What we really talk about when we talk about e-books

(Courtesy of cdn.digitaltrends.com)

I’ve never been one of those people who is up on the latest technology: I still use the iPod nano I got for my 13th birthday; I probably won’t get a smartphone even when my contract renews next year (I’m clumsy, so military-grade is ideal); and unless Smell-O-Vision comes back in vogue, I’m likely to still read musty print books.

That being said, you can’t be interested in publishing and not acknowledge the growing presence of e-readers, e-books and tablets in our lives. Therefore, this week marks the first in a three part series on digital publishing, so let’s jump in headfirst: what do we talk about when we talk about e-books?

E-books and the $ problem:
As popular as e-books have been (e-books saw a 117% increase from last year at the start of 2011, according to the Association of American Publishers), neither publishers nor many authors are happy about this trend. For one, the e-book market is small enough that a huge increase, while commendable, simply does not make up for statistically smaller but monetarily larger losses in the print book industry.

This is not aided by the inherent cheapness of the e-book, as spurred by Amazon. In 2007 when the Kindle was first released, Amazon took great strides to market its e-reader and bookstore, discounting a large majority of e-books to $9.99 — a concession accepted by many publishers because Amazon subsidized the price at a loss. This trend has been reversed to a certain extent, particularly after MacMillian, followed by HarperCollins and Hatchette (all publishing companies) boycotted Amazon to have more freedom in setting prices. (If you’re wondering how Barnes and Noble managed to claim 25% e-book market share, this is it.)

But the problem does not end there. The proliferation of $0.99 e-books (spurred by the sales tactics of self-published authors) has also devalued the worth of e-books and, for that matter, all books, inculcating consumers with the belief that books should be cheap. The problem with this notion is that the cost of a book is not really defined by the cost of producing the physical book. A $25 hardcover only costs about $2.50 to print, with the rest going to pay booksellers, publishers, agents and authors. When you sell an e-book for $9.99, you hurt everyone down the line.

Self-published authors, on the other hand, capitalizing on consumer willingness to buy a crappy book cheap (okay, okay, not all of them are bad, but most of them are), have at times attained millionaire status, as with Amanda Hocking, the 26-year old Paranormal Romance author who began publishing in 2010. By March 2011, she earned two million dollars from sales of her nine books. Am I jelly? Hell yeah.

The publishing industry also faces problems typical of the music industry — piracy. In the same way iTunes didn’t save record companies (who thought $0.99 songs, which devalue whole albums and, frankly, have produced a culture more inclined towards hit singles than bodies of work, were going to work?), e-bookstores won’t save the publishing industry.

Indeed, across the Atlantic in the U.K., the Digital Entertainment Survey has concluded that one in three e-reader owning Brits have committed e-book piracy, and I doubt numbers are much different in the U.S. On a brighter note, of the top ten pirated e-books on Pirate’s Bay, #1 is “Men’s Fitness: 12 Minute Workout,” #4 is “Photoshop CS5 All-in-One For Dummies” and #10 is “Advanced Sex: Explicit Positions for Explosive Lovemaking,” which somehow seems reassuring to me.

Enhanced e-books:
Enhanced e-books, which typically feature author commentary and interviews, criticisms, videos and other features, have been advertised as premium product that can bridge the gap between print and e-book profits. Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and T.S. Eliott’s “The Wasteland” have been, in my opinion, rendered beautifully, featuring photos and interactive diagrams. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” was just released last week as an interactive iPad app, which includes scans of the original manuscript pages and author’s notes, as well as video and audio excerpts from Rand’s lectures. These bells and whistles, naturally, are only available on tablets and smartphones, though e-readers can link to some of these features.

Closer to my heart, however, are HybridBooks. Introduced by the tiny but growing Mellville House — a publishing company I’ve been aware of since they published Tao Lin, a fascinating if sometimes frustrating author who is the leader of the resurgent Kmart Realism movement popularized in the 80’s — HybridBooks promise an enhanced e-book and print book rolled in one.

The idea is simple enough: the HybridBook is “an innovative publishing program that gives print books the features of enhanced eBooks,” according to their website, enabling smartphones to scan Quick Response barcodes on the back of the book to reveal “illuminations” on their screen. These “illuminations” will feature the same supplementary materials of traditional enhanced e-books, without feeling like you have to part with your daily cozy reading in the sunshine. That’s a compromise I like to hear.

Stay tuned in my next column for a college-centric look at e-textbooks and Swattie opinions on e-reading. The third installment on digital publishing will focus on foreign markets.

Susana is a sophomore. You can reach her at smedeir1@swarthmore.edu.

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