Why Ebooks havenâ€™t taken off
I was struck with the inspiration for this article while reading an article about Sony's launch of a new ebook reader device. I'm afraid the reason that ebooks haven't hit the big time is quite a sad commentary on society's value system.
Digital book file sizes are small, and those files contain much more information than any music file. This means that a person can get much more amusement out of them for the same amount of data. This also means that any reader device does not need a substantial amounts of memory to contain a large amount of content.
The first challenge is the requirement for good display technology that's portable and doesn't require large amounts of energy to run -- 'E-paper' is coming into the limelight, and one of the driving forces for it has been ebook readers.
The early days of legal, purchased book downloading were very similar to the early days of legal, purchased music downloading: files were expensive, there was a limited selection, and the downloads were tethered. Later the 'tethered' aspect stopped, but they were still expensive and to this day many portable ebooks are bound to a specific platform or player. How did they expect people to pay $10 for a three year old paperback of popular fiction that's available at any used bookstore for half that much? The expense issue is artificial, as the issue of printing the book is removed, and that seems to be responsible for about half the cover price. Factor in lower costs for distributors (~$35%) and books don't cost so much any more.
Audible.com has proven that book-like content (audio books) can be inexpensive and relatively popular. So why haven't electronic books been such a huge hit?
Part of it, I believe, is that the books marketed in electronic format aren't a hit with the crowd of early adopters that would purchase e-readers. Most of the publications, for some reason, were the standard popular fiction fare that is relatively unpopular among the early-adopting geek crowd. Hopefully soon that should be changing, and it would be nice to have a service like Safari available on an e-reader, storage requirements be damned.
One thing is obvious - manufacturer's haven't given up on trying to obtain a 'hip' device like the ipod, because the rewards for the one who does are significant. I think that the lesson of the ipod is one of the main reasons that manufacturers keep trying. Even though the ipod is hardly the ideal music player it comes fairly close. And similarly, although we won't see ideal e-reader devices for some time, the first popular device that's affordable and comes to market with a wide selection of titles is sure to be the next ipod.
It could also be that people perceive books differently, and I'm sure that the atmosphere of who enjoys them is different from listeners of music. The 'rapper' subculture and pop culture icons aren't the best bet for encouraging literacy. Portable music players are 'cool' because lots of different types of music are popular among lots of different groups. Books are nowhere near as popular, especially among the youth that drive music consumption. I do think that one of the reasons that ebooks haven't taken off is not just a lack of literacy in our society, but a lack of respect for literacy. I find it no surprise that the subcultures that have taken to the electronic book readers are also among the more literate ones -- both geek culture and academia have a healthy respect for literacy.