Lost in the Pixels of a Good Book: The E-book Problem

Elizabeth Bluemle - April 9, 2009

Like all brand-new iPhone users, I went a little crazy at the iTunes App Store (a magical land where you can find everything from tiny handheld games—Air Hockey! Flight Control!—to downloadable art collections, playable musical instruments, song identifiers, "productivity" tools, travel apps, and more). I subscribed to something called AppSniper, a program that tracks brand-new applications and notifies you when something on your wish list goes on sale.

And that’s when I discovered e-books – loads of them, libraries of them – being added by the 01010101-load to the appiverse. Fully two-thirds of the new apps on the market seemed to be books – from the Koran to Shakespeare — most costing around 99¢ per download, though in truth most of those titles can be had for nothing. (More on that later.) 

Suddenly I had instant access to pretty much anything in the public domain – for a small fee or for free. This felt like riches, largesse, Alexandria. Never read the Upanishads? Well, here ya go! Want The Complete Sherlock Holmes in 30 seconds? No problem! And look – plenty of shelf space.

I’d always dismissed e-books as handy tools for business travelers. No one would really want to read fiction in pixels, would they? Book lovers love the artifact. I even said as much, all calm and confident, to a customer last month. No way, José. Not for me. Not for anyone who loves the feel and smell of paper and ink, the textures of matte covers and deckled edges, the heft of a heavy tome or the personal goodness of a little smooth square hardcover.

But then something happened, something unexpected, embarrassing, and a little worrisome: I read Peter Pan on a cell-phone screen the size of a playing card, and I loved it. I read it because I’d wanted to revisit the original story but couldn’t justify the time in the face of all the new ARCs staring at me from every tabletop and bookshelf of my house. And because I couldn’t sleep one night and didn’t want to disturb my sweetie by turning on a light, I found myself switching on this bright little beacon of an iPhone and beginning to read. All of those circumstances had to combine for me to try pixie dust in pixels, but once I did, it was, quite frankly, a micro-revelation. It didn’t matter what format the book came in; once I was reeled in by a skillful writer, I was lost in Neverland.

Fellow readers, if a fierce book purist like me—someone who actually ate the page corners of my books as a child—can be lured into liking e-books, well, then, I suspect pretty much anybody can.

I had started tinkering around with this topic when the Association of American Publishers reported its 2008 statistics: amid an overall drop in book sales for 2008, with some modest growth (children’s and adult paperbacks), and downward dives (hardcovers, audiobooks, mass market and religion, among others), e-book sales grew by 68.4%. And it looks as though e-book sales in January 2009 trumped January 2008 sales by 173.6%. Let me repeat that number: 173.6%. It’s clear that the time has come for me to face the digital revolution.

E-books are a hot topic in the industry right now, and there are many actual experts out there writing thoughtful articles on the topic who know a lot more than I do. Like all of us booksellers, I want to know how this tiny revolution will affect my store. For one thing, it will add yet another lasagna layer to the deep dish of competition for book sales. From my humble perch on the Flying Pig stool, it seems to me that apocalyptic prophecies are premature, but there will be some fallout. People will always want and need real books, and as long as there are trees, books will continue to be made and sold and read and loved.

I also think we’ll ultimately be stocking our shelves a little differently, emphasizing the kinds of things no e-book can touch: in the children’s department, that means beautiful editions of classic and illustrated titles, poetry, and art. But for many bread-and-butter staples on our shelves, the in-store demand for those "real" books may be quite diluted; e-books are cheap, instant-gratification additions (or substitutes, depending on how you see it) for eager readers.

And herein lies the problem. Mobile phone e-readers are free, and easy [update: as of April 27, the e-reader Stanza has now been acquired by Amazon, so the top two iTunes apps are now owned by the online mega-store] . You just download them onto your cell and presto – you have access to hundreds of thousands of books – 50,000 alone in the public domain and available free of charge, as well as new and bestselling titles. The money, of course, is in the selling of the book content. So what’s in it for indies? Publishers offer options; on one site I visited, a bestselling title offered in e-book format leads to a long list of possible vendors—but guess how many of them are independent bookstores? Right. Everyone is getting into the act, it seems, but us. There are moves afoot to allow us to sell e-books to customers (most likely online), as in the program here, but if readers are tech-savvy enough to use e-readers, are they really likely to use an intermediary?

As one of those tech-savvy-ish types myself, I’m torn. I love the instant access to obscure books I’ve always wanted to read, the security blanket of having the complete plays and sonnets of Shakespeare with me everywhere I go, the unexpected delight of reading
< a href="http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewSoftware?id=294773236&mt=8">Alice in Wonderland on teensy pages. But as an independent bookseller, I’m concerned that, with more and more competition, a difficult economy, and less and less market to share, we are looking at a very steep mountain. Yet none of these other layers in the lasagna do quite what we do: notice and champion the treasures, both small and large; build blockbusters not by hype and hope, but by word-of-mouth; write thoughtful reviews to share with colleagues and customers; and put books directly in the hands of children and adults, teachers and librarians, saying, "You’ve got to read this!"

How can booksellers convert our handselling expertise to have a role in recommending and distributing e-books, too, so that instead of losing sales to publishers and online vendors, we might earn a small piece of this ever-growing pie?

What do you think? I really want to know. Especially if you have solutions, or any e-book confessions of your own. And bonus points if you can identify the 1974 first edition I chewed on as a kid — but don’t post the title! Just the endearment the character at the end of the book exchanges with her sweetheart upon first meeting.

19 thoughts on “Lost in the Pixels of a Good Book: The E-book Problem

  1. Keny Brechner

    For Bonus Points, —[Editor’s note: title deleted for upcoming players, but Kenny was the first to get this one immediately!] Bonus Lake Champlain chocolates to Kenny!

  2. Kenny Brechner

    In terms of your central question, “How can booksellers convert our handselling expertise to have a role in recommending and distributing e-books” that question pertains more to proprietary ebooks, rather than the sort of public domain downloads you discuss here. As Dick Harte has cogently pointed out, artificially reduced, or ‘deviate’ pricing is being requested from publishers by electronic device and media vendors selling downloads of copyrighted material. Regular pricing of copyrighted ebooks would be much more in line with the cost of traditional books. A 9.95 ebook download of a simultaneously published 27.95 hardcover undercuts both the publishers product,and the independent bookselling community. Two things are needed. Equitable pricing, which our trade organizations should be advocating for, and an in store delivery system for downloads which would allow a handselling moment to culminate with a download in your store.

  3. Carol Chittenden

    Sure is gonna be tricksy giftwrapping those little electrons come holiday season. Where will people browse for that perfect little barcode they want to endow upon a friend or family member? And if it’s not perfect, how will the recipient return or exchange it for one they like better? The old saying goes, speed, price, quality: you can have any two out of the three. E-books provide cheap speed. Prediction: the value of judgement will rise.

  4. Inderjit Deogun

    Elizabeth, as a book lover, I’m not ready to make the switch. I, like you stated, need the artifact in my hands. However, I must admit that you have presented a solid argument.

  5. shelftalker elizabeth

    Kenny, absolutely, I wasn’t thinking of the public domain stuff. But hey, why not? Everyone else sells or gives those away. We could do versions with our little store logos as ornaments along the tops of the pages, and annotations on our favorite passages, maybe even add photos of our dogs, and our loyal customers could brag, “I read the DDG special-edition version of Bleak House,” etc. Branding, baby. It’s all about branding.

  6. Kenny Brechner

    I don’t know Elizabeth, I’m not one to miss an opportunity to immortalize my dogs, but isn’t the impulse to write all about fixity. Memories distort and fade. Our identities shift and alter. Writing and loving books satisfies the need to preserve, to make something tangible and above all immutable, a permanence which is otherwise beyond our reach. Digital books are inherently mutable. The ability to brand and personalize them undercuts the integrity of the whole process. To me the nature of our relationship to books, and to other readers, is linked more to the concept of branding knowledge, information, and personal service, than it is to branding the books themselves.

  7. Cathy C. Hall

    I’m already worried about the iPhone taking over the world…and now I have to worry about people DRIVING and saying, “I was just trying to finish this last page!” Maybe booksellers can offer tiny, little pixel reviews for those who only read iPhones. Just a suggestion, as you wish…

  8. shelftalker elizabeth

    Inderjit, believe me, I’m not ready to make a switch! Just surprised to find that the experience wasn’t as different and disappointing and just plain WRONG as I’d fully expected it to be. Cathy: I have customers who actually read books and newspapers at stoplights. Even I have never gone that far. I’d like to live. Karen: would love for you to elaborate….

  9. Rachael

    My question is how long can those low prices really last? If ebooks become the dominant player (and I don’t know when that will be), isn’t it realistic to think that publishers will eventually have (or choose) to increase prices to pay for marketing, editorial, distribution, etc, costs?


    On Itunes on my IPod, I have a ton of podcasts coming in- Diane Rehm, Fresh Air, news & politics, cooking shows, even videos. NPR Mobile is fantastic- it allows me to sort by topic- books & then it lists all the NPR broadcasts that I can listen to while working out at the gym- or quickly answer someone’s question when they say they heard it on the radio but didn’t remember which show or when. What a great tool! These apps are free – the reader apps obviously hope we’ll download non-free books. All of the formats are probably incompatible. Then there’s Adobe’s Digital Editions – or is that just a Mac-application? We have to get in on the action somehow. Libraries now subscribe to a service that allows patrons to “borrow” a download for a week. My Middle School Librarian was demonstrating the service to the kids this week. MP3 savvy, but only interested in music at that age.


    This is part 1- I have a new Ipod Touch. I downloaded Shakespeare, eReader, Stanza, BookSelfLT, Wattpad and yes Kindle readers just to look at their features. Obviously, I could also pay for and download e-books from ITunes. Some scroll, all have public domain titles and many offer e-book purchases. Odd to be reading on a 2X3″ screen, but yes, Elizabeth, it is great for those times when you wake up & can’t turn on a light to read (Alan starts muttering & perhaps kicking if I do) but you can burrow under the covers with your backlit “book”. I always ask my sales reps about our getting involved in e-books- Harper says- not ready yet. Simon & Schuster sent me a questionnaire to fill out to apply for the service this month. I think we just need to keep asking – can we sell these on our websites (even if we’re not an ABA site”)? can we sell them in the store? – they get a code to download the book at home. The more we ask the more possible it might become. Ask the question at BEA.

  12. Francis Hamit

    As someone who has published e-books since 2004, I can tell you that the market is very small so far. New books have to be priced high to compensate authors for the five to ten years it takes to create one. Public domain titles at 99 cents each actually hurt sales of new books and are pure profit for the providers. Smashwords.com, unlike Amazon.com, does not control retail price, but it does encourage authors to set prices low to generate sales. Where there is a print edition that generally does not happen because no one wants to damage those sales. Since books are unique products, competing on price alone is not necessary. Quality does count for something.

  13. Kenny Brechner

    I agree with Francis’ assessment. Both the flood of 0-99 cent downloads, and the pressure being put on publishers to sell their proprietary titles at perceived rather than real value, undermines the last great bulwark against book industry monopolization, standard proprietary publishing. Selling ebooks online is a red herring. We need to support the value of traditional publishing, of filters, and of quality. The idea of pod and digital publishing serving “

  14. Kenny Brechner

    (part 2) serving “the millions of deserving unpublished authors” is a sham. The book industry needs filters. Publishers and Independent Booksellers provide that in different ways. We need to support traditional publisher from being pressured into providing artificially low ebook prices. That’s the bottom line.

  15. May Anstee

    I am an avid reader, not associated with the publishing industry at all. Here are my two cents. I have my new Kindle 2, first ebook after my rocket e-book crashed to the floor. I am sorry to say, I love it, and prefer it to traditional books (and I love books) Two week vacation – the weight of carrying 5 7 books, or one Kindle. Reading the New York Times in the center seat on an airplane it is a no-brainer. Although I miss the ads, once I mastered the art of reading a newspaper on Kindle, Kindle won hands down (literally). In general reading is easier because the Kindle is lighter, pages easier to turn, and content is available quickly and painlessly. Kindle does have some limitations and I still will buy books, but only books I want to keep. Bookstores and publishers need to be aware that ebooks are seriously addictive. I do not know what the solution is. But I do know that I pay a lot for the use of the Kindle, but it meets my needs, and meets them instantly.

  16. Laura B. Lucas

    Am really enjoying the blogs, Elizabeth. I’m a frequent traveler. As I got older and iTunes’ E-books library got bigger it seemed to make less sense to tote heavy books around. The compromise I made with myself is E-books on the road, the real deal at home. While it’s true that I’m buying less from my local bookseller, I suspect I’m buying more books overall.

  17. shelftalker elizabeth

    Update — Mediabistro’s GalleyCat reports the acquisition of Stanza (the e-reader app this article linked to) by Amazon: tinyurl.com/cupyrc : “April 27: In a shocking bit of late afternoon news, Amazon.com, Inc. has acquired Lexcycle, the company that created the iPhone reader, Stanza. The online bookseller now owns the two top Book related applications in the Apple App Store.”


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