Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Redefining eBooks: Just Plain Text or a Richer Experience

The Department of Justice has accused the top six book publishers of New York City for colluding with Apple to set the price for eBooks at $12.99 to $14.99. Amazon wanted to set the price at $9.99, which caused so much outrage among the publishers that they sought a new kind of partnership that believed what they believed was the right price for eBooks, namely, Apple.

Publishers and booksellers think that the price of an eBook should be somewhere between the price of a mass market paper back (MMPB), which currently hovers around $7.99, and a trade paperback (TPB), which is around $14.99. They believe that this way, the loss in eBook version of hardcovers (HC), which are usually around $25.99, is recouped in eBook version of MMPBs.

Consumers, on the other hand, think that the price of eBooks is incredibly hyped. They believe that the price should be around $5.99 (some even suggest $3.99). The thinking here is that there are no printing, storage, and shipping costs associated with eBooks. Yes, there are production costs, such as editorial and artwork, but those are shared with the print versions. So the price of the book should be lower than the price of a MMPB.

In my opinion, the reason behind this assumption by consumers is because an eBook is nothing more than a digitally available file of the text that can be found in the pages of a MMPB.

You could argue that a HC and MMPB versions of the same book (the latter of which is usually released a year after the former) have the exact same text. That is true. However, the HC provides the value-add of, what hardware electronic manufacturers call "form factor." The HCs come with dust jackets, end papers, good quality paper, and a satisfying heft and look on the bookshelf. This justifies their price.

Similarly, a TPB shares the same text as the MMPB version of a book, but again "form factor" comes into play: the height, the slimness, the texture of the pages, the book and page design, and for some, the image of reading "literature," since most of non-genre books are published in TPB.

The advantages of a MMPB over HC and TPB is ease of use: holding it up, reading in bed/bath/beach, and carrying it around.

An argument could be made that an eBook similarly has a very different form factor from a MMPB, with easy-to-read text on a light eReader that allows searching within the text. So the eBook should be able to command it's own niche for pricing.

From a consumer's point of view, however, the purchase of the eReader with its host of features, is completely decoupled from the purchase of a book. An eReader allows the reader to read innumerable books, not just one particular book, meaning, the eReader reading experience is not tied to the book being read. So the eBook is once again reduced to mere text, at which point, it's no different from the lowest print version of the text, namely the MMPB.

What completely astounds me is that in all these shenanigans in deciding on the price for an eBook nobody seems to have given one thought to innovating the content of an eBook.

Instead of trying to pass off the same-old, same-old as the new new, why not truly provide something new? Give the reader a reason (or a dozen) to pay more for digital content. Provide them with features on the digital version that they will not find in any of the print versions, thereby, redefining the "form factor" of an eBook. This might induce people to pay a premium $12.99 for it or to own multiple copies of a book (print and electronic).

What do I mean by extra features? This is not just more text, such as deleted scenes, interviews, author's notes, or readers' guides, added to the back of the main book. This could easily be added to print books, too, so this is nothing cool.

Let's choose the example of a historical novel. What if an architectural detail, the name of a famous painter, a seminal event, etc. were hotspots in the story? If the reader were to tap on it, a balloon would pop up with detailed information, including a picture if appropriate, about the topic. The author has already done the research and could easily code the text of her manuscript with these tidbits, which could be stripped from the production of print books, but highlighted in the electronic versions.

Publishers could host additional content on their websites, provided by the authors, hot-linked to from within the eBooks, such as musical pieces, an online viewing of a museum's art gallery, recipes of historical foods, and so on. For a nonfiction book, the bibliography could be hyperlinked to the actual papers and books on the Internet. The website tie-in would give the publishers another way to brand their eBooks.

What this does is gives the reader an incentive to plunk down their hard-earned money for something new and different, rather than an entitlement demand from publishers for the same text. What it also does is that it respects and leverages the electronic medium to change the conversation about books. Now a book is no longer passive text on the page, but an interactive reader experience.

It's time for the publishers to forge ahead into the 21st century and own the new medium instead of vainly trying to confine it to the standards of the medium from the 15th century.