Thursday, October 12, 2006

Where the ebooks live

Having recently been involved in the editing of an ebook, I was rather taken aback to realize there is little infrastructure for publicizing and selling ebooks. The book review sections of publications and online reviewing sites decline to review ebooks. You won't find ebook authors doing readings at bookstores because bookstores sent print books, not ebooks.

As we go about trying explain and market the new ebook, I've come to a few realizations about why ebooks are having trouble catching on.

1. They got off to a bad start: A profusion of proprietary ebook reader software confused and frustrated consumers. Six or seven years ago, with the advent of affordable high-speed Internet access and the dotcom boom, ebooks looked hot. While some viewed them as a boon for writers, traditional publishers saw them as yet another way to make money on existing merchandise: Now people who found lugging books around inconvenient could read those same titles as digital files on their laptop computers or PDAs. Major booksellers teamed up with software developers to create proprietary software for reading their books (even though Adobe had developed Acrobat, which was soon well integrated with Windows and the Mac operating system.) Some companies even marketed proprietary ebook reader hardware. Unfortunately, these all these products launched just about simultaneously, with the result that readers soon discovered that whatever they wanted to read probably didn't exist for their software or their reader. And thus the very appealing idea of walking up to a kiosk at the airport and downloading the book of your choice never came about. Consumers gave up on ebooks, and so did the major players. (Though Sony is trying it yet again.) It's interesting to note that this scenario is in contrast to the development of the iPod and iTunes. Apple beat competitors to the market quickly enough to set a clear industry standard for music, plus allowed the most common type of pre-existing music file, mp3, to be played.

2. They were oversold: ebooks were marketed to a wide audience based on vague enthusiasm, instead of to narrow audiences based on specific advantages. Are ebooks better than print books? Not necessarily. The experience of reading a long work of fiction while chained to a desktop computer, or squinting at the tiny screen of a PDA, turned off many readers who like to read in bed, on a couch, or in the bathrub. However, nonfiction ebooks, focusing on "how-to" topics, have won followers exactly because, for that type of topic, the ebook format is superior to print. Ebooks allow you to keyword search a book's contents; to move between sections of a book using internal links; to print out instructions and checklists for use elsewhere (ideal for project management, home improvement, cooking, etc.); and to obtain an ebook in a matter of minutes in order to solve an immediate problem (travel guides, cookbooks, educational information, etc.). To see an example of some successful "how-to" ebooks, check out the Take Control series.

3. Online "how-to" sites have evolved into stiff competition for ebooks. Pretty much anyone who is using online sites to download and print out "how-to" information is a good prospective buyer for an ebook. But the ebook finds itself in direct competition with the "how-to" websites. These sites make money through ads and subscriptions; few of them want to send site visitors offline to read a ebook! Thus a site with the audience the ebook publisher wants to reach is the site least likely to review the ebook.

I'd love to hear your comments and observations. Do you currently use ebooks? If so, what software and what formats do you use? What types of titles are you buying?

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