Jag Venugopal's Blog

April 1, 2010

On Ebooks

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 6:34 pm
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On Ebooks

    I recently received a generous gift card from my business colleagues as a token of appreciation. This allowed me to purchase my first ebook reader, a Sony Pocket Reader. In the course of the purchase, I researched various brands and types of ebook readers and ebooks. So far, the experience has been a qualified success. This post describes what I learned about the entire ebook ecosystem, in the hope that others might benefit from it.

Books and ebooks

    At least in the USA, books are of three kinds: initially they appear in hardcover, for a list price between $25-$30. After a certain while, the same books  appear in “trade” paperback, at a lower price, typically $15. The paper quality is not as good as the hardcover version, but it is less expensive. At the same time as the book appears in trade paperback, booksellers “remainder” the remaining hardcovers to the bargain section, often selling them for $10. This presents an excellent opportunity for book lovers to get a hardcover for less than the cost of a paperback version of the same title. When the trade paperback has run its course, the book is finally released in “mass market” paperback form. This version is smaller than the trade paperback, is printed on cheap paper, and if you’re lucky, the binding will hold until you’ve finished reading the book.

    Ebooks are an addition to the aforementioned versions of a title. They are released in purely electronic form, and are meant to be read either on the web, a computer, a smartphone, a mobile device, or a dedicated book reader. From my experience, regardless of where the title is in its product lifecycle, ebook prices are approximately the same as the trade paperback version of the same title.

Reading ebooks

    Virtually all ebooks can be read on a Windows-based computer. Some ebooks are available in Adobe’s PDF format (without any restrictions on copying), others are available with copy protection as Adobe Digital Editions. Still others can be read using proprietary software supplied by the vendor of the ebook (e.g. PC versions of the Kindle and Nook software). The advantage of reading an ebook on a computer is that one does not have to spend money on yet another device; low-end laptops (netbooks) are very inexpensive, and can run up to nine hours on a single charge. Finally, one can read ebooks from multiple vendors on a single device. Reading on a laptop or a netbook does have its drawbacks — the laptop needs to be charged every few hours. While laptops have become slimmer over the years, their weight and the fact that they run hot is an inconvenience for extended reading. Finally, an LCD screen is not very readable in direct sunlight.

    Both the Blackberry and iPhone run custom software that allow ebooks to be read on their screens. While they may look different from a laptop, the underlying technical details are the same. They run custom software on a general-purpose device with an LCD screen. The Apple iPad device has created significant buzz as a book reader. For our purposes, we can consider the iPad to be  a compact laptop minus the keyboard. The biggest thing going for the iPad right now is the cachet associated with the Apple brand name.

    A second option for reading an ebook is with a dedicated device. These readers typically have a monochrome screen that is based on e-ink technology. E-ink can be thought of as etch-a-sketch on steroids. The letters on the screen are formed by aligning white or black particles based on an electric charge. Devices incorporating an e-ink screen are very slim, and consume little power. Additionally, once a page has been rendered, the device does not require any further power until the page is turned again.

    The biggest purveyors of e-ink based readers are Amazon and Sony. Amazon’s kindle devices provide 6″ and 9.7″ screen sizes, and have wireless connectivity to the Amazon store built in at no additional charge.  In general, owners of Amazon’s readers are locked in to Amazon.com when it comes to purchasing ebooks. This is not such a bad thing, considering that Amazon has some of the lowest ebook prices around — Amazon subsidizes ebook prices to gain market share.

    Sony sells multiple version of its ebook reader — the low end version sports a 5″ screen and an aluminum body. More expensive versions add a touch screen and wireless connectivity. Sony has its own bookstore customized for its reader. However, uncharacteristically for Sony, its reader is an open system. All Sony readers are based on the open EPUB standard rather than a proprietary file format. This allows for multiple vendors to sell ebooks that work on Sony readers. In general, the prices for ebooks on Sony’s website are higher than those at Amazon. However the careful reader can shop around and find ebooks from other vendors such as Kobo Books at close to Amazon prices.

    The differences between the various kinds of ebook readers are summarized below:

Type Vendors Screen Battery Life Pros/Cons
PC-based Amazon, Barnes and Noble, others LCD Lowest
  • General purpose device
  • Multi-vendor (requires free but  proprietary software)
  • Large color screen
  • Netbooks are inexpensive
iPad Apple LCD Intermediate
  • Multi-vendor (requires free but proprietary software)
  • Relatively expensive
  • Color touch screen
  • Buzz surrounding Apple products
Smartphone Apple, Blackberry LCD Intermediate
  • General purpose device
  • Multi-vendor (requires free but proprietary software)
  • Small color screen
  • Generally inexpensive (you’ve already paid for the phone)
e-Ink based Amazon, Sony, Barnes and Noble, Others e-Ink Best
  • Monochrome
  • Dedicated device
  • Medium to large screen
  • Mimics paper best
  • Slim and light
  • Sluggish display

 

Advantages and disadvantages of ebooks

    Ebooks are trying to replace a system that has worked well since the early days of civilization, and certainly in its present form since the days of Gutenberg. Every potential ebook reader needs to ask themselves if the transition away from ink-on-paper is worth it. The answer is different for each person, depending upon their specific needs and usage.

 Ebooks are an excellent choice when any of the following are true:

  • You read a lot of classics: They’re all free at Google Books, and the incremental cost of loading them on your ebook reader is zero. A library full of classics costs virtually nothing on your ebook reader; it may cost a small fortune in the physical world.
  • You want to save on space: One of my main motivations for transitioning to ebooks for part of my reading is that I am running out of space. I have three bookshelves, and will soon need a fourth, to house my growing collection. Each book I buy ends up taking even more space.
  • You want to travel light: You can tote around your entire ebook collection in the memory of your ebook reader. When you’re traveling a lot, whether on commuter rail or airplanes, books can be bulky and inconvenient to lug around.
  • Your books are ephemeral: If you’re reading a book that you don’t expect to have around in the next ten years, there is no reason to clutter up your life with paper copies. One disadvantage of ebooks is that they have proprietary copy protection schemes, and thus you cannot easily archive and preserve them in the hope of reading them on a different device many years down the road. On the other hand, well-preserved books will outlast you.

Ink-on-paper books are a better choice when:

  • You’re trying to save money: Ebooks are not significantly cheaper than paper books. You can purchase paper books at a discount store, off the bargain shelves, and second-hand. Additionally, you avoid the $170-500 cost of an ebook reader.
  • You want your books to last forever: Ebooks are designed for the devices that are currently being produced. There is no guarantee that they will work on future devices many decades hence. Additionally, you cannot convert today’s ebook format to newer formats that can work on future devices because ebooks are locked with Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology to prevent copying. Paper books will likely last beyond your lifetime if cared for well.
  • You handle your books rougly: Better to ruin a $15-$30 paper book than a $500 iPad. Besides, paper books can endure drops much better than their silicon counterparts.
  • You like to lend your books: The DRM technology in ebooks was designed to prevent indiscriminate copying. It also prevents any lending.
  • You like to annotate your books: Highlighting and writing notes in the margin are easily done on paper books. The same tasks are difficult to impossible depending on the brand of ebook reader.
  • You like to flip through pages rapidly: Random access is much better in a paper book than on an ebook reader. Most all ebook readers impose a sequential page-after-page reading paradigm that is difficult to shake off because of how slowly they render pages.
 

Choosing an ebook system

    As of this writing, the buzz is all about Apple’s iPad. Certainly the “coolness” of hardware is a consideration in determining which ebook “system” you want to buy into. However there are other things to think about as well:

  • Do you want to use your laptop? If so, you have the most choices available to you. You can purchase from multiple vendors in multiple formats. All you need to do is to install their specific ebook reader software on your laptop. For many, a low-price netbook running Windows may be the best ebook reader.
  • Do you want an “open” device in the hope that you can buy from multiple vendors? If so, the Sony device may be best. You can purchase from a variety of vendors, who will eventually compete on price to give you the best deal. I went with Sony’s pocket reader because it was the least expensive, and allowed me to dabble in ebooks while the market stabilized over the next year or so.
  • Do you like Amazon? If so, you would go with their system of reader and books. Even though I did not buy the Kindle, I fully expect that Amazon’s prices will be the most competitive. I also feel that Amazon understands book retailing better than any of the other major players.
  • Even though Barnes and Noble’s Nook reader has some nifty features (for example, combining e-ink and LCD screens on the same device), I would hesitate to buy in to their system for two reasons. One is, B&N’s finances are in a precarious state. It is unclear if they can make the financial commitment to make their ebook system successful. And if they decide to discontinue it, or lose interest in it, then you suffer as a reader because ebooks will either be slow to market, or expensive, or both.

 Open issues with ebooks

  • DRM: Most ebook publishers insist that their wares be sold with some mechanism to protect against indiscriminate copying. This protection scheme can be very inconvenient for legitimate users. There are restrictions on how many computers or devices may be ”authorized” for a certain ebook, how many times it may be downloaded from the vendor’s servers, and whether it can be printed or not. Furthermore, if you own a device, say a Sony Reader, for which you have purchased ebooks, you cannot transfer them to your new iPad, if you ever buy one. While the current DRM schemes work for today’s ebook readers, there is no guarantee that future devices (even if they are from the same vendor) will work with these ebooks.
  • Pricing: Book publishers are slowly transitioning from the era of buggies to cars. Their pricing model is still based on buggies. Even though the marginal cost of an ebook is close to zero, and there are tremendous savings in paper, ink, labor, transportation and warehousing, these cost savings are not always passed on to the consumer. In fact, many titles in Sony’s ebook store are priced higher than the paper copies of the same titles at Amazon. It is also unclear how ebook vendors will replicate the differential pricing that exists across geographies. Today, you can buy an authorized version of a US-published book in India for significantly less. With ebooks, no such price differential can exist, because if it did, it would be trivial for any purchaser to log in to the Indian site of the ebook vendor to make their purchases at a lower price.
  • Standardization: It seems that each major ebook vendor (Sony being a recent exception) has designed their own ebook format. This means that there are multiple mutually-incompatible ebook formats. A start has been made towards standardization with the EPUB digital book format, but it will not be meaningful unless adopted by Amazon and Apple. For now, you can only buy ebooks from the same vendor that sold you your ebook reader.

In Conclusion

    Ebooks are a rapidly emerging and exciting medium for book lovers. The technology is still in its infancy, and a host of issues need to be worked out. For now, ebooks are useful to those for whom space and portability are worth the premium, the longevity of books is not a concern, or who read large numbers of public domain books.

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1 Comment »

  1. Very helpful, thank you for taking the time.
    Nick

    Comment by Nick Haines — June 5, 2010 @ 3:53 am | Reply


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