Sunday, January 31, 2010

How I read eBooks, and how I'd like to buy them

Tobias Bucknell, who stuff I enjoy, has a long summary of the Amazon/Macmillan dispute. It's good to hear from people who have perspective inside the industry, as all too often I find myself asking, with respect to eBooks, what exactly I am paying for. The limitations of the Kindle reader are the source of some of these questions, but not all of them are Amazon specific.

When I buy a book, I get a book. Physical, good for riffling through, resilient in the face of beach sand and cookie crumbs. Not searchable, though, and requires storage space. Heavy to transport. If used, sometimes the source of odd smells. I have a variety of price points to purchase at, usually based on release date. But there is usually no option to buy a premium-priced paperback at the hardcover release date; eager readers must pay the hardcover price.

When I buy an eBook on my Kindle, I get the following:

- Searchable version of the text, particularly handy for SF/F novels where characters have made-up and similar-sounding names.
- Lightweight transport with easy one-handed reading (for public transit!)
- Changeable text size for reading from a variety of distances.
- No option to lend freely due to DRM.
- Maps and other graphics or charts are often unreadable. Bad for epic fantasy novels where world maps are handy.
- Cover art is either missing or monochrome in color.
- Resolution lower than print, but nicer reading experience than on a backlit screen.
- Kindle version is almost always available later than the print version (and in many cases still not available at all).

As a weirdo who likes to read Word documents in Web View, I took immediately to the Kindle's text-size function. And on the Kindle, page breaks and chapter breaks can be maintained, but the number of words per page/screen is flexible. Bucknell lists the following, in addition to editors and marketers, as personnel at the publisher who need to get paid from the proceeds of a book:
A typesetter: makes the inside of the book look professional and easy to read, well put together

Designer: interior art, layout, more look and feel of the inside. The look and feel of the outside of the book and how it incorporates the cover art

Art: someone has to paint, create, or put together the graphics that sell the book

Copy editor: this person goes through and makes sure the book is readable, looks for internal consistency (your character has blue eyes here, but brown here. Suns don’t actually go nova like that).

Proofreader: this final pass looks for any final typos that have slipped through everyone else.
Now I hate lame typos in books, so the editor, copy editor, and proofreader get a pass from me. I notice the absence of their contributions no matter what format the book is in. But with a Kindle book, the art is (for better or worse) effectively disabled. The page design is superseded by the imperative to fill the screen with words at different sizes. The font choice, page size, and margins are similarly short circuited; differences that would contribute to the feel of a paper book just aren't registering in the Kindle version.

And you know what? I am mostly fine with all of this. eBooks have limitations. They have offsetting conveniences, but not so much so that I am willing to pay the same price for an eBook as a regular book. The anti-DRM folks are right: there is no guarantee my Kindle books will be available in the long run. I solve this problem by purchasing shelfworthy books and buying via Kindle only those books that have not proven their shelfworthiness and are not easily available from the library. But as an eBook purchaser, I ask the following:

- Don't treat me like I'm stupid. If you tell me you want to price books between $14.99 and $5.99, I'm going to assume that most of the books are closer to $14.99. Particularly if you're fighting like a cat on a leash against someone who wants to price books at $9.99.

- Don't expect me to pay more than the price of a print book for a DRM-ed, limited life, unlendable text that lacks most of the aesthetic features of a print book. The price of an eBook should never be more than the price of an available print version. If a book is currently only available in hardcover, you might be able to get me to pay more than $9.99. But if you've released a book in mass-market paperback, the eBook better cost less than that.

If publishers want to squeeze more surplus out of eager readers, here is what I would like to see: a sort of Priceline for eBooks. A book comes out in hardcover. I don't want to buy the hardcover; I want it in eBook form. So it should be available for a price lower than the hardcover price--sort of like "Buy It Now!" on eBay. But if I don't want to pay that much, I should be able to name my price. The publisher drops prices over time, perhaps in conjunction with its schedule for printing trade and mass-market paperback editions. When the price drops to the one I named, the eBook is sent to my Kindle. The price of the eBook version should never be more than the price of the cheapest available print version. But once the market is squeezed of all people who value the book at or above the current price point, the eBook version can continue to sell. Amazon does this already for its pre-ordered books. Consider these purchases as pre-ordered eBooks.

Update: Tyler Cowen links to this long discussion of the dispute, which asks this very interesting question: "Will you some day download your e-books directly from [the publisher]'s website?" That sounds like a promising channel for eBooks. Say I want to read this book. Wouldn't it be nice if I could just type "The Inheritance of Rome" into Google and land on the Viking website, where I could then purchase the eBook directly from the publisher with a few clicks through Google Checkout? If I had the option to email my purchased download to my Kindle device, it would be nearly as convenient as buying it through Amazon's web page. (Assuming the format was readable on the Kindle.)
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