The Trouble with eBooks

I want to like ebooks, I really do.

I like that the Kindle is smaller than a real paperback but can store dozens, hundreds even, of novels. I like that you can lose the hardware device and just download the books again. I like that I can read the same book on my iPhone as well as my iPad. It doesn’t even bother me that there’s no physical product. I’m not going to re-read most of my books yet they continue to take up the limited space in my London flat.

So why have I only ever bought a single ebook?

Here is the pricing for a book that I recently wanted to buy.

Paperback: 6.73.
Kindle: 6.99.

Here’s another.

Paperback: 5.59.
Kindle: 5.03.

I’m quoting prices on Amazon as it’s one of the bigger ebook suppliers. I’ve also used Apple’s iBooks, but downloads there are similarly (often higher) priced. But the gist is that ebooks are often more expensive than the equivalent paperback, and when they’re cheaper it’s not by much.

The publishers or Amazon might argue that the ebook is subject to VAT (sales tax) whereas paperbacks do not.

I would counter that with: I don’t care.

What I care about is “value for money.” All else being equal, I might consider an ebook to be worth more than a real book as it takes up less space and I can download it again if I lose my reader.

Unfortunately, all else is not equal. I can’t lend an ebook1. I can’t resell an ebook. I can’t donate a book I’ve read to the local library or to a charity shop. The fact that it’s worth pretty much nothing when I’ve finished it means that an ebook is worth considerably less to me than a real book.

Nevertheless, I think ebooks are almost certainly the future. Unlike audiobooks or TV versus radio, ebooks have exactly the same use-case as traditional books. The objections are almost entirely technical. The cost. The resolution or brightness of the screen. The battery life. These are all solvable. It’s the business model that needs work.

Steve Jobs famously said that people want to own their music and, to this date, Apple have only sold music; they’ve never rented it. On the other hand, you can rent movies and, if you live in the US, TV shows too. I think, broadly speaking, Jobs is correct2. You might listen to your favourite music dozens, even hundreds, of times. You’ll watch a movie or read a book, even a favourite one, only a few times by comparison.

So following that logic, I wonder why no-one has tried ebook rentals? In libraries we can already see that there’s a market for rented reading material. The same kind of DRM used with movies could be used for books, though we might need a little more than 24 hours to read a complete novel. I’d suggest around a couple of weeks or something more along the lines of a Netflix/LoveFilm model where you borrow n books at a time for as long as you subscribe.

Is there any reason why this won’t work?

  1. Lending Kindle books only works in the US. I like the idea of Lendle. iBooks doesn’t allow lending at all. []
  2. Spotify and have the opposite problem to ebooks: they’re too cheap. Or at least too cheap to sustain the current system. Changing the system is a different, and entirely valid, conversation. []