Thanks for all the comments on my last post – all very helpful. Although it seems a bit off that I have to rely on a personal blog to get feedback on a clinical issue, but that's a tale for another day…

Due to me avoiding a et of nightshifts by burning some of my annual leave, I have around two weeks off work. As this is so close to my other holiday I'm running a little short on 'tales from the ambulance', and so I'm afraid that for the next couple of days I'm going to write about whatever interests me.

I apologise in advance – but I'm not just an 'ambulance driver' you know…


I was having a little to and fro with @Charlesarthur yesterday on twitter; I was bemoaning the difficulty in buying ebooks (after struggling with the rather poor showing of such sites in the UK and then cursing the inability to 'import' ebooks from the US), he on the other hand was suggesting that the format isn't proven yet – much like betamax, minitape and eight tracks.

The discussion started when I started whinging that there isn't a simple 'iTunes' like store for ebooks that might help wipe out regionalisation, encourage reading and drive down the prices of ebooks while also making impulse purchasing more likely. Most of this was prompted by the headache of usability and stability that is the Waterstones ebook site.

[The price of ebooks are often the same as the same title in hardback. This strikes me as incredibly dumb as the cost to 'make' each unit of book is practically zero (that's price per unit, not overall price as you need to take into account copyediting, advances, promotion and the like). Additionally the purchaser cannot do as much with an ebook as they can with a physical product – due to DRM the customer can't lend it, nor sell it on. So why so expensive?]

The price issue is one reason why the Friday project cut the price of many of their ebooks to less than a pint of beer. Well worth a test purchase to see if you like the idea of ebooks. For example you might like 'In Stitches' or the really rather good 'The Equivoque Principle'. [disclaimer – The Friday Project are my publishers].

But this discussion was a really good one, I learnt a few things and then, by talking with someone smarter than me, it led me to a flash of insight…


Digital media has come after pretty much all the recent innovations in other media formats. Before MP3 there were CDs, still the standard for music distribution. Before .avi/DIVX/.M4v DVDs were the standard for movie distribution (I'm ignoring bluray as it's not taken off massively at the moment). Books have pretty much always been text on paper from before computers were a glint in Mr Babbage's eye.

Now, the important thing about the video and music formats is that when you move to digital you can bring your 'old' media with you. You can rip your CDs into a digital format that your computer and iPod can play. It took a bit of time but all my CDs are boxed away in my loft and now reside on one of my network hard drives. DVDs are much the same, it is easy to convert them from a physical disk into a digital file that you can play on your computer, laptop or mobile phone.

If I had the inclination I could convert all them into a digital format.

Both of these shifts in format from physical to digital are trivial to perform (even if it is illegal under British copyright law). You put a disc into your computer, click an import button on a computer programme and -pop- your media is now digital, portable and able to be backed up.

Books however are different.

To convert a book to a digital format there are two ways to go about it – You can sit at a keyboard and type it all in, or you can destroy the book by feeding it sheet by sheet through a scanner, then run OCR software that will do it's best to convert it into a text file, then you copyedit it for the errors put in by the OCR software. Both of these approaches need you to physically be at a machine working on converting the book into digital. You can't press a few buttons and leave it running overnight.

So, the problem with ebooks as a format is that you can't bring along your old media. I have shelves of books, my loft is full of books – I have more physical books in my possession than at any other time in my life. I'd love to be able to convert them to a digital format, but it's just not realistically possible.

Instead, my only realistic and legal, option would be to purchase them again – which, for a few books, I'd be willing to do. But not all of those books are available in the UK in an ebook format, and those that are cost the same as a hardback.

Part of what let the iPod and other digital music players take off was the ability to play your old media, unlike the move from vinyl to CD there was no need to re-purchase your media. Do you think that iPods would be as popular if in order to use them you had to buy all your music yet again? And most of it wasn't available?

If there is anything that is going to hamper the ebook market from growing it is this lack of portability from your old format to a new one.


The solution to promote ebooks and prevent people from visiting torrent sites is quite simple.

When you buy a physical book from Waterstones (who are the big player in the UK ebook market) they give you a coupon or code which allows you to download that book for free, or at a greatly reduced cost, onto your reader. While it is true that some people will then give away the book, I would suggest that not many books are only ever read by one person in their lifetime anyway. And wouldn't you rather have customers coming to your e-store and then coming back for return business rather than visit the torrent sites for illegal copies of your book?

The alternative is to treat ebooks like a poor relation of physical product and then get stuffed when Amazon release the Kindle in the UK and Amazon starts offering a lot more stock for less money.

The Kindle edition of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, his follow-up to 2003’s smash hit The Da Vinci Code, has become the top-selling item on The e-reader edition is outselling the hardback copy of the novel, which had previously become the sixth best selling book of 2009 on pre-publication orders alone.

Commentators are wondering whether the book is heralding a new era in publishing. While Amazon is offering almost 50 per cent off the hardback copies, $16.17 instead of $29.99, the Kindle edition is available at just $9.99 – and there is no wait for delivery.”

18 thoughts on “Ripability”

  1. A very interesting and insightful look, Tom. However your mention of iTunes and regionalisation got me thinking. I have been experiencing regionalisation problems on the internet like never before. iTunes is divided by countries/shops, each with a different set of available music and audiobooks. I have wanted to buy albums that are not available in my shop, I have seen special content I should have had the right to buy (special release for people attending a concert. I was attending said concert, but content was exclusive to the UK shop) blocked from me, and equally I have had acess to audiobooks while friends are left fuming and waiting for it to be available in the UK shop. And don't even get me started on TV spisodes… This has all led me to torrents and similars, when I was willing to pay the money for the product. Ironic doesn't even begin to cover it.Still, you are right. Books in widely used digital formats are still rare, as well as big e-book sellers. A book version of iTunes, and I don't mean audiobooks, with low prices would be a good bet. I still like to buy books, but some paperbacks after I've read them, are really just taking up the space and paper. I haven't really checked out kindle very well, I think they are still having some birthing problems, but I'm definitely somebody who's on board for a similar product (without restrictions or special file types crap).

  2. Places like Apress already do similar for their ebook options, if you buy the paper book, after passing a trivial quiz on the contents, you get a voucher to allow you to buy the ebook for US$10 (only pdf format currently though), my ideal (I know it'd never happen) would be an option to send off your books and get ebook copies back, with the paper books being donated to some charity or even hospital waiting rooms… 😉

  3. I've found a way to get geographically restricted content onto my Reader, buying from Fictionwise.Afterr your account is set up, change country in your profile to Ubited States and voila – no more restrictions.

    I've only used this paying through Micropay, I suspect I'll have to change back to use credit card/paypal.

    With ConvertLit and Calibre I can get almmost all content I'm interested in onto my Reader with no problem.

  4. And the prices at Fictionwise are a lot better than Waterstones, especially if you can wait 6 months for the latest bestseller.

  5. It probably has something to do with the way copyright owners are sitting pretty on their money and don't see the need for any great shake up. An ebook at a low price (or free with every paper copy) just doesn't make sense to THEM at this time….DVD's on the other hand have been fighting a massive uphill battle against downloaders and those who prefer digital copies… so one of the first things they did was to begin offering free AVI versions along with the DVD and Bluray versions, a great solution to this problem that bridges the gap between torrenting and hard media.

    I think it will be some time before we see ebooks as accessible as music, but it'll happen eventually. Once Readers become more available, more common, and cheaper, then people will seek out ways to get what they want… meaning… illegal downloading (ebooks are already everywhere online). This will shake copyright owners and publishers up to the reality of offering what the consumer wants. Illegal downloading never thrived because it was free, it thrived because it was so convenient.

  6. Just don't buy pre ordered stuff that way otherwise they ask you to validate it with a us card, I had to cancel my order for that reason!

  7. with e-books do you ever actually own it? istr there was a story recently about the fact that most downloaded ebooks were actually rentals and after a period of time they expired. I personally am not a fan of ebooks they are very exclusive at the moment due to the costs of the items and of the readers. Just go and borrow the book from the library and save your money, most will let you reserve on line and email you when it arrives.

  8. You don't need to kill the book and use a scanner. It's far easier to do what google did to scan in all the books for google books.Use a digital camera. Open the book on a neutral surface, and take pictures of every single page.

    Ok, it will still take you a while, and you've got to watch out for page bending issues. Still quicker than scanning.

  9. Also of note is the fact that even on iTunes, prices for albums are significantly cheaper than their hard-copy counterparts. If those who publish ebooks ever want them to take off, they require 3 things:Reliable hardware – the iPod of the book just isn't there yet.

    They need to drop the price significantly – as you note, folk aren't going to go replacing their hard-copies if the price for digital is exactly the same.

    Finally, and probably most importantly, they need consumers to have confidence in the system. This means ditching the type of DRM programming that allows a central server to wipe your book collection!

    Though, you also gave me another important thought – I really need to set up a NAS device with a few TB HDDs in it and offload my painfully full local HDDs!

  10. plastic logic is suppossed to release an e-reader in early 2010. am thinking of picking one up if it is as portable as it claims. any opinions on plastic logic vs. kindle 2?

  11. If you like Sci-Fi books, a US publisher called Baen ( has been doing a lot of this already for years.If you buy hardback book from them it comes with a CD in the sleeve with that book, as well as the other books in the series, other books by the same authors etc for free as ebooks (no DRM, any format you like). And you are free to copy them and give them to your friends. Do a google search for “BAEN CD” and you'll find places where you can download the entire CD (with the publishers blessing).You can download many free books from their website. (Free Library). They also do cheap ebooks (again without DRM) that you can buy from them. (HTML, RTF, .LIT, Mobipocket, so you can read them any way you like.)It's excellent, and if you like sci-fi I strongly recommend visiting them and trying some of the books. You might find a new author you like, and it won't cost you a penny.

  12. I have to say the only reason I don't buy ebooks isn't due to the price or due to the inability to buy some books. Its due to the fact that I believe I spend long enough each day staring at a screen and would rather stare at a piece of paper instead.

  13. I couldn't agree more with your idea of eBook coupons for a book you've bought as a paperback etc. I've often thought that myself…I was given a Sony Reader a few months ago and was delighted at what I assumed would give me access to a huge range of competitively priced eBooks…but sadly it seems that that's not the case! I noticed you talking about getting some kind of taskforce together on Twitter a while ago but never remembered to tweet back and show interest. Any update on this?

  14. I have looked at ebooks/readers many moons ago when Tom wrote about his Sony one. What put me off was a) no colour and b) ebook cost c) lack of ones when l looked.It seems things still haven't changed.

  15. Agree completely. I have a sony ebook reader and was excitedly awaiting the release of a new book by my favourite author. The day came and I dropped onto the Waterstones website to download it to discover not only was it not released in ebooks but there wasn't even a planned release date. Unfortunately I have no idea at all how to even start thinking about getting it from other sources, being e illiterate so I was stuffed. Had to go and get a hard copy in the end.

  16. I actually work in publishing (in the production side of things) and from my POV the biggest problem ebooks have at the moment is a lack of a standard file format. You get .lit files and .epub files and PDFs and html and a host of others. Until devices are more standardized, it's going to be hard for the system in general to progress.Personally, I'm sad because it seems like pretty much across the board all the ebook devices and most of the formats are not accessible to things like screen readers (or you get the stinting of the Kindle capabilities in the US after the author's guild got up in arms) when you'd think people who couldn't read print on their own would be a worthwhile new market you could bring in to reading books since audiobooks still aren't as prolific as ebooks could be.I think regionalisation of things like ebook releases and other electronic files or distribution methods (the iTunes store for example) may be something we just have to live with. It certainly still occurs with DVDs and CDs and even print books if you think about it (with print books & CDs being the easiest to move between regions in legal ways). I don't think it's right (there's loads of UK tv I'd buy on DVD if I could get it to play in the US, but I can't), but as it's not something new to the system with ebooks, I doubt that's where it'll start to go away.

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