Comprehensive excoriation of ebook stupidity

Ars Technica's John Siracusa, a veteran of early ebook startup Peanut Press, does a fabulous job of cutting through the fuzzy thinking, excuse-making, bad history and missed opportunities of the past decade's worth of ebook ventures. This is a must-read essay for anyone thinking about the future of books and reading.
You'd think that publishers would have learned from the travails of the music and movie folks, and they did, in a way. Unfortunately, what they learned was fear. Early on, publishers saw what happened to the music business when Napster arrived on the scene, and they were shaken to the core. In fact, some of the very same executives, casualties of the the digital music wars, ended up at publishing houses, arriving with the digital equivalent of PTSD and harrowing tales of a business model's collapse. And so, the order of the days was "DRM everywhere," or, just as likely, "no digital distribution at all."

This position is even more insane once you understand how the traditional, non-digital publishing business works. As in the music and movie industries, there's the usual, shockingly small cut given to the actual content creators, plus the physical mechanism of manufacturing and distributing the products. In the case of books, there's an extra dose of nonsense layered on top.

The once and future e-book: on reading in the digital age


  1. He also completely fails to point out the increasing number of authors who provide ebooks for free to increase their paper book sales, amongst a few other issues.

    At the moment, ebooks are great for research or other referance works, and sort of annoying for pleasure reading. Eventually they’ll make a reader that isn’t ugly, bulky, eye-strainy, uncomfortable, hideously expensive, or branded with an apple/m$ logo.

  2. I read about eighty books a year and I would love to have a ebook reader. However, ebooks are just flat out a ripoff. Take Amazon’s Kindle as an example. Even though the publisher does not have the expense of printing and warehousing that comes with a paper book, the prices for ebooks approach those of paper books. Then, when you purchase the book, you don’t own it. All you own is the right to read it. You can’t loan it to a friend. You can’t sell it as used. That would be fine if the price were reasonable, say a couple of dollars for a book.

    There are other problems with ebooks as well. Given that they can’t be loaned to others, if ebooks became widespread, they would mean the end of public libraries. Also, what about the problem of theft of one’s reader? Say I’ve got a couple hundred ebooks on my reader. Am I just out of luck?

    The problem in general is that the widespread adoption of ebooks would mean the end of the publishing industry as we know it. Though publishers might still exist, it would only be to market and promote books. They would certainly become much reduced as enterprises.

    So, in my opinion, it isn’t just Luddism that stands in the way of the adoption of ebooks. It’s also the business model under which they are currently offered.

  3. What Chucko said. Given the savings that electronic distribution, current prices are a complete rip-off. DRM is inherently evil, but it would be acceptable *if* the price was very low and enabled some sort of renting business model. The right price for something with DRM should be similar to the price of renting a DVD vs buying the same. For a book, that means a few bucks at most. Not 90%, or even 50% of the physical price, but more like 20%, which is congruent with the saving gained from not having to pulp wood, make paper, print, bind, package, ship to warehouse, handle and ship to bookstore, inventory, pay the sales clerks, buy insurance and cover theft.

  4. @Chucko:
    I don’t think it’d mean the end of public libraries. The San Antonio Library system allows loan of their ebooks and it works fine. True, I’ve never used it on any sort of electronic reader, just the computer, but I’m sure they come in formats for ebook readers.


  5. Did any of the earlier commenters actually even *read* the essay in question?

    The growth potential of the e-book market has very little to do with:

    1) reader technology (and its limitations) or

    2) the price of e-books.

    Writ in big letters: it’s all about convenience.

    Is the Kindle perfect? Nope. Are its books gummed up with DRM? Yep. Can I share ’em? Nope. Do I sigh over my Kindle, thinking about it as a thing of beauty? Nope. Is it expensive? Yep.

    And I love it … because it’s convenient. Think of a book, browse for the book, summon the book, read the book, refer to it later in a blink of an eye.

    That’s why I put up with all the other limitations: convenience.

  6. I think that one of the best ways to predict the future of publishing is to try to learn from other markets. When one realizes that the publishers can not make money my giving away e-books, the alternative is to charge very little, but to bring in revenue from…dare I say it–advertising? An e-book is well suited as an advertising platform. Sure, you can get your e-book for a $5.00, but you’re going to have to view ads at the beginning of every chapter, or at the top of every page. Or pay more and don’t get the ads. Or go buy a paper book. There is no such thing as a free lunch. And as far as I know, publishers are required, if for no other reason than to create a product with the help of their editorial expertise.

  7. Here’s what I want.

    Don’t try to sell me an ebook reader. I already have multiple devices that can fill that functional niche. Example: desktop, laptop, netbook, cellphone, PDA, digital picture frame, TV. Pretty much anything with a screen and some sort of user interface is smart enough to work as a reader.

    Instead, sell me the content in some form that can be read on whatever device I choose. PDF is OK. HTML would be even better.

    Then let me decide where to read it.

    If someone wants to write some software to wrap around the content to enable various convenience functions such as dictionary lookup, search, bookmarking, etc, that’s fine too, as long as the software will work on whatever device I choose to use as my reader.

    That’s what I want.

  8. I read the whole thing. DRM bad. Got it. Couldn’t agree more.

    But e-ink is really easy on the eyes. Reading a book on an iPhone? Really? A few years of that and I’ll need a haptic braille reader. Or something.

    Please please please just make a cheap-ish e-ink device for general document viewing. If I could just read all my word, pdf, and other documents in e-ink rather than LCD I would be very happy, and if someone is nice enough to make books available to me sans DRM, that would be lovely.

    There’s a market for eReaders, but it starts at the bottom, not the top.

  9. @1: I have a svelte dark blue Sony Reader (PRS-505) that isn’t ugly, bulky, eye-strainy, uncomfortable, hideously expensive or branded with unsightly logos. In fact, it is the polar opposite of all of those things, and makes pleasure reading an absolute joy.

    It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.

  10. “This position is even more insane once you understand how the traditional, non-digital publishing business works. ” –

    I’m hoping someone can point me to a straight forward, thorough, start-to-finish explanation of how the traditional publishing business works, one with actual numbers/percentages. Also, any help with alternatives to the traditional route would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  11. If these executives lost badly enough to have moved industries, that doesn’t bode well for the companies now taking their advice on digital issues.

    I doubt that books will ever really go away. Humans are too sentimental, but our primary way of receiving text is already changing. Our conversations now take place on a screen, not in fixed text.

    If they want to find a bigger audience, they’re going to have to figure out ways to market these things to online better than they already do.

  12. #2–I’ve worked in the publishing industry, and for the technical manuals we published, paper, print, binding, shipping and storage amounted to between 10 and 20% of the costs of production. While I do agree that current e-books, with their DRM restrictions are a rip-off, the costs will still exist even if one eliminates the physical object. That means you’re not going to get the massive discount everyone seems to expect from an e-book.

    —Though publishers might still exist, it would only be to market and promote books.—

    Wow. You really have no idea what an editor does, do you? Or a designer, for that matter. If you could read the raw manuscripts that come in to a publishing house and compare them to the final product, I think you’d be surprised.

  13. I really want to love e-books. I am a technophile at heart. But, I really do not see the benefit of an e-book reader.

    First, the cost is just too high both for the hardware and digital book. A digital book to me is a loss in value over a physical product if it is little more than a visual recreation of the book. The fact that the average e-book runs around $9 to me is silly. Trade paperbacks are cheaper a a brick and mortar location let alone online.

    Second, when reading books for pleasure, an e-book reader is sort of pointless. I really only carry one book at a time with me on travel. It has hours of value. So the idea I can carry around my whole library with me is sort of a moot point. I have no need to do that. That and a trade paperback is the same size or smaller than an e-book.

    I think e-books should focus on market segments that would benefit from a portable reader. College textbooks would be perfect since they are large, bulky and you need to carry around several at a time. Manga and comic books are another good fit to me. You can read through 10-12 comics in a day w/o a problem. Being able to download and browse 40-50 comics would be awesome. RSS feed reading would be the other great market as well.

    But for recreational reading? A printed book is really hard to improve upon. e-book readers will really need to offer something compelling before I make the swap.

  14. MadeByMark: The “convenience” argument breaks down when you want to share a book with someone.

  15. Funklord, A Publisher/editor can take a really good manuscript and turn it into an even better book. Good editing skills are gold. Just look at a sample of free writing that has not had the benefit of an editor’s skills and you get good idea why editing makes an e-book worth something. But it won’t take long for readers to expect free.

  16. Reading a book on an iPhone? Really? A few years of that and I’ll need a haptic braille reader. Or something.

    Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. If you have an iPhone, 1) install Stanza (it’s free; they make their money off dealing with commercial content sellers) and use their clever integrated interface to Project Gutenberg to download a book (also free) into the reader. Read it. You’ll find that concerns like eyestrain, etc. just aren’t a serious problem in reality.

  17. I’ve heard that Apple is going to launch a read/slate device this summer-ish. I imagine it will use electronic ink and will be light weight and expensive. Has anyone read about this new product?

  18. I do a lot of reading over meals. Until anyone shows me an ebook reader which I can hold AND turn pages while using only one hand — something I can do just fine with a paperback — it will never be as easy to use as an actual book.

  19. Hi Cory,

    Just two weeks ago I finished reading my first e-book. It was Little Brother. I read it because after reading about the Paranoid Linux project I became more interested in a book that I had dismissed because it was a “Young Adult” novel. I also read it because it was free.

    As soon as I finished it on my iPhone, I bought it for my son who at sixteen is a very advanced reader and above most kids books. My intention was for him to read it and then pass it on to my wife who would benefit greatly from your down to earth explanations of the involved technologies. As of yesterday he is halfway through and informed me of the order of the list of friends he will pass the book onto. So a second copy will need to be bought for my wife if she is to read it in a timely fashion.

    I asked what we should do when we are left with an extra copy. Give it to his school library? “Yes. Everyone should read this book. It’s great.” he said. He’s right. Once I can afford to I’ll buy a copy for every school library in San Francisco.

    That’s the result of giving away free copies of your book.

  20. I have to say that it’s getting kind of old for “bloggers” to look down their noses at any company that hasn’t yet figured out how to make money by giving away content that currently brings them revenue. Believe it or not, not everyone that works at a major media company is a complete idiot. Those of you that think these strategies are so simple and quick to implement have obviously never had the good fortune (or misfortune) to work for giant companies.

  21. @Janai – I’ve found eating and reading with my Sony reader to be very comfortable. I hold it by the bottom left corner and page turn with the thumb I’m using to hold it in place. That leaves my right hand free to eat with. (I admit it might be awkward to do if reversing the hands – the page turn buttons on the right edge are halfway up the reader.) I’ve never managed to turn pages on a paperback with the hand that I’m holding it with.

    Only food I that I can’t easily eat while I read is a sub – paperback OR ereader. :)


  22. Reading a book on an iPhone? Really? A few years of that and I’ll need a haptic braille reader. Or something.

    Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.

    Just a regular cell phone is all you need. As MadeByMarkSays says it’s not perfect but it’s so convienient – your current read is right there in your pocket. has as stack of free public domain and CC works, from your phone it can be a couple of clicks to find and install a book. will take you straight to Cory’s CC works.

  23. @16 and 21

    Phones, smart and dumb, are not a substitute good for a book or e-ink reader. They are inferior in size and clarity, and eyestrain is an issue.

    How can I be sure that eyestrain is real, and that the iPhone is too small to be a real eReader? Well, it’s smaller than a mass-market paperback, which is about as small as books seem to get. I have to assume that if consumers really could handle smaller books the publishers would’ve printed them in scads, but they haven’t and they don’t.

    To replace a book, I think an electronic device will need to be able to replicate (somewhat) the trade paperback experience, and that’s something that can’t be done with the pocket-sized cell.

  24. #22 – I read ebooks on my Ipod touch all the time. Eyestrain isn’t a problem, at least not for me. The words are the same size – there are just fewer of them on the “page”. You can also adjust the text size pretty easily. And you can dial down the brightness of the device in general to get rid of that weird LCD glow.

    #18 – Stanza. Ipod Touch/Iphone. You turn the pages by tapping on the screen. I do it at meals all the time.

    #10 – there’s a link in the article that does just that.

    And I don’t get the prices of ebooks either. I can’t afford to pay $30 for a hardcover book; I certainly am not going to pay that much for a *text file*.

  25. #22 tomrigid:

    I guess my personal experience has been different, I actually like the ‘book in cwllphone’ better than a paperback.

    The text on the phone is no smaller than in a book – there are just ‘more smaller pages’ – there is no ‘eye-strain’. For me the downside of ‘more pages’ is completely swamped by ultra portability, the fact that the book is always there without having to remember to pick it up or carry it, and I can read ‘after lights out’ without disturbing my partner.

    I think eBooks will take off by preserving the essentials of the reading experiences and embracing the possibilities opened up by new delivery devices rather than by preserving accidents of the preceding paper based devices. Think clay tablet vs scroll vs codex, they each have a different natural form, strengths, and weaknesses.

    Now I just need my phone to do text to speech on the book for me while I jog.

  26. Well, okay, I’m @16, but yes, I *do* often read from my phone before going to sleep — being backlit, I can turn off all the lights and still read.

  27. I read in bed on my phone all time, and extensively.

    It’s nice to be snuggled up with the lights out, rather than sitting in the living room or something. When you are tired, just close the phone and your eyes. Many times I’ve wished the paper book I was reading was on my phone so I could avoid getting out of bed to continue the story. For me that’s been a great feature.

  28. Ok, based on a very small sample size I’m ready to believe that the iPhone could be a reader device (let presses print!).

    Not MY reader device, but…one man’s oyster is another’s clam, eh?

    E-ink is just so…inky. After looking at a monitor all day the last thing I want is a backlit screen boring bright holes in my eyes, and e-ink seems to alleviate that.

    Still, it’s like they told me in sunday school: I is the smallest sample size of all.

  29. I’m a paper junkie. I love books. The feel of paper under your skin, the smell of glue and ink and old paper you get when you open your 2€ used book, the endless searches in dusty libraries…

    …but I realize that I am a 20-years-old dinosaur. Paper-books will eventually go the way of physical music-containers : a niche market for fetishists. I don’t see myself ever buying an ebook reader, but I’m completely certain that it will be the norm in about a decade. I guess it’s taking more time than music because the market is smaller.

  30. I’ve come up with a new invention that will leave e-books in the dust.
    I call them p-books (those being e-books that are “printed” on “paper”).
    P-books share the advantage of portability with e-books, and p-book ARM (analog rights management, patent expired) is reasonably solid while managing to be non-intrusive (even if the publisher goes out of business, the p-book will still remain accessable, and p-books from one country can be freely read in any other country, worldwide, with no need to sync up to a central server, ever. Instead, the p-book relies primarily on a home server, but “libraries” and “bookstores” also stock p-books. “Libraries” even allow total access at no cost, even for p-books that are still in copyright).
    In addition, the purchaser gets an obscure consumer “protection” provided by first sale rule. In effect, rather than owning a non-transferable license for one copy of a e-book, the purchaser “owns” one p-book that he or she can “sell” or “give away” at a time and place of his/her choosing.
    P-books can be stored for easy browsing via an optional “p-bookshelf” home-based server, while longer term storage is provided by a “box” in the “attic”.
    Since all p-books come in a planet-wide standardized format you will never lose access to them as p-book technology is improved, and their ability to retain both text and pictures without using batteries means that you won’t have to worry about losing access part-way a read cycle, and you don’t have to worry about bringing along the correct adapter for recharging during trips abroad.

    Note: Like the e-book, p-books should not be exposed to water or fire, and operation by children with PB&J sandwiches should be observed by parent or suitable authority.

  31. I go with Cory’s distractability theory for why few people read long works on computers or connected handheld devices. I usually print longer articles or ebook chapters and read them when I’m off the computer (when my wife is monopolizing it). There’s probably something meaningful in the fact that Siracusa’s article about reading text off screens and how to sell them was spread over 7 webpages, presumably serving seven ads or more. You could read the whole text at once by downloading the pdf, if you were a paid subscriber. Apparently he and/or the hosting website think there’s still money to be made in it.

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