Sunday, August 16, 2009

e is for easy...

Robert McCrum has declared the ebook to have come of age, at least in America, where Barns&Noble are fighting it out with the Amazon Kindle, whilst here we have only Sony Readers and lots of people reading ebooks on their iPhones. McCrum makes the suggestion that "Conceivably, e-readers will actually promote the sale of hardback books as readers, delighted by what they have browsed on the Kindle, turn to a more lasting version for their libraries." Yet, at the same point, we know that one of the main barriers to the take-up of technology is the pricing model - often the same as, even more than the physical book. I'm not sure what sort of readers have "libraries" these days, and I'm pretty sure, given past track record, that the small market for full-price ebooks will remain the publishers' obsession for a while yet - actually unpicking the business model, and making ebooks available as "try before you buy" seems unlikely, and who, really is going to download the first couple of chapters of a novel for free, and then have the inconvenience of paying for the rest or going to the bookshop? That seems counterintuitive to how people read and use books.

Yet in one way, I am sure he is right. There is a market for a convenient portable reader device that people can always have with them, and, unlike the reluctance to pay for stuff on the internet, there seems a willingness to pay for stuff on the move. "e is for easy" in other words. How many times have you turned up at the station to find WHSmiths either closed or with such a paltry book collection that you don't even bother? How many lost sales for the publishing industry are there, just from this simple example? I'd imagine its hundreds of thousands a year. There's clearly a crossover between the frequent traveller, and the tech-savvy, and its here that the e-reader will come into its own. Yet, most owners will probably do what they do now with their iPod and fill it up before leaving the house. The publishing industry needs to be more canny about this. At present the way it markets e-books is as if they're just exactly the same as paperbacks, and that you buy one at a time. Perhaps e-books need to be made available as "bundles", or buy the new book by an author, and get two older e-books for free (a version of the secondhand market, perhaps?) - also, I still feel that give this market enough legs, and the type of books that do well in it, will be slightly different. A couple of weeks into my own free e-book experiment, its been downloaded 135 times. I've no idea how often the novella's been read, or whether its been liked, but clearly these aren't all people I know. The limits of Feedbooks, where its stored - i.e. no social networking, the lack of any chance to "build" an audience, or even to buy other works - mean that I don't think I'd use it again; but since it made life so simple for uploading the book, it's been a useful experiment.

Yet, we don't really know what people will want or come back to. All the new devices out there from phones to iTouch to netbooks, are increasingly geared to include sound and vision as well as words. There's a revolution, not in ebooks, but in the internet, which still betrays so much of its print origins. I could well imagine the PC and its equivalents shrinking market over the next three years or so as all the functionality that most people want (outside of work) can be found on their iPhone or netbook. Its in this context that the release of Nick Cave's new novel, as an obvious multimedia experience, is interesting, but no more than an experiment. Somewhere, remember, there is a factory full of unsold CD-ROMs from a previous experiment in consumer multimedia.

2 comments:

Jody Gore said...

I agree with the comment that e-books make it hard to track a reader audience. However, I do believe, at least for the next couple of years. e-books will make a big buck in the pub industry. When I was involved in book promo 8 years ago it was unusual to have an e-format for book reviews. Now, that is the norm.

www.romancingthepubs.com
Rock those book sales promo for authors

Bournemouth Runner said...

Outside of "self help" and stuff like that, though, I'm just not convinced yet that people will buy the ebook instead of the paper or hardback, and certainly not as well as - what it needs is an ebook version of the Penguin 60s or something similar - at a different price point, and with something added (author interviews for instance?). We'll watch with interest...