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Monday, 30 April 2012 02:00

Created equal?

By  Anna Malczyk
In about four years, e-books went from being a new curiosity to outselling their physical equivalents (music MP3s achieved this feat last year, after a decade's head start). The Kindle e-book reader is online retailer Amazon's biggest seller by a massive margin. Smartphones, tablets and dedicated e-reading devices have put e-books into the homes and pockets of people around the world, and thousands of new titles appear in online bookstores every month (rather than the few dozen that a physical bookstore may stock.

The blistering speed of e-book uptake has thrown the publishing world into complete disarray. Publishers (now usually distinguished as "traditional" publishers) have faced a difficult decision: either ignore this "whole e-book thing" and hope that it peters off, or embrace it and radically restructure their entire business model. The problem is that nobody has quite figured out why e-books have become so incredibly popular, or how to build a solid, non-disruptive new system of producing them.

Authors have also divided into digital and non-digital camps. Some - usually the more established and hidebound - feel that e-books are a menace and have devalued reading and culture forever. Jonathan Franzen recently and rather infamously propounded that the ephemeral and chimeric nature of e-books is destroying culture itself - though clearly his qualms do not extend to demanding that his publishers remove the e-book versions of his novels, which are selling apace. The vast majority, however, have embraced e-books, either as a new form of distribution for existing works or as a completely new avenue for publication.

The rise of e-books has seen a concomitant surge of self-published authors. Anyone anywhere can now sign up at Amazon and upload their manuscript as an e-book (quality notwithstanding) - and many have. It's a neat way to bypass traditional publishers, which are far more discerning and have a decidedly smaller output. Amanda Hocking and JA Konrath are often trotted out as examples of how this should be done; however, few budding authors manage more than a couple hundred sales.

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the rise of e-books is that they seem, in their elemental nature, to be no different to physical books - they contain letters and symbols strung together into words, from which stories are built. What were all the e-book buyers reading before they started spending billions of dollars on this new industry? Is there something less concrete that makes e-books different?

Here are a few distinctions.

Digital is in

There's no doubting that digital content is quickly surpassing its hardcopy equivalents in the connected world - it's simply that much more convenient. Having access to a cloud-based service that allows instant content retrieval regardless of location or device is perfectly suited to today's well-off consumer, who probably owns at least two or three different devices (a home or work computer, a cellphone, a tablet, a PDA or a dedicated device like an e-book reader) and migrates between them constantly.

Length is no limit

An e-book, unlike its physical counterpart, is not limited by physical volume. A copy of Neal Stephenson's weighty Reamde is indistinguishable from a Chuck Wendig short story for a Kindle user - and it gives books tremendous scope to explore lengths and formats that have in the past been unpractical. This is equally true for very long works - where binding, wrist strain and sheer weight were constraints - as for very short ones, which were unprofitable due to economies of scale. E-books immediately make poetry collections viable again, and allow publishers to include lengthy appendices and extra content.

Price wars

In 2003, Apple launched iTunes and forever set the price of a single music MP3 at $0.99. Amazon did something similar with e-books when it started selling the Kindle - it put the notion in consumers' minds that no e-book should cost more than $9.99, and that many should be far cheaper. This has set of a long-running debate about what books really should be worth - with popular arguments being nothing (since writers create for love, not money), $0.99 (equal to the MP3), $2.99 (since consumers don't want to pay more) and far more than $10 (since writing is creative and valuable).

Another price-related argument asks whether e-books should be cheaper than, or priced the same as, hardcopy books. For many people is seems obvious that e-books must be cheaper to produce - after all, there are no printing, shipping or warehousing costs, and e-books can be copied infinitely from one file. In fact, the difference in production cost is far less than most anticipate - perhaps 20% to 30% less. After all, publishers are still paying writers, editors, designers, marketers and support staff, and the price of digital distribution has to account for server and data costs among other factors. Nevertheless, consumers expect e-books to be cheaper, and clamour when this is not the case.

This matter of price is nowhere close to being resolved, and evidence of success has cropped up in all cases. It seems, for the time being, that both consumers and sellers are experimenting with their payment limits.

The question of device

Reading a physical book requires no special circumstances, tools, processes or skills - you simply pick the thing up, turn to page one, and read. E-books are a whole other matter. There are two concerns - device, and file format.

Several large online retailers have brought out proprietary e-readers - Amazon's Kindle is the most famous, but Barnes and Noble's Nook and Borders' Kobo are gaining market share. There are also other devices that are not tied to a specific store, like the Iriver, popular in Europe, and the Hanlin reader, which is big in China. Then there is a whole slew of other device types that can display e-books - virtually every cellphone and tablet made in the last few years falls into this category, not to mention every computer.

A related matter is that of file formats. The devices listed above are all programmed to be able to read one or more e-book file types - but not all can read all files, and some specifically exclude certain formats or digital rights management (DRM) software. For example, the ubiquitous Kindle uses a proprietary AZW format and reads MOBI files, but does not work with EPUB - the industry standard for e-books - or Adobe Digital Editions - the industry standard for DRM. Of course, this leads to considerable confusion, and the difficult choice of which regime to lock one's e-book collection into. This also doesn't taking into account the added cost of the device, though by many estimates the devices pay for themselves due to the lower price of e-books compared to physical books.

The nostalgia factor

Finally, some long-time book readers have expressed that reading is an experience that extends far beyond the actual text - it is a sensory journey that includes the feel of the paper, the smell of ink, and the sound of crackling paper. They quip that a paper book won't stop working when dropped in the bath, and that nobody can come in the night and delete books off the bookshelf. The opposite argument is that digital books, stored in the cloud, will never perish in a fire and that they are infinitely more portable and accessible at a moment's notice.

This sort of debate presupposed a dichotomy - that readers must choose one or the other, but should not dare, presumptively, to read both digital and physical books as the mood takes them. In fact, if Amazon's sales data is anything to go by, people are now buying more paperback books even as e-book sales rocket upwards (though unwieldy and expensive formats like hardcovers are dwindling in popularity).

E-books are here to stay and it's time that publishers, authors and book professionals of all kinds took cognizance of their impact. The industry is fledgling, with immense scope for growth and new thinking - and readers are just waiting to snap it all up.
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