E-Books and File Sharing

Have you noticed that while book scans are as abundant on file sharing networks as other media, people in publishing industry are not really crying that much about piracy? Ok, I take that back – they do cry about it, but only when we bring up the subject of E-books or book scanning projects (like Google Books for example). Then they get as silly as movie and music distributors. I’m not sure why though.

At the moment the Book publishing industry is in the comfy area where their product is “tastiest” in it’s papery, physical analog form. Frankly speaking, e-books suck. There are many reasons for this – and only some are technology related.

For example, what is the best e-book file format out there? It seems that everyone has their own proprietary one tied to a single platform with some custom DRM attached to it. Some people distribute things in PDF format but they usually don’t bother to format the text for screen reading. Most PDF’s are designed for printing, and thus use letter sized pages which force you to scroll up and down. Personally I’m partial towards the Microsoft LIT format used by the Microsoft Reader. The format is designed for screen reading (no scrolling or zooming necessary), has built in bookmarks, highlighting and notes features. It re-pages your book based on screen size, so it still looks good on a PDA. And the files are relatively small. But the format is proprietary and only supported by Microsoft which means you wouldn’t be able to use it on your iPhone or a non-windows based reader.

Second problem is that no one really knows how to use e-books which is more of a behavioral issue. When do people usually read? In most cases it’s not when they are sitting at their computer desk. They read in their bed, in a bathtub, on the toilet, on a train/bus, on the beach, in the park, on their lunch break in the cafeteria and etc.. And it so happens that these places are actually less than perfect environments for a laptop or an electronic reader. Who is going to take their $400 Kindle or a $200 PDA into bathtub with them? Or on the beach? Until we get a reader that is very robust, very portable and very cheap, the paper books will be immensely more practical.

Besides, ask any bibliophile what he thinks about e-books and he will start waxing poetic about the sublime textile experience of actually holding a book. People enjoy silly things like the feel and smell of the book – the way you crack open a brand new volume, or the way the very old book bears marks left by previous owners. Without knowing it publishers have been capitalizing on one of Kevin Kelly’s 8 generatives: the embodiment factor.

Scanned books are abundant on file sharing networks, but despite that fact people keep buying paper versions because they are just better, more practical and nicer to handle. Personally I have several scanned in books in pDF format sitting on my hard drive – most of them are old RPG rulebooks that are long out of print now. I hardly read any of them because the are just so impractical. I also have bunch of novels downloaded from bunch of places on the internet. I don’t think I have read any of them in the digital format though. I had bunch of stuff by Cory Doctorow but I ended up buying most of it mostly because I wanted to support the guy (patronage is btw, another one of the 8 generatives). I had Card’s Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers by Heinlen in LIT format on my PDA back in the day, but at one point I just gave up and went and bought the books. Reading from my crappy DELL Axim was not a great experience.

A paper book (be it hardcover or paperback) simply provides the average customer with more value than an e-book. This is just how it is for now. This is precisely how you make money in the digital era – you provide your customer with tangible added value on top of the easily digitized data. E-books may be easy to copy, but they are not a real threat to the publishing industry, and they won’t be one for quite some time yet.

[tags]e-books, ebooks, books, publishing, kindle, ebook reader, microsoft reader, lit, copyright[/tags]

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13 Responses to E-Books and File Sharing

  1. slimshady ARGENTINA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I think this blog is the best example of this:

    he auto-pirates his own books, at first, the editorials complained, BUT, when the sales sky-rocketed after the “pirating”, they loved it :P

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  2. Ricardo INDIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I agree. The only missing key feature in a paper book, for me, is the ability to search it, specially when it is a technical book.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @slimshady – oh wow, nice! It’s great to hear more and more authors are starting to get how technology can work to their benefit. :)

    [quote comment=”8139″]I agree. The only missing key feature in a paper book, for me, is the ability to search it, specially when it is a technical book.[/quote]

    How about the index in the back? If done well, it is actually a quite efficient way of moving around. First you do something comparable to a binary search (fliping pages back and forward to find the right letter) then a quick scan of the letter entry and finally a it’s like a hash lookup. :)

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  4. Will Sheldon UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Bruce Eckel put a free copy of his “thinking in java” online before it had even gone to the publishers. It’s now in it’s fourth version, with allot of the corrections made by on-line readers.

    I was surprised by this at first, then when i had gone through the first two chapters as I was learning Java, I decided to by a real copy.

    I think that the fact that we spend more time with a book than with a film or a cd makes it a more attractive item to own in tangible form.

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  5. Tobias AUSTRALIA Safari Mac OS says:

    I think I’m one of the few people out there that really prefers books in digital format. I don’t read them on a screen, but load them onto my cell phone with the rather handy “iTunes-for-books” type application mobipocket reader.

    A lot of the people I’ve spoken to are rather dismissive of this idea, but modern cell phones have large, backlit screens and are always on hand, and I think that if you’re used to paper books and have never tried reading a novel on your phone, you’ve probably never realized just how annoying it is to have to move around to get more light on your book, or move your thumb out of the way of the bit you were reading, or even just turning the page in the middle of a sentence.

    The big problem for me is just getting hold of the books in electronic format. There are no commercial ebooks available DRM-free so I can use them in my device, there’s no practical way to convert my paper books, and pirated copies fail on both range and quality. The chances of me finding any particular book I want online in less than an hour seem to be only about 10-20%, and there’s about an 80% chance that that copy will be full of OCR errors like rn instead of m.

    I feel that eBooks are suffering from the chicken and the egg problem right now – Without the widespread availability of convenient ways to read eBooks, there’s little interest in selling or pirating them, and because eBooks aren’t conveniently available nobody realizes how great they can be.

    Much like linux or the mac never really took off before web applications became so common, having a solution that lets you read only 5% of books in a better way, and the rest not at all isn’t valuable to anyone.

    My hope is that when the SDK comes out for the iPhone, someone makes a good platform for selling eBooks available to it, because more than anything we’ve seen before, the iPhone is a device that people will buy anyway that would make just a fantastic reader for eBooks. It has a large high-res screen that displays beautiful text, and unlike the kindle it doesn’t need to have every book for sale to be useful, you’re buying it anyway for a phone and MP3 player, even 5% of the books you want on it is a nice extra, and one day it could very well catch on and change the industry.

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  6. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    Well, as book worm myself, I can only agree with Luke.

    E-books are nice, (I mainly use their PDF versions and zoom to make the page fit my screen, more or less), but they are not that convenient compared to their printed versions. Their is a feeling with real paper books (especially hard covers) that you can’t get with e-books. Interestingly enough, there are also social aspects. People associate the use of a pda or laptop with “nerd”, “unsafe” or “geek”. They see someone reading a book and they think “educated”, “safe” and “reliable”. It is a stupid prejudice but it works. And man, when people get in my flat and see the walls covered in books (most of them are crappy sci-fi, but they don’t check that carefully), they just see me as “kulturny”. So paper books give you status…

    But the beauty of it is also that they give you this for a really cheap price. I don’t know for the USA, but here, you can get a nice book for less than 5 or 10 Euros. A music CD or DVD is never less than twice this, and I am not speaking about games or other software where you can multiply by 5 easily. And the enjoyment and social status you get from it is not even comparable… I believe that piracy (in music and software) would be negligible if music and proprietary software would be really cheaper (like half the current price). Because then, nobody would even consider bothering to download, once past the excitement of the forbidden.

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  7. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    By the way Luke, I know it is off topic, but I would like to say that the sound problem I used to have disappeared when I upgraded to Ubuntu Hardy… This happened after some manager here refused to give me my new PC. :-( So now, my microphone works with Skype, I can listen to the sound tracks of streamed videos and I even have Firefox 3. I also have all the little pre-release bugs of course. ;-)

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Alphast – paperbacks at my local Barnes & Noble sell for around $5-$7. Hard back books tend to be more expensive but the prices vary based on paper format, and quality. Graphic novels tend to be most expensive and will set you back $20-30 – this is especially true for the thick manga volumes.

    But yeah, you can go to a bookstore with $20 in your pocket and come back with 3 good books and still have some change left.

    I’m glad to hear the sound thing worked out. I guess whatever was causing it to fail, got fixed in the new release. :)

    How is FF3?

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  9. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    Well, having ALSA newest drivers properly installed within Hardy helped a lot, I suspect. As for FF3, it is pretty nice, significantly faster and it has a brand new bookmark management system and some tagging stuff. I haven’t come around all of it yet, as I still have to justify my salary during the day… ;-). I might post something about it in my own blog once I have tried it a bit more in details.

    At the moment, though, I am actually in more troubles than before, just because of all the bugs in Hardy (NIS and portmap won’t start when it should, X crashes at the most unexpected times, Python won’t update, etc.). But I am confident it will soon stabilize.

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Ah, the joys of being early adopter. This is why I always wait before I install new release of Ubuntu on critical machines. Surprisingly Gutsy proves to be very stable so far. Knock on wood, but I haven’t had any major problems with it other than some weird glitch in the Nvidia driver. I think I have a post about it coming up sometime soon. :P

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  11. jaymz UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I like ebooks as a reference but nothing really beats having a real copy. Even printed out & stapled slabs of pages don’t compare to the professionally bound copies. I do really like having PDF copies of books though, if only for reference or portability (when I maybe dont have the book on me).

    I downloaded a PDF of the Drupal: Pro Development book and loved it so much and found it so useful that I had to get myself an actual copy, so ended up spending actual real money on a new copy. I still use the PDF when I go between different computers but I’ve been able to study the real copy a lot better than its PDF equivalant.

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  12. Kyte CHILE Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Maybe it’s ’cause I discovered fanfiction relatively early (14 or so) and therefore ended up reading online since very early, but I’ve always found ebooks to be just as readable and easy as a normal book, and I think here the reason:
    You /handle/ the book while reading it, and almost everyone grew up used to that.

    The concept of “reading a book” involves page-turning, flipping through pages, opening the book itself, in short a myriad of little physical actions one takes for granted but make a huge deal of a difference. Not to mention the different sensorial input. Sound, touch, sometimes smell even.
    Music and video, on the other hand, are basically “pop the container and wait for the data to come out of your output”. They share much hardware, and thus the feeling doesn’t change much. You don’t notice, and therefore you don’t mind the change.
    And videogames are even more so. Pick the gamepad, launch the game, bam. Done. Sometimes it’s already for the PC.
    It’s also why I believe both the Wii and DS (especially the DS) won’t get much interest from the emulation community: The feel is different unless you set up specialized equipment or use the real platform. You can’t replace the stylus with a mouse comfortably, and the Wiimote has no equivalent.

    It’s all in the feel, man. ;)

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  13. Lily UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Bit late, but Luke – $5-7 dollars? Books over here in the UK are often ridiculously expensive – nearly £10 (never less than £6 unless it’s a thin book with few pages) which is about £15 dollars. Hardbacks are about £15. Luckily, second-hand books go cheap from libraries and charity shops (I think you call them thrift stores in the US), so it’s just about affordable unless you buy nearly everything when it’s just come out.

    In fact, we UK customers often seem to get a raw deal. Average song price on iTunes for US? 99c. Average song price for UK? 79p. 99c is about 60p, so it’s quite a bit cheaper. Clothes are way more expensive too.

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