that an ebook couldn’t be read in a shower by asking how they were reading normal books in one). DRM was addressed, as was licensing in general. And do you know what I learned most of all in reading all of these?
The market is failing the readers.
Okay, now that might sound like a harsh judgement to pass, and perhaps I could voice it differently (also, that could be taken way out of context, so aggregate sites, you do not have permission to use that line without context). When I say market, for the most part, I’m not referring to the books themselves, or what the authors are producing, though in a way, we share part of the blame.
No, what I’m referring to here is the actual market and the way ebooks are being handled. That is what is failing the readers.
I went though all those comments again this morning, this time armed with a pen and paper, and I wrote down each concern as I encountered them. When multiple concerns presented the same topic, I made check-marks next to each one. And at the end, almost all of them fit neatly into one of three areas:
- Misconceptions about ebooks that are not being properly explained to the readers, often overlapped with 2 and 3.
- Mishandling of ebooks by publishers.
- A general failure of the “User Interface” of ebook stores.
With these, maybe now you can see why I say the market is failing the readers. Granted, there’s a little bit of equal blame there. After all, it doesn’t help the market when readers go around spreading misinformation rather than learning about the topic, but at the same time, if the market is deliberately making this information difficult to glean, and in some cases actively working to obfuscate things from the reader’s eyes, well, then I would say it’s definitely failed.
So, I want to take a look at some of these concerns that were given, heading them under these three points, and see if we can’t cast a bit more light on things.
This was a common one, and one that no doubt will be hotly debated in the comments of this article. In fact, I would venture to propose, based on the little tally marks next to my notes, that this was the most common reason people gave for not valuing an ebook … and yet, it’s based on a lack of understanding for the technology or the system that makes it possible.
For example, one of the more common concerns that arose was around the durability of an ebook. Several comments pointed out how an ebook “just doesn’t last” compared to a physical book, or becomes outdated, or can be easily lost.
This is a misconception, rooted, I would argue, in the misunderstanding of technology. In fact, I would actually argue that, not taking someone’s technical expertise into account, the ebook is more durable than a regular book.
Several commentators, for instance, argued that a book could simply be left on a bookshelf for a century without problems, while an ebook would fade. Which is untrue. There’s a few roots for this, one of them being the older generations complete distrust of digital media after bad experiences with floppy-style magnetic storage systems, which were infamously touted as being “the future” without mention of the fact that their magnetic recordings would slowly degrade and were somewhat unreliable (my mom actually lost an entire address book this way, and it took her decades to trust a computer again).
The thing is … that era is long behind us. If you’re backing up your ebooks onto a floppy drive, then I want pictures. Also, you’re about thirty years behind the curve. Modern data saves don’t degrade in the same way. In fact, most digital data devices, and the form of storage they use, will probably outlast you if you just put it on a shelf somewhere.
Now, how does this compare to a regular book? Better, actually. Have you ever lived in Hawaii? I have. Guess what happened to all the books on my bookshelves?
If you said “water damage,” then you’re on the right track. Yes, water damage via humidity. I have a whole collection of paperback and hardcover books that sat on my shelf that now look like they’ve been dipped in a water bucket. Just from sitting on a shelf in my bedroom.
My ebook reader, on the other hand? No adverse effects. I’m not even sure there were effects. It certainly never showed any sign of the environment it was being exposed to.
Paper, as it turns out, degrades pretty easily. Pages fade and crumble. Moisture infects them. Glue comes apart. Threads rot. Digital, meanwhile, perseveres.
Now, there was something said about formats. And personally, I think this is a non issue (or at least, should be, as we’ll get to with point 3). The “language” of formats might change … but more and more—and again unlike the advent of digital technologies—we’re seeing that tech is vested in keeping old formats viable. Take Microsoft Windows, for example. As much as people may hate the company, they do work very hard to make old stuff work on new systems. How viable? If you start with Windows 1 (yes, the very first) and upgrade systematically to Windows 8 (and presumably, now Windows 10) in a row, the programs from Windows 1 still work (You can see this in action here).
Now, at the same time, we have companies like Apple, who actually use hardware and software locks to disable old content and force upgrades. Or examples of digital tech being resold and redistributed in new formats. So this doesn’t always hold true. But is this a concern? At the moment … I’d argue “not very.” Ebooks seem pretty versatile so far. Odds are you aren’t going to turn on your computer ten years after buying a book and be told you can’t read it anymore because the format is old.
Loss of files? You can also lose a book. And with digital files, with most sellers you can go back to your account and redownload the file you purchased. If they don’t, they usually warn you that you need to make a personal backup of your own.
So, bringing things back around, we hit point 1. Looking at these comments, there are a lot of misconceptions about ebooks that seem to stem from a belief in the fragility of digital tech and the invincibility of paper. Comments that spoke about how easy it could be to lose a file or break a digital device … well, I could say the same about any book. “Book is too flammable, did not like being placed next to campfire.” Or perhaps “Pages grow soggy when wet, cannot read in rain.”
If that sounds mocking, well … no. It’s tongue-in-cheek. The point behind it being that those comments about normal books are comparable to some of the fears of ebooks. It’s just as viable to say “don’t dunk your e-reader in water” as it is to say “don’t dunk your book in water.”
Now, there is a valid concern in the whole “what happens when my e-reader does break scenario,” because there’s more than one book on there, and sometimes it’s unavoidable (iPads, for example, may as well come with a big, ticking countdown clock on them counting down to the day that you need to replace them). And we’ll get into that one with point 3. I know this is a little disorganized … but bear with me. As a whole, digital tech is surprisingly robust, and ebooks convey that. Again, if you lose or misplace a physical book … good luck, it’s gone forever. If both the buyer you’re doing business with and your own digital policies are up to date … you can just “restore from backup,” whether that backup is your own or the storefront’s.
Now, getting back to point 1 and easing into point 2, part of the problem is that somewhere along the line, these things are not being adequately explained. Like I said, these are misconceptions … and they’re misconceptions that, as a market, need to be explained. Because otherwise, if not explained, they may as well not exist for the reader. And that’s bad business. Some of these misconceptions are akin to a car dealership not telling a buyer that a car can be filled with more gas at any gas station.
Of course, that sells more cars for the dealership, or at least, in base economic theory, which is where we run into point 2 and a whole lot more concerns from readers over their ebook bang for the buck. Because while there were misconceptions in the comments … there were also valid points, or conceptions that were 50% wrong and 50% right based on who and where the ebook was purchased from … and some publishers, it seems, are doing their darndest to make this worse.
For instance, let’s look at another common concern about ebooks brought up in the comments. A big one. Ownership.
This opens a massive can of worms for a topic, but I’m going to try to muddle through it as best as I can.
Basically, a lot of dispute came up in comments over who owned the book in question, and what the rights are with that. And this is one area where I find validity … but also a little bit of hypocrisy.
Let me explain for those who didn’t have this concern: When you buy an ebook, you’re buying … well, what exactly? For some purchases, it’s the file itself. You don’t own the right to redistribute that file, but you do own the file, and you can back it up, make a copy, whatever, as long as you’re not redistributing it (for free or for money, which is piracy). But that particular copy of the file is your copy. And this is how some ebook purchases of books go (for example, any of mine).
But this is not always the case. And this is where things like DRM and licensing—both issues brought up in comments—come into play.
Part of the problem is that the rules vary from publisher to publisher. Some publishers are fine just dropping you the DRM-free digital file and count on honesty not to see those copies show up on piracy sites or be shared en masse among friends. Others, however, aren’t. They’re worried that you might be passing copies to all of your friends. They’re worried about piracy. They’re worried about ebooks eating into physical book sales. And so they’re going to make them less appealing.
These are the books that come with restrictive DRM. The ones where you don’t actually buy anything but the chance to read a book. Or you don’t even buy, you just “rent” for long term, rather than actually owning the product. This is actually how Apple handles all of its merchandise, from iPhone to iTunes music … you own none of it, and it must be surrendered to Apple on demand (hence why more than one person talking about ownership of “their” books on “their” iPad was a little hypocritical; they didn’t own the device they were irate about not owning books on). With Apple showing it works, this is a popular choice in other industries (also, Apple makes it hard for competing content, like Amazon ebooks, to work on their devices, because they are jerks).
Which, well, I can’t say I agree with it. There’s a reason I don’t use iTunes at all (reasons, actually, but this is one of them). I have the digital music I buy. And I like the same to be with my books.
But again, the problem here is that there’s no universal standard. Just as how MP3s bought from one source may be DRM free and yours, while MP3s from another store may refuse to let you back them up and locked to a certain program, there’s no guarantee that the ebook you’re going to buy will be one or the other. You can only dig into the details and look … and that alone hurts ebook value, to say nothing of the problem of overintrusive DRM and your purchase amounting to little more than a rental.
This is market failure. The publishers are at fault for this one, because they’re the ones that are making this choice.
Now, with this topic comes a few other associated responses: Lending and reselling. Both were brought up (resale being the most common), and both seemed to be hot topics … but again, there’s a mix of responsibility for this one … as well as a confusing double standard.
Lending, for example. Look, here’s the core of the issue: nothing is stopping you from passing your reader to a friend. You want to lend them the ebook you downloaded? Well, hand them your reader. It has all your other books on it? That’s the price of convenience. You wouldn’t complain after buying a three-in-one book that you couldn’t rip just one of the three stories out and pass it to your friend, would you? Double standard.
Now, ebooks have, thankfully, made digital lending a thing … but it’s limited. Why? Well, let me explain.
Part of the agreement with lending a friend a book is that you’re giving up your copy temporarily—passing over ownership in a way—in order for them to gain a copy temporarily. This is so that the author has still been compensated for that one copy. If you photocopied the book and gave your friend the photocopy, well hang on … that’s piracy.
With ebooks, the challenge is not being a photocopier. If you can send a book to a friend … what happens if you’ve kept a copy on your reader? You’ve just copied it. The friend has no incentive to return it, and has gained a “photocopy.”
The solution, then, is to digitally manage the lending process. And some places do this. Amazon, for instance, allows you to loan a book to a friend. You enter their e-mail, and then the next time you log in on your kindle devices, you’ll find that your copy of the book is locked, with “Out on Loan” next to it, while your friend is given a copy with a timer on it. Once that timer expires, your copy is unlocked. In this manner, the “photocopy” problem is avoided, as you are giving your access to your friend.
All well and nice, then, and a good analogue for what real-world lending is like. But then the publishers come into things … and then we run into all three of those headings from above.
See, those stores that are doing the lending? Publishers may agree with it … and may not. Afger all, digital lending is easy. Just like the purchase of an ebook, it can go to to anyone with a cell signal, and that makes it much easier for a group of friends to pass around a book than it normally would. Heck, I bought The Martian because the waiting list at my local library had more than 160 people on it (I was 163, if memory serves). How many of those people read it, and then set it by the door, left it laying around, etc. A digital book can be instantly sent to the next person in line.
And so not all publishers allow lending. Or those that do, have restrictions. For example, Amazon’s maximum number of times you can loan an ebook out in a 90-day period is 5 times. For a set, two-week increment. Which is 70 days out of 90, and not that bad.
But some don’t follow that. Some only allow two lending periods per 90 days. Or, according to one commentator, one lending ever.
So, you can lend ebooks, so partially a reader misconception. But then, the publishers are making that misconception worse by refusing to agree on any one standard … and then the storefronts themselves sure don’t make it as easy to do as it could be. All three points in a nutshell, all contributing to this problem.
As an author, I’m of the mind that I like Amazon’s early efforts. It’s a system that allows my readers to lend out my book while at the same time keeping outright piracy (admitted or accidental) off of the table. But I don’t like that publishers seem so iffy about it, and so darn inconsistent. Is it a reason not to buy ebooks? Well … no. Not for me.
Now, what about reselling? This was a big one, but there was one commentator (M Byerly, you get a shoutout!) who linked two articles on the topic, one on the doctrine of first sale with regards to ebooks, and the other on reselling ebooks like physical books. If you were one of the commentators that had questions/concerns about this, you should definitely check those out.
Getting back to other comments, however, and with regards to the current state of things, many commentators seem to agree at the moment that as ebooks are regarded as more convenient and slightly cheaper than a paperback, then this is what you’re gaining in return for giving up the resale. You’re already buying a book at—most of the time—a savings equal to or greater than the resale price, and you’re getting the convenience of an ebook atop that.
And to be fair … as Steam and a lot of other digital marketplaces have pointed out … how many people actually resell content? To those who commentated to this topic, concerning how they can’t resell books, I am honestly just curious: How often do you resell your books? I am legitimately curious, because for all the volume of bookstores in the city where I live … there aren’t nearly as many used bookstores. Is giving up resale worth saving the cost of resale? I mean, crud, Dead Silver is $5.99, while in trade paperback it would likely be $8, maybe $9 (and that would be if I could do a print run of several thousand to bring the cost down). You’re already saving the resale value.
Honestly, I can’t say much to disagree with this one, but it’s more that in my experience it doesn’t matter that much. Some clearly disagree, but personally, I feel that like other digital markets, it’s not as big a deal as some make it out to be (and in the game industry, where Steam has been a huge hit, used game resales at one point amounted to almost 2/3rds of the entire industry market … a market that generates more than $70 billion a year. If they don’t care that much, then books should be okay).
Now, look, so far we’ve talked about misconceptions, as well as publisher-created problems. I think we could agree that points 1 and 2 are pretty well discussed (if you disagree, consider my time expenditure, but please comment to say so and why).
But what about that third point? Well, now we’re going to get to it.
See, there’s actually a problem with what I’ve written so far, a root problem that’s leading into many of these issues above, from misconceptions to problems with loaning books. That problem is this:
Ebook storefronts are TERRIBLE.
Yeah, I all caps’d that. Why? Because it’s true.
Look, throughout this post, I’ve made comparisons to Steam, because Steam is a great service that works. But you know where this comparison falls apart—and where a lot of our problems arise? Steam is far superior in service to any ebook seller out there.
This, and this alone, I think, is the single largest point of market failure. The best ebook stores our there look like something from the early 90s. I look at ebook stores, and I see terrible design.
And then I look at something like Steam … and I see what it could be.
Look, the problem is that ebook storefronts are concerned with only one thing: Selling you a product. Information about that product? Poorly presented, if available at all. Management of that product? Hah! You wish. If it exists at all, it’s tacked on to a storefront, and requires clicking on small buttons hid around the interface.
Look, I’m sure some of you are saying “Well, this works fine.” I have a challenge for you: Go download Steam or Origin, and look at how they manage digital content.
This doesn’t even need to be a program you download. This can be done through a web browser with some clever coding. Why is it that I can’t just go to “My Library” on Amazon and look at all the books I own, and click “lend” or “redownload” from there? Earlier I spoke of how many had the misconception that once their ebook was lost it was gone forever, and how they could redownload it if their seller was doing their job. But at the same time, while it’s often true … it’s also way harder than it needs to be.
As Gabe Newell (creator of Steam) said: “… [it’s] not a pricing issue. It’s a service issue.”
Look at Steam or Origin. Or Amazon’s music manager (which isn’t even that great, as it’s still a bit obnoxious). Heck, look at Uplay. It’s doing a better job than ebook storefronts, and it’s kind of universally hated among the game community for being an abomination.
Ebooks are completely failing when it comes to the digital front. Amazon’s service? Sure, it’s winning right now, but honestly their service is sort of on par with a waiter that sneers at you the whole time and refuses to bring salt and pepper to your table.
Where is our Steam? Steam outlines all DRM right on the side bar, even puts a warning about it in the main text if it’s been a reported problem. Steam allows easy access to your entire library with a single click, allowing you to redownload on the fly, and lets you know what’s installed on the device you’re currently using. Steam allows loaning of games. And so on.
Why is there no service like this for ebooks? So many of the problems that were brought up in response to The Question of Value would not be issues!
Well … unfortunately there are answers. First is “No one’s done this yet.” There’s no competition that’s done this, and therefore no need for others to do so. Amazon is currently winning, and its offerings of user interface and ease are mediocre, but no one else is trying to do better. They’re just matching Amazon’s 90s design.
There’s one other problem though, which I hinted at above. The walled garden. Apple? They don’t want a service like this on their platform (you may recall a court case that this was part of a few years ago). Publishers? They don’t want to play against other publishers, they want to wall you in. And that? That’s not what Steam does. And many of them are entrenched in this idea now, and wouldn’t be amiable to the idea of a Steam-like service until it proved it could conquer and solve the market’s woes.
One way or another, though, a large number of the issues that came up in the comments? This would solve them. This would do away with the worry, the uncertainty, and the misconceptions. This would simplify things for everyone.
And we don’t have it.
In the end, I was thrilled at the comments and responses to The Question of Value. It’s clear that this is a topic on a lot of reader’s minds, and one that deserves more attention going forward. It’s a complex issue … but at the same time, a lot of that complexity, I feel, could be eased into simplicity.
And a lot of it could be solved by a good storefront for ebooks, one that learns from the lessons of Steam and other digital stores at the forefront of delivering workable content.
And when we do get that? When the service issue is fixed?
Then I think a lot of these questions about ebook pricing will fade away.