Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

October 20, 2010

Again with the Digital Books

Last year I posted in some depth on the subject of academic ebooks – a different subject entirely from frontlist/trade ebooks, let me state right up front.  We’ve had some difficulty selling digital books, and I thought I’d update for 2010, with a view on providing some data to academic ebook publishers.

IT ISN’T WORKING.  Whatever you are doing, stop.  This year, like last, digital “codes” for textbooks was a COMPLETE BUST.  Of one title, we have sold to date 750 traditional textbooks (which include the code for the digital book), and 2 copies of the “code-only”.  The response at the cash is overwhelming – absolutely nobody wants to pay $55 for “nothing” – a piece of paper that gives them access to information for 12 months.  They are willing to pay extra to “get something”.

Similarly, we thought we’d experiment this year with shorting orders of books which could be found online for free (the texts of which can be found at Project Gutenberg or similar).  Students want free books, right?  They love technology?  Once again, the response was overwhelming in favour of “real” books.  Paper books of open-source texts are so cheap anyway that students will pay the $3-$11 to get that “something”.  About the texts online we hear you “can’t make notes”, “I don’t like all that scrolling”, “At least I get to keep it this way”, etc.  The ephemeral nature of an ebook is not lost on these kids.  There is a value to permanence.

Now, there are things that could be done to encourage the sale of the digital book.  The paper books could be sold *without* the digital codes thrown in for free.  Given the ultimatum, more students might go for the digital book over the paper one.  Make the digital texts better suited to printing – that might help too.  But I ask myself, why?

For what are we trying to force digital books on the unreceptive audience?  And I do feel like I’m forcing the issue. Whether it be sending students away when we sell out of a book, telling them to “read it online” (one student has just now informed me that she wants the real book because they can bring a text to their open-book exam, but not a print out.  Another consideration.) or desperately explaining that the “Infotrak” online content isn’t costing them anything extra, and no, they can’t buy it without it; selling students on the idea of digital media is like pulling teeth.  The instructors aren’t onside either – we had one case where we had to send back 350 copies of a textbook because it came bundled with a DVD & online content the instructor didn’t want, and the publisher couldn’t understand why.  (There we sat on the phone having the most unproductive conversation: Them: “But it’s free.” Us: “But they don’t want it.”)

Why are we doing this? Audience reception is part of what has always made me uneasy about ebooks.  Aren’t we putting the cart before the horse?  Was there some great need for a new way to read texts, thus came the ebook?  Were readers clamouring for this technology?  No, technologists came up with something new and they’re trying damn hard to sell it.  Publishers are a wreck, bookstores are panicking and readers are grudgingly trying to find a way to like the technology.  The only people who are happy are the technology manufacturers.

But another year, another step closer to the supposed internet generation.  Maybe next year will be the big year for digital delivery of textbooks.  Or maybe it won’t.  Maybe now that the shine has worn off, we can start having a serious discussion about what constitutes value added.  Right now the product we see looks like ill-considered trash to be thrown out with the cellophane wrapper.  Or maybe if the technology manufacturers are so keen on a Kindle in Every Backpack, they’ll start bundling those for free with the texts.  Just a thought.

ETA: Apparently I’m not alone!

2 thoughts on “Again with the Digital Books”

  1. emsarconi says:

    I like this. I like this a lot. 🙂

  2. rpriske says:

    I think text books that have a limited shelf life due to a changing field (computer texts for example, or some science texts) should ONLY comes us digital books. Stop wasting paper on things that are out of date almost s fast as you buy them.

    For books that don’t have this problem… yeah, paper is better.

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