Monday, February 11, 2008

ebook readers: the bald truth

E books Readers – the bald truth: The latest attempt to sell ebooks is by Amazon with its Kindle product. The Kindle is described as a “wireless, portable, reading device with instant access to over 90,000 books, newspapers, blogs, etc.” These ebook readers sell for a few hundred dollars, but you can put hundreds of books on them, and the ebook editions cost less.

Who are they kidding? The Kindle is is attempt of an old idea -- it reminds be of the video phone (that's been tried since the 1960's) or the "speech to text" applicationthat IBM and others have advertized so much. Yes, they both work, but neither has been widely adopted -- except for specialized applications.

Here's the bald truth about why aren’t people flocking to the e-reader devices:

First, they are "new fangled" devices and people don’t know what to expect of them. As with any new device you've got to build up a critical mass -- I'm not sure this one will reach that point.

Second, you'd have to be a really avid reader to plunk down 399 greenbacks for a Kindle -- and then pay more cash to read the newspaper and books.

Third, I’m a little leery of having such a device. When I’m reading a book on vacation or in a public place I don't worry about the book being stolen. On a beach I don’t worry about the sand getting in the book. With a $399 electronic device, I'd worry. (Maybe if I only read in my bed at night this wouldn’t be an issue. )

Do we really think these things will be the wave of the future?

If they do take hold, how will it impact authors? Cover yourself. Be very careful when you sign a contract. Some clever publishing contracts give you a decent royalty for a printed edition. Then, slam-bang -- all other forms of royalty are severely discounted. (i.e. foreign, CD, movie rights, e-book readers, etc).

You have two choices -- be an idiot and sign contracts without knowing what you're signing, or get an agent or a lawyer who understands these things and will adjust the contract so you don't get pummelled.

Okay, so lets assme the future will include “published” material that's never actually printed on paper. It's already true of blogs. And blogs are successful. Thus, publishers reason -- perhaps books are the next logical step.

Believe it or not, there is already a market for "cell phone novels" -- book length stories that have been written and are read on cell phones. Yikes -- it makes my thumbs hurt to think about it. Increadibly, millions of people (mostly teens) are already reading these novels on cell phones (not something I look forward to doing.) So who knows – maybe e-readers are the wave of the future.

Here's my bottom line -- the cost for the e-readers is too high right now. So, when would I get one? I can think of one scenario (if anyone from Amazon is interested.) My son and daughter just finished college. It was not unusual for the price of textbooks for a single semester to reach $500. Now, if the Kindle people offered to provide ebook versions of the textbooks plus a bundled Kindle for $500 (or even $600). I might leap at the chance to buy one for my kid – if (big if) in future semesters they could purchase their texts at lower than the printed edition price. (Remembering back on student days when I lugged a ton of books around, I’d be happy to carry around a small device that contained all my textbooks.)

There you have it -- provide me with a financial incentive and make my life easier and maybe I'll get one of those new-fangled Kindles. So Amazon, if you’re listening, I think you should contract with some high schools or colleges to make such a deal. End of marketing 101.

Back to author concerns – yes, fellow authors, we need to keep an eye on the progress of the ebook readers. Pay attention to what folks at places like the Author’s Guild are doing on the legal front to protect authors agasint all of these new techn0logical ways of using our words. Pay attention to your contracts – not only for books but for magazine articles and other printed items. I can even see music scores being placed on (big screen) e-readers. If there's a way for a publisher to get an advantage (and keep more money) they will do it -- often times at the expense of the author.

Let the writer beware.


Anonymous said...

The e-textbook idea IS starting to appear at some campuses. The problem is you can only have the books for 180 days, thus killing the possibility of "e-reselling them." More importantly, there are some text books, particularily in upper level technical courses, that are important references. I still use my fathers calculus book occasionaly. (it's physically small).

My biggest objection to e-books is the speed at which storage formats become obsolete. In 30 years of engineering i've used paper tape, 9 track tape, "maytag" disks, 8,5, and 3 inch floppies, 10,40,60, 90, and 220 meg bernoullis, 1 and 2 gig Jazz drives, CD's, DVD's, flash drives, optical drives, magneto-optical drives, VHS, and Vinyl LP's. Oh, yeah, and books. Guess which two are the most reliable, and most likey to be readable in the next 30 years? it ain gonn abe "kindle" format

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