So, for Lisa’s birthday I bought her a Sony Reader eBook, since besides her normal habit of having at least three books on the go throughout the flat, she also reads a lot of stuff on the PC, and ends up getting tired most likely from sitting focussing on the screen for so long.

It’s a tempting thought to have one, myself, but I’m holding off for a couple of reasons. Firstly, and this is one gripe that Lisa shares with me, is that the download editions of books are currently not any cheaper than their cousins in print.

Now, I can understand why audiobooks are more expensive. Audiobooks require a massive effort of additional studio time, hiring an actor for all the takes necessary to get the book turned into a pleasant, mellifluous readback. Of course that’s going to cost extra money, and hence the price at the till is going to be higher.

So why does this not hold true in the opposite direction. In print editions, the margin for profit is very small, I can understand that, but if you are removing the print costs for a book then why does it still cost so much?

That said, I do kind of understand why a publishing house would price the online editions that way. Technically speaking, a sale online is one less print edition sold, and therefore if a publisher does a full print run and a simeltaneous online release, he’s not going to make a return on his investment in the print copy.  It makes business sense, in the current model of matched release dates, to hike the eBook price and drive people towards conventional print.

So, how could this be fixed?  Well, the most direct way would be to release the eBook a set amount of time before or after the print edition at a reduced cost.  Before would accelerate the eBook model, as people would be keen to see the book ahead of “print” dates and save some cash, and it would also give the publisher an idea of how popular their print run is going to be.  However, it would require some incredibly stringent Digital Rights Management on the files to prevent people redistributing or even printing their own copies.  It’s a sad world when you have to anticipate everyone being opportunistic bastards, but that’s what we have to deal with.

After street date would maybe see the print edition selling a little less, but after the first advertising push has fallen by the wayside, would publishers really be cutting their profits so much more by releasing a cheaper online edition? I suspect that it’s not the case, but I’m always happy to receive evidence to the contrary.

The second reason I won’t be getting an eBook anytime soon relates to DRM.  I appreciate that for some publishers, agents, and authors, retaining incredily strict control over their work is an absolute.  I can’t even begin to imagine what the real money loss to Bloomsbury was from reprints and bootleg translations of Harry Potter novels adds up to over the years since the series was released, but I’ll bet that for a publisher, it’s a sizabble dent in their margin.  That said, some authors literally give work away on the basis that a little word-of-mouth never did anybody any harm, although I doubt JK Rowling will ever need to resort to that tactic.

What annoys me is that Sony and Amazon are splitting the market by releasing proprietary DRM formats exclusive to their readers.  Yes, certainly both readers can handle .txt, .pdf, .rtf, .doc etc etc (although the Sony Reader requires Word documents to be put through a special “converter” and you might as well just convert them in Word to RTF) but when it comes to a big, “proper” novel, they both fall flat on their arse as you need to buy a copy that is in the exclusive format for that reader.  Now I get it. I really do. Publishers don’t want their work copied. They don’t. They lose money over it and I accept that there will always be an element of DRM in most recent eBook releases.

But why can’t Sony and Amazon handle cross-format releases?

Again, it all comes down to margins. There’s little profit from selling the Readers themselves. You don’t make money selling units – even at current prices – you make it selling the content.  Thus, Sony and Amazon have set themselves against one another and will stifle the growth of the market until one or the other backs down, or dies.

God forbid they should work together to the benefit of the customer.

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