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 Amazon.com. 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.”