Before I begin, I've given this topic a fair bit of thought; and at the expense of welcoming controversy and haters; here goes.
It's been just over a decade since the launch of the first industry-changing eBook reader - The Kindle in 2007.
So why aren't we all using eBooks already?
I adore words, but let's face it: books suck in a lot of ways.
More specifically, so many beautiful ideas have been helplessly trapped in physical books for the last few centuries.
How do books suck? Let me make a list:
- Books are heavy.
- Books take up a lot of space.
- Books have to be printed.
- Books have to be carried and shipped in trucks.
- Aren't always available at a library.
- Must be purchased at a bookstore.
- Difficult to find
- Books are difficult to search within.
- Some books are too expensive.
- Books aren't interactive.
- They cannot be updated for errors and addendums.
- Books are often copyrighted.
- The worst of them all: Books can go out of print entirely.
What is the point of a bookshelf packed with books other than an antiquated trophy case of amazing ideas, trapped in awkward, constantly-deteriorating, temporary physical relics?
I've now convinced myself that books should not be celebrated. Words, ideas and concepts should be celebrated. Books were necessary to store these things, simply because we didn't have any other viable form to contain them. But now, we do.
Words Belong on the Internet
At the risk of stating the obvious, if your goal is to get a written idea in front of as many human beings as efficiently as possible, you shouldn't be publishing dead-tree-books. You should be editing a wiki, writing a blog, or building a website.
That's exactly why Encyclopedia Britannica officially went out of print in 2012, after a 244 year print run.
In a straight-up battle between paper and web, Britannica lost. Big time.
This is why book scanning efforts of The Internet Archive and libraries around the world are so important - to unlock the knowledge trapped in those books and place it online so the entire world can benefit.
In the never-ending human quest for communication, bits have decisively won over atoms. But bits haven't completely replaced atoms - Yet. That will take a few more decades.
An Argument for the eBook
While the Internet is perfectly adequate for basic printed text juxtaposed with images, videos and tables, it is a far cry from the eye-catching, beautiful, complex layout and typography of modern books.
Sometimes, the medium is part of the message. That's what led computer science to create PostScript and TeX, systems of representing the printed page using code and mathematics that can scale infinitely - packaging written content as a special file format preserves those beautiful layouts so you can read the text as the author intended.
It's also fair that writers should be paid for their work. Nobody is going to pay a rupee for every webpage. The commercial model of packaging content into a book and selling it has existed for longer than most people would admit.
You can't always rely on the Internet being available. What if you have a bad/unusable connection? You could periodically download what you need as a packaged file. Local files have built in, persistent offline availability.
I don't think the Internet will kill the book. But it will radically transform their form permanently. Books will no longer be pages printed with atoms; but rather files printed with bits: eBooks. This is already apparent in the fact that most writers these days use a computer to write their books - instead of pen and paper; why not publish the same way as well? Right?
The Problem with using Bits
The journey of migrating from atoms to bits is not easy, and we're only looking at the beginning of this journey. eBooks are vastly more flexible than printed books, but they come with their own set of tradeoffs:
- They require a reading device
- eBooks cannot be loaned to friends
- Cannot be resold to others
- You can't really donate an eBook to a library
- Copy protection
- They might come in a format that your eBook reader doesn't understand
- Incomplete, obsolete or broken page layouts
- They may have low resolution images that are worse than print
- They may have a substantially worse reading experience than print except on very high resolution reading devices.
I'd say that the copy protection is the worst of them all. With eBooks, book publishers now have an unprecedented level of control over when, where and how you can read their books.
In the world of atoms, once the book is shipped out, the publisher cedes all control to the reader. Once you buy that physical book, you can do whatever you will: read it, burn it, and here's a popular one: photocopy it (for personal use), share it, resell it, loan it, donate it, use it as a monitor stand (guilty as charged) and even throw it at a burglar's face as a weapon.
In the world of bits, the publisher has an iron grip over their eBook and it isn't sold to you as it is "licensed for use", maybe even only on their specific devices (ahem...Kindle). And they can silently remove the book from your device at their whim.
In the brave new world of eBooks, publishers are waking up drunk with new power. And I can't say I blame them. After an eternity of publishers having virtually no control over the books they publish, they've now been given near total control.
How much do eBooks cost?
Consider one of my favorite books, Don't Make Me Think. How much does it cost to buy, as an eBook or otherwise?
Strangely enough, the Amazon eBook is more expensive than the print version. This...makes no sense. How can bits in the digital version, that require no printing, no shipping and no physical storage whatsoever, be more expensive than the atoms?
And what do eBooks look like?
Don't even get me started on this one. What you end up reading when you buy an eBook can vary wildly. And here's where you'll understand why it's worth buying the publisher's version of the eBook.
Here's a a couple of scanned pages from my copy of the book:
If you buy the eBook from the publisher, you get a PDF which is based on the exact, same data used to print the book. The footnotes, layout, typography and text are almost completely left intact. It's almost like a scanned copy of a physical book.
Buy the eBook from Amazon however, and you're presented with a proprietary eBook format which contains very little (or none) of the original formatting. Footnotes are missing. Font colors and styles are lost. And for the strangest reason, it now take 4 pages to read one page worth of content from the print book. It's almost as though the pages of the book were broken.
So eBooks suck as well, now what?
I intentionally chose a book that highlights the remaining gap between atoms and bits. I've read dozens of other eBooks and the experience is great. For books that are entirely text, with very little layout, the various eBook formats do a great job. This is the majority of books in the world.
All eBook formats handle text and basic fonts perfectly fine. But then, so does the Internet. If an eBook can't outperform the Internet at layout, it loses the strongest argument in it's favor.
Even so, there's no way that Amazon's version of eBooks are suitable replacements for the print version. Worse, you won't even know what you're missing out on until you compare it with a print version.
We, as readers, are giving up just as much as we're getting in the transition from books made of atoms to eBooks made of bits. To make it worthwhile, I think publishers and resellers (like Amazon) need to do two things:
eBooks should be inexpensive. I can't lend them, I can't resell them, I can't buy a cheaper used copy, because I can only read them on all "supported" (basically their own) readers under whatever terms the publisher will allow me to, an eBook simply has less utility and value to me. Right now, eBooks are far less flexible than physical books and therefore a worse value. Yet, they are far cheaper to produce and sell for everyone involved. The pricing absolutely has to reflect this. If I can get a new copy of a book for less than the eBook, no sale and screw you.
eBooks should be a near-perfect replica of the print book. With the advent of high-resolution displays; it's possible for eBook readers to have high visual fidelity - almost just as good as the print book. I don't want to spend money on an overpriced eBook reader with a crappy display and pay extra for a worse, broken reading experience. Give me an eBook that I would be confident in handing to my children with the same confidence my dad gave me his.
Because I love words. I want to love eBooks. I want to buy lots and lots of eBooks. But unless the publishers are willing to treat eBooks with the same respect and care they give to printed books - and most of all, adjust their pricing to reflect the new economy of bits and not the economy of atoms - they're destined to eventually suffer the same fate as Encyclopedia Brittanica.