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Archived entry | Matt Wilcox .net

Of Lendle, Amazon, and the rocky road for eBooks.

Amazon caused a ruckus in the eBook world a few days ago when they made the decision to revoke API access to a few book-lending services, most notably Lendle.me, a slick project by Jeff Croft which helps facilitate the finding, borrowing, and lending, of eBooks - specifically on Amazon’s Kindle platform. Revoking API access meant that such services no longer worked at all.

Amazon’s justification for spontaneously destroying web services used by thousands of Kindle customers was that Lendle.me does not “serve the principal purpose of driving sales of products and services on the Amazon site”. Now, I believe that’s bullshit for the following reasons:

  • That assumes that a borrowed book would have been a sale that now won’t be.
  • Lendle ensure that in order to borrow a book you actually own a book, bought from Amazon. Further, you can only lend a book once, and borrow only as many as you have to lend.
  • You can only lend a kindle book which the author has opted to allow lending for.

If I borrow a book it’s because I don’t think I’ll like it enough to buy it - or because a friend loves it, thinks I will, and forces it upon me. So if I borrow a book, it was never going to be a sale. But there have been times when I’ve borrowed a book, liked it, and bought it - and other books by the same author. So, borrowing and lending can be proven to improve sales. The tricky aspect for publishers is that there’s no direct way to measure if lending led to more sales, or less sales. But with Lendle’s “own and lend in order to borrow” tactic, you severly limit the possibility of “making a loss” and greatly increase the chances of further sales.

Amazon’s closing of the API on such shaky grounds is a damning piece of evidence that shows the problems eBooks have. Not because of the nature of the new medium, but because of the way publishers and authors are failing to understand reader expectations. Expectations that have been the same for hundreds of years.

What we expect from books

We buy a book, we get it home, read it, and put it on our shelves. Nothing more natural, do you ever think anything more of it? As I mention - it’s been that way for over half a millennia. We take an awful lot for granted when we buy a book. Here’s a list, it’s probably not comprehensive:

  • We own that book. The physical object, and the right to read it’s contents.
  • We can keep that book as long as we live, pick it up again and re-read it whenever we like, even in 50 or 60 years.
  • We can lend it to friends.
  • We can borrow books from friends, or from libraries.
  • We can sell books when we’re done with them (and use those proceeds to buy fresh new books - mmm).

None of these things are radical, they are all taken for granted. It’s part of what “buying a book” is. It’s been that way in the world of long-form writing from 1436 to 2007 (that’s 571 years).

eBooks as they exist right now are very different:

  • You don’t own that book. You only own the right to read the words.
  • You don’t necessarily get to keep that book. It can be pulled from your device remotely, by the publisher. It’s been done before.
  • It’s unlikely that your media device of choice will still work in 50 years.
  • Nor is it likely the file format of the book will be around - can you still open word-processor documents from your 1990’s floppy drive collection… ?
  • You can not lend it to anyone, except in very special circumstances (as with Lendle).
  • You can’t sell it or give it away when you’re done reading. You’ve only got the right to read, no distribution of any kind.

All of those, for me certainly, are big drawbacks. They all go against the grain of what buying a book currently means. But why is it this way?

Business men are destroying the potential of eBooks

The marketers and head-honcho’s paving the eBook way have all lost sight of what a book is to most people. Because for them it is a livelihood, and they think of the new media as just that - new media. It’s not a book to them, it’s a distribution and sales channel. And in their heads that means all the rules of multi-media apply, and then some.

There was an interesting question from Mark Boulton on Twitter the other day:

I’ve got a question: If you buy an eBook (just PDF), would you *expect* (read: not want) free multi-format updates in the future?

Mark Boulton, Twitter

From his perspective, as a publisher, the expected answer is no. His reasoning is that in the media industry everyone is familiar with the idea that you buy a film on VHS, then buy it again on DVD, and again on Bluray, and again when the next format is out. Planned obselecence is expected in non-print media. But should that attitude be expected for written word media? I’d argue that for the general population, no, not in the world of long-form writing. I actually would expect to receive free updates to my eBooks in the event that a new format makes the old one obsolete. Because I am buying a book which has all those expectations I wrote about in that first list - I own it, I get to read it forever. It’s not like media, where the “new version” is actually quantitativly better - with a clearer picture and better sound. Words are words, letters are letters, they don’t change like that - so there’s no “added value” in a format change. Format changes in terms of eBooks are purely down to the whims of publishers and device manufacturers. If I buy an eBook I still expect to be able to read it until I keel over on my death bed. Whereupon I expect to be able to bequeath it to someone. eBooks are seen by the public as a promised replacement to books. They are not a form of entertainment media. But until they can offer the same longevity and ownership rights of a paper book, they will be inferior deals for customers.

So what’s the likely future of the eBook?

An optimist would tell you they’ll replace books within our lifetime. They’d point to all the additional benefits eBooks offer that paper books simply can’t - a complete library in your hand, the ability to instantly search texts and look up words on the fly, being able to make infinitely long notes “in the margin”, buying a new book right from your armchair (or coffee table, or bed), an enhanced recommendation engine at your finger tips, discussions and virtual book-clubs right there on the same device. And likely a boat load of other things too. And the optimist would be right to point out that these things are all very useful, very desirable. But a realist would point at the DRM laden format, and the frequently poor choices made by publishers and authors who attempt to police what you do, who build in obsolescence, and they would paint a gloomier picture.

The printed book will never die out entirely, but it’s doomed to become less mainstream. They won’t die out completely because it’s highly unlikely the publishers and authors will hand over the eBook keys and allow the same advantages as paper books. They’ve got their money hat on, and they believe that relinquishing control will hurt their profits. They’re wrong, I believe, but that’s what they see. And while that is the case, eBooks will not be appropriate for certain people and institutions.

The real question is at what rate will eBooks replace paper books, and in which sectors will it happen first. I believe eBooks will thrive in academic sectors, where texts need to be updated regularly. Paper books there will be seen as long-term archival objects. The current books and medium-term editions will exist more usefully in electronic format. I also believe it will take a generation or two before paper books are seen as rarities or niche objects by the general public. Because for the eBook to dominate it will either require publishers to change course, or a society who accept that buying a book simply means renting the right to read long-form text. A society which believes that books are transient in the same way as blog posts - not really there for the long term. That isn’t our society.


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  1. Jo Alcock posted 18hrs, 57min, 5sec after the entry and said:

    Interesting to see this from a non-librarian perspective.

    I'm not so sure about ebooks thriving in academic sectors, not for a while anyway. Many academic libraries are investing heavily in ebooks, and although there are many advantages to this (e.g. purchasing multiple user licenses to allow many people to read it at once, access 24/7 from anywhere with internet access), in reality there are some massive hurdles to overcome before the benefits are fully realised by users.

    The first issue is purely and simply culture change - people are used to reading a print book; they like being able to have a physical item to refer to, they like being able to place clearly visible markers in key areas, they even *gasp* like to make handwritten notes in them (though hopefully not the library copies!). For some reason, even though you can replicate these features in electronic format from many ebook suppliers, people just don't seem to want to change to ebooks. Nursing students for some reason would rather use a suitcase to carry all their heavy reference books in (yes, this is based on experience). There is a reluctance to rely on ebooks as a source of information, some due to technological resistance, some due to a lack of trust for electronic formats.

    The other issue is that current e-readers aren't yet geared up to supporting the type of use people want to make of academic texts. It's much easier to read a text from start to finish on most e-readers, and that just simply isn't what you do with an academic text.

    From an academic library (and public library) point of view there's also all sort of issues around licensing and "borrowing" of an ebook but I won't go into the details of that.

    I'm sure these barriers will in time be removed, but for the moment there is definitely resistance in the academic world to ebooks. There is now a preference for ejournals rather than print though, which I'm sure will help adoption of ebooks.

  2. Nicole posted 1 days, 3hrs, 58mins after the entry and said:

    I don't see ebooks thriving in the academic arena precisely because of the texts constantly being updated. How else could they get class after class to buy books with the most minuscule of additions? Publishers won't be too QuickTime give that up.

    And as far as ebook lending, I wont lie: each of the books I've borrowed thus far are books that I planned on buying but bow don't plan to. So in my case those were indeed lost ebook sales.

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