The case for ebooks

Part 3: the pros and cons of ebooks, as compared to paper books.
One day, I’ll take my grandchildren up into the attic and show them a dusty metallic rectangle stamped with the tarnished logo of the now defunct Sony corporation.* “Kids,” I’ll say to them, “your old grandpa used to listen to music on one of these. You loaded these gold discs into the machine – I had a fancy one that took five discs at a time. There was even a special button that could play random tracks from any of the discs you loaded!”

My LaserDisc was pretty awesome, too     (source)

They’ll make faces and try to explain how music holograms are streamed telepathically now, and I’ll say, “Can I have a go of the holopathic telegram?” and they’ll laugh at their silly old grandpa and how hopeless he is with new technology.
* Just kidding, Sony lawyers!

Can you compare ebooks and emusic?

I’m banging on about music in a publishing blog because of what I see as the overwhelming similarities between the music and publishing industries, and how they have evolved/ are evolving. For music, new formats (mp3) and distribution methods (downloading, both legal and illegal) sprung up in the mid to late 90s. Early adopters got on board. The public dipped its toe in the early 00s, liked the temperature and jumped in headfirst later in the decade. The same pattern appears to be emerging for ebooks, only ten or twelve years on.
In terms of music, emusic is superior in nearly every way to the physical CDs it is replacing. I can carry half a tonne of CDs in my pocket, buy and download songs I like almost instantly and use a variety of playlist functions not available to even the most high end CD player. Uncompressed emusic (WAV, AIFF) is practically identical to CD quality and cheap to store, given that the average $150 hard drive can hold 40,000 uncompressed tracks. Consequently, sales of CDs are plummeting while sales of emusic explode, despite piracy and the obstinacy of the music industry to provide the user-friendly distribution model its consumers are clamouring for.
I can’t say the same for ebooks – yet. There are places I prefer a physical book, and places I prefer an ebook. But ebook readers are rapidly improving, and ebooks are featuring tighter coding than they have in the past. I believe we are poised right now between toe-dipping and headfirst-jumping periods of the ebook, especially given that (1) ebook consumers and, increasingly, ebook distributors are rejecting the market dampening anti-piracy measures championed by the music industry and (2) ebooks prices are reflecting the vastly reduced costs of manufacture, rather than a perception of what the consumer has been willing to pay in the past for earlier formats.
It won’t all be smooth sailing for ebooks. I must admit that I found a period of adjustment necessary to, as the PR script goes, ‘enjoy the ereader experience’. Initially, the sensation of holding a giant calculator in place of a book was jarring. This did pass after a short while, though. I’m hooked, and I suspect a growing segment of the overall book market is, too.

Go figure

Is this thesis on ebooks supported by data? Well, yes. Amazon UK reported in August 2012 that total ebook sales had outstripped total paper book sales. Ebook sales are increasing by a phenomenal amount, in the order of triple figure growth year on year, although from an admittedly low base. And this is happening despite ebooks only just beginning to penetrate target markets of readers.

Some pros and cons of ebooks


1. price: new ebooks are markedly cheaper than paper books

2. portability: it is now a cinch to carry a library of hundreds or thousands of books

3. features: such as easily increasing font size for the vision impaired

4. annotation: keyboard ebooks make marking and text searching simple

5. accessibility: it’s now possible to, from your home, both buy and be reading a book within minutes

6. online integration: there are plenty of consumers who wish to integrate their reading with online communities and social networks


1. feel: some readers will struggle to adapt to the feel of an ereader

2. format wars: consumers tend to sit these out until they are sure they’re not buying a Betamax or LaserDisc

3. the upgrade treadmill: are ereaders, and critically the ebooks purchased for them, just another doodad which will need to be periodically updated? Will they be backwards-compatible?

4. complexity: ebooks will always be more complicated to deal with paper books, although they are becoming more user friendly with each generation

5. quality: although this is improving, there are electronic mountains of poorly formatted and copyedited ebooks, including many from traditional publishers

An Australian perspective

Digital Publishing Australia has provided a short guide on the state of and future for ebooks. It’s not only an interesting piece for what is said, but how it is said. When you read through, remind yourself that this is written for Australia’s Copyright Agency (representing traditional publishing) by various journal editors who are trying to bridge the divide between old and new publishing themselves.

Proceed to Part 4: ‘Traditional vs indie publishing’, or return to the article index.
Return to Re: writing
While I’ve endeavoured to give you accurate information, what is considered ‘accurate’ will change over time. Sometimes, I’ll be plain wrong anyway. If this is the case, I’d love to hear your take on things below.

Rhys About Rhys

Teacher, writer, editor, cook: a bit like that nursery rhyme, really.
Facebook / Google+ / Twitter

Speak Your Mind