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Elgan: What's wrong with eBooks?

We don't need new gadgets. We need a new publishing industry.

September 19, 2009 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - You stayed up late last night reading your hardcover print edition of "The Enchantress of Florence" by Salman Rushdie. It's just too good to put down.

During breakfast, when you normally read The New York Times on your Kindle eBook reader, you felt compelled to read the Kindle version of your book instead.

The second you get into your car, you punch up the audio version, and let Rushdie himself read to you on the way to work.

During your lunch break, you visit the DMV to renew your driver's license. The wait is 15 minutes, so you whip out your iPhone and keep on reading. You're loving the fact that you bought all versions of the book in the $34.99 bundled edition.

Unfortunately, this whole scenario is pure fiction. Sure, "reading" a book on multiple formats is easy. The fairy tale is the price. It could actually cost you $76.34 to buy all copies. (The hardcover print copy costs $29.98 at Barnes & Noble; the Kindle version costs $9.99 at Amazon.com; and the audio version costs $36.37 at Audible.com.)

Can someone explain this to me? Since 99% of the value of a book is created before it's spun off into multiple formats, why does that additional 1% of value cost between 30% and 300%?

Turning the page on publishing

The casual observer might be forgiven for believing that the eBook industry is rife with innovation.

Sony announced recently a product called the Reader Daily Edition, which has 3G connectivity, and two smaller and cheaper readers that do not support wireless. More importantly, the company revealed plans to offer Sony Library Finder, which will enable users to "borrow" eBooks.

Asus, the company that brought us the netbook revolution with its Eee PC device, announced plans to ship a two-screen eBook reader at a very low cost. Theoretically, the twin display format enables two page reading, just like a real book, or one page of book and another page of, say, reference material like Wikipedia.

However, hardware innovation is not the same thing as eBook innovation. All this change is happening around the book publishing industry. Publishers themselves have circled the wagons, and are waiting for innovation to go away so they can get back to business as usual.

They think they sell paper, glue and ink over here, electronic documents over there, and way over yonder, audio recordings. They spend an inordinate amount of time trying to protect this media from that media. Publishers have forgotten what a book is.

Continued resistance by the publishing industry to change will soon be registered by the Internet economy as damage, and the world will route around it. Books are on the brink of revolution. Publishers won't be able to suppress progress for long.



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