Publishers determined to kill electronic books

Did you give or receive any books for Christmas? If so, were they physical books, or electronic ones? I suspect that, while many of us have exchanged real, printed books as presents, eBooks were far less popular, and unless you give a voucher, they’re almost impossible to give as presents anyway. So why have eBooks failed so miserably, when other media such as movies and music now sell and rent so well online?

The answer is, of course, their publishers. And in the last week or so, eBook publishers have delivered yet another blow to their own businesses, by proving in the CJEU – Europe’s highest court of justice – that the eBooks they sell are truly worthless.

In theory, eBooks should have had almost everything in their favour. They’re easy to store, highly portable, and can be searched with great power. After those, comparisons with physical books aren’t so favourable.

Publishers could have made eBooks much cheaper than printed versions. For a start, when you buy a real book from a bookshop, the retailer takes around 25% of its sale price. As eBooks go from the publisher straight into online stores such as Apple’s Book Store, there are far fewer taking their margin in the process, and no transport costs at all. But compare the prices between any online eBook store and those for real books and differences are often small. Someone in this short distribution chain is making a great deal of money from each eBook that they sell.

Even if eBook publishers had wanted to make plenty of money out of the new medium, they could have increased eBook sales by offering bundles with printed versions. Some of the smaller and specialist publishers do, but in general they’re the exception. I occasionally need to buy both physical and electronic versions of some books, and can’t ever remember getting a pricing deal for the combination.

Then there’s the question of what you get for your money with an eBook. According to the publishers in that recent case in the CJEU, you get a perpetual licence (not ownership) to access their copyright content, which never deteriorates in the same way that physical books do. As a result, the publishers claimed successfully, you aren’t free to sell on your licence, and can only do so if they, the copyright owners, agree. In other words, you pay much the same price for something which immediately on purchase becomes worthless.

I have many thousands of books here, some of which are quite valuable, and a few are now worth considerably more than their original cost. The latter represent an investment, something which is impossible with an eBook. As you don’t own any part of it, merely a licence to access its copyright content, the moment that you pay for that eBook, your money has gone.

As recent history shows, it may well have gone into thin air too. When the publisher or anyone else involved in giving you access to the eBook decides to change their business, as has happened with Waterstones, Barnes & Noble’s NOOK UK, and several other electronic publishing systems, then you may lose all access to all the eBooks which you paid for. Many of the real books in my library were published by companies which have long since ceased trading, or been swallowed up in publishing conglomerates. Yet not one of the physical books which they sold has suffered in the slightest as a result of that change in their business.

Finally, apart from enhanced search facilities, few eBooks offer any advantage in use over their physical equivalents. eBook readers are still incredibly primitive, and won’t even let you refer to two or more sections of the book at the same time. You can’t photocopy them, copy quotations, or do anything remotely advantageous. What should have been a liberation from the printed page turns out to be the imposition of more restrictive rules.

What amazes me about all this is that the many penalties and drawbacks of eBooks aren’t the result of the medium itself, but have been cunningly devised and implemented by eBook publishers. It’s almost as if they don’t want us to license eBooks in the first place. Or have they just become so greedy that they think they’ll win either way?