The death of ebooks

Many years ago, when Gameboys (version 1) were just coming onto the market, I had a vision.

I could foresee that one day we’d all have these small devices with a nice screen, on which we could read books, newspapers and even perhaps watch movies. I even went as far as contacting an invention company to discuss options for creating prototypes.

Needless to say my prototype never eventuated and I know far greater minds than mine had already foreseen such devices and were busily working on them. Now with the Kindle, the iPad and numerous other ereaders, that future is pretty much here.

A few years back, when ebooks first started to become commercially available, I wrote an article on what I saw as a misalignment between ebook price and the customer perceived value, and how it was damaging sales. Unfortunately, I’m writing on many of the same points today.

First of all, I have to say that I’m a big fan of ebooks. I absolutely love the benefit of being able to carry a book with me even when I’m in a suit and travelling light, and I love the idea of having a library of books at hand. Whilst I don’t believe print will ever die, I do believe ebooks are going to eat progressively larger slices of prints tasty lunch.

But – and this is a big but – there are some real value proposition issues to overcome.

Let’s take a print book. I’m a sci-fi fan, so I buy the latest book in a store, for let’s say $30. I read it, enjoy, and then I have several options. I can of course stick it on my shelf and keep it, but I can choose to sell it on eBay, sell it to a store, or trade it in. Equally, I can lend it to family and friends, I can give it to charity, and I can re gift it if I’m feeling particularly tight.

If I do decide to keep it, then I have a tangible benefit from doing so. My bookcase looks better, it’s cover winks at me each morning to remind me that it’s bought and paid for, and it helps me feel better about my collection.

Now, I appreciate that all of these are relatively minor benefits. If I sell the book I may only make $5 or $10 from the sale, and the inflation to my bookcase ego is marginal at best – but these are all real, tangible benefits.

With an ebook, my options are currently very limited. I can’t resell it, and in most cases it is almost impossible to lend it out or hand it on, unless I also want to hand out my credit card details. I can’t give it to charity or sit and admire it feeling all smug. In fact, it’s usually the case that you read, and then delete.

The truth is, ebooks are inherently less valuable to me, as a consumer. And yet, in most cases you pay the same or similar price for an ebook, despite the fact that there are no printing or physical distribution costs involved. One ebook can be sold a million times with only minimal transaction costs involved, and yet it seems many ebooks are still being priced at close to printed book costs.

And once you’ve considered cost, you then have the experience issues to deal with.

If I want a printed book, I can walk into any local bookstore, and get what I want. I can go online, search for the book, buy it and receive it within a few days.

With ebooks, you have a minefield to walk through first.

It starts with the technology – pick an ereader, device or program, but choose wisely – many only support a limited set of ebook formats. Once you have something to read on, you then need to find online providers who sell ebooks – and whilst this has become easier, finding good current ebooks on those sites can be problematic at best.

And even when you do find the book you want in ebook form, you may quickly come up against regional issues. Today I found two books by an author I love, and tried to buy them. Enticed to by a 5% off voucher I searched, found the books, selected them, added to them to the cart, went into the checkout, created an account, entered my credit card details, paid –

and then saw an error message stating that there was a regional limitation on the books. Remove both of them and I could then happily proceed through the checkout empty handed, the site said…

For ebooks to really succeed, we need to get round these problems, and fast. We need a simple, clean user experience, from hunting to reading. And we need it at a fair and reasonable price.