Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: November 2006

“About a decade ago, some publishers were predicting that books would soon be a thing of the past, and that we would all be reading downloadable texts on portable hand-held screens. Wishful thinking, it turns out.”

fromCan’t Judge an E-Book by Its Screen? Well, Maybe You Canby Charles McGrath, New York Times 24 November 2006

When I began researching e-books in the late 1990s statements on e-books were balanced, but from 2001 onward, with the dot.com crash, McGrath’s kind of commentary rapidly grew more prominent. In The Myth of the Paperless Office (2002) Sellen and Harper made the claim that current e-books are way off the mark when it comes to offering the kinds of tools that people need in the workplace (p162).

What are the tools we need in the workplace? Do we need computers? It seems we do. Offices have been transformed by them, whether we like it or not. Hypertext onscreen organisation of documents lost out to a print-based pdf style of documents, which required a photocopier. Was this necessary?

Now I wouldn’t accuse McGrath (or anyone) of being a pawn or pimp in the pay of big publishing or other print-based interests, but if big publishing et al were paying McGrath to ‘write down’ the prospects of the e-book, then he couldn’t, in my opinion, do a better job.

I don’t underestimate how e-books threaten traditional publishing practices. As David Dorman wrote in 1999: “The increasing separation of the physical book from its information content is unsettling our traditional laws and practices regarding intellectual-property rights” American Libraries 30/2. But the discourse in the organised media against the e-book is now so well developed it is disabling consumer freedoms—against the e-reader in this case, but why should we quibble over a small distinction between an e-book and an e-reader, if The New York Times can’t be bothered with it (as McGrath writes: “Sony has introduced its new version of the e-book”).

McGrath claims: “…the various book-replacement devices available back then have mostly been dumped on the recycling heap. They were too hard to read, people complained, and also too heavy, guzzling so much battery power that they quickly grew hot in the hand.”

Who complained? Perhaps he could spare a line to tell us. What McGrath tells us isn’t what I found ‘back then’ when I ran a usability test in London with the two Gemstar e-readers (2001). It isn’t what another tester from Salon.com, Laura Miller, found when she tested an e-reader in 2000. McGrath sums up his position in his final line telling us that exasperated with the Sony Reader, he felt like tossing it “out on the driveway” and running “over it with the car.”

Now, who really cares what McGrath, personally, thinks of these technologies and I certainly don’t want to sell anyone an e-book or e-reader. But unbiased commentary on e-books etc. from the organised media could be useful. If organised publishing and ‘the help’ would cease drumming up fears by masquerading prejudice as rational thought, readers and book consumers would be able to see that the e-book and e-reader are no match, threat or rival to the print book. They are simply different reading tools.


Since the beginning of their commercial life around 1999-2000, corporate publishers and their allies have priced trade e-books out of the mass market:

Wade Roush in MIT’s Technology Review: “ ‘A Good Read’ – The new Sony Reader is the coolest e-book device yet–for those who can stomach the price of e-content (8 November, 2006) highlights the problem that is STILL happening: http://www.technologyreview.com/read_article.aspx?id=17766&ch=infotech

“The other flaw, as already mentioned, is the price of e-books at Sony’s Connect eBooks site. The site offers a decent range of titles, including many current bestsellers. Most of the publishers working with Sony charge less for electronic editions than for print hardcovers, and Sony further discounts these prices. Walter Mosley’s Fortunate Son, for example, lists at $32.95 in hardcover, while the electronic edition is discounted to $17.95, and Sony Connect sells it for $14.36. But I just can’t see average readers paying that much for e-books, which, after all, have about as much physical substance as the digital signals that flit through your PC. A $5.95 paperback may have onion-skin-thin paper and almost invisibly small type, but at least it’s a concrete thing you can hold and put on your shelf. E-books may not be seen as a viable alternative to print books until they’re so cheap that their ephemerality doesn’t matter. Until publishers and hardware makers can turn e-books into a sensible economic proposition, the way Apple’s iTunes Store has done with $0.99 downloadable songs and $1.99 TV shows, I fear the technology will languish.”

In my upcoming: ‘Power Over Publishing: organised publishing’s strategic suppression of the trade e-book’ (and in an article for the next LOGOS, Journal of the World Book Community 17/3, ‘The Trade e-book frenzy of 2000’) I track the comments of shrewd observers of e-books, some of them knowing full well even then that price was ‘the strategy’ – making it impossible for e-books to perform in the marketplace (see also LOGOS 14/4, 2003).

Corporate publishers set out to deceive consumers on e-books, using luxury pricing to hide behind. M.J. Rose wrote and commented on price in 2000 (Mayfield’s article http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,41633,00.html) challenging Henry Yuen and Gemstar’s odd policies), saying that high e-book prices would virtually guarantee that “demand would never arrive”. Corporate publishers must have grinned reading that. [Why would Yuen price his own products out of the market? Start with the U.S Department of Justice’s web page (2003) “Justice Department Reaches Settlement with Gemstar-TV Guide for Illegal Pre-Merger Coordination” http://www.usdoj.gov/atr/public/press_releases/2003/200740.htm ..and join the pixels.]

Here is M.J.Rose talking about e-book pricing and other issues in a March 2001 PBS Newshour interview: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/media/ebooks/rose.html

M.J. ROSE: My trade paperbacks are $13.95. And the price of the e-books are right now about $11.00, which, if I was pricing them, it’s not what I would price them at.

TERENCE SMITH: Where would you price them?

M.J. ROSE: I would make them $4.95.

—————

Penguin’s Allen Lane showed the way with the paperback in the 1930s. The logic of price for innovative products is: lower them fast if you want them to succeed, at least in publishing. Lane priced his early Penguins at 6p, one twelfth of the cost of the hardcover, then retailing at 6 shillings. Even that was no guarantee of success. Allen also had to get a mass distribution deal; Woolworths gave it to him.

The publishing corporations know that the distributor for e-books is already in place – The Internet and World Wide Web nexus – why they are so fearful of it, and dishonest in their dealing with the e-book. Meanwhile they are scrambling to get control of the Net and Web scenario.

Price is the internally organised publishing strategy against the e-book. Technology has always been the patsy, the fall-guy. As Roush tells us now and Rose said five years ago, whether the e-book takes off or not is all about price.