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Q&A about Ebooks

(Here are some Q&A about ebooks which I wrote up for someone which I am reposting here).

WHAT KINDS OF PEOPLE DO YOU FIND ARE INTERESTED IN EBOOKS? IS THERE A TARGET AUDIENCE?

Before answering any questions, I think I should define what an ebook is. There is honest disagreement, but I define an ebook  as a digital file which  with the aid of software tries to simulate the experience of reading a print book on a portable device.  My ideal ebook reading device  would be something you can comfortably read for an hour or more  1)in bed, 2)at a restaurant table and 3)on the subway. Note that you can read in many different ways and with many different devices. But would you be comfortable reading on a PC/laptop/PDA/phone for an hour or more?  My bed/restaurant/subway criteria is a pretty good one. 

I find that all serious readers are "interested in ebooks", but only wealthy people and gadget freaks and fans of public domain literature crave ebooks. Over the years, the target market has become more mainstream (especially since Amazon has spent a lot of time and money promoting the Kindle). Devices that cost more than $200 will seem like a "risk" to many people, especially if they don’t perceive it as saving time.  The target market crowd is now probably women over 40 who like the convenience of being able to obtain a best-selling title almost immediately.

The education sector is massively interested in ebooks. It is a real cash cow, and publishers have been complaining that e-ink devices don’t let them do the fancy multimedia they need to justify the $120 price tag for their textbooks. Ipad does address that, and for that reason, I predict that within 5 years all college students will be using a device like the iPad (and probably the iPad itself) for class. The real struggle here is that many multimedia developers and instructional designers produce content in flash and iPad doesn’t support Flash. That is a real train wreck waiting to happen for the educational textbook market.

WERE PEOPLE WARY ABOUT EBOOKS (AS THEY ARE IN MANY OTHER NEW TECHNOLOGIES), WHEN THEY WERE FIRST INTRODUCED?
Cost is the biggest obstacle .. not only the cost of the device but the fact that used books already cost next to nothing. It makes little sense to pay $12 for an ebook if a used print book can be bought online for $2 + 4 shipping. (This market oddity is temporary and will disappear in less than 5 years). People worry that they may not use the ebook reader as much as they would have thought. (I personally am a real ebook fanatic, and yet I still do 95% of my reading on print books). People worry about locking in their purchases to a single device; there is no guarantee that the device will be even working 5 years from now. I personally can say that it often takes at least a decade to get to a particular book I own. If an ebook breaks down after 5-7 years anyway, that means a lot of the ebooks I buy will never be used.

The biggest complaint I hear is that current ebooks are not interesting to look at. People feel this way because the Internet is already so richly designed and so cool to navigate through.  The Internet  gives readers higher  expectations about what a book ought to look like.  For the last 4 years we have been using e-ink devices (whose main appeal was low battery use). Unfortunately, the low energy requirements for e-ink limited what kind of software and specifically what kind of interface you could use.

I think we need to differentiate between different consumers. Heavy readers worry about saving books for a long time. Heavy gadget freaks worry about digital rights management (DRM) and being dependent on a single platform. The average consumer worries mostly about price and upkeep (both in time and money).

DO EBOOK WRITERS APPROACH THEIR WRITING DIFFERENTLY THAN THEY WOULD FOR A PAPER BOOK?
It would seem easy to say yes here, but in general I don’t think it’s true. All kinds of writers try to make their writing portable, and those who like hypertext/multimedia/intertextuality have already moved to the Internet (as I have). If you look at attempts to harness the power of the internet in writing 5 years later, they seem awfully gimmicky.  I think blogging has caused writers to radically change the way they write .. but that is not ebooks.

As for me, I am always thinking of images which can accompany text. I know of some multimedia books/magazines that embed sound/flash/multimedia, and that is cool and expensive, but most writers don’t have the time or patience to mess around with that.

Revision is a lot more casual process for ebooks than paper books. If you make a typo, well, get it fixed; it’s not a tragedy (and recent purchasers will download a corrected version). If you make a typo in print, it looks really bad and chances are all readers will always have a defective copy.

IS IT ONLY A MATTER OF TIME BEFORE AN ALL-IN-ONE DEVICE LIKE THE IPAD REPLACES EBOOKS LIKE THE NOOK AND THE KINDLE?

Yes, but there’s still  room for two kinds of devices. If low-end dedicated devices sold for about $50-60 (and that day is not too far away), I think people would be comfortable with having a throwaway device just for reading and a higher end device for doing work. Right now I still have a lot of programs on my PC/laptop which I still depend on and that would never work on an iPad.  Google apps lets you do a lot of fancy tasks completely on the web, but we’re not anywhere near that point (at least 10 years). Some have talked about keeping all ebooks on the "cloud," and I think that idea will come sooner rather than later (certainly within the next 5 years).

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