Why Some People Hate Ebooks; and Why I Love Them

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Whether you love ebooks or hate them, they’re the future of the book publishing business. Don’t get left behind. Attend Digital Book World 2013. Learn more about the exciting agenda here.

There are some people out there who are frustrated with ebooks. Dylan Love of Business Insider, for one, who published an article yesterday titled “Why I Hate E-Books“.

The ebook revolution is exciting and certainly has been profitable for the book business as a whole, but publishers and booksellers should hear what Love (and others like him) has to say. Here’s why he hates ebooks:

1. “E-books cost too much.” In his piece, he pointed out an example of how an ebook edition of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (Random House) is more expensive than a paperback edition — when you order it with Amazon Prime, which offers free shipping, that is.

This is a gripe that should be familiar to the ebook business. Love isn’t alone. I spoke with a number of consumers in April who were mostly upset about the price of ebooks because the perception was that they cost little to produce and distribute. There have been other media reports that point out similar price discrepancies to what Love pointed out, citing consumer dissatisfaction and confusion.

Love suggests that all ebooks should be under $10. I’m not sure where he came up with that number, but it seems to be the consensus among his set.


2. “When you pay for an e-book, you haven’t bought the book at all. You’ve bought a license.” His piece touches on an issue that has been hot in the book world ever since Amazon reportedly kicked one of its users out of the Kindle walled garden and didn’t let her take her ebooks with her (this turned out to not be the whole story, but still spurred much discussion).

Aside from the principle of wanting to “own” something that he has bought, Love also points out that ebooks are hard to lend.

Love suggests that publishers and booksellers should let readers “own” digital books the way they own physical books — or at least remove any technology or restrictions that put friction between the reader and a feeling of ownership.

Publishers, librarians, retailers and readers: While Love is only one guy and might be ignoring some critical stuff here, it’s important to respect his opinion. He’s not the only one who holds it.

That said, what people say and what people do is not always the same. As we’ve seen from looking at weeks of best-seller data, the average price of a top-25 ebook best-seller currently hovers between about $10.50 and $12. That’s more than $10. People might say they’re upset about ebooks priced above $10, but they certainly are willing to buy them.

I think this gets to the heart of the matter: Not all books are created equal and some are just worth more (to me as a reader and to the businesses that create them and profit from them). If I’m a publisher or a retailer and thinking about ebook pricing, I’m thinking first and foremost about how I can get the most value out of a book (i.e., get the most dollars from maximum sales at the highest possible price). And if I have a book that people are willing to pay more for, then I will charge more for it — simple as that.

(I also like to think that the book world is somewhat of a meritocracy: Good writers who write good books should do better as a group than less good writers who write less good books. Part of that scorecard is pricing, in my opinion.)

People might say they’re upset about only licensing ebooks and not “owning” them, but the precipitous growth of e-reading in the U.S. would suggest that they’re basically okay with it.

While I think it’s important that publishers and retailers know why people might be dissatisfied with their pricing and such, it would be a mistake to base strategy and decision-making on the media sensibilities of just one person.

That said, here’s….

Why I Love Ebooks

1. They’re mostly cheaper than print books. My first really pleasurable ebook experience in this arena came when I downloaded Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (Random House) when it first came out. Hardcover version, ~$35; ebook version, $14.99. Even though there are some that are not cheaper, I’m not really concerned with a dollar here, a dollar there. I’m like most readers in that I’m willing to pay what it costs for what I want.

2. So convenient. You can carry around a library in your pocket. You can have any book, any time, nearly anywhere.

3. I read more. Now that I have a book on me at all times, I’m reading more. Not that I didn’t read a lot before, but I’m reading more on the subway, when I am waiting in line for things and when I walk down the street.

4. I read differently. Now that I read on my Android phone, my e-ink Kindle and my iPad, I’m reading differently. Before, it was my book in various spots and times that were well-defined. Now it’s:

— Any time, anywhere (phone)
— While I’m playing Scrabble (iPad)
— On long, long trips (Kindle — gives me the ability to take many books with me at once)

5. Power to the people. The rise of ebooks as a way that more people are reading has given purchase to authors who never would have had a chance to find an audience. A decade ago, a limited number of publishers was the only real path to a wide distribution of a book. Today, with the rise of self-publishing — mostly ebook self-publishing — anyone can distribute a book. Some are even seeing real commercial success. When it comes to rooting for publishers or retailers or anyone else, I’m a neutral party, but as someone who believes in free speech, I love that the tools to distribute have become even more democratized.

6. So exciting to follow. When I joined Digital Book World just over a year ago, one of the things that brought me here was the opportunity to observe the ebook revolution up close. The growth of ebooks is one of the most interesting business news stories of the past few years — and it’s only going to get more interesting.

Whether you love ebooks or hate them, they’re the future of the book publishing business. Don’t get left behind. Attend Digital Book World 2013. Learn more about the exciting agenda here.

Heart shelf concept image via Shutterstock

11 thoughts on “Why Some People Hate Ebooks; and Why I Love Them

    1. Kelly

      True, Samir. However, eBook Readers have several components (including Tungsten) that will not degrade safely when the reader is no longer in use. I primarily read in e, but I can’t kid myself; ecologically, physical books are still environmentally sounder.

  1. Tony Viardo

    Ebooks allow me to inexpensively read the books I *have to read (say for business), and then buy and collect the print editions I want to keep and display in my library.

  2. christian kaefer

    The final product may not kill trees, however the road to that product is equal to the environmental impact of selling a print book. I do need energy to read an ebook which is not required for a print book so maybe its ultimately a wash.

  3. MelAnn Morales

    I refuse to purchase any ebook over $10. That is ridiculous to pay that much for a small piece of electronic data. And to clarify I only buy digital books. So I don’t go buy the hard copy either. I don’t support authors or publishers who try to rob their readers.

  4. Rachel C

    Ebooks are much more labour-intensive to make than people think. As someone who makes ebooks full-time, a lot of work goes into the production of that \small piece of electronic data\, besides the writing and editorial — that data has to work across several devices, each with their own unique \quirks\, and function invisibly, i.e. not get in the way of people actual reading. I know, because it’s technology, there must be a press-one-button-out-pops-perfect-ebook right? Not the case, And automated solutions such as Calibre, for example, aren’t professional-grade enough for my taste. Use it to convert your Amazon book file to epub to read on your iPad maybe, but I wouldn’t go near it to create ebooks for a proper vendor (Amazon, Apple, Kobo, etc.)

    In my view, ebooks — on average — should cost more than $10. What they should cost is beyond me to figure out — non-fiction books with lots of links to notes should cost more (definitely more than $10) than a mass-market fiction ebook (these can be below $10).

    1. Tony Viardo

      I can understand how, on the surface, a bit of electronic data seems like a ridiculous thing to command a 10$ sale price, but isn’t what determines the value of the book the writing and editing? ( a book by Nobel laureate would command a higher price than the same book by my writing HS writing teacher, etc). Ultimately, when you add up the physical materials of a hardcover print book–ink, paper–it would be around 3$, why on earth would you be happy to pay 25$ for it?

      A well made ebook, fully edited, can and should command higher prices, the free market will determine.

  5. Noel Moriarty

    I fail to understand all this hoo-hah about ebook prices. Pricing has absolutely nothing to do with costs. It’s a business decision how much the price is. I can buy a fish and chips in my local village for £3.99 but the equivalent in the Olympic Park in London this summer was £8.50 (and no, the quality – and quantity – wasn’t as good)

    Rachel C makes a fair comment, the costs of ebook production are much misunderstood, often the only truly comparable element is the cost of physical printing vs format creation for different distribution channels. If people can understand that for the distribution model for food, what’s the problem in getting your head around it for technology products? Just because it comes from a website doesn’t make it suddenly free.

    Pricing is a function of what the market will bear and the volume you want to sell. Yes cost is a factor in that calculation, but simply saying that ‘all ebooks should be < $10' is naive.

  6. Dorothy Hearst

    I enjoyed this piece and agree that there are many wonderful things about e-books. I did want to bring up a couple points & questions.

    You didn’t mention privacy concerns. Anything you read electronically can (and most likely will) be tracked. This may just be for marketing reasons, but can have broader implications as well. Remember the Monica Lewinsky scandal? Kenneth Starr subpoenaed Kramerbooks in DC to get a list of the books Lewinsky bought there and Kramerbooks successfully fought it off. I also remember reading about criminal cases in which a defendant’s library was scrutinized. Someone looking at our e-book reading habits could tell not only what we bought, but what we read and for how long, how many times we read it, what page we paused at to reread something, and likely more. I don’t know what the laws are (if any) about e-books and privacy, but it’s something to keep in mind.

    You did mention concerns about ownership, but I’d love to see you address this in more detail. This is actually a real concern for me. How do you know how much to pay for something if you don’t know how long you get to keep it? Are you buying a book or leasing it, and for how long? There is no industry transparency on this and there must be.

    Then there is the question about whether or not e-books are proprietary. This seems to change back and forth pretty quickly. The industry battle over e-books is just getting started. Is there any way to know if the books I want will be available on the device I own tomorrow? Or next year?

    Dorothy Hearst,
    Author, Promise of the Wolves & Secrets of the Wolves

  7. Matthijs

    I agree with the author in that I love ebooks. I myself also read more books than I used to. Also being able to bring an entire library on holiday is something I like.

    I have owned an ereader (IREX) for three years and in the first two of them everything went smoothly. I could buy books from any ebook store in Europe, my favrourite among them Waterstone’s. In the last year apparently British publishers have altered their policies on e-books, because all of a sudden I was unable to buy books from British websites since I happen to live in Holland.

    With that change in policy one of my most important arguments for buying an ereader and ebooks was cancelled out.

    I hope the revolution in e-publishing will continue and publishers will learn not to be uptight about people from abroad wanting to purchase an ebook.

  8. JChevais

    As an expat, the language that’s around me all the time is French. I dislike reading French. The stories are depressing and painfully “meaningful” (emo) and I like to read to escape. I was spending a fortune on paperbacks in English but they take up space (after 15 years here, I have at least 6 enormous bags of them in my garage now that I don’t know what to do with). When I was back in North America in August, I discovered that my “local” library lends out digital books via the Overdrive app. Bingo! I can download library books and audio books from my “local” library from anywhere in the world. Win.



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