04 March 2008

Cory Doctorow: Put Not Your Faith In Ebook Readers

from Locus Magazine, March 2008

Two fascinating lumps of white plastic hit major snags this past Christmas. One was the Nintendo Wii, a surprise smash-hit game console that compensates for its relatively crude graphics with ingenious gameplay based on a controller outfitted with accelerometers that let you interact with the console by waving your arms around. The other was the Amazon Kindle, an "E-Ink"-based e-book reader that, like its competition, the Sony Reader, delivers long battery life and superb screen quality in a slim and sexy form-factor that is just about the right size to slip into a large-ish coat pocket.

Both devices had the same problem: they sold out completely and new units could not be manufactured in time for Christmas. Both devices spawned entire Internet tool-suites dedicated to helping frustrated would-be purchasers locate their own unit. Amazon was selling 17 Wiis per second at the height of the fever, and more than one enterprising hacker whomped up a little pinger that would obsessively check Amazon for notice of new stock and then IM, email or SMS you the instant the Wii went back on the block.

No one knows how many Kindles Amazon sold. It's safe to say it was less than 17 per second. Far less.

Book reading is just not a mainstream activity in America. Every study conducted since the turn of the century shows book reading as flat or declining. Reports like the 2004 National Endowment for the Arts "Reading at Risk" is full of depressing nuggets about the ongoing decline in the importance of reading books to pretty much everyone: old people, young people, educated people and dropouts, the affluent and the poor.

But cheer up. It's a big world. Even minority pass-times can be real business and real culture — does it really matter that only mumble-mumble percent of Americans read a book last year if the total number of book sales still topped mumble billions? If you're a writer whose take-home slice of those sales was enough to cover the mortgage and food for the cat, there's nothing at all wrong with living in the niche.

It's fine to be a medium-sized small fry in those areas where the capacity is nigh-unlimited — say, Internet hosting, xeroxing, offset printing. No one's going to tell you that there's no room for your e-books website because the Internet is full. You're not going to have a hard time sourcing programmers to hack together your neat little social book-recommendation system. The world has lots of these commodities.

If you have a cool way to make money (or art, or both) that requires plenty of commodities, you're in luck. Your success metrics are relatively attainable: you need to be passionate, smart, and right. Combine these three and you'll be in business in no time.

If, on the other hand, your cool idea requires that you outbid other would-be artists and entrepreneurs for resources, your success requires more than being right and passionate and smart: you also have to have deeper pockets than the competition. When your plan hinges on something scarce — say, high-quality manufacturing capacity — you need to be able to win the inevitable bidding war.

You can bet that even as the Wiis were disappearing from the shelves, frantic buyers from Nintendo were camping out in the factory cities of Guanzhou and Shenzen, cajoling, threatening and begging for more capacity to make more devices before the Wii's moment in the sun passed, eclipsed by the next surprise-hit console.

As, no doubt, were the Kindle's masters — wheedling to get more units out the door in time to meet the Christmas rush, to ride the PR wave the Kindle caught from its (expensively promoted) launch.

It's telling that neither of the companies could outbid enough competitors to get units out the door in time. Not surprising, but telling. After all, getting good manufacturing out of a Chinese factory requires great care in your sourcing — neither Nintendo nor Amazon wanted to flood the market with defective, rushed units with crummy build-quality that would give the products a hard-to-shake reputation as a lemon.

China has experienced the largest migration in human history — 160,000,000 people moved from the inland farms to the coastal manufacturing cities — but it is not endless. Most of the world has shut down most of its factories, shuttering domestic manufacturing capacity in favor of the cheap labor, poor working conditions and environmental controls of China's factory cities. When you go to China to get your Kindle or your Wii produced, you're competing for space among the factories that produce socket wrenches, Happy Meal toys, laptop computers, prison cafeteria trays, decorative tin planters, vinyl action figures, keychain flashlights and cheap handguns.

Frankly, book reading just isn't important enough to qualify for priority treatment in that marketplace. E-book readers to date have been either badly made, expensive, out-of-stock or some combination of all three. No one's making dedicated e-book readers in such quantity that the price drops to the cost of a paperback — the cost at which the average occasional reader may be tempted to take a flutter on one. Certainly, these things aren't being made in such quantity that they're being folded in as freebies with the Sunday paper or given away at the turnstiles at a ballgame to the majority of people who are non-book-readers.

Meanwhile, handheld game consoles, phones, and other multipurpose devices have found their way into the hands of people from every walk of life. In some countries, mobile phone penetration is above 100 percent — that is, a significant proportion of the population maintain more than one phone, for example, a work cellular and a home cellular.

Not only can these devices command the lion's share of China's high-quality manufacturing capacity, but they are produced in such staggering volume (and often distributed with a subsidy — game devices are sold below cost in the expectation of selling games; phones are subsidized by carriers) that they can be had for a pittance.

As fierce as hardware manufacturing competition runs, it still creates a paradoxical abundance: an abundance of platforms that can run e-book-reading software. If you're someone with a smarts, passion and vision, you can easily source some hackers to bang up an e-book business to run on a PC, phone, or other handheld (note that in the world of phones and handhelds, a substantial portion of the manufacturers take pains to stop you from running software on their devices, as Apple did with the iPhone, but it's not illegal to defeat these measures and plenty of people do so).

Hackers are a commodity. Devices are a commodity. High-quality factories are not.

I'm skeptical about selling ebooks as a business model (see my earlier column "You DO like reading off a screen" for more about this), but if I had to bet on a future for e-books, I would take long odds against a hardware reader catching on in any meaningful way.

What's more, the top choice for hardware reader displays — E-Ink screens — are poorly suited to use in gaming and related applications. While these screens do deliver super-crisp, low-power-consumption text, they have an abysmal refresh rate (the time it takes for the screen to redraw itself). That's because E-Ink works on the basis of a close-knit grid of little two-tone balls that are physically rotated from white-side to black-side when a charge is applied to them. There is a noticeable lag when you page forward on an E-Ink device as all those miniature ping-pong balls spin in their lattice, a lag that is completely foreign to those of us accustomed to watching light get painted on the back of a tube or pass through the polarizing liquid of an LCD. You might be able to play a good game of Zork or Hangman or Scrabble on an E-Ink screen, but no one's gonna be porting Pac Man to it anytime soon, let alone Counterstrike.

E-Ink is a brilliant solution in search of an economically compelling problem. $400 e-book readers are not that problem. As we look to the future of books, reading and bookselling, it's critical to keep things in perspective. When Nintendo can't get line-time for the Wii, what hope does a niche item like an e-book reader have?

Sure, someday we might all be factories of one, printing devices from our desktop fabbers, but until then, put not your faith in hardware readers — take the easy way out and hack bits, not atoms.

Cory Doctorow's website is Craphound.com, and he is co-editor of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.

Cory Doctorow is one of a dozen Locus columnists and reviewers. Every issue, we review over 50 books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.

Previous Cory Doctorow columns posted on Locus Online:

Comments are welcome, but are moderated.


At Wednesday, March 05, 2008 2:22:00 AM, Blogger Marcel said...

I'm probably different from the regular Joe, then... I can't stand paper books anymore. And I have several thousands of them. Yes, for technical books I still need to go to paper (or maybe PDFs - paper books still lack an useful find function) but for fiction? www.ebookwise.com (and no, I don't own stock or anything). I have several hundred ebooks for it, and I strongly hope they won't go broke or I'm in big trouble. (And not because of any DRM - all my ebooks lack restrictions - but because I simply can't read paper ebooks anymore. Yuck.)

At Wednesday, March 05, 2008 2:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a quick note, Guanzhou should be Guangzhou and Shenzen should be Shenzhen. Not really a big issue, but I imagine you'd probably be annoyed too if you saw a respected author and columnist write "Tornto" instead of Toronto.

At Wednesday, March 05, 2008 3:40:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Cory that e-book readers are unlikely to catch-on in the near future and this will of course mean that they will struggle to get factory and media attention next to gaming devices. However, I wonder if this is actually because there is already a very suitable alternative - the physical book. For gaming devices there isn't an alternative - the device is the point. With readers it's really the content that is the point and the reader is a way of accessing it. Do we really need another slab of hot electronics in our lap?

I think the future will probably see readers being a feature of other mobile devices - if people want this - although I think paper is still going to be popular for a long time.

At Wednesday, March 05, 2008 8:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The price tag is no problem for me, but the stupid decision to only let the USians have access to readers and their associated ebook stores prevents me from buying and using both the Sony Ereader and the Kindle. I'm disappointed in Amazon They should know enough about the long tail to market the readers worldwide.

At Wednesday, March 05, 2008 5:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Give us poor factory workers a break. Capitalize the word Xeroxing.

At Wednesday, March 05, 2008 7:23:00 PM, Anonymous Tari Akpodiete said...

I honestly do not understand the appeal of a 'one-trick-pony' device.

I much prefer having a handheld capable of doing multiple things (address book, calendar, a few games, etc) in addition to being able to support the reading of ebooks. Some people like theirs to also be able to make phone calls.

Right now, I have a Dell Axim x51v (windows mobile) with a Sony Clie TH55 (PalmOS) as a backup. Also, just about all my ebooks (PDFs, Mobipocket, eReader) can be read on a desktop or a laptop, be it WinOS or MacOS.

Tari Akpodiete
Associate Editor & Contributing Writer
Smartphone & Pocket PC Magazine

At Wednesday, March 05, 2008 10:07:00 PM, Anonymous webgoddess said...

I have the choice of reading my ebooks on either a Sony Reader or an Iliad (I have access to both in my job) but you know what I use instead? My N95... In fact just today I found myself happily reading off my Nokia on the train on the way in to work and then again at lunch. Yeah, it's not QUITE as comfortable as i-ink, but it's a quarter of the size of a dedicated device and I ALWAYS have it with me. So my choice, if I don't want to be stuck without a book, will probably always be mobipocket on my cell phone. It's damn comfortable and very convenient!

At Thursday, March 06, 2008 2:55:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your description of eInk's operation (rotating balls) is incorrect. You are describing Gyricon's (Xerox spin-out/spin-back-in) technology. eInk has black balls and white balls and different ones are moved to the front or back of the display depending on the tone desired.

At Thursday, March 06, 2008 3:48:00 AM, Blogger redtux said...

I have no idea if this is the case with all e-book readers, but I just had a look at the above mentioned ebookwise and am quite dissapointed:

a) the format is proprietary.
b) the e-book cannot be printed.
c) even for those books available for free you need to buy a device from that site - otherwise, you're not allowed to download the e-book...

At Thursday, March 06, 2008 2:04:00 PM, Blogger Wil said...

While I agree that a dedicated ebook reader is a niche market, you can't really complain about the price. First, a niche market implies that you'll pay some sort of premium. Second, the Kindle is version 1.0. If I recall correctly, the original iPod was very near that price and had the same sort of ergonomic challenges.

Also, since I got my Kindle for christmas, I've literally used it every single day since. And I STILL find myself reading ebooks and emags on my laptop and on my phone occassionally. But there's something about the kindle's size and dedicated nature where I wouldn't really want to be reading anything else at the breakfast table. In fact, it's really superior to print.. no fumbling with broadsheets, folding pages over to get a better view, etc.

Finally, demand obviously drives price down. The fact that the kindle is sold out is largely due to the limited supply. Amazon is obviously tweaking the levers on this very carefully, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out.

At Friday, March 07, 2008 10:03:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i would love a dedicated e-reader device, as long as i weren't prevented by drm nonsense from accessing my own stuff as i would like. i have a pda, which i dearly love; but the sight of it causes a slight elevation in my stress level. that's where i store my tasks, commitments, my attorney's telephone number, etc. the nice thing about a dedicated device, is that it would exactly and only mean reading/serenity to me. no distractions. nothing ringing, beeping, or reminding me of anything. i like to completely suspend time and the outside world when i'm reading, and when i see the unit, i want to feel like hanging out with it is something to look forward to. incidentally, i think the 'bookeen' unit is the best combination of functionality and a beautiful product design. i'm not in an income bracket that permits me to chase technology, so i'm in the 'wait and see' phase for the time being...

At Friday, March 07, 2008 5:37:00 PM, Blogger Richard said...

In the last couple of years, I came to the unpleasant and unwelcome realization that I now require glasses in order to read paper-based books. Fortunately, I do NOT need glasses to read books on my Treo 700p smartphone. This means that I can now carry around some thirty or so books easily, read them at my leisure, and don't need glasses to do so.

I agree that eReaders are dead devices walking--but I'm sure the future of casual reading is digital. In short, smartphones will be the "paperback" of the future.

Richard Dean Starr
Freelance Author
Editor, TALES OF ZORRO, etc.

At Saturday, March 08, 2008 1:29:00 AM, Blogger Marcel said...

redtux made a number of comments which emphasize a few disadvantages of ebookwise. The point of my comment was about the ebookwise reader, not about their site as a source of books (I buy books from Baen - those that aren't free, and they have hundreds of free books - and from fictionwise, the parent company of ebookwise) - so point (c) is moot. So is (b), in fact, since I want to read the book on the dedicated reader.

As for (a)... I'm not sure why that would matter. You can find dozens of conversion programs in a few hours' search on Google. Or, you can use the online converter from ebookwise. Or, you can pay $15 (I think) and buy the converter that they sell.

In any case - I just found this the best reader from a price/performance perspective. And I pay pretty much double since I'm in Eastern Europe. It still makes it cheaper than a Kindle, and a Kindle would only be a nice brick to me :)

At Saturday, March 08, 2008 3:27:00 PM, Anonymous Eric Hunting said...

I think CD's argument is quite logical but predicated on a situation created by historically incompetent product designs and an inability of eBook system developers to comprehend the 'big picture' of the publishing industry at large and devise media development and distribution models that can deal with it. I've had an interest in the evolution of literary computing going back to the era of Franklin electronic dictionaries and Ted Nelson's Xanadu and have published proposed designs for eBook software and hardware going back into the late 1980s. I agree with the suggestion that reading is not (yet) important enough to compete on the market for quality manufacturing capacity -for products designed like the Kindle.

However, the Kindle is a prime example of the sort of over-elaborate hardware design that has plagued the concept for decades. Much of this relates to functional and cost limitations in technology -displays and storage in particular- and a tendency to ignore the basic ergonomics of reading. There was a time in the 80s when some eBook device designers actually thought they could produce viable products with 5 line LED alphanumeric displays and mass storage based on swapping-out bare ICs! Typically, producing a device truly functional for reading has tended to put one in a cost category far beyond what could be justified for the application -just as CD points out. This problem was exacerbated by unavoidable lag in content availability given a, justifiably, skeptical and fearful publishing industry. You had a chicken-or-egg dilemma; you needed a large user base to get the publishers to support the technology but need a large content base to get users to buy the devices. In response eBook designers would exacerbate the problem by trying to add value to their devices through multi-functionality, thus making their products even more elaborate, more expensive, and producing, in effect, hopelessly inferior near-PDAs and near-Tablet PCs. This blunder has been repeated by most every eBook hardware developer to date.

Today, though, we are on the cusp of a turning point with this technology. We can now actually design and produce a functional eBook at a cost low enough to make it rational for at least one key 'gateway' literary application; college textbooks. And that's an application where the market is indeed large enough to buy that necessary share of production capacity given this cost level and a more rational, simpler, product design. Textbooks, in the US in particular, are like no other media. In fact, the closest analogy to the textbook publishing industry today is the prescription drug industry. Students have no choice of whether or not to buy textbooks. They only have limited choices in how and where to get them. They are ridiculously expensive relative to their production cost -currently averaging about 10 times cost and rising. They are deliberately obsolesced at a steadily increasing rate in order to cull the market of used books. Their distribution channels are restricted and strictly controlled. They even have some of the very same 'problems' the drug industry has -like re-importation of books from other countries by importers exploiting radical overseas market price breaks. And this is a big market. One college bookstore chain -the Follett company- sees 3 billion dollars a year in profits. Maybe it's not as big as video games, but it's nothing to sneeze at.

In the past year one small company -FreeLoad Press- was able to move one million units of eBook versions of a select group of textbooks done as a market experiment. These were books intended to be read on PCs and laptops -which is itself rather inconvenient but made even more so by the fact that these books had ads and were only partially discounted compared to their paper versions! That's how much that modest savings meant to these students. A number of similar experiments have also been tried by publishers and wholesalers with similar results. Obviously, students would not be buying something that cost as much a laptop just to use these cheaper textbooks -but then, the savings here can equate to thousands of dollars per year compared to the cost of the paper books. (some US students spend as much as $5000 a year on textbooks) For many that could be enough to justify a couple hundred dollar hardware investment for something that's more convenient to carry around, and more comfortable and less distracting to study from. If an eBook platform is viable, in my opinion it will 'break out' on college campuses first.

But there's a bit more to this. One needs to look at the whole picture here to understand the eBook role in it. Where eBook designs have gone wrong so often is in the notion of adding value to hardware devices as a half-assed way of justifying their existence when reading itself can't cut it. What they needed to be adding value to was the media itself, over and above what's possible in paper. You can do this with technological tricks, like embedded audio, animation, and some of the other junk that clutters up web pages. But the most important ways are price and convenience. To really do that you have to develop business models that work both sides of the media equation; content creation and delivery. THAT's where the technology really counts. This brings me to a simple question that, if anyone has been following me so far, will ring some bells;

Is the iPod a stand-alone product, a computer peripheral, or a peripheral for iTunes?

My answer is the latter; a peripheral for iTunes. If you can sort of grasp by implication why I arrive at that conclusion, you will understand why eBooks have so far always failed. The iPod has been a success because iTunes changed the model of music publishing in such a way that it could add value to music through convenience, if not always cost, on both ends of the media equation. ITunes actually adds more value to music on the content development side of the equation than on the delivery side because in order to initially exploit the content of the existing music industry to establish a user base one must make concessions to its hegemony even as it's eroding it from the other side. But it has still managed to take the lid off the content creation side of music publishing by radically reducing the cost and expanding the market reach for the individual creator and small scale publishers. The effect of that is still trickling up but, given that the music industry is subject to a Long Tail market situation where the little guys are producing the majority of content, the ultimate outcome would seem inevitable.

eBooks need to accomplish a similar feat and the developers of eBook hardware need to back that up with the software and -most importantly- the business infrastructure necessary to accomplish this. But it won't be easy given the established publishing industry hegemony that one must out-maneuver while still initially exploiting for content -as has been the case with music. But their position is potentially weaker than it might seem at first. Books have been subject to a Long Tail market longer than music and on-demand printing capability has eliminated the 'either-or' proposition of developing content for eBooks. The content development side of the book publishing equation is already in a downward cost slide. It's still more expensive to print on-demand but it's getting there. The only things mainstream publishers still have clear (and jealously guarded) advantages in are marketing, distribution, content enhancement (editing, layout graphics...), and -in the realm of textbooks- their influence over 'peer review' and professors preferences. (they use the same kick-back tactics drug companies employ with physicians) Amazon is already bleeding away that first two advantages. The others could be tackled by authors organizing with the intent to publish through cooperatives -which admittedly may be unlikely until the practical benefits -like radical increases in royalties and reduction in peer review nepotism and corruption- are clearly demonstrated. These are all things any developer of eBook devices needs to actively cultivate answers for, which is a tough task compared to just making a piece of junk and basing it on a 'build it and they will come' premise.

I think it's feasible. I'm not sure there are too many people with the guts for it. Time will tell. But it would seem likely something must change when we are now approaching the ability to make a functional eBook with much the same materials, technology, and process as a 'smart' credit card and when even the chronically bad designs of current eBook devices are beginning to coalesce around a more-or-less generic feature set akin to digital music players.

I've long found it ironic that the demo eBook prototypes cobbled-together at home by eInk's own engineers in order to sell the tech to other companies are actually simpler, cheaper, and more practical devices than anything you see on the market.

At Sunday, March 09, 2008 12:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps some strong reasons why e-books will not be very popular are peak oil, peak minerals, peak food, etc. The same China referred to in the article may soon need at least 50 percent of the world's resources to continue growing. Add to that what might be a recession in the U.S. and a possible global credit crunch.

At Tuesday, March 11, 2008 12:52:00 AM, Anonymous Dan Poynter said...

For more on the Book Trade, see
Book Statistics. Fascinating numbers on book publishing.

--Dan Poynter

At Tuesday, March 11, 2008 7:09:00 AM, Anonymous Marion Gropen said...

I agree that $400 is a LOT for a first generation device with one, not-so-popular function, but there is a market, and that's why the Kindle sold out so fast and for so long. Even Amazon didn't think it was going to catch on this hard, or they would have lined up more manufacturing capacity.

I just received mine a few weeks ago, and I can tell you, as a printers'-ink-junkie, this is a device to love. It makes my life easier and better in many ways, although I still buy some printed books.

And I know lots of folks who have to read LARGE volumes for work, and who move those documents over onto their Kindles by preference.

This market is enough to make the Kindle 2.0 a possibility, and that may generate something more. Eventually, of course, the tech will be shared with devices that do more than one thing, and the ebook market will grow enough to become commercially viable.

At Tuesday, March 11, 2008 6:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL--I got my kindle specifically so I could read new works by authors such as, and indeed, including, Cory Doctorow without having to devote precious shelf-space to their tomes. Still had to get Cory's work from the library, though--not available on kindle!

My kindle has already more than paid for itself just from the difference in price between physical and electronic copies of books I've wanted to read and can't get from our lousy local library system. And I've only had it since Christmas =)

Now I don't have to wait for the world to come out in paperback before I can read it--and then get rid of all the paperbacks I don't want to keep for rereading!

N.B. As a plus for authors: I use the kindle mostly for trying out new, young and experimental writers' stuff--exactly the material our public libraries don't (and can't afford to) stock. Books I love, I then go on to acquire in hard form to ornament my permanent collection.

At Wednesday, July 02, 2008 9:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i got the kindle and too my amazement there was a huge selection of things that i could get. i went to http://www.kindleshops.com and bought a few magazine subscriptions but also found many ebooks for a great price. if anyone is contemplating on getting an ebook reader then do so. mi not promoting the kindle but i am biased as i have one. i do think that the digital readers will be the wave of the future for reading.

At Friday, February 13, 2009 5:39:00 AM, Blogger Josh said...

I'd just like to say, this is one of the best articles I've read in a long time. I really enjoyed it very much. Thank You!

At Monday, May 11, 2009 8:25:00 AM, Blogger Helen said...

I'd love an ebook reader for the commute, Stanza on my iPhone is fine but I'm beginning to see the point of ebook readers.

The problem is I'm not prepared to do without the hardcopy. An ideal situation for me would be to buy the paperback, and get the ebook thrown in free. In fact I'd probably buy more hardbacks as then I'd get the story faster, but would still be able to read it on the commute.

Paying twice for content is something I'm just not prepared to do.


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