Publishers’ Decisions Have Made Electronic Books Less Attractive Than Online Music and Movie Stores

Howard Oakley:

Did you give or receive any books for Christmas? If so, were they physical books, or electronic ones? I suspect that, while many of us have exchanged real, printed books as presents, eBooks were far less popular, and unless you give a voucher, they’re almost impossible to give as presents anyway. So why have eBooks failed so miserably, when other media such as movies and music now sell and rent so well online?

There are surely plenty of people who own and use an Amazon Kindle, and others who have stuck with Apple Books on their iPad — you may be among them. But a physical book has remained a far more attractive premise. In the past few years, I’ve read several dozen paper books, but only a handful of ebooks.

Finally, apart from enhanced search facilities, few eBooks offer any advantage in use over their physical equivalents. eBook readers are still incredibly primitive, and won’t even let you refer to two or more sections of the book at the same time. You can’t photocopy them, copy quotations, or do anything remotely advantageous. What should have been a liberation from the printed page turns out to be the imposition of more restrictive rules.

What amazes me about all this is that the many penalties and drawbacks of eBooks aren’t the result of the medium itself, but have been cunningly devised and implemented by eBook publishers. It’s almost as if they don’t want us to license eBooks in the first place. Or have they just become so greedy that they think they’ll win either way?

These two paragraphs close Oakley’s piece, and I find them contradictory. Many of the drawbacks I experience — in addition to those in the preceding paragraph — are an inherent result of the medium: ebook software is subject to the most irritating aspects of its device, like software updates, battery consumption, and a distracting environment. The often multipurpose nature of these devices also flattens the context of books; when they’re as interchangeable in the same frame as a webpage or a video, I find it harder to get lost in them.

Ebooks should have an advantage over music and movies, though: because they’re often just text, ebook files are a few hundred kilobytes, or maybe a couple of megabytes. They’re tiny. For those who are okay with the drawbacks of the medium, ebooks should be as successful as Netflix. They’re even available in libraries, though publishers are doing their damndest to scuttle that advantage. But, of course, libraries also offer physical books, and which would you rather have?