With the release of Amazon’s third-generation Kindle – including a proper UK release – I thought I’d write something a little longer than normal about eBooks and eReaders. It’s a bit of a rambling article, for which I apologise, but I hope it’s interesting.
General Observations about eReading
I’ve been the proud owner of a Sony Reader for over a year now, and I’ve found reading from the e-ink screen a pleasure. The device is superbly portable, and it’s been to Peru and the US with me (indeed, the reviews I posted in July and August 2009 were almost all eBooks), not to mention all over the UK.
Many of my colleagues and friends still don’t ‘get’ the whole eBook ‘thing’, and why anyone would want to read off a screen, rather than have a physical book in one’s hands. This, I admit, was something I wondered about when I first started to read and learn about eBooks. As I wrote on one of my other blogs, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to spend £200 (at the time) for a device, plus book/content costs, when thumbs came as standard.
Over the course of the year-plus of eReading, there are some issues that have cropped up; and maybe with the release of the UK Kindle, we might get that little bit closer to resolving them. I’m going to separate this article into different sections: pricing; Amazon Kindle (this will be a pretty long section); eBook potential in reviewing ‘market’; and any other interesting things that have cropped up over time.
Pricing & Format Wars
On the whole, I’ve found eBook prices to be fine, but there is still one major issue, and that’s the price of “hardback” eBooks – without a tangible book, I think the cost can often be prohibitive and frankly unfair to the consumer. This is only compounded by the fact that, upon the release of the paperback edition, eBook prices are rarely dropped to match this (or, at the very least, find a middle-ground).
This is what author Joe Abercrombie wrote about the pricing of his novels in eBook format, back in July 2009:
“The prices are a tad disappointing – £10 and change for Best Served Cold when a hardback is selling at £8.50, and around £6 for the First Law books when mass-market paperbacks are available for a mere £4.”
He goes on to make part of my argument, only better:
“selling ebooks at more than the cost of the paper books is going to look just a wee bit like taking the piss to some buyers, I suspect. I’d like to see them retail at most at the same price as the paper equivalents, and ideally somewhat lower”
The plethora of formats is another huge issue, and is connected to the price issue. As UK devices predominantly seem to prefer ePub (Sony even changed their format to ePub earlier this year), quite why the Kindle has not been released with the capability to read this format seems ridiculous. This will be picked up again in the Kindle-specific section, below.
To return to the pricing of eBook content, it would appear that there might be a price war on the near horizon. I came across this interesting quote:
“Reg Hardware looked at a collection of 36 books bought over the past fifteen months, originally costing £208.65. To buy the same collection from Amazon’s new UK Kindle store would cost £158.97, or £205.61 from WH Smith’s eBook shop.
“To buy the same books from Waterstone’s now would cost £239.59, an increase (allowing for the VAT change at the start of this year) of around 16.5 per cent; with a WiFi-only Kindle on offer at £109, those who read a lot could find it worth switching to Amazon, even if they already have an eBook reader.”
If ever there was evidence to suggest you should buy a Kindle over any other device, this might just be it. This is another reason I think there’s going to be an all-out price war coming. I did some of my own comparisons, too, focussing on the books I would be most likely to buy. My initial search wasn’t too successful, as the book I was looking for - Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Viljamur – is not available as an eBook on Waterstones.com, or from WHSmith’s eBook store (the second in the series, City of Ruin, was available, for £13.94). It is available for the Kindle, however, for just £3.79. Bargain! My second search was a little more successful: Tom Lloyd’s Stormcaller, the first in his Twilight Reign series. WHSmith’s £6.55; Waterstone’s £7.54; Amazon £6.04 – not exactly huge differences, but still the £1.50 difference between Waterstone’s and Amazon would start to add up if you were as addicted to reading/books as I am. Even in the case of non-fiction, the price differences are considerable. Peter Mandelson’s The Third Man is £11.25 for the Kindle, £15.28 from WHSmith’s, and £16.45 from Waterstone’s eBook store. This is not to say that Amazon’s prices are always fair: Ari Marmell’s The Conqueror’s Shadow, now available in paperback for £4.63 still costs a frankly ridiculous £13.60 for the Kindle, and £15.57 from Waterstone’s.
Moving on from specifics price issues, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on how publishers and vendors could bridge the gap between physical- and eBooks. There is still something nice, familiar, and cosy about a book: You can curl up with it; you can write on it; it ‘starts up’ instantaneously with a bookmark and the simple use of pre-installed thumbs; there’s no worry about battery life; and if you lose it, the loss is limited. One reader of CR, ‘Bascule’, has this to say about why he would prefer a book over an eBook:
“I like the feel and smell of a book, I love the purchasing process, I love great vividly coloured covers. I love my hundreds of feet of groaning bookshelves. I can sometimes, between books, just sit and look at my bookcases.”
Taking into consideration those who still love to own and read hardbacks – a fondness I share, it’s true – why not create special offers for both? For example, when the hardback edition is released, maybe a special ‘package’ or ‘bundle’ deal could be offered? Given that most/many hardbacks are released nowadays with discounts (sometimes as much as half off), what about offering a special package of, say, £20 for hardback and eBook? This way, collectors would still have the pleasure of owning the hardback edition, but for the purposes of travelling, they could easy transport the book with them, without a care for weight limits or inconveniences caused by lugging a massive tome along with them. It’s a particular example, I know, but take Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which is an absolute beast of a novel. Compare the size of my ARC version of the book with my Sony Reader, in the photo below:
It’s easy to see why someone might be more interested in owning the eBook, but equally the physical book looks great on one’s shelves, and feels satisfyingly weighty in one’s hands. Ergo, a hardback-&-eBook package might be popular. The ability to store hundreds of eBooks without taking up physical space – either on the device itself, on your computer – is a real boon. This is good for voracious readers in small homes (and Japan) and also for students.
Speaking of students, are there other benefits for them? Student accommodation is getting increasingly pokey and limited, so the opportunity to stick all your course texts and articles onto one device would be a boon, surely? For English students studying the classics, resources such as Project Guttenberg could help lower costs of studying even when considering the cost of the reader device itself (Sony comes with 100 classics free, and Amazon offers many classics for rock-bottom prices).
A hardback-&-eBook package might also go some way to alleviating the digital-angst felt by bibliophiles, purists, and snobs – you still get the physical hardback, but also an ultra-portable edition of the book to keep on an eReader in case you fancy reading it on the move. This idea appealed to a number of people I spoke to while writing this. Some didn’t see the viability of idea, however, but there is a precedent for it: I’m referring to the ‘Triple Play’ packages available for some movies (e.g. Iron Man 2, Prince of Persia), which include Blu-Ray, DVD and digital copy, usually for competitive prices. Again, some people didn’t see the point, but considering they are only £15 from Amazon, it would protect your collection from technology advances – future-proofing your DVD collection.
Publishers and agents still don’t seem to be sure what to make of the eBook market, or how to best serve the interests of themselves, authors, customers, and vendors all at the same time. (It’s difficult to have missed the Amazon-Macmillan snafu earlier this year, when the retailer and publisher clashed over control of eBook pricing.) In the eloquent Mr Abercrombie’s 2009 post, he characterises the industry mentality as not quite sure how to approach the nascent eBook market:
“At the moment most publishers and booksellers are still focused on the paper market where heavy discounts are applying more and more widely, making ebooks something of a speciality item and hence relatively more expensive. Hopefully in due course that will change, and I’ll certainly be pressing them to lower the price as soon and as much as possible but, hey, it’s a start.”
Sadly, we have yet to see too much movement on prices, although Amazon does seem to have made some progress in this direction. (Abercrombie’s books are priced between £3.80-£5.69 for the Kindle.)
If publishers are worried about eBooks cutting into hardback and paperback sales (after all, Amazon sold 180 eBooks for every 100 hardbacks in July, apparently), then why not make the eBook a midway step between the release of the hardback and mass market paperback editions? This might be annoying, though, as many publishers seem to be releasing three stages already (hardback edition, ‘airport’ edition, mass market paperback), and another edition might just get in the way.
Amazon & the Kindle
It’s impossible not to spend some time discussing the Kindle specifically. For one, it’s the best-looking eReading device apart from the iPad. It’s the most competitively priced device, too – and, from the comments above about pricing differentials, the cheapest to, uh, ‘run’. I’ve tried out a Kindle DX (larger screen, only available in the US at the moment, but can be shipped abroad), and I must say that books, PDF articles and magazines look superb on it’s 9.7” screen. I’m not sure how they’ll look on the smaller, 6” screen, but imagine they’ll look pretty good.
Gavin from NextRead had this to say about the iPad and Kindle:
“I’ve had a good chance to try out Sony’s Readers, and Apple’s iPad so why do I want… an Amazon Kindle? Because it combines the best bits of the other two. An e-ink screen with a wireless way of adding books. Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPad, but it’s not good outside and not that portable and Sony’s e-readers just aren’t that easy to use when it comes to getting books... I’d rather have the convenience of a Kindle in all its forms.”
There is also a widely-shared concern nowadays about connectivity. NextRead Gavin, in the same post as above, suggested “that Waterstone’s and a partner (Sony?) need to come up with at least a wireless eReader with a store that supports instant downloads if they are going to compete for sales with Amazon.” Now, Sony does produce the Daily Edition of its Reader, but it is only available in the US (just another example of the UK market lacking the speed and pace of our Atlantic cousins). 3G devices are on the rise, of course – the iPad was the first tablet with 3G capability (at prohibitive costs). With the release of the Kindle, which offers free 3G connectivity, iPad has a serious competitor. The Sony Daily Edition is only available in the US and, according to a March 2010 PC Advisor article, “Sony has yet to reveal when it will be available in the UK”.
Bizarrely, given the popularity of the iPad and new Kindle (which has sold out its first run), in an August 2009 article titled “UK isn’t ready for 3G eBook reader”, Omar Gurnah (Sony UK’s ‘category manager for Reader’) told PC Pro
“We’re expecting the Kindle to arrive [in the UK] before Christmas, I think everybody is, but, to be honest, we don’t see it as much of a threat. It’ll be great, because it’ll raise awareness, but we think it’ll push people towards the cheaper Reader Touch. In the end, it could be a good thing for us.”
This, to me, makes me think Sony is out of touch with the UK market. It’s true that Reader prices have been slashed, but the Reader Touch is actually still more expensive than the top Kindle model: £199.99 vs. £149. And it doesn’t have 3G connectivity. The Pocket Reader (with a smaller screen), is cheaper than the 3G+Wi-Fi Kindle (£99.99), but only just from the non-3G Kindle, which is £109. I therefore think the opposite effect will be the case: with the Kindle’s proprietary format, and the competitive price of both device and content, not to mention the ability to install Kindle Editions on an iPhone, iPad, iPod, and Blackberry device (free, and with total synchronisation between devices as well), I really don’t see any new adopter going for anything but the Kindle. As someone with over 100 ePub books, I’m seriously considering buying a Kindle (the main thing that’s stopped me is that I’m not sure which version would be best for me. Well, that and money...)
Amazon could still benefit further by releasing a patch, program, or update that would allow ePubs to be transferred to the Kindle (certainly in the UK, where I still believe the considerable majority of people will have ePub readers).
As the two must-have gadgets of 2010, though, which would be better, the iPad or a Kindle? The iPad has a colour display that is, frankly, beautiful to behold. The colour option is great for magazines, comic books, etc, but wouldn’t be necessary for ‘proper’ books. Also, over prolonged periods, the iPad’s computer-like screen would apparently be more tiring on the eyes than the e-Ink of a Kindle or Sony Reader. (A colleague has an iPad, and he has actually said he’s experienced no discomfort from reading a novel on the Apple device, so maybe it’s dependent on the individual.) The colour screen also drains the battery life, effectively reducing the iPad’s usefulness on long journeys. The question, therefore, boils down to whether or not it would be better to have two gadgets: one for books (eReader), and one for the general “fluff of life” (iPad)? A recent piece on theBookseller has suggested this might not be a long-lived question:
“The people who know of [Amazon]’s plans said Lab 126 was fostered inside Amazon with this goal in mind, but until recently the company has focused exclusively on the Kindle e-reading platform. Amazon is known to be working on the next versions of the Kindle, possibly integrating touch screens or even creating a colour version of the device.”
There’s still a long way to go, I think, before colour devices are widely available and cost-effective. The lack of colour cover artwork has also never been much of a problem for me – it’s the book’s content that I’m interested in reading. That being said, it would be nice if the eBooks at least came with a black-and-white version of the artwork (some early eBooks were really very poor quality, and yet still expensive).
eBook Potential for Reviewing ‘Market’
Offering eBook editions for review is still not a common option for reviewers. There are some exceptions (Angry Robot, Pyr), but it’s still something that hasn’t taken off. I do, however, think it’s something publishers may want to take a longer look at. It may not cost much to manufacture review copies (though, I believe ARCs are more expensive than normal paperbacks), the option of emailing an electronic copy would certainly save on postage, and stock restrictions would be less of a concern. For example, I was recently sent Jilliane Hoffman’s latest book from the US, and the postage was $14! Pyr, on the other hand, as well as saying they would be willing to send physical books from the US, also offered PDF editions – not only was this quicker and cheaper for the publisher, it also resulted in them sending me two more than I requested.
This highlights another potential benefit of eBook review copies: it could lower or disregard altogether geographical boundaries. This would be a boon for online reviewers, such as myself, but also publishers around the world. Given the international market, the ease of ordering books from the US or elsewhere, not to mention the international readership of blogs, to be able to offer reviews of international releases would benefit bloggers and readers alike. There would be greater scope for more reviews, taken from a broader range of publishers – certainly a boon for those interested in speculative fiction.
This idea probably won’t be popular with everyone, of course – there is a certain thrill one gets from receiving an ARC (more so when it’s a numbered, signed limited edition – of which I have two), and it’s definitely true that not everyone has an eReader of any kind – I don’t count laptops and computers, here, because they are not as nice to read from for extended periods of time. It’s something to think about, anyway, I think.
I’m not entirely sure what sort of conclusion I was hoping to draw from this. As I said at the beginning of the post, I love all things technological and I’m a fan of the eBook format, so the future of the medium is of interest. I think the Kindle will be an absolute game-changer in the British market, just as the iPad hasn’t been, but I don’t think this will lead to the death of Sony’s market. It will, however, probably come down to a price- and format-war. At the moment, I would say it’s anybody’s guess who or what will come out on top.