eBooks: Passing Fad or Untapped Potential?

eBooks: Passing Fad or Untapped Potential?

If you’ve kept up with eBook sales in the press over the last few years, I’m sure you’ve noticed the trend. Reported US eBook unit sales down 10% in 2017 vs. 2016 (better than the 16% decline in the 2016 vs. 2015 timeframe) suggests that eBooks are sliding quickly off their peak of several years ago for traditional publishing houses. Independent publishers of eBooks, though, are steadily hiking up the peak, with increasing market share at the expense of traditional publishers. Many observers cite these figures as evidence that the value-add from traditional publishers in editorial and marketing functions is becoming less and less relevant for eBooks. However, I believe there may be a more useful way to interpret this. I believe we’re seeing the acceleration of content separation into eBook and traditional printed formats based on the most satisfying experience for each.

The advantages of eBook formats are undeniable for certain types of authors and content, and are continuing to increase with the introduction of new types of software. With a drastically lower cost (in effort and in money) of self-publishing, the shift of inexpensive trade paperbacks, potboilers, and romance novels from racks to screens is all but inevitable. Works which in the past required editors, marketing and publishers can now be produced and published quickly by their authors. Though eBooks have historically been consumed casually and quickly, new technology is now allowing readers to interact with content more than ever before.

There are often arguments, though, that physical books are still preferable to eBooks for larger and more substantial works. Chapters become longer, prose becomes more complex and denser, and the ability to recall and refer to earlier passages becomes more necessary. The ability to highlight and to go back and forth between passages is perceived as simpler in printed material than in eBooks, though new software is making this easier to do than ever before within eReaders. Unfortunately, loaning eBooks an area that still needs some work. While physically lending a printed book may be more cumbersome than sending a file, eBooks still have a ways to go before they are as easy to loan to others as physical books are. Lending DRM protected eBooks is not well supported by many systems. “Social DRM” and non-DRM eBooks have different concerns around loans. Different publishers and resellers have different policies around whether purchasers may lend a given eBook to others. This leaves users having to know what is permitted on a per-book basis. For eBooks that can be lent, keeping track of who has borrowed the eBook and ensuring that copies are properly deleted upon return is an additional friction point.

So how to further the adoption of eBooks for even more types of book content? I believe there are several ways the eBook industry can do so:

  • Better ways of navigating and highlighting content in eBook readers are needed. Different paradigms for “flipping” through content, for marking and recalling important passages, and for rapid movement back to where a reader left off are all needed to overcome the usability gap vs. printed books.
  • Better respect for user expectations of book “ownership”. Low support for lending books to others, for giving books away and for reselling eBooks hampers sharing and leads many to choose printed books instead. eBooks need to become less like licensed software and more like physical books. Rights protection for publishers is important, but tends to be too restrictive. Modern DRM systems such as Sony DADC’s URMS allow for content resale and transfer while keeping eBook content protected from piracy.
  • Better advertising of the unique advantages of eBooks vs. printed books. Much easier search in eBooks, the ability to have eBooks read aloud, and the possibility to include active and dynamic content into eBooks – these are all key benefits to eBooks. These are not the only advantages, of course.

Opportunity awaits those in the industry who can take the next step, and who can make an electronic reading experience for more traditional books that truly is better than that of reading a physical book.

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