Tuesday, July 27, 2010

10 Reasons E-books Will Not Eat The World (part 1)

A lot of experts and analysts believe that the sales of e-readers and e-books will continue to grow exponentially, and that e-books will cannibalize the market for conventional books.  It seems to be conventional wisdom that 50% of books will be in electronic formats within five years.

I don't have all the data that these people have, but I was an early-adopter of the Kindle (I have the first-gen model) and I've read a number of books on the device.  For me, the novelty has worn off, and many people will likely come to this conclusion in the next year or two.  If my experience is common, I think sales will plateau sooner than many analysts expect.

Here's why:

"We need to reschedule your bar mitzvah.  The Torah has a dead battery."
10.  Conventional books can't really be improved on.  A book is text on a page.  You can't make a book better by making it a digital file; there's no way technology can alter or improve the experience of reading text on a page.  A book cannot be remastered in high-definition.  You can't make it faster.  The best an e-book can possibly do is match the experience of reading a conventional book.

9.  Switching to e-books doesn't improve your life.  Imagine it's 2002 and you're switching from music on CDs to an iPod.  By adopting this format, you've gained access to a lot of new functionality and a lot of convenient features.  You can now carry all your music with you, which is something people want to do.  You no longer need to have a huge multidisc changer in the trunk of your car, or a multi-disk carousel in your home stereo.  You no longer need to commit to listening to one artist or mixtape when you go for a run, and the physical device you will carry is much smaller than a CD player.  You can construct playlists for various purposes, or you can shuffle all the songs on the device.    

By contrast, consider how your life improves when you switch to the Kindle.  You can carry a bunch of books, but do you really need to?  Most people only read one book at a time.  There's no playlist or shuffle-type features that you can utilize with your book library.  The device is smaller than a hardcover, which is convenient if you're carrying it around in a handbag, but it's about the same size as a trade paperback.  

Instant delivery of e-books is nice, but it's not compelling.  I buy several books at a time, and I rarely run out of stuff to read, so I never need a new book immediately.

E-readers really offer no features that make the format or the device indispensable.  There's no killer app here that makes an e-reader better than a book.  

8.  The price differential is disappearing.  Theoretically, e-books should wipe out conventional books because of efficiency.  A conventional book must be printed and bound and shipped and warehoused and often shelved and sold in a bookstore.  Each of those things costs money.  An e-book is an electronic file and distributing it is as trivial as sending an e-mail.

"Once you get used to location codes, you won't miss page numbers."
When Amazon first started selling e-books, it paid the same wholesale price for an e-book that it paid for a hardcover book, but it sold them at a loss, for $9.99.  Hardcovers were selling for $17 a couple of years ago, so an e-book cost about half as much as a hardcover.  Now, though, publishers have pushed back on Amazon's $9.99 pricing, and many e-books cost more.  Meanwhile, hardcover pricing has been pushed down to about $15.  So an $8 price difference has shrunk to around $2-3.  And for titles published in trade or mass-market paperback, the e-book price is often the same as the conventional-book price.

Some authors will take advantage of the costs cut by e-distribution to make money by selling e-books for very low prices.  But readers aren't indifferent among books.  Assuming that major publishers continue to distribute the content most people are interested in buying, they will probably hold the line on their interpretation of what a book is worth.  This means that you won't save much money buying e-books if you want big publishers' content.  

It's possible that some readers will skip major publishers' titles to buy $3 self-published e-books, but many readers will not be interested in exploring that territory.   I think a lot of people who own e-readers are likely to do what I've done lately; buy conventional books when the price difference is less than a couple of dollars.  This is because...

7.  E-book formats have significant disadvantages.  E-books are distributed on proprietary formats.  You cannot read Apple books on a Kindle.  You cannot read Kindle books on a Nook.  You can read all kinds of books on iPads or PCs or phones, but you need a special app for each format.  If you break your reader or decide to upgrade to a newer device, you must buy a new one from the same vendor or your old books will be incompatible with the new device.  If your vendor goes out of business, your software may no longer be supported.  You cannot sell or lend or give away an e-book when you finish reading it.

These are things people like to do with their books, so, to that extent, e-books are less convenient than conventional books.  This inconvenience is tolerable when the e-book costs half as much as the same title in hardcover, but that may not be true if the difference is only a dollar or two.

6.  Books never run out of batteries.  The iPad lasts ten hours on a battery charge, and, as anyone who uses electronics knows, those batteries degrade over time, so the battery becomes less efficient.  Batteries also tend to lose a charge if the device is left unplugged in standby mode.  Best case scenario: an iPad battery ill last long enough to read a novel and-a-half.  That kind of sucks if you want to take it on a weekend camping trip.  

Dedicated e-readers do a much better job as far as power consumption.  They only use power when they draw a new page on the e-ink screen, so they're off most of the time you are reading.  The batteries can last weeks depending on how much you read.  But there's still a chance you might pick the thing up and find it's out of juice when you want to read without being plugged in.

You never have to remember to charge a conventional book. 

Tomorrow: five more reasons.

1 comment: