Elgan: What's wrong with eBooks?

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

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.

Ten years from now, both paper books and dedicated eBook readers will be considered high-end luxury devices. The vast majority of reading will be done on cell phones and general-purpose tablet PCs, in both e-text and audio formats.

My advice to publishers is to embrace innovation. We readers want to be thrilled by books in the same way that we're thrilled by our iPhones, and by Web 2.0 sites.

Here's what we want:

1. Bundled multimedia books. Work to make the default "version" of every book, the "everything version." For about $10 more than the hardcover price, we should get the hardcover, eBook and audio versions together.

2. eBooks that can be revised and corrected. Instead of the medieval practice of correcting and updating books with whole new editions, eBooks should be improved electronically, and on the fly. Of course, we need a notation system for telling readers what has changed, and the option to accept or decline the changes. But there's usually no reason for a new edition. Just upload the changes.

3. Audio books that can be borrowed electronically. Sony announced that it will get behind library loans for eBooks. Nice, but what we really need is to be able to borrow or rent audio books directly from our cell phones. Why is it that I can borrow an eBook from the library for free, delivered over the Internet, and can download and watch a $200-million blockbuster from Netflix for free. But if I want to listen to an audio book, I have for fork over more than $30 for the full book? What's so special about audio books?

4. Social books. Obviously people like to discuss books. Why not enable every book to come with its own social network, accessible directly from the electronic version of the book and on the Internet. Every major book should have its own social Web site, just like every movie does.

5. eBooks that are published ahead of the print edition. The electronic and even audio versions of books can be placed on the market long before the print version. The standard practice now is to withhold digital formats until the dead tree version has been on the market. This is a small act of violence against readers. It's bad enough that the editing and production process takes a year.

Here's an idea. As soon as the eBook version is ready, sell the "everything version" (see item 1.) Deliver the eBook version now, and the audio and print versions when they're ready. Readers will be thrilled, and you'll make more money because most readers will buy the "everything version" at the higher price, rather than just picking one of the versions as they do now.

Dan Brown's sequal to "The Da Vinci Code," called "The Lost Symbol," was made available in eBook format at the same time as the print version, and the Kindle version outsold print orders on Amazon.com, not counting pre-orders.

Publishers need to start viewing eBooks as a business, rather than a threat. And they need to start thinking about ways to give readers what they want, rather than getting money by withholding from readers what they want.

6. Cheaper audio books. It's almost criminal that the audio version of a book costs two to three time more than the eBook version, and more even than the hardcover price. It's a digital file, infinitely scalable. If I can do a podcast with an under $100 investment, you can sell an audio book for $9.99.

Publishers, here's the bottom line: The future of your industry is in jeopardy. Young people aren't interested in books, and it's your fault. Instead of blocking innovation, jerking around your customers and coming up with new ways to protect your tree-pulp business, it's time for you to embrace the book business. The story business. The culture business. The education business.

The new renaissance is here. And it will happen with or without you.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike by e-mail at mike.elgan AT elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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