Panicked Ranting in eBooks « Once & Future

Once & Future

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

March 16, 2011

Panicked Ranting in eBooks

Everything is not just going to be okay. I don’t care what publishers, the Globe and Mail and Margaret Atwood have to say.  Increasingly I am finding that the scope of the ebook debate is being narrowed and dominated by certain interested parts of the book chain.  Sure, many things about the ebook are wonderful.  And they aren’t imminently going to destroy any part of publishing, Canadian literature or culture.  But it’s a precarious perch the ebook sits on, and none of the interested parties seem aware of, or willing to discuss, this fact.

Over the last couple of years I have had and expressed grave concerns about elements of a theoretical digital future, and though I sit and wait patiently for these issues to surface, we seem to be coming further and further away from them.  It’s because these are Big Picture issues that seem to exceed the scope of any one publisher’s five-year plan, or an author’s concern over becoming published.  So listen, let me be crystal-clear about my fears.  Do feel free to direct me to the appropriate pat answer.

EBOOKS ARE A TOP DOWN PRODUCT.  Cory Doctorow or Joey Comeau’s latest schemes to retain control over their own art, distribution and sales included, ebooks are a highly specialized commodity which do not exist but for the grace of large corporate entities.  I can not write an ebook without the help of HP, Adobe and Microsoft, and you can’t read one without Sony, Kobo, Apple or Amazon.  Whoever wrote that file, however you read it, you are depending on technology which probably won’t work in five years, let alone fifty or two hundred. Big companies made the bed you lie in and their future is your future.  Do they represent your interests? This is of archival concern of course, but it’s more than that.

I am concerned about the current format wars.  A number of players – Apple and Amazon chief among them – are attempting to monopolize the ebook market.  Proprietary formats and a “leasing” model to their business plans mean that their products are not transferable and adaptable to infinitely new reading devices.  Eventually they will either “win” – gain a large enough permanent market share that it’s worth it to publishers to continue producing multi-format ebooks – or “lose” – fail to get that market share, and give up the project.  Those defunct and discarded formats represent loss of information.

Amazon scares the bajesus out of me, not because they’re the biggest competition to any bookseller at the moment, but because their business model looks unsustainable to me.  Books, unlike many consumer products, aren’t as easy to force into a discount economy.  For starters, it really matters to a reader whether their book was written in Canada or in China.  So while maybe you can look the other way and buy cheap, slave-made rubber boots from Walmart because, you know, they were only $5.99; you aren’t going to read a book by some faceless cheap labourer just because it’s cheap.  At the end of the day, you want the new Philip Roth book and that comes with certain costs.  Roth is a big one – the man would like to get paid.  Producing his book comes with more costs: editing, formatting, design, marketing, publicity.  These aren’t assembly-line skills and believe me, if they could be easily outsourced to Indonesia, they would be.  As it is publishers have cut back on all kinds of former publishing necessities like editing and fact-checking because they need to keep prices down.

So Amazon’s predatory insistence that the price of books has to come down has a floor.  They will never go lower than a certain point.  Where that point is is a huge battle ground right now, and it really doesn’t benefit Amazon at all.  People who try to comply go out of business, and people who stand firm either go out of business or keep prices up.  The author, who is ultimately the product you are looking to buy, just goes to the standing publisher who can give her the best deal.

I have news for you, bargain-hunter: when Amazon sells you a new book for 50% the cost of the same book from an independent, it’s because someone is losing money.  They’re either trying to create a loss-leader, a hook, or they’re trying to artificially force other publishers to “compete” with that price.  Nowadays, they’re trying to sell ebooks at a loss so they we can all jump on board the Kindle and they can either make money on the technology alone or they can win the format war.  It’s a big friggin’ gamble.  If they lose, they fold up.  And guess where your ebooks go?  You never owned them, friend.  And if it doesn’t seem likely this is going to happen in the next five or ten years, wonder where Amazon will be in fifty years, after your lifetime of book buying.

Yes, that might not matter to the buyer.  It has been pointed out that the types of ebooks sold tend to be transitory desires.  The kind of book you might leave in a hotel room.  If you lose the “library” to a technology upgrade or a corporate bankruptcy, maybe you don’t care.  But I’m skeptical of this idea of the two-tiered book market.  Why on earth would any corporate publisher continue to sell paper books when all their money comes from selling frontlist blockbusters in ebook format?  Ideology?  And to whom would they sell these paper books anyway?  Bookstores are the real vulnerable partners in the book chain.  We don’t make or sell ereaders and, as of today, in Canada, we can not sell ebooks.  We can only sell paper books.  If even as many as 20% of my customers switch to ebooks, I go out of business.   Without meat-space bookstores selling dead-tree books, the market for real books gets more and more marginalized.  So you might not care about your digital book collection, but will publishers continue to support the paper book “backups”?  An even smaller market means the cost of the book goes up – again – which leads to even fewer buyers.  Amazon may or may not consider it worth their while to deal in “premium” Real Books.  Buyers may prefer digital books to the inevitable POD (print on demand) ones, which remain hideous.

Obviously we’re not there yet.  Many, many people still prefer real books.  But it drives me nuts when I listen to discussions between publishers and writers, for whom, frankly, the question of digital-or-not-digital is moot, since their product is the content, not the format.  They seem to forget the roles of other parts of the book chain.  Typical, for people whose vested interest in the product vanishes the minute it is sold.   Where are texts without bookstores?  Without a second-hand market?  Without reliable archives?  Under censorship?  To people who can’t afford to upgrade hardware every 5 years?  Does it matter to them?  Not a whit.  As long as the frontlist sells, somehow, to someone, through anyone.

Now I want to stipulate that I don’t feel my apocalyptic vision of the digital future is in any way inevitable.  But I think it will be if we keep treating Amazon and the big book chains as the benevolent godhead of book distribution.  Publishers do this, writers do this, and increasingly, customers do this.  Doctorow and Comeau aren’t just desperate writers who can’t get publishers, they’re authors who glimpse the danger of a book future where the control of big companies isn’t questioned.  They are also, unfortunately, dependent on Our Corporate Overlords to produce their product, but at least the first glimmerings of awareness are there.  The digital future is going to be bleak unless we question the health of a market run by a few players.

We all know the possible solutions.  We need to settle into an open-source ebook format which can be freely exchanged between platforms.  We need to open the market up so that independent players can sell the same ebooks that the big chains can.  We need to stop pushing for ever-lower prices on texts.  Publishing and readership will remain healthy if and only if we consciously address the format’s weaknesses.  Tell me exactly what is being done to make sure these texts last. To guard them against censorship. To allow small and large publishers equal access to readers.  To manufacture, distribute, and dispose of the delicate and expensive ereader technology equitably.  To protect all of our joint investments if, god forbid, some discounter’s insane scheme to control the industry doesn’t quite pan out.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment: What Purpose Do Booksellers Serve, Anyway.  Maybe by then I’ll have rooted out some answers for you.

10 thoughts on “Panicked Ranting in eBooks”

  1. Mark Cook says:

    An interesting read. And as a relatively early adopter of e-books, I also have to say: I love paper books. I would be deeply saddened if real bookstores were gone.

    It should be noted that for the most part, companies not named Amazon have settled on the free and open epub specification for their e-books, just wrapped up in gross DRM. Additionally, companies not named Apple tend to use the Adobe flavour of DRM which gives interoperability between devices made by different companies.

    1. Charlotte says:

      That’s more or less what I gathered, but Amazon and Apple are two very big and powerful names for companies to have. 🙂 I can’t see Amazon letting the Kindle go without a fight (or a collapse), which would wreak havoc on everyone.

  2. Tim S says:

    Two techinical things:

    1) Apple uses the open ePub format (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EPUB). They’ve added copy protection, but not by their own choice. As with their music files, they’ll eventually push hard enough and get that removed. All other eReaders can read ePub files. Amazon’s Kindle is a different story, and I hope they move away from their .mobi format.

    2) You can create an ePub file in a text editor if you like, in the same way that you can write a novel in longhand. A typewriter or word processor merely makes these things easier. You’re not beholden to Adobe, Microsoft or HP to write them, and there are tons of free and open source, cross platform eBook readers that exist, so you’re not tied to Sony, Apple or Amazon to read them.

  3. Steph says:

    Charlotte, I always love when you have something you really need to say. The power behind your words is exciting. I wish I could interact with what you’ve said but I feel woefully inadequate and this kind of discussion would be much better in person, for me. All I know is that at our store they’re saying that ebooks are having more of an effect than we had anticipated. There are other factors threatening us and causing us to lead a tenuous existence in this town, but we’ve actually had people tell us that they will no longer shop at our store now that they have ereaders. That’s aside from the copious amounts who tell us they need to confess they shop at Chapters instead because of the discounts and apparently quicker special ordering.

    This is not, however, what your post is really about. So carry on with the relevant comments and discussion, and I’ll keep reading!

    1. Charlotte says:

      You know Steph, in a way this is more relevant to my line of thinking than my conclusions! My thoughts on ebooks have definitely been reverse-engineered from being a real-book seller. Though Amazon’s real-book selling is currently a bigger problem for us than ebooks, it’s only a matter of time before it’s the latter. So many of our customers are students, and all they want, period, is to spend as little money and effort as possible to get the minimum amount of book they need to pass the exam. Ebooks are no-brainers for them, as soon as they get the technology.

      So I wonder, what’s the point of me, then? Is there really no place for a bookseller in the digital future? I try to imagine myself selling ebooks instead, somehow – maybe a website, maybe a smaller meat-space store with book-covers you bring to the cash register for a download code, I don’t know. But at the end of the day, I have trouble reconciling the technology with the ethic of independent bookselling. We can’t sell them yet, if we could the format issues are prohibitive, and most of the big players involved right now figure they don’t need small bookstores, so they’re cutting us out. They hold the power, after all. It’s hard to think of one’s self as a purveyor of free thought and eccentric tastes when now more than ever the disinterested corporate attitudes of big publishers are on full display. :/

      1. Steph says:

        Would you believe that today I had a customer asking for a book and when I told her we didn’t have it but I could order it she said, “oh, no, I just wanted to check it out to see if I wanted to buy it on my ereader.” So before making an ebook purchase she came to our store to see if it was worth buying. I was flabbergasted. And I had two more people refuse my offer to order because they would just go to Chapters. Or else they came to us after Chapters didn’t carry it. We indies are just not the first on people’s lists.

        I have so often, as I stand at the cash register playing with BookManager, wondered the exact same thing: what is my point? I so rarely get asked to recommend a book or use my knowledge. And your points in your last paragraph are…yes, I know, I so hear you. It’s heartbreaking. I honestly don’t know what to feel or think or, especially do. I fear that I have to give up my working in the book world, because, seriously, I want to keep my house and need something better paying and less volatile.

        I had a long-time dream of opening a bookshop tearoom one day and started at the store I’m at to gain experience and knowledge in an indie as opposed to Chapters. What I’ve come away with so far, and only since October, is that owning a bookshop is nothing but near debilitating stress.

        1. Charlotte says:

          Clearly we need an Independent Bookstore Employee Support Group. 🙂

          Because we serve so many university students, I see all kinds of rude, flagrantly abusive behavior at the store. :/ My latest “favourite” is kids who come in to take down the ISBNs of every book on their course so they can go home and order them somewhere else – or the high tech version, the kids who bring the whole stack of books to cash and then scan every barcode with their iPhones to find where the cheapest place to buy the book is – and then buy the couple we might actually charge the same price on. They don’t seem to think there’s a thing offensive about doing this. :/

  4. Skippy says:

    An article in today’s Ottawa Citizen (March 21,2011) – another ‘mediocre’ writer who uses GREED as a justification for the e book route.

    SAD SAD SAD

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