Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Ebook Troubles

The ebook revolution we’ve all been told is coming seems to be sputtering out before it can even begin, all because of fear and greed, which is probably what stops most revolutions.

Read this very informative story at Wired: Why Book Publishers Are Still Dragging Their Heels on Selling You E-Books. It’s a depressing statement of how competition stifles innovation these days.

Here’s the juicy center:

Some of the problem stems from tradition. The people drawn to publishing as a professional are, by and large, book lovers, and as such, often as attached to books’ physicality as to their text. More is paranoia: unlike music, whose digital age developed largely in response to an already thriving pirate industry, book publishing has held back, waiting for reliable DRM that seems unlikely to materialize….

The technology of digital publishing is awkward and inconsistent. The closest thing to a single file standard, e-pub, is still far from platform-agnostic and notorious for destroying formatting elements, which limits what writers and designers can do structurally if they’re planning for digital.

And that’s just for text-based books. Options for visually intensive publishers are narrower still, and even more platform-dependent. Formatting highly visual material takes resources and technical savvy that can make the process cost-prohibitive for smaller publishers. Rapidly changing technology, varied platforms, and lack of standards makes digital development a risky investment even for larger publishers.

 …any publisher who wants their books available on, say, iBooks, Kindle, and Nook will be facing three different formatting standards, not to mention content restrictions—and, often, entirely new economic models.

Hesitant participants, battling corporate behemoths, and format wars. It’s no wonder we’re not making any progress.

It’s easy to blame the hesitant publishers, because they’ve been so fearful that they’d “sell” ebooks to the public but not public libraries. Their arbitrary policies have obviously been the result of fear that they will lose either money or control over their ebooks.

Eventually they’ll realize that they can’t control the end product. Apple and Amazon and Adobe and all the publishers think they can lock down everything but it’s just not possible. For every lock, someone will create a key.

But the rate events are moving, this whole process could take a decade or more. Apple and Amazon are two giants who could potentially fight an ebook proprietary war for generations

Just as it’s easy to blame the publishers, it’s easy to sympathize as well. They’re slowly entering an emerging future where they’ll have no power over anything except delivering ebooks to big vendors and hoping the vendors price them high enough someone can make money.

For the publishers it’s their entire world. For Amazon it’s a loss leader. Not exactly a free market.

Besides the understandable library revolt against unfair publishing policies, the revolt I’m waiting for is from the customers who have now purchased millions (billions?) of dollars of proprietary ebook licenses when they thought they were buying books.

Eventually a lot of those people are going to want to do something with their books besides read them in their proprietary formats. That’s possible to do now, just not legally. At some point breaking the DRM on ebooks will become as mainstream as it became for music, and then something will have to give.

In the meantime, what a mess. Libraries have been doing a pretty good job of educating patrons about why they can’t get all the ebooks patrons want, but despite all the grief for libraries, this is a battle they’ll be but a small part of.

By the time the ebook battles are over, the fiction readers who buy and check out so many new books will probably have moved on to Internet fan fiction and we’ll have discovered all the fuss over ebooks was for nothing.



  1. Grenouille says:

    Interesting to hear that you’ve changed your tune. I remember a few years back you were warning libraries that all Amazon had to do was simply approach local municipalities and offer eContent at a better price than the libraries could match. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Twopointopian and perhaps there is still something to that narrative. But the fact that Amazon and the publishing industry have yet to get their acts together seems to point to a different future. Film and TV distribution likewise.

    At the end of the day, I have a feeling that we have entered into a time where, because of the ease and opportunity of platform development coupled with the speed of technology change, maybe there will never again be an industry standard. Or at least not one that applies to entertainment distribution. I could easily see a world like that, people clinging like tribesmen to a particular product line because that’s all they know how to use. Look at the hardcore Apple users – same thing is creeping up with Samsung Android products.

    In a world like that, libraries can still play a large role, providing literature, access and tools for those products. Hands-on education for people picking up a new or different product that what they are used to. I guess we will see.

  2. eBook DRM is a joke and is already easy to break. You can get any eBook you want via torrent sites. It’s even easier than music and movies to pirate because the size of the files are so small. I think the only reason that the problem isn’t as pervasive as it was with music is because the audience is smaller, there are other alternatives to getting free books (I think they’re called libraries?), and books don’t have as much “multi-use” appeal as listening to a song multiple times.

    Publisher’s should continue to look for stronger DRM models but in the mean time they should take the approach of selling eBooks to any person and/or entity that is willing to purchase them legally.

    • Grenouille says:

      It’s not just the DRM, it’s the entire publisher model. The problem is that publisher desperately want to stay in a game where they are not needed. An unnecessary middle-man. When the delivery method required paper, ink, printing machines and massive distribution networks then there was a need for them. They should count themselves lucky, though, as they are nowhere near as badly off as the music industry. The audience for eBooks is quite different from the avid music fans. Plus, consuming a book requires time and focus that a 3 minute long song doesn’t. I can’t see a huge problem for most authors. The big best sellers are likely to have more of a problem.

      Not that it’s acceptable behavior. It’s just unreasonable to expect otherwise given recent history.

    • I think publisher’s still have a place. They do need to rethink how they do business. Publisher’s still provide editing, contractual/legal services for authors, and (most importantly) publicity and marketing. Production is likely one area of the current publishing companies that can be scaled back.

  3. I checked the date of this post to see if it was written on April 1st before commenting, and I’m still scratching my head wondering if I’ve missed a clever joke.
    Ebook revolution not happening? Uh, right. Tell Jeff Bezos and Mark Coker that ebooks aren’t making it and we’re all going back to paper.

  4. IMHO, eBooks should be a boon for publishers. They’re far easier for them to sell directly than physical goods.
    I mostly buy directly from the publishers’ websites. Apart from’s deals.
    I exclusively buy eBooks these days. They’re just too convenient, both for storage and transport (Dropbox ftw), not to. Nostalgia of paper notwithstanding.
    But I refuse to buy anything encumbered with DRM. I’ll rather do without. I’m well aware of how easy it is to circumvent the DRM, but I will not accept them treating me as a potential criminal by default.

  5. It seems to me that what the Wired writer is telling us, whether he knows it or not, is that e-books are not thriving because *paper works better*. Hmmm.

  6. Oh, it *is* possible to lock down everything, but they really don’t want to go there. To do it right requires an individual key for each customer, and trust. Clearly the publishers don’t want to think about the cost of managing individual keys and aren’t ready to trust anyone. Any DRM scheme that depends on the customer’s (negligible) interest in the seller’s privacy rather than the customer’s interest in his own privacy is going to be weak and short-lived. But vendors keep trying. At least the methods they come up with are entertaining.

  7. Brandon Nordin says:

    From my perspective – as an STM publisher (and as an individual book lover) – I think there are still a range of issues that impact ebook adoption. And I am not sure all the barriers are on the publisher side.

    One is the relative value (and the associated metrics for measuring value) between books and journals. (Most books – e or p – have relatively low usage and/or citation rates compared to journals.) As the market continues to be increasingly metrics driven (and track collections by ROI), books are going to be under increasing stress to make the cut.

    Secondly because the market is awash with publishers/distributors selling large backlist collections at essentially pennies per title, it is very difficult to rationalise pricing/investment in new works, that need to make their entire ROI in an e environment – when the willingness to pay for a book (or at least, at legacy book prices) continues to diminish. (c.f with the music business: it’s not like an author publisher can say let’s make up lost in sales by increasing our ticket prices/tshirt licensing revenue etc.)

    Overall the move to ebooks – both at the consumer and library level, is still fairly nascent, and tied to several first movers’ platforms and associated business rules/models. I have no doubt these are going to evolve or be challenged over time. It will be interesting to see how often libraries – and even individually book collectors – will need to rebuy/convert their ebook content over time to manage to dynamic technologies, platform management strategies, and consumer preferences.

  8. anonymous says:

    Ebook revenue now counts for 20% or more of most Big6 publisher’s sales, and among many small and niche publishers, it’s 50% up to 100%. If it weren’t for ebooks, most of them would be in a loss position. How does that translate to sputtering out?

  9. chartroose says:

    Around 60% of books purchased on Amazon last year were ebooks. My library is going almost totally digital. All of our journals are online now. With our small budget, I purchase about 40 ebooks a year. I know this is teensy weensy, but if you compare it with the number of printed books I purchased (2), it’s huge! On a personal level, I prefer ebooks for many reasons; they pollute much less, they’re easier to hold, and they’re easier to read (I have bad eyesight and a I own great kindle that allows me to read WITHOUT GLASSES)! The greatest aspect of ebooks is convenience. I can go comparison shopping on Amazon and find a fantastic book in minutes without having to drive to the library and go to the relevant stacks and then read the book jackets until I find what I want.

    Ebooks are here to stay, and demand for them is growing by leaps and bounds every year. I wonder if public libraries have actually looked at their stats to see how much circulation has diminished in the fiction domain. (10,000 borrowers of 50 Shades of Yuck doesn’t count). Print books are passe. (Art books and such are exceptions). Bookstores are dying. Let’s make sure that libraries stay relevant by embracing electronic technology in all its forms.

    • Chartroose, you make a really good point, but when you really compare the numbers, print publishing isn’t necessarily going to go away. The number of Americans who read ebooks has increased from 16% in 2011 to 23% in 2012, but the number of Americans who read print books is at 67%, according to the Pew Research Center (2012) which is at a decrease as you mentioned, but there are many factors involved. (These percentages are from those who have used the public library within the past year). One of the issues involved is that many Americans are unable to afford Kindles, Nooks, and Ipads, and the data plans that are included with some of these. While the price has decreased, especially for the basic ereaders, the price may still be prohibitive towards ereaders. Not to mention the many issues surrounding the major publishing companies and the restrictions placed against libraries. I think while we will continue to see an increase in ebooks, however, I do not think that print will go away. There are many people who prefer the tactile feel of a book in their hands, rather than the screen of a Kindle. Also many children’s books are better suited for print than ebook publishing. Other issues include the different publishing platforms for ebooks. Significant changes are needed for ebooks to gain as much popularity as print, and these may not be addressed for quite awhile.
      As for libraries needing to embrace new technologies, many libraries do offer ebooks, and offer kindles and nooks for checkout at as well. Budget constraints, as I am sure you know, play a major role in this, and not all new technology will necessarily be appropriate for the population individual libraries serve. There is no point in buying ebooks if your community does not want them.

  10. Paper is going to be around for a while. Ebooks are just not good enough to take over yet. I want to be able to carry my library with me. I have eagerly awaited ereaders for decades. I don’t own one. They just aren’t ready yet. I find them uncomfortable to hold, there’s something wrong with the balance. The screens are too small. Touch screen don’t recognize my fingers, generally, so I have to use (& not lose!) a stylus. Most important is the question of reading speed. I just don’t have the time to waste reading from an ereader. I had a chance to test my perception that ereaders slow me down last summer. The new book by my favorite author was due to be pubbed in November. The eARC was available by the Labor Day weekend. I had arranged an extra long weekend. My dear hubby bought it for me & loaded on his Nook, because I couldn’t bear to wait for the hardcover. I did almost nothing for 5 days but read. (modified rapture!) At least 10 hours per day. Some days 14 hours. We’re talking somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 hours to read the novel. I normally read a dead tree novel in 2 to 8 hours. This one was fairly long, so maybe, just possibly, I would have taken 10 hours reading from a paper copy. There is no way that I can afford to slow my reading down that much. 10 hours versus 60 hours? Not a chance! I can’t be the only person making this comparison & holding off until they work better!

  11. Angel C. says:

    One of the questions my (academic) library is working on is how to catalog the e-book records and how to get our workflow sorted for these records. We are buying large packages of e-books and ordering them individually as well. I’m wondering how other libraries are handling this technical service issue–

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