What’s Wrong With Ebooks?

Kane Hsieh argues over at Gizmodo that the biggest problem with ebooks is that they try to replicate the experience of paper books. As he puts it, “The problem with ebooks as they exist now is the lack of user experience innovation.” I disagree.

Let’s take his points in order.

Designers and programmers are spending time and effort on recreating the look and feel of turning pages instead of giving him the ability to read on a single infinite sheet and scroll it by blinking.

Granted that there are some really bad simulations of page turning out there, but that’s really not preventing anyone from reading ebooks. And every ebook reader I’ve tried in the past year allows you to turn off those simulations. At least one (Moon+ Reader for Android) will automatically scroll the book for you, eliminating the need to even go to the effort of blinking. In short, ebooks are not tied to the paper book UI.

It should be possible to take advantage of the ebook reader’s connectivity and computing power to “make reading more accessible and immersive than ever”. He offers the idea of language immersion by replacing words and phrases with other languages, and the ability to submit sections to Quora or Mechanical Turk.

Again, this is already happening. Every ebook reader at a minimum offers the ability to look up words in a dictionary. More mature readers offer the ability to translate words and phrases, look selections up in Google and Wikipedia, and to share with other programs (on my own tablet, Moon+ Reader offers sharing selections with 19 different programs – chances are that there’s something out there that would work quite well for submitting to Quora). As for language immersion, why limit yourself to a few words or phrases when you could just buy the book in a foreign language?

You can’t convert paper books to ebooks.

There’s a tool called a “scanner”; I understand that they can be purchased in stores called “electronics outlets”. Seriously, people have been using scanners to convert paper books to ebooks for more than 30 years (Project Gutenberg started in 1971 with a scan of the American Declaration of Independence.) Granted that it’s a slow, labor-intensive process, but so is converting LPs or tapes to CD or MP3 (at least if you want to do it well). Hsieh suggests a “buy it in paper, get it in digital” option similar to what Amazon has begun doing with CD purchases, but fails to explain where the electronic versions would come from or how this would help the people who already own paper copies.

I’m going to quote Hsieh’s final point in full, rather than summarizing it.

Distribution costs are zero. The paradigm of a “book” – a chunk of a few hundred pages of writing, is no longer necessary to be cost effective. Authors can distribute serialized portions of stories on a regular basis, and reach millions of readers instantly. All the things that made the internet culture grow – memes, viral content, instant sharing – can be leveraged by writers of ebooks. Authors, no longer dependent on publishers, are afforded previously unheard of flexibility with story telling. A novella can seamlessly grow into a thousand page epic, one chapter a week, urged by a growing fan base.

Publishers do more than distribute books. Off the top of my head, they promote books, they edit books, and they weed out the unreadable crap. Even if you doubt that the editorial changes improve the book, just the fact that somebody thought the book was worth publishing (meaning “enough people will like it that we can make a profit selling it”) is a signal to the reader that it might be worth reading. Take a look at any site on the Internet that allows people to post their own writing (not just stories – try blog comments, or crowd-source help sites such as Stack Exchange) and you’ll find that Sturgeon’s Law is optimistic. Would you trust a doctor, car repairman, or programmer who had been trained using books sold on the Internet by the authors?

OK, quick show of hands: How many of you reading this blog post would read it if I was charging $0.99 for it? (Be honest now: if you all say you would, I’m going to convert to a pay model tomorrow!) Next question: Would you buy my first book in electronic form if I gave you a link to Amazon right now? Great, that’s about $20 bucks in my pocket. How do I get the word out to the rest of the Internet and get them to buy it too? Well, I suppose I could send an email to every email address on the planet, but the sales conversion rate for spam is pitiful. I know: I could buy a billboard in Times Square. That would run me about $200,000 for a month. I’ll make that back in no time at all! Can I borrow 10 grand from each of you? OK, Chapter One will be out this week. Tell all of your friends to come by next week for Chapter Two!

Under Hsieh’s model, not only do I need to write my books, I’ve got to sell them too. Even if I’m a genius at marketing, the time I spend on it is time I don’t spend actually writing. I suppose I could pay someone to do it for me. And while I’m at it, I could get her to hire someone to convert my immortal words into the most popular ebook formats, run the website where I sell the books, and so on. How will I know if she’s any good? I know: I’ll check the Internet and see what everyone has written about her. Oh, wait…

One thought on “What’s Wrong With Ebooks?

  1. Pingback: Footing the Bill | Koi Scribblings

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