You may have heard that earlier this year, the writers at ComputerWorld magazine decided to amuse themselves by putting together a list of the 21 biggest technology flops. And as entertaining as it might be to recall the fates of Iridium and the Apple Newton, there's one entry there that I must take some exception to: the ebook.
Now I admit, I'm quite partial to ebooks myself, so I'm somewhat biased in their favor. Not that I'm contending that they didn't flop, mind you, since despite continued sales and availability, they've never taken off the way it was predicted they would. No, what I take issue with is the lack of context. The mainstream failure of the ebook was not simply a case of poor technology, nor of the market being unready for the idea. While those things both have played their roles, it should be made clear that there was and is a very determined effort, ongoing to this day, to kill the entire ebook market.
Now that may sound like it should be coming out of somebody with a tin-foil lining in their hat. It is, unfortunately, very much a reality. And the culprits are book publishers themselves. Sit down, children, and let old Adama put on his big, badly designed Mr. History hat and tell you a story.
There once was a time, long ago, when publishing was a low-profit industry. You weren't involved because you wanted to get rich; you were there because you liked it. In more recent years, however, publishers have been increasingly taken over by larger corporate interests that want higher profits. To give you an idea, in 2000, 80% of all book sales came from just five conglomerates, a group that includes News Corp., Time Warner, and Disney. Now like most corporations, the big five wanted more profits, and this included extracting more money from their publishing divisions.
With no real prospect for growth in the number of buyers, the alternative was to raise book prices. A novel from a big-name author that once cost $15 in hardcover and $5 in paper now costs $35 in hardcover and $11 in paper, with little or no increase in the amount of money going to the author. Publishers take fewer chances on unconventional or unknown authors, preferring to accept the predictable sales of basic genre work. This isn't even speaking of other, less savory practices such as non-author-written sequels to existing works.
Here's where ebooks come into the picture. The justification for the rise in book prices has typically been explained away as "distribution costs." Well, aside from a fraction of a cent worth of bandwidth, ebooks have no distribution cost. No paper, no retail markup. An ebook can be sold very profitably for a few dollars. But selling an ebook for $3, and a hardcover for $30, illustrates rather clearly which is the better deal, and makes the dead tree version look overpriced. Even people who would otherwise not even consider ebooks might balk at such a price difference.
So publishers embarked on a half-dozen seemingly contradictory courses. They priced ebooks as a luxury item, rather than at a market-appropriate rate. They greatly limited the availability and title selection. And, last but not least, they locked up their ebooks using excessive DRM, which had the effect of making ebooks harder to use than many people were willing to accept.
The reality is that most publishers do not, and never did, want ebooks to succeed. The entire business model opens up too many questions, such as when to release an ebook and how much to charge for it, as well as potentially undermining the existing paper model. In the long term, ebooks might be much more profitable, expanding the potential market to a new generation whose Internet-connected nature separates them from traditional reading material. But to the minds of management, incapable of looking past the next quarterly report, a business model that works today is worth more than a potential investment in the future.
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