A Decade of Ebook Arguments

Posted on March 1, 2009
Filed Under books, technology | 21 Comments

In 1998, I left my job at Intel for a job with an ebook startup called JStream. It was in many ways my dream job, and of every one I’ve held it was the one I’d get excited on Sunday night because I got to go back in on Monday morning. It was a good fit for me because I’m a software developer and also a very avid bibliophile. At the time I took that job, I was in the final few months of producing the original Reality Break radio show. It was also at the point where a number of science fiction publishers were sending me every book they published every month, which sounds fantastic at first until you have to find a place to put them all. Ultimately, I realized there was no way to possibly keep them all, so a number of them were sold back to the Powells Books in Beaverton OR. It was around this time that I noticed that the arguments were confused by conflating two points – the love of reading and the fetishization of physical books. I split the difference in that I loved the reading but I also really love having and touching and owning physical books. Remember that point, we’ll come back to it.

Early on in my JStream days, I had to have the argument over and over and over about how impossible ebooks were to read. If you think back to the state of the art then in handheld devices, were were in the first few years of Palm dominance. The primary argument was screen size and resolution. Back then, I argued against that even when we were talking about 160X160 pixel 2.5″ screens. I read a number of full novels on my Handspring Visor and I found the experience completely pleasant. That was a full decade ago.

Now, I’m in the market for a Kindle in the near future. I’ve been reading up on reviews and criticisms of the device and it’s amusing to me how much of the pushback on the device is basically a retread on all the arguments that weren’t correct 10 years ago and are far less compelling today. “The screen is too small”, for a device with a viewable window that is about the size of a paperback book. “I can’t read it in the bathtub”, which was perhaps the single most common counter argument I heard in the 90s while also being the most nonsensical. You’d think from the fervor this came up that there was no dry reading happening in America. I can’t understand the bathtub use case that would ruin an electronic device but not ruin a paper book. Do people regularly dunk their paperbacks in the bath water?

I ran across this article with the advertising manager of DC Comics warning dire consequences for comcis if mindshare shifts to reading on the Kindle. What amuses me about that is that it’s cast in a “threat or menace” style fear-mongering way with zero mention of getting out in front of this parade. I see no downside in any comics company offering black and white versions of their comics to the Kindle for a reduced price. For any comic that is already in black and white (these tend to be indie books) there is no problem whatsoever. DC could easily take every book they currently publish, create an electronic copy from the inked pages before they are colored and just publish them. Of course they will not be as good an experience as buying the paper copies, but for some audience that is enough. You’d make money from a market that currently does not exist and which you already fear will eat away at sales. Modern day comic sales are already off 50% from mid 90′s. Did it occur to anyone that this might actually be a mechanism for rebuilding the audience that has mostly drifted away? Consider the electronic versions loss leaders in getting kids reading comics once again, and maybe they’ll come back again. Either way, it would cost a few hours of some staffers time per published issue to create an electronic version. The costs of this gamble are so freakishly low, I see no reason why any sensible business wouldn’t just go for it.

As I said up top, I’m a reading lover and I’m a book lover. I have far more books in my house than anyone needs and I’m willing to admit that I’ll probably go to my grave with some of these unread. And yet, I still want a Kindle. I have no problem reconciling the notion of “reading copies” with “collecting copies”, and realizing this Venn diagram is of two non-identical sets. I have hardback copies of all of George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” novels. No way am I buying the final volume in the series in Kindle only. This is clearly a book that I want to own going forward.

However, any book that I would read and then consider releasing via BookCrossing or giving away to my local library sale, that’s a book I could have easily read via the Kindle without a paper copy to deal with later. I enjoy reading Max Allan Collins’ mystery novels and I own many but in general I’m not a collector of them. I’d buy them for the Kindle. I picked up a copy of Mike Grell’s novelization of his Jon Sable character at a dollar store and read it as my beach reading last year. That could have been a Kindle book. At last year’s Dragon*Con, I had interviews for Reality Break scheduled with Mur Lafferty and Tobias Buckell and electronic copies of both of their books. That meant either carrying the laptop or printing them out, which is what I opted to do and was a very large pain in the butt. I’d much rather have had both on a Kindle.

I have over 150 different stories, novels and magazines that I’ve already purchased via Fictionwise, including several years where that’s how I subscribed to both Asimov’s and Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Again, I found that an entirely pleasant experience. When I get my Kindle, one of my first actions will be to redownload that entire library of books I’ve bought in Mobipocket format, which can be read by the Kindle natively. Right out of the gate, I’ll have that library to draw on. Between those, the books I am going to download from Project Gutenberg and the electronic review copies people send me, I’ll have a lot of reading on there before I pay the first cent to Amazon to buy a book. I will not cease to buy paper copies of books, I’ll just refine the choices to the ones I know I want to keep continuing to own for a long time.

I love books and I always will. I love reading and I always will. I don’t understand why more people can’t understand the difference between the two and discuss the pros and cons of electronic books more sensibly. The Kindle is a reading device, not a collecting device, and if your counterarguments against it are from the book fetishization perspective, they are not applicable and will be ignored by me. Yes, I wish the Kindle was in color. Yes, I wish it was cheaper. I’m going to buy one as my vote of confidence in this direction. One day in the future I’d love to have the color e-ink device that can read comics and books comfortably. For now, I’m going with what we have and helping to underwrite the future I want.

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21 Responses to “A Decade of Ebook Arguments”

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  1. Rob G on March 1st, 2009 4:20 pm

    I gave Mary a Kindle for Christmas. When I can get a hold of it I have been reading an E.E. Smith book from Project Gutenberg. The subsequently released Kindle 2 has 4-bit versus 2-bit grayscale and better button placement.

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  3. Ken Nelson on March 1st, 2009 4:23 pm

    Well said.

    I look forward to your upcoming citizenship in Kindlesville, and to your sharing any views/tips/tricks/hacks that you come across.

    I’ve had mine less than a week; it rocks!

    -k-

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  5. Rob G on March 1st, 2009 4:30 pm
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  7. James Slusher on March 1st, 2009 4:39 pm

    I wish I had all of my poker books on a Kindle. I am one of those people who reads tons of non-fiction and very little fiction and have almost zero book fetish. In fact I find the form of the books themselves cumbersome and unwieldy.

    Poker books don’t look good. They don’t make a bookcase look better, in fact it is just the opposite. They are brightly colored and cheesy things and I have the urge to hide them. I love the content, however, and if I could divorce the content from the form of them (a Kindle), I would love it.

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  9. Ken Nelson on March 1st, 2009 5:41 pm

    @James:
    If it’s any consolation, books on horse racing are in exactly the same league as your poker books: garish and flashy. If Andy Beyer’s stuff were on a Kindle, I’d be one happy guy.

    -k-

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  11. dave on March 1st, 2009 6:49 pm

    So let’s do a swarm. I picked the Colin Moshman Sit N Go strategy book as a good one. I went and followed the “Tell the publisher you want a Kindle version” link. Publicize this and tell your friends, and maybe we can get some traction. I see from the Two Plus Two forums that Mason Malmuth is tentatively willing to release some books and see how it goes. Unfortunately, he wants to put out some 20 year old books which are probably not going to sell as well as the newer Harrington books and then that will be used as evidence that there is no reason to jump in. I’ve seen this same dynamic over and over and over again.

    Here’s the link to the Moshman book. Please request this as a Kindle book and let’s see where that goes.

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  13. Ken Nelson on March 1st, 2009 7:23 pm

    Clicked. Requested.

    Your cost; boost this Andy Beyer volume, for the pony player wannabe in me:

    http://www.amazon.com/Beyer-Speed-Strategies-Racetrack-Betting/dp/0618871721/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1235953315&sr=1-1

    -k-

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  15. David Nygren on March 1st, 2009 7:43 pm

    Before buying a Kindle, consider the negative impact that Amazon’s/Kindle’s success could have on the success of ebooks overall. With its proprietary format, Amazon wants to dominate ebook distribution as much as it currently dominates print book distribution. As a for-profit business, this is certainly their rightful aim. But why would you want to contribute to the success of a company that:

    1. Takes a 60+% royalty for ebooks it did not help to create and for which it has no physical inventory to manage or distribute

    2. Does not guarantee purchasers of Kindle ebooks lifetime, perpetual ownership of those books

    You’d be buying more than just the device. You be buying this business model.

    Ebooks, yes.

    Amazon’s extortionate Kindle model, no.

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  17. dave on March 1st, 2009 7:58 pm

    Ken, done. You quid has been pro quoed.

    David Nygren, What you say only makes sense if it were impossible to put anything but Amazon purchased books on there, which is not the case. If I can put Project Gutenberg books or books I have purchased from Fictionwise on the device, what you say does not hold. You are in exactly the same boat as people calling the iPod a “closed platform” when you can fill it with things you have received via different means. That’s not what closed means.

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  19. Joe on March 1st, 2009 8:45 pm

    If the author thinks that the Mobipocket books he purchased from Fictionwise are going to work on his Kindle, then he’s in for an unpleasant surprise. If his Mobipocket books are protected with DRM (and the vast majority are), then they aren’t going to work on the Kindle at all.

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  21. dave on March 1st, 2009 8:51 pm

    Joe, I have 168 items in my Fictionwise bookshelf, 0 of them are protected. Swing and a miss aka PISSINESS FAIL!

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  23. David Nygren on March 1st, 2009 9:02 pm

    But can you put a DRM-ed ebook purchased from Amazon on a device other than the Kindle? And can you circumvent Amazon’s 60% cut by purchasing a new ebook for the Kindle directly from the publisher or author, or from someplace with a more reasonable royalty rate?

    From Fictionwise site:

    “FAQ: Why Doesn’t Fictionwise Sell All Titles for Kindle?

    A: We would love to, but Amazon.com has made a business decision that keeps any other eBook retailer from selling Secure eBooks that require DRM encryption for Kindle. Unless Amazon changes this policy, we can offer our Multiformat eBooks but not our Secure eBooks for Kindle.”

    I’m not saying the Kindle wouldn’t have some benefits for YOU, but think of the larger implications of aiding and abetting Amazon’s quest for ebook domination.

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  25. Ken Kennedy on March 1st, 2009 9:45 pm

    Dave and Ken…requested both books. I’m 2/3 of the way through Caryatids (Sterling’s newest) on mine now, and LOVING it. I leave the wireless off unless I’m using it, and at this rate it will indeed last for weeks. Sweet. I’ve already got almost 2 dozen CC and out-of-copyright works on there, courtesy of feedbooks.

    WRT the “reading vs. collecting” meme…I totally grok that, Dave. I collect certain authors, and I’d want their stuff as a physical object, but otherwise, I’m fine with the ebook. And with comics, for example, I’m a off-and-on reader, but I’ve never been much of a collector. If I could get ecomics discounted (even just b&w), or via some Netflix-like model, they would make MUCH more money from me. *shrug*

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  27. dave on March 1st, 2009 11:43 pm

    David Nygren, Amazon keeps 55% of the cover of paper books. Do you have a problem with that and use loaded language like “extortionate” for the core of their business? It’s basically the same price structure that has you worked into a tizzy on the Kindle. I understand I probably can’t get Kindle books off the device (although I strongly suspect and hope that there will one day be a crack) and I will figure that into the calculus of what I’m willing to pay for any given book.

    And yes, I can purchase books from Fictionwise, Baen, free books from Gutenberg, etc. I really don’t understand why you are up in my grill about this, especially when the basics of your moral argument are predicated on easily verifiable facts you haven’t bothered to find out. Like I pointed out in both the post and comments, I have over a hundred different books and stories I bought from Fictionwise that I can put on a Kindle. Unless and until you stop contradicting basic facts, you come off like a crank.

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  29. Mur on March 2nd, 2009 11:19 am

    Love this post. And I love my Kindle very much. It was a gift, and I don’t know if I would have bought one myself, but I’m a new convert. Love nearly evertyhing about it.

    Two points about the bath- if you drop a paperback in the tub, you’ve got a fat, damaged book at best, and you’re out ~$10 at worst. You drop your Kindle in the tub, you’re out $300.

    Secondly, A gallon-sized ziptop bag protects the Kindle just fine in the tub.

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  31. David Nygren on March 2nd, 2009 12:04 pm

    Dave, I’m not trying to get up in your grill. Just trying to have a conversation about something we both seem to find interesting. I don’t pretend to understand every facet of the argument here. Trying to learn more through give and take.

    Amazon’s 55% for print is also too high, though at least there they are doing a good job of managing a physical inventory. The advent of ebooks I see as an opportunity to put the profit power back into the hands of those who deserve it: the authors and the publishers (those responsible for the creation of the content). That won’t happen if we have one mega-middleman for ebooks as we do for print books.

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  33. dave on March 2nd, 2009 1:07 pm

    Mur, thanks for the comment. Like I said in the post, Playing For Keeps is one I’d have much rather read on the Kindle than the pile of loose printouts that were spilling everywhere. In 41+ years, I have never once read any book in the bath which is why I don’t understand why this is such an important point to the detractors. I don’t want to be getting my pages of any book all wet, regardless. As you point out, a Palm or Kindle in a plastic bag is usable whereas a paperback in a bag is not. Thanks for the input!

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  35. dave on March 2nd, 2009 1:19 pm

    David Nygren, I still don’t understand why it is your place to decide that other people’s contractual relationships should be null and void. As best I can tell, the most the publisher ever keeps in the paper book world is 50%, and this is when they have the enormous costs of printing the book ahead of time and then accepting returns of them from bookstores. Why isn’t getting 40% of transactions that requires no money risked by them considered by you to be fantastic?

    As for the other point, I was personally begging publishers to get involved in this marketplace 11 years ago. What I saw first hand were a few enlightened forward looking publishers, and a whole lot of dilly-dallying, obstruction, half-assed attempts that existed only so they could say “We tried ebooks and they don’t work.” If Amazon has finally found a way to build a viable ebook marketplace and make the recalcitrant publishers play ball, then more power to them. I will not shed a tear for the publishers, who could have gotten in front of this 10 years ago and didn’t (other than very notable Baen Books, whose ebook business rocks the house).

    What right do you have to say that the failure of the publishers to build viable marketplaces is somehow the moral responsibility of Kindle consumers? I call bullshit. To tell me I’m morally culpable by wanting a Kindle is ridiculous, more so considering I was up close and personal watching these business failures looooong time ago. Please forgive me if I find it hard to take your very silly point seriously.

    To reiterate my point one more time succinctly: My company was trying to talk publishers in to the type of marketplace you want 11 years ago and they generally said no. That’s not Amazon’s problem and it’s not mine.

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  37. Rob G on March 17th, 2009 9:52 am
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  39. Chris C. on March 18th, 2009 10:22 pm

    Coincidentally, this afternoon I got my hands on a Kindle for the first time. I’ve been really annoyed that there’s been no way to actually touch one of these things in a brick-and-mortar. Well, this week Sharon’s library got a Kindle 2 to test out, so I while running errands on that side of town I drove over to take a look.

    I only spent 5 minutes with it, but I’m quite unimpressed. Sure, it’s nice and thin and light, but WOW that e-ink is unimpressive. Really, grey on grey? Screen is too small. What is with that jarring reverse video flash during page turns?

    MEH.

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  41. dave on March 19th, 2009 11:12 pm

    Chris, I don’t think a few minutes will give you a good feeling for the difference between reflective and transmissive displays. I’ve read full books on plenty of LCD screens and they definitely aren’t as easy on the eyes as the e-ink. I haven’t played with the Kindle but I have fiddled with the Sony version and I really liked the e-ink on that one. I’m assuming although I don’t know for sure that the two displays are pretty comparable.

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