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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Do I Believe In Ebooks?:
Part One

By Evan Schnittman

Recently I was on an airplane reading an article in the New York Times when the woman in the seat next to me leaned over and asked what I was holding. I told her it was a Kindle, Amazon’s new ebook reader. I showed her how it worked, explained e-ink, walked her through my collection of titles and subscriptions, and showed how I could look up words in the built in Oxford dictionary. Her response; “That is really cool, but I prefer the feel and smell of a real book.”

Being a Kindle enthusiast and power user, I’m confident my demo and explanation was fairly persuasive and yet her response was typical in its ambivalence. Her next question caught me by surprise, “Do you really believe in ebooks?” I stammered out one of those longer-than-it-should-be explanations citing market conditions, investment by major technology and media companies, technology advances, etc. I basically summarized all that I have written about on this blog – yet in the end, it occurred to me that I never really answered her question. Do I believe in ebooks?

On the surface the answer looks simple – I have already purchased and read about 20 books on my Kindle. Yet when I thought about it, I couldn’t simply answer with an authoritative “YES.” Do I believe in ebooks? In time it struck me that this question was one that cut to the heart of the future of publishing. The real question is not whether I believe in ebooks. The real question is whether we (The Publishing Industry) believe in ebooks.

Back on the plane that day it turned out that one of the books that I had purchased and held on my Kindle, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, was what my plane-mate had brought onboard to read. After about 5 hours we both managed to eat two meals and read the book cover to cover (in her case), lines 1 – 1565 (in my case). We settled back and compared notes on the grace of McEwan’s language and the depth of repression in the main characters, and then we went back to our own worlds.

With three long and boring hours of flying to go, I re-opened my Kindle and began reading. Soon I finished The Times, the Journal, and 3 articles in Slate. I was also able to finish the last part of Steve Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up, and started Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. All this time my plane-mate, out of reading material, struggled desperately to entertain herself by leafing through the SkyMall catalogue and pondering the price of a life-sized mechanical swimming pool dolphin (I couldn’t make that up if I tried) while waiting for the movies on Continental Airlines antiquated entertainment system to cycle back to the beginning.

This is where ebooks have a distinct and very important advantage over print, portability. Ebooks greatest potential audience is the traveler. Those who commute using public transportation and those who are passengers for hours on end in planes, trains and automobiles are the true growth audience for ebooks. Ebooks are about convenience and are what I read when it’s impractical to read in print. When I am commuting or traveling I use my Kindle. The rest of the time I read in print.

This is why ebooks are difficult to believe in beyond a niche market in the same manner that audio books serve a niche market. While I am willing to pay a bit more to get the NYT and WSJ on my Kindle while still maintaining my print subscriptions, I would never buy the print book AND the ebook. In fact I have not purchased a single book on my Kindle that I have in print nor have I purchased a single print book that I read on my Kindle. This cuts to the core of why I couldn’t easily answer the question of my ebook beliefs. I only believe in ebooks as a tool of convenience.

Sure, I read On Chesil Beach cover to cover and theoretically own it forever – but when I look at the 7 other Ian McEwan titles found on my shelves at home, On Chesil Beach is missing. Since I don’t have any of the books that I purchased on my Kindle, at night when I read before I go to sleep, I have to remember to take my kindle out of my bag and bring it upstairs (not to mention put it back in the morning). This goes against the way I use my Kindle – it’s in my bag for a reason – I don’t want to use my Kindle at home. I prefer print at home.

In a consumer’s perfect world I should be able to get my cake and eat it too. I should be able to buy a license that gets me the book in print form and makes a digital copy available to me for downloading onto my device of choice. In other words, I want to buy a book and have the ebook too. (Or buy the ebook and get the print book too.) And guess what, I want to pay one price.
Intriguingly, Amazon already has a pioneering program that enables users to purchase online access for books they already bought or are buying in print for 5% – 20% of the list price. Fatally it is not tied to the Kindle or ebooks in any way. One has to go online and log into your Amazon account to access the content… not very useful while flying to the UK or chugging by train into Penn Station or paying for online access by the minute/hour/day, etc.

The problem with what I want is that it cuts across an enormous issue; the valuation of e-content. By proposing that the print purchase grants an ebook license I will be vilified as devaluing the ebook by those seeking to establish profit margins and equally vilified by those who want free or extremely inexpensive ebooks as they will be horrified that they would have to spend on print to get to ebooks. Before anyone gets out their guns I say hold off for a couple of weeks. That topic is a whole other piece that will follow this one. Stay tuned for some far reaching speculation and a radical view about the true value of ebooks where I will propose a Print plus Digital license model for new books.

Until then, for you readers out there that travel or commute – I highly recommend you try one of the new ereaders – be it Kindle, the Sony Reader, iRex’s iliad, or the newly announced Polymer Vision Readius. Load ‘em up with books and other content and find yourself – like me – reading more than ever. So do I believe in ebooks? Stay tuned to this space and find out!


Evan’s PictureEvan Schnittman is OUP’s Vice President of Business Development and Rights for the Academic and USA Divisions. His career in publishing spans nearly 20 years and includes positions as varied as Executive Vice President at The Princeton Review and Professor at New York University’s Center for Publishing. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children.

Recent Comments

  1. Richard

    As a Kindle user, I find being able to sample a book – free access up through the first chapter – very useful in making better choices in what to buy. I am not the type of person to read a book through the first chapter in a bookstore.

    Kindles are GREEN. Getting the NY Times and Wall Street Journal daily generates about more than 500 pounds of paper per year to be manufactured, shipped, printed, shipped, sent to recycling, shipped and processed for recycling.

    I find reading newspapers on the Kindle is faster than on paper or the web – probably because I don’t get distracted by ads.

  2. Mike Shatzkin

    Except for sentimentality, I’m not sure why somebody would prefer a paper book to a Kindle book. There are TWO killer apps: the internal dictionary and the ability to change font sizes. Maybe you’re too young, Evan, but this 60-year old finds that changes in available light often call for a font-adjustment response. We were just at a hotel in LA that had very dim light in the bathroom; what a GIFT to be able to blow up the font on World Without End and then just keep reading!

    So I have a different take on this from Evan. I am having trouble imagining why I would ever read a paper book again. I still need books on my PALM (because there are times I have it and don’t have the Kindle AND because I can read in bed when my wife says “lights out.”) But I don’t see any virtue to the extra weight and two-hands requirement of a paper book.

  3. Scott Belyea

    Except for sentimentality, I’m not sure why somebody would prefer a paper book to a Kindle book.

    Oh, I think that there are quite a bunch of reasons, many tied to specific types of books.

    For some types, a hardback is a pleasurable thing to have. It’s an object, a possession in a way that no ebook will ever be. Someone gave me a hardback for Christmas which I asked them to autograph for me. Tough to do with an ebook.

    If the book includes a lot of pictures, graphs, and other non-textual material, I find it easier and more effective to deal with on paper.

    And no ebook reader I’ve seen or read about can match a Real Book for the convenience of going back a couple of pages, putting my finger in as a marker while I check something, and that sort of thing. Yes, I know you can move around quickly, but I don’t find it to be as effective.

    A book often shows me much more material at one view – two full pages which (particularly if it’s a sizable book) will have more in view at one time than the ebook reader does.

    I could go on. If you’d restricted your comments to mass-market entertainment books (as read on a plane to pass the time) and purely “practical” books (where some of the technical features confer real benefits), I would have agreed with you.

    But for books overall? Not in my opinion.

  4. jjwright

    I’m with Scott, I don’t think we are ‘there yet’ for ‘e’ing the totality of printed works – but for novels and general prose I’m a believer. What did it for me was discovering that I could use my cell phone as an eReader – life as usual plus books wherever you are. I didn’t have to worry about which books to carry, or forgetting/charging some reader device. I have been sourcing free ‘out of copyright’ books from http://www.booksinmyphone.com – I can even browse for new books and install directly from the phone.

  5. [...] Do I Believe In Ebooks?: Part One OUPblog – New York,New York,USA I told her it was a Kindle, Amazon’s new ebook reader. I showed her how it worked, explained e-ink, walked her through my collection of titles and … [...]

  6. Mike

    I tell people that e-books will come for the same reason that digital photography came; the advantages of the new technology will outweigh the nostalgia for the old technology.

    When e-books are larger, lighter, cheaper and color I believe first print newspapers, then magazines and finally books will fall to e-books. We’re not there yet.

    Mike

    A Kindle owner.

  7. Scott Belyea

    I tell people that e-books will come for the same reason that digital photography came; the advantages of the new technology will outweigh the nostalgia for the old technology.

    I don’t find the comparison very compelling.

    Photography (“traditional” or digital) aims at the same end product – an image viewed on a screen or printed on paper.

    Books aren’t that way. Regardless of how it started, the end product could be an electronic thing needing a piece of technology to read it; or one of at least two quite distinct paper manifestations – an “airport paperback” or something which has value oas a “thing” (typically a hardback).

    I believe that both “end points” have a place, and that both will survive.

  8. [...] I read this really interesting post by Evan Schnittman at the OUP Blog about why he uses ebooks only for convenience but actually [...]

  9. [...] like blogs better than books now? That doesnt seem meaningful on the face of it. Then I read this really interesting post by Evan Schnittman at the OUP Blog about why he uses ebooks only for convenience but actually [...]

  10. [...] Evan Schnittman enjoys the convenience of the Ebook when he can’t get access to books or when it’s inconvenient to travel with them, but interestingly, he also mentions that he won’t own both digital and physical copies of the same book if he has to pay for both. [...]

  11. Chet

    Hello from Malaysia.

    I’m a big ebook fan, and after reading your article, I realise why I like it so much – less book weight when I go on holidays.

    Anyone remember PeanutPress? That was when I discovered ebooks. PeanutPress was then purchased by Palm and became PalmReader. Then it was purchased by Motricity and became eReader. Recently, it was purchased by Fictionwise, but continues (for now) to be eReader.

    I read my ebooks using eReader Pro in my Palm TX and will continue to do so as the TX allows me to do other things besides reading ebooks. It may not be as sophisticated as a dedicated ebook reader, but it works for me. And that’s always the important thing – not what is popular, but what works for me.

  12. Jack

    Well said…..now it is more easy to have your favorite ebook on your palms with no time. I got my favorite book from http://www.itglobalsolution.com converted without any problem…so thanks to them..welcome again

  13. [...] Evan Schnittman enjoys the convenience of the Ebook when he can’t get access to books or when it’s inconvenient to travel with them, but interestingly, he also mentions that he won’t own both digital and physical copies of the same book if he has to pay for both. [...]

  14. Bill Giovannetti

    I say, bring back the scrolls!

    Every technological innovation has been fretted over. E-books are inevitable–cost effective, green, accessible. The market fears them; rightly so.

    But all is not lost.

    There will always be a need for skilled craftspeople to purge the literary dross, saving us readers time and money. It’s going to take quite a realignment, to shift to e-books. I just don’t see how we can corral this animal now that it’s out of the barn.

  15. [...] 5, on my list of top posts, was done for OUP’s OUPblog: Do I Believe In Ebooks? Part one and Part Two . This series posited that the key to the ebook reader device market will primarily be [...]

  16. Declan Stanley

    One of the advantages for authors who give away free ebook versions of their books – if you hadn’t paid for your ebook version of On Chesil Beach would you have bought the paperback to leave on your shelve?

  17. [...] For more on the growth of eBooks see “Do i believe in eBooks?” [...]

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