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The state of ebook technology today

I recently wrote to Jane LIndskold to let her know I’d announced the free ebook version of her novel the The Buried Pyramid on this site. She wrote back with a couple of ebook-related questions and since I was lacking anything remotely resembling hard data I thought I’d share my opinions instead. Her questions were roughly -

  1. Is someone who enjoys reading an author in ebook format likely to go on and read their published print works?
  2. Are there companies around that can make my published books available as paying downloads?

The ebook market is in a transitional phase today. The majority of people still read print and will continue to do so for a while to come. However there are a growing number of early adopters who are reading ebooks. Most continue to read a mix of both print and digital formats. The main advantage of ebooks at the moment is distribution – both in terms of speed and cost. However the reading experience is still poor compared to print, unless you have an e-reader with a new e-ink display. These are relatively rare but becoming more and more popular all the time (Amazon’s Kindle is the most well-known). The fact that people read ebooks without such a display is a clear sign that ebooks have a very strong future.

For those that do have an e-ink display the story is somewhat different. These readers offer ultimate portability without compromising readability. Many owners now only read ebooks. I’m sure this is partly driven by the desire to recoup their not insignificant investment in their device as soon as possible. However I also suspect that it’s incredibly convenient to be able to carry your whole library around on a single device.

Amazon's KindleIt’s important to take a quick look at where e-reader technology currently stands. The current devices are definitely generation one. I classify any reader without an e-ink display as either a proof of concept device or a device that has a secondary role as an e-reader (e.g. laptops, iPhones, PDAs).

The current range of ebook readers remind me of the early days of digital photography. Everyone could see the benefits of the digital camera but the quality was either noticeably inferior to film or they were prohibitively expensive. However each year they got better. Being something of an enthusiast, I held onto my SLR longer than most, waiting until Canon introduced the EOS300D. This was one of the first consumer priced digital SLRs. When it arrived I could finally enjoy the benefits of digital photography without any practical compromise on picture quality. Since then Canon have continued to release new and improved models each year. However no advance since then has been significant enough that felt I must upgrade. The limiting factor on taking great pictures is no longer the technology but my skill as a photographer.

I’m sure we’ll look back on the current generation of e-readers in a couple of years and laugh at their clunky design and high cost. Next generation e-readers need a healthy dose of Apple inspired design. They need to lose the keyboards, the multitudes of buttons, the wasted space, hard edges and superfluous features like MP3 playback. Instead give me an e-reader that’s all screen, has the slim, rounded profile of an iPhone and is as simple to operate as a paperback. Then make it cheap and rugged.

In the meantime, authors need to prepare for the inevitable day when ebook sales outnumber print. Here are a few observations I’ve gleaned from authors who are already embracing this future.

  1. If you’re a published author you have nothing to lose in giving away at least one of your novels in ebook format. The positive PR and word of mouth is likely to far outweigh any lost print sales. This especially holds true if you’ve written a series. Give the first away as a free ebook, hook the reader and they’ll buy the rest of the series in print.
    Cory Doctorow takes this to the extreme by simultaneously giving away the ebook version of all new books he writes. If the reader enjoys his novel he encourages them to buy a print copy and give it to a local school, library or friend.
  2. If you want to charge for your ebook (i.e. this is the only format you’re going to publish in) then you have to set a realistic price. Readers expect to pay significantly less for an ebook as they rightly reason that there are no printing or distribution costs. In my mind, under $5 seems right for a novel and under $25 for non-fiction.
    As ebook sales account for an ever increasing proportion of the market, more and more authors will need to charge for their ebooks.
  3. Whether you publish in print, ebook or both formats, you have a great opportunity to give away a free sample online. Forget the two page except. There is no reason why you shouldn’t give away a 1/3 or even 1/2 your novel.
    Downloadable software publishers have been doing the equivalent of this for years by offering a free 30-day trial. Users can try before they buy.
  4. Don’t use DRM to try and stop your ebook being copied. No matter what people tell you, DRM doesn’t work. Pirates will crack it immediately and all you’ll end up doing is pissing off your honest readers.
  5. Don’t pay a big percentage to an online publisher to publish your ebook online. Making your ebook available online and collecting payments is not hard at all. If you don’t feel comfortable setting up your own website or paying someone to do this for you, use a publisher like Smashwords. They will publish your ebook in a multitude of DRM-free formats and only take a 15% cut.

Finally, remember that promotion and marketing of your ebook is the hard part. I plan to do an interview with an author and marketing guru who can hopefully offer some advice on this subject in the near future.

8 Responses so far

Hi Mark,

Thanks for the Smashwords plug. We just linked back to this story from our press room.

Your analysis is spot on. On your point #3 re: sampling, this is an issue I’m quite passionate about. The traditional print publishing industry, as it dabbled in the digital realm, has historically reached for the consumer’s wallet before they’ve earned their reader’s business. Smart authors and publishers realize we need to first earn the reader’s time and attention. If we can get the reader to invest the precious time necessary to read 50% of our novel for free, then their wallet will follow. Traditional approaches to digital sampling, where the publisher only reveals a few pages or a couple chapters, won’t work because book consumers simply have too many other forms of digitally delivered entertainment and information sources competing for their attention.

I would venture to disagree with you on one point, where you dismiss the readability of anything that isn’t e-ink.

e-ink at the moment suffers from a bit of a disadvantage in terms of contrast. You don’t get the crisp black-on-white of ink on paper, you get a sort of dark grey on light grey, rather like the reading experience on monochrome LCD of the old Palm Pilots. And you’ve also got an abysmally slow screen refresh rate. Granted, these will change as the e-ink technology improves, but the state of the technology right now still leaves a few things to be desired.

But on the other hand, on something like an iPhone—with its color LCD—you have a crisp, clear picture, fast refresh, and several different e-book formats to choose from—including Fictionwise’s eReader, the biggest names in commercial e-books outside of Amazon. And you’ve got the simplicity of Apple’s interface, which you justly laud. The only drawback is the relatively small screen size—but then again, most people who aren’t speed-readers don’t read a full page at a time anyway.

I know of a number of people who have seen e-ink in action and desperately wish Apple would release an iPhone/iPod-style tablet, with a screen sized commensurately with the Kindle or Sony, which they could use for e-reading instead.

P.S. If the “current” devices are “generation one,” what were the original Palm Pilot, the RocketBook, the Franklin Reader, the eBookWise, and all the other e-book reading devices that came before? :)

We’re at least five or six generations along in e-reading technology. Just because it’s finally starting to find a foothold beyond the early adopters is no reason to forget what’s come before. :)

[...] at the eBooks Just Published Blog, Mark Gladding posted some advice to authors, which he gave in response to an author’s query. Here is part of it: If you’re a [...]

As a reader, I’d agree with 1-5 above, except part of 2: There is no contradiction between publishing the same work in print and as a paid download (cf. the world’s biggest e- and p-book seller, Amazon).
I for one am frustrated when, having read an e-book by Doktorow, I find that there is no other way to pay him for it than buying the paperbook, which I am not interested in. (The option of buying it for a library doesn’t work, due to the lack of coordination/demand.)

Re Mark’s 50%: If you release the beginning of the book as a “free” e-book, then I would first check if the rest is available as an e-book (ideally from the same page) before trying.
A free chapter is probably more likely to work for me than 50%, since I can read it online and buy the book on the spot.

Hi Chris,

You’re right about the iPhone/iPod touch screen. It’s got to be the brightest, clearest LCD of its size. I believe Apple acheived this by reducing the size of the LCD pixels, allowing them to create a higher resolution display while still maintaining relatively small physical dimensions.

The iPhone may actually turn out to be the device that turns the masses onto ebooks. People can use their iPhone to give ebooks a try for free and the results won’t be all that bad. Once hooked they’ll have a much easier time justifying the purchase of a dedicated e-reader.

Thanks for the e-reader history lesson. These devices remind me of the early microcomputers. They were loved by enthusiasts, represented many important innovations during their time but ultimately were superceded well before the majority moved to owning a computer.

Johannes,

I think your comments are a sign of what’s to come. At the moment the vast majority of Cory’s readers buy the print editions. A fair few will also read the ebook version, especially as it’s free. However he probably doesn’t see it as worth his time collecting payments for the ebook version. The word of mouth and publicity are enough. However there will come a time when there are more people reading the ebook version that the print version – perhaps then he’ll give away print copies and ask you to buy the ebook version if you like it :)

Mark: I honestly think that if it weren’t for the Palm Pilot, we’d be today about where we were back in 2003, if not earlier. I like to say that the iPhone and Kindle are bringing about the Second E-book Revolution, but it was the Palm nee PIlot that touched off the first one.

Until the Palm, the only “e-books” out there were from that crazy Gutenberg guy who was silly enough to think someone might someday want to read those things (though there was also a rather prescient-in-some-ways, off-in-others treatment of the concept in Ben Bova’s novel Cyberbooks, though it was more of an uproarious sendup of the publishing industry than serious examination of the concept. Ironically, as far as I know, you still can’t get it as a legal e-book yet today).

But then that zany Jeff Hawkins came out with his little hand-held pocket organizer that, much like the iPhone today, was much closer to a fully-functional computer-in-your-hand than any of the competition. And all of a sudden that “damn fashion technology” was turning people onto how satisfying it could be to read books off of a 5-ounce gadget that fit in your pocket.

And not just for play, either. From the link in the previous paragraph:

An editor of science-fiction books that I know fell in love with the Pilot when he realized that he could put an entire manuscript into a box that weighs 4.7 ounces and fits into his jacket pocket. “You really have to have spent a decade of your life schlepping 600-page manuscripts around to understand how attractive this is,” he says. He admits that he wouldn’t use the Pilot’s tiny screen — it’s smaller than an index card — for major editing. But, he says, “An enormous amount of what an editor has to do day in and day out is just reading. These days, if I can get an e-text version of a big document I have to read, the first thing I do is hot-sync it onto my Pilot.”

And that’s from 1998!

The Palm hit it big enough that it finally became worth peoples’ while to start commercial e-book vendors. Alexandria Digital Literature (now defunct, alas, but we hope it will return), Fictionwise, Peanut Press (now eReader and part of Fictionwise), and a number of other, smaller stores such as Hard Shell Word Factory (which may even pre-date the Pilot/Palm craze; its about-us page says it was founded in 1996 and I seem to recall it used to offer to send out e-books on floppy disk!), some of which are still with us to this day.

Now granted the number of readers back then was probably much smaller than the number we have today, when 300,000 Sony readers and (possibly) 400,000 Kindles have been sold, and 500,000 people have downloaded the free iPhone reader Stanza from the app store. But it was still sufficient to sustain not one but many businesses, several of which are still in business ten to twelve years later.

This is why I always feel inclined to point and laugh these days whenever someone points to the iPhone and says, “I couldn’t dream of reading on a screen that small.” Commercial e-books were born on screens that were not only smaller, but also monochrome and only half the resolution. To someone used to today’s technology, it would be just about like reading from a pocket calculator. But back then, people did it and loved it (myself included).

Funny thing is, up until the Kindle and Sony, most of the attempts at creating a dedicated, larger-sized hardware e-book reader fizzled. The display technology was on a par with the monochrome Palm’s, and it lost the advantage of pocket size and non-e-book functionality like organizing, playing games, etc. The RocketBook was probably the most successful, and probably the only one that most people would still remember, but even it didn’t hit it big enough to save its manufacturer.

The Kindle is the current “Holy Grail” of dedicated e-book devices—it has the big advantages of cheap e-books from Amazon and a wireless network to suck them down without needing a computer sync station—but it still suffers from the disadvantages of monochrome display (though back in the transitional monochrome-vs-color LCD PDA days, people were fond of declaiming that the monochrome was easier on the eyes—though I suspect there was also a certain amount of inability-to-afford-a-color-model sour grapes in there too :) ) and slow refresh in addition to its not-pocketable size. Sony has similar disadvantages. It may well be the iPhone that ends up the stealth beneficiary of this surge in e-book interest, especially with the Kindle sold out for the holiday season.

Steve Pendergrast of Fictionwise has said that he has seen cases of people actually returning their Kindles after seeing e-books on an iPhone. I’m not sure how widespread that is, but it is definitely worth considering that hundreds of thousands of people have downloaded free e-book clients for it. (Though granted, it’s hard to compare that to the sales figures of a Kindle or Sony since the reader apps are free and the iPhone has other uses.)

Fictionwise is in a very good position to benefit from the iPhone/iPod Touch popularity surge. They give away their eReader e-book reader, and it is currently the only e-book encryption scheme that is readable on the iPhone. (Yes, you, I, and Steve Pendergrast all agree that DRM on e-books is a bad proposition, but the publishers are the ones pushing for it and at least eReader’s is a lot less onerous than most.) The lack of an encryption-supporting Mobipocket client for the iPhone means that, for iPhone-owners who want to read commercial e-books from encrypting publishers, Fictionwise is the only game in town. (It also has the advantage that there either is or soon will be an eReader client available for most mobile platforms—so it offers an excellent level of portability should those consumers change their platform.)

On a different subject, the reason Cory asks that people who like his e-books buy the print edition is not that it isn’t worth his time collecting payments—it’s that he wants to see that the publisher gets their fair share of money that comes in for the book. Johannes, if you don’t want the book for yourself, might I suggest finding some random person on Amazon who has it on their wish list and making them a gift of it, or maybe getting involved in BookCrossing?

[...] my previous post The state of ebook technology today I claimed that any device without an e-ink display was not a serious e-reader contender. Chris [...]

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