Clever readers will have noticed the modifier yet. Because it seems inevitable that someday we will be forced to own one.
Plenty of reviews of the two main readers exist: Sony’s e-reader and Amazon’s Kindle2. But these reviews miss two essential points.
The first is standard creep. My ma loves Guys and Dolls and originally bought the movie on Video Disk. Remember those? They were like record players for television. We had Star Wars, too.
But Video Disk players became obsolescent fast, so my ma bought another version on Beta tape. Yes, I swear this is true. We all know what happened here: she eventually bought on VHS.
The small, weary voice of my father just kept her from buying the movie again on Laser Disc. But she has since acquired a DVD version. I suppose Blue Ray is next.
Same movie, six implementations—so far. Each shift in technology requires a similar shift of funds from our bank accounts.
Here is the problem with e-books: I do not want to be forced to buy, say, Jayne’s Probability Theory each time the e-readers are improved. This is cheating me.
I only have to buy a real book once and I can keep it for life, as long as I don’t spill too much on it. But I can spill some on it and it will still be readable.
Not true for an electronic reader, which is not as forgiving of my cup of coffee as paper is.
Amazon lets you store your purchases from the Kindle2 on a server. You can download them wirelessly, and free, anytime you like. Right now, those who bought the Kindle1 can still read the books they bought for it on their Kindle2. But there is no guarantee this generous policy will continue for future versions.
This is already the case for magazines and newspapers bought on the Kindle1. They will not work on the Kindle2. You have to buy the old copies again if you want to read them.
The second difficulty with e-books is the absence of used books. This is no small matter.
Obviously, real books can be donated, resold, loaned, or otherwise given away. Not so with e-books.
And unlikely to ever be so because of the fear of piracy. Right now, both Sony and Amazon build digital rights management (DRM) into their readers: publishers insist on it. E-books are tied to a singular device or account.
What do you do with the airplane e-novel you read but no longer want? Nothing.
So much for used book stores! The last, best place to browse and discover peacefully will quietly disappear once publishers see the benefits of charging per person and not, as they do now, per book.
And there is the delicious benefit of being able to charge for the same book in each new format.
Think of the college textbook market! No more “buy backs” and no more used copies. This should at least slow down the flood of “new and improved” editions publisher push out in an attempt to eliminate used copies.
There are few things standing in the way of this “progress”. The readers themselves are too costly, but the prices will surely come down. The screens can’t show as much text as on a real page (mathematical equations and diagrams are difficult), but screens will improve.
The annoying flash as pages “turn” will be reduced, or we’ll adapt. Other minor annoyances, like poor PDF support, will be fixed. (I met an Israeli student yesterday who said she could not get any PDFs to work on her Kindle2; Word documents worked fine.)
The paper and printing expense is a lot and can of course be eliminated. This doesn’t bring the per-book cost down as much as many civilians think, but e-books are still cheaper to produce than real books.
New book stores need not, and probably will not, be eliminated. Publishers will still need a way to show off their wares and authors in a social setting. Coffee-shop book stores will survive, but will probably be a lot smaller, and only be stocked with “demo copies” of real books used to taunt you into buying the e-copy.
Publishers are fooling themselves if they think they can eliminate piracy by fancy DRM software. No matter how sophisticated the hard and software becomes, all it will take is five bucks to pay some kid in India to re-type a book into a computer.
They’ll not believe this is true because they don’t want it to be true, so they’ll still spend time and money designing new and cleverer DRM. Eventually, however, it will dawn on somebody that re-typing is just too easy.
So they will insist that the e-readers only display content bought from valid publishers. Users will counter and demand the ability to download personal content. So software will be developed to scan that content to see if it “matches” proprietary material. If the “match” is close, the user will be denied.
At first, the matches will be crude, because publishers always assume they are being cheated. Simply quoting from a book (say, for a school report) will trigger a fault. Eventually, “fair use” will be defined in an impenetrable way, and users will adapt.
Libraries are in trouble. How do you loan DRMed e-books? You can’t give out e-readers. Publishers will be pressured to figure out a way to “loan” books that automatically expire. It will be an easy hack to disable this. Again, libraries are in trouble.
Publishers will be gleeful for a while as the build up of new users progresses. But after a while, and not too long after, sales will drop to very low levels. They will discover that new authors have almost no sales.
A highly-paid management consultant will figure out that, “Hey, it turns out that used books bring a lot of readers to the market. It let’s them discover new authors for very little money, and makes them hungry for new books.” So publishers will have to figure out a way to allow used e-books.
And so, eventually, we will come back to the way things are now.
But it’s going to take a long time.