The Death of E-Readers

Last year I was arguing with a novelist on Twitter about the future of the E-Reader. The novelist’s view was that as the cost of tablets continued to decline, people would choose to buy both a tablet and an E-Reader. As much as I love E-Reader’s, my view was that the E-Reader as we know it is doomed to quickly become a legacy technology.

Sadly, The Wall Street Journal reports that the death of E-Readers is upon us,

Market-researcher IDC recently estimated 2012 global e-reader shipments at 19.9 million units, down 28% from 27.7 million units in 2011. By contrast, IDC’s 2012 tablet forecast is 122.3 million units.

Specialized devices for reading e-books have been hot sellers for five years – but one market-research company forecasts a significant decline in 2014. The WSJ’s Greg Bensinger explains why the introduction of lighter tablets may spell the end of the e-reader era.

IHS iSuppli comes up with different totals, but it sees a similar trend. It estimates that shipments of dedicated e-readers peaked in 2011 and predicts that 2012 shipments slid to 14.9 million units, down 36% from a year earlier. By 2015, it expects unit sales of dedicated e-readers to be just 7.8 million.

I don’t have any special attachment to dedicated e-readers themselves, but rather to the e-ink display technology.

I own a tablet and have read a few books on it, but that glossy glare-filled screen is far from ideal for some serious reading. It is okay for reading web pages, but if I’m going to read a 400 page novel I’m busting out my e-reader.

But I’m definitely part of an extremely small niche market, and once tablets fall below a certain price there won’t be much rationale left for still making them. Dedicated e-ink readers will probably always remain available from niche sellers (much like my beloved Alphasmart Neo), but they will likely vanish as a mainstream product.

Google eBookstore Fail

Google’s new e-book initiative had such potential, but taking a look after it launched it was hard not to think: this is it? This is all Google could come up with?

On launch day, the entire project was largely  useless. No wish list support? On the Android app, they couldn’t be bothered to make the author hyperlinked so I could quickly see what other titles by the same writer were available? Adding a book to the library meant being kicked back to the main screen rather than to the search page I’d landed on? Are you kidding me?

Google’s eBookstore effort looked like it was knocked out by a couple of college students over a weekend as part of a half-ass class project (which seems to describe a lot of the efforts coming out of Google lately). But a bigger problem was the supposed openness that Google touted to its e-book effort, and what in fact turned out to be yet another closed system.

So I can read my Google ebooks on a number of platforms, including iOS and Android devices as well as the Sony Reader and the Nook. Frankly that’s not very impressive and not all that different from the other big e-book services out there. Moreover, DRM is baked into many of the commercial books sold by Google. That is not surprising, but again just what is Google offering that is any different from the 3 or 4 other big players in this market?

Here’s what would have impressed me — let me upload the non-DRMed ebooks I already own into a book locker at Google’s site and let me manage those the same way I can manage the books I get from Google. Let me upload all of my Baen books in epub format, for example, and then read those across all my devices. Let me take some of the PDFs I’ve got of books that are self-published and have a Creative Commons license and add those too.

Google, of course, won’t let you do that for the same reason it is running into problems trying to launch its music locker services — publishers would likely scream and withhold their content. I get it. Although it would be cool, Google would be left without many business partners and probably only a fraction of the 3 million ebooks it now advertises as being available.

But, at least then it would be something new and potentially revolutionary. As it is, Google Books is just another retread of every other e-book offering out there. If I were to go with a DRM-heavy service, frankly I’d go with the Amazon Kindle at this point.

Paizo’s Pricing Strategy for the Pathfinder PDF

Awhile ago Wizards of the Coast released its 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons which has polarized fans of D&D 3.5. Some love it, others hate it. Since WotC has abandoned it, Paizo Publishing has taken up the mantle of the 3.5 edition with its Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, which maintains backward compatibility with D&D 3.5 while extending the system (thanks to the Open Gaming License which WotC released much of its content under, Paizo doesn’t have to obtain WotC’s permission to do so).

The main book for the game came out a few weeks ago and it is a) huge and b) gorgeous. And, of course, expensive at $49.99 for the 576 page hardcover. I’ve come this close to picking up a copy even though I don’t have any time to play it.

The interesting thing for me, though, was how Paizo decided to approach its PDF pricing. For high profile new releases like this, typically a good rule of thumb is$10 off. A lot of big publishers will take their $50 book and sell it for $35 or $40 as a PDF. Some will go down to a 50% discount so the PDF is $25.

Paizo priced the PDF version of the Pathfinder RPG book at just $9.99.

The first time I saw that price I thought it was a mistake. The $9.99 must be an error or maybe its for some bastardized subset of the core rulebook. Nope, $9.99 gets you the entire book as a DRM-free PDF. Paizo does use the now ubiquitous (at least in RPG circles) “social DRM”, so in my PDF at the bottom of each page is a grayed out line with my name, email address and a serial number. So if I should decide to go posting the PDF on Torrent sites without generating some sort of derivative PDF that omits the identifying material, Paizo could track  me down and sue my ass.

Personally, I think the pricing is awesome. I’ve owned pretty much every ebook device and software I could get my hands on over the years, and ultimately I’ve concluded I want both print and electronic versions of the books I read. There is a lot to be said for print books, and I still do the majority of the reading I do with traditional books. That said, after I’ve finished a book I want an electronic copy for reference quickly available from my laptop or ebook reader.

The problem is that the prevailing pricing model of ebooks makes it extremely difficult to do both. Imagine if I’d had to pay $49.99 to get the printed version of the Pathfinder RPG and then turn around and spend another $29.99 to get a PDF version of the book I already bought? I’m only going to be able to spend that much money on a very rare occasion for an RPG, or any book for that matter.

More publishers should use Paizo’s model of selling the PDF/electronic version of a book as an enticement/supplement to purchasing the physical book. I suspect they’d see their sales of both increase.

Using the Kindle in Medical Education (And Why the Kindle Sucks)

John Halamka, CIO for Harvard Medical School, has an interesting post about HMS’ support for the Amazon Kindle ebook reading device,

We’ve recently implemented Kindle support for all our 20,000 educational resources at HMS.

Our integration on the Mycourses educational website enables any Word or PDF document to be delivered to the Kindle wirelessly. There is a cost which is clearly explained to the user (10 cents per document to Amazon). Those that don’t want to pay the 10 cents can download documents to their PC and transfer the documents via USB cable. Once the user enters their Kindle account into the MyCourses Kindle setup page (accessible via our resources page or the GoMobile page), any resource which can be sent to the device has a little icon and label “My Kindle” which when clicked sends the resource to the Kindle. It does this by sending the document to the Amazon account via email attachment which then gets converted into Kindles’s specific format and delivered to the device using Sprint’s Whispernet.

HMS is the first Medical School to offer such a green alternative to all of their compatible resources to be downloaded directly to an eBook. At some point it would be nice to bypass the 10 cent fee with some utility that allows us to send to the device, but it’s a reasonable cost when you consider that Sprint is giving Kindle users free internet.

First off, let me say this sort of implementation is extremely impressive. There’s been a of debate online over just how “green” the Kindle is vs. traditional distribution methods, but leaving that aside the convenience of carrying around a Kindle rather than stacks of papers/books is obviously one of the things that is appealing to dedicated ebook devices.

Unfortunately, this sort of application simply underscores the idiocy that is the Kindle user interface. Currently I’ve go about 300 books on an SD card in my Kindle, and you could easily imagine a medical student having hundreds of papers and books loaded on the Kindle.

But Amazon made the boneheaded decision not to have any sort of way to organize large numbers of documents. Instead the Kindle simply lets you scroll through One Big Damn List(TM) of all your books/papers in alphabetical order by title. Of course a medical student might want to, say, organize papers  by the specific classes they’re relevant too. Too bad — all you get is that One Big Damn List.

That horrible design decision alone renders the Kindle almost unusable for anyone who actually wants to carry a substantial number of books/documents around on it. This decision is especially mystifying in that being able to classify and organize books into some sort of category and subcategory system (not to mention being able to see a list sortable by author rather than title) is fairly standard in ebook readers and ebook software.

I’ve had enough with the Kindle and “features” like this and am switching to the new Sony PRS700 which allows you to set up categories and features a touch screen-based annotation system.

Peter Glaskowsky – Another Clueless DRM Defender

Peter Glaskowsky has an analysis of DRM over at CNET that essentially makes the following claim about DRM — Kindle owners and iTunes store users don’t have a problem with DRMed e-books/music, therefore DRM “is commercially practical and acceptable to consumers.” Ugh.

Glaskowsky oversells how willing consumers are to buy DRMed music. Obviously if there were no problem at all with DRMed music, then Amazon itself would not be in the business of selling DRM-free MP3s. In fact, Amazon’s tagline on its MP3 downloads area is “Play Anywhere, DRM-Free Downloads.”

But, of course, when it comes to the Kindle, when you buy a book for Amazon’s e-book reader you are essentially not buying the book but rather simply renting it until Amazon decides to stop supporting the platform. I’m not surprised that Glaskowsky’s anecodtal evidence tells him that no one really minds this. That’s because the evil nature of DRM schemes really don’t come into play until the user wants to leave for another platform and finds out that’s impossible.

This happened with the Rocket eBook, of course. Lots of book fans paid the outrageous price for that e-book reader and then bought lots of content for it, only to find themselves lock out of the books they thought they had bought when Rocket went belly up. Not to mention those suckers customers who paid for Mobipocket DRMed ebooks (Mobipocket is the basis for the DRM in the Kindle) only to find themselves locked out of their books for awhile last year when Mobipocket’s DRM server was down for an extended period of tiem.

The same thing will happen eventually to Kindle owners — another platform will come along from Sony or someone else and they’ll think about switching until they realize every electronic book they own is locked to their Kindle.

Consider how music and e-book DRM works compared to a DRM system that does genuinely work — the DRM system that is used in DVDs. I buy DVDs even though they are DRMed because despite the DRM I can pretty much be guaranteed that they will work on any DVD player I choose probably for much longer than the effective lifetime of the DVD itself. I still don’t like DRM on my DVDs, but it is a minimal hassle.

Now imagine we had the sort of DRM that Glaskowsky finds perfectly acceptable for books applied to DVDs. DVDs would be tied to a single manufacturer’s system. When my Sony DVD player broke, I wouldn’t be able to just go out and buy a new DVD player from any manufacturer since my DVDs would only work on Sony’s system. If I want to get that cheaper DVD player with more features from Amazon, I could, but I’d have to repurchase every movie I own on Amazon-branded DVDs.

Now, the first year Sony released its DVD player and I rushed out and bought DVDs I probably wouldn’t care about the brand-specific DRM. It works great, I don’t have any problems with my playing my movies. Aha, Glaskowsky would say, this just proves that DRM is a grand idea and only crusty old ideologues would have any problem with this system. Of course, the second my DVD player breaks and I realize my DVDs are tied to Sony-only, I might have a much different conclusion. In fact, like many consumers, I might even be shocked to learn that my Sony DVDs won’t play on Amazon DVD players.

I have a Kindle and I use it all the time. But I wouldn’t waste a dime on a Kindle-only book, anymore than I would buy a Sony-only DVD, or a Jensen-only CD.

And the kicker, of course, is that the best thing that can be said about DRM is that it is an annoyance to legitimate customers. It does little at all to forestall piracy. Almost all of the Kindle-only DRMed content is easily available in DRM-free formats if you know where to look.

It is a strange system that essentially punishes only the honest people who actually step up and pay for content, while posting at most a minor annoyance for those who could care less and simply pirate whatever they want to see, read, hear.

But I suspect that objection is a bit too “philosophical” against Glaskowsky’s anecdotal evidence about how people feel about DRM on their Kindle less than a year after it’s release.

Steve Jackson Games Changes Its PDF/Print Strategy a Bit

Earlier this year I mentioned Steve Jackson Games’ decision to release the core GURPS books as PDFs. They had been offering the supplements in both PDF and print version for awhile (and some supplements in PDF-only), but based on their experiment with that decided releasing the books as PDFs wouldn’t affect print sales (I assume that many people who are interested in RPGs, like myself, want both the printed and PDF versions of the core books).

Now, they’re taking the next step and releasing their next GURPS supplement as a PDF several weeks ahead of the printed version of the supplement,

Errata are the bane of a publisher’s existence. No matter how many editors and proofreaders go over a manuscript, words get misplaced or misspelled. And in game books, the potential to misstate a rule, or to switch two entries in a table, creates even more possible problems.

And when the book is over 270 pages long, with dozens of tables, the “possibility” of errata grows into “probability.”

Modern technology offers a solution: let the book out as a PDF a couple weeks before it is sent to print. The loyal fans will provide extra eyes to track down and stomp those annoying errors. Thus, we have released GURPS Thaumatology.

(No, we’re not the first publisher to do this. But as this is a first for us, we figured we should mention it.)

If you’re a retailer, and worried about the effect on sales, we understand. However, we have had both digital and print versions of our GURPS Fourth Edition line available during the last year, and all the evidence indicates that digital sales do not significantly affect print sales. Basically, customers who want PDF won’t be satisfied with print, and those who need pages in their hand aren’t happy with electrons. If we thought this would slow the sales of the print version, we wouldn’t do it. We believe this will result in a better book; that’s why we’re doing it.

This clearly seems to be another step in the march of the RPG-industry to a largely PDF-dominated world. There are two stores in my city that sell RPG-related materials. For the most part, they seem to have stopped stocking new RPGs that aren’t either Dungeons & Dragons or White Wolf related. And, as far as I can tell, the other stuff simply doesn’t sell. One of the stores has had the same set of GURPS core books on the shelf for at least 6 months now.

I know I’ve bought a ton of RPGs over the past couple years, but all of those were PDFs. PDF publishers might be smart to explore some sort of affiliate relationship with independent stores.

Of course much of the space that 10 years ago might have been devoted to RPGs has since been taken over by collectible card and miniature games which seem to do very well for retailers (as long as people continue to buy impulsively at the local game shop rather than in bulk on the Internet).