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Journal Journal: The problem with ebooks

The announcements by Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins that they will delay ebook editions of new releases has prompted a perhaps predictable response from the online community. Although it is regrettable that publishers should behave in such a short-sighted way, I take issue with a number of the comments that have arisen from these stories, and some of the assumptions that some people seem to have about their rights as an ebook reader owner.

Firstly - no, ebooks are not in the short term going to be cheaper than their paper-based brethren. Indeed, digital distribution is much cheaper, but an ebook sale is not an extra sale - people with readers would presumably have bought the paper copy anyway. It is not therefore in the interest of the publisher, who is still currently printing the same number of books and trying to cover this investment, to reduce prices. They could save by selling directly to the customer using digital channels, but this is a monopoly position, and there is no reason, other than customers not buying the product, for publishers to reduce the price. Even if the readers become more widespread, the prices will remain pretty much identical.

No, publishers will not bundle a free digital copy of the book with the paper copy, and neither will they allow you to download free copies of books you've bought previously. Comparisons to CDs and ripping to MP3 players do not hold up in the case of books. MP3 players work so well because music is broken down into shorter tracks, which in the most part can be listened to in isolation. The idea of the playlist may have started with the mixtape, and was aspired to by the Minidisc player, but MP3 players have transformed the way we listen to music in their use of shuffled playlists. Therefore it makes sense to have all your music on a single device.

This simply doesn't work with books. People read a single book at a time, generally from cover to cover, not randomly skipping between their favourite chapters - can you imagine an Amazon "Kindle Shuffle"? If you have an analogue copy of a book, which may be more bulky than a reader, but requires a lot less investment, why the need for a digital copy? The fact is, you don't, and publishers will charge you extra for the privilege, mostly because they can.

My main bone of contention however is that that the actions of the publishers are sufficient for people to say "I'm not paying that much, I'll simply download it for free illegally!" Although I sympathise with early adopters of the devices who are being stuffed in terms of book price and availability, downloading illegal copies will simply give the publishers excuses to impose draconian DRM and raise prices to cover their "lost sales" -seeÂ" for evidence, see the public vs. the music industry. The authors, by definition, also get nothing from an illegal download. Authors seem to get more sympathy than rock stars in terms of the remuneration of their intellectual property, but saying that you're circumventing the system that the authors themselves are part of because their slice of the pie is too small is a rather perverse argument.

I am left in fact with some sympathy for the publishers in this situation. Although a lot of online commentors seem to believe that publishers magically conjure up books from the land of the fairies for free, there is in fact a lot of investment that goes into printing, marketing and distributing a blockbusting novel. Yes, in a perfect world, authors would self-publish, but they would need a lot of A4 printers to get the job done. Even using digital distribution, making sure that everyone who reads your book has paid for it would be a nightmare. Publishers have the money to pay the printers and binders to produce the book, and distribute it digitally in a secure form, and therefore it's their investment on the line, not the author's, if the book bombs. Thus they take most of the profit, and will try their best to protect their investment.

Where does this leave ebook readers? They're certainly going to become ubiquitous, but not for some time. Publishers will not make the digital switchover until their paper presses are in need of replacement, wringing every last drop out of the analogue investments. There are not in my view many advantages to ebook readers currently, although they could become very useful in academic and educational institutions. The ability to flick through a collection of research papers or textbooks on the move is much more useful than a collection of novels. In the meantime, it is probably a sad reflection of the false sense of entitlement of online culture that the response to companies protecting their profits is simply downloading the product illegally.

If a company is behaving in a way that you don't like, vote with your feet and don't buy their product. As painful as it may be to not read the latest Dan Brown the instant it is released, consumer power only works as long as the consumer behaves within the law, even if said law is flawed.

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