You can buy real books, but you can’t buy an ebook.
Ebooks have one serious downside that will, in spite of their market growth in the last few years, eventually inhibit their popularity, saleability and market share. The ebook model of today is doomed to failure because the seeds of this revolution are planted in the protectionist walled gardens of large US online retailers.
When I buy an ebook today, I have not bought it, as would be the case if I had bought the paperback version of the same title. When I pay for an ebook, I only buy the right to install an electronic copy of the title on a device or application that is sold by, and approved by the retailer. This makes reading an ebook a very restrictive experience, as it depends on who you bought the copy of an ebook from, and whether you have the right device with you at any given time.
The ebook walled gardens.
Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook and Apple iBooks are the three biggest ebook retailers, and they all have a protectionist walled garden method of selling their ebooks. Ebooks are purely the means to the end of making more profitable electronic device sales. In Amazon’s case, they have pushed this loss leader marketing even further and more aggressively by encouraging the practice of self-published authors to offer ebooks for free. While I understand the argument that free ebooks are good for author discovery, they are by far, more advantageous to Amazon in selling Kindle devices.
There have been a couple of online retailers, who tried a more open approach by offering ebooks without DRM (Digital Rights Management), and therefore, were unrestricted by device or reading application. Unfortunately, most have disappeared due to the difficulty in competing against the marketing power of the Internet giants.
While Smashwords has survived and does still offer ebooks without DRM from their site, Smashwords are primarily an aggregator and not a retailer. When Smashwords supply (aggregate) their catalogue of ebooks to retailers, the retailers apply DRM to the ebooks so they can be securely locked to the retailer’s device after purchase.
If real books were sold on the same basis as ebooks are today, they would be sold by furniture stores and tethered to oak bookcases. Then, once your polished bookcase was installed in your living room, the books you purchase would be attached to the bookcase by a secure wire cable, only allowing you to read your books within the range of the security cable. This is a ridiculous idea for sure, yet this is exactly how buying an ebook works.
Ebooks cannot be owned, lent to a friend, nor stored on say, Dropbox to access from any of your own devices because they remain the property of the device provider.
It is easy to overlook the fact that ebooks are not a global success at all. Outside of the US market, ebooks have not become anywhere near so well accepted. Apart from the UK and Germany, where ebooks have enjoyed some reasonable success, the rest of the world has little interest in ebooks. In France, ebooks represent only around 3% of total book sales, which is about the same as where I live in Switzerland. In fact, apart from Germany, Europe has turned its nose up at ebooks. Why?
Just recently, I showed a friend of mine a Kindle ebook I had on my iPad. My friend was interested in reading it on her iPad later, so she asked me if I could lend it to her. ‘What? But you bought it, didn’t you?’ was her reaction when I told her I couldn’t send or lend it to her. For Europeans, books still are far more sensible, practical and portable than ebooks.
The future success of the ebook will be in its standardisation, portability and flexibility. Each year sees new devices and changing ways of consuming data, especially text. The ebook needs to be a book that is purchased and then read, where ever, whenever and however the buyer wants to do so, and for years to come. It needs to be accessible in a standardised file format from whatever device is at hand, and offer the convenience of a turned page corner, by being at the exact page that the reader left the book. More importantly, an ebook needs to be a book that you can lend to your friends.
The future success of ebooks will depend on developing the technology towards becoming just a book once again, to read and enjoy. There can be no genuine literary future for ebooks if they simply remain a loss leader product, whose only real purpose is to support the sales of electronic devices.