Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Feature: How the eBook Industry Isn't like the Music Industry

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

There's a lot of discussion over eBooks and it's often compared to the music industry. Not that there isn't value in comparing the two, but here are some points in which I find the two to be very different.

1) Replayability - One of the biggest differences between music and fiction is that with the former, you might very well listen to the same song a thousand times in your lifetime, while your favorite book will typically be read a dozen times at the most. Music is quite ubiquitous while a book will either be memorable or it won't.

2) Identical Experience - Save for the hardcore audiophiles or disc jockeys, there's really no difference between a CD of songs and a collection of MP3s. Music aficionados don't claim "MP3's aren't real music!" For most people, whether they're listening to music from a CD or from an mp3 player, the experience is identical (and most likely the latter is more convenient). That's not the case with books though. Aside from the visual element (and why people are trying to create technologies like e-ink), there's also the tactile and olfactory senses to consider. This also leads to a perception problem with eBooks, where books are perceived as being more valuable than their electronic version, or that the current generation find the previous easier to read.

3) Format - In relation to the previous point, one big difference between music and fiction is that the former is united under one big format--mp3. Sure, there are other alternative formats out there (some of which are even superior to mp3) but what's become prevalent and commonplace is mp3. With eBooks, there are tons of formats, and some of them haven't been perfected yet or are difficult to program for. On one end of the spectrum, we have PDFs which are quite flexible but aren't standard in most eBook readers, and on the other end, we have TXT which can be read by nearly any device but lacks most formatting capabilities. This has one of the bigger impacts in the industry, which leads to people preferring one format over the other, and the devices which support them.

4) Microtransactions - A good leveraging tactic of online music stores is that of using microtransactions -- purchasing individual tracks instead of entire albums for a relatively low price. That's not really applicable to eBooks, with the exception applying to poetry collections, anthologies, and short story collections where you might buy individual stories as opposed to the entire book. That's not to say it's being done in the industry right now but they're the exception rather than the norm (nor am I saying that it should be the practice).


kaolin fire said...

GUD's had limited success with its micro-transactions option. Either people don't notice, we don't have the right price-point, or people would rather just have the whole mag if they're going to get anything. We'd love to get a superstar story or two, though.

That's another difference, perhaps--short stories don't get incredible amounts of radio time. ;)

Charles said...

You're the exception rather than the rule. =)

kaolin fire said...

*nod* just had to get the plug in ;)

Actually wonder how Anthology Builder is doing these days, too. I haven't heard much about them, but then I haven't been on LJ in six months. I need to get back there =/

And wonder what other exceptions are out there. :)

Charles said...

The thing with Anthology Builder is that it's not really a microtransaction for me. You're still paying for the entire book, you just get to re-mix which stories you get (and that's not to downplay the brilliance of Anthology Builder).

kaolin fire said...

True, they're more of a tangent to the question. They're more like getting to build your own mix tape--but if you look at micro-transactions at a lower sampling rate, they're also kind of like building your own mix tape, one song at a time. ;)

kaolin fire said...

@LianaBrooks mentions she's reread favorite books to the point where she's on copy 5 or 6 in as many years.

And another difference, I think--active/passive experience.

While many people experience music in an active manner, it's far more the norm to just have it playing while you _do something else_. That makes it much more pervasive/ubiquitous.

Reading tends to be done to the exclusion of everything else (except, perhaps, listening to music in the background ;) ).

I know, I know, where was this idea when you were fishing for them a few days ago? ;)

Memory said...

I think you've made some excellent points. Replayability is the biggest issue from where I stand. Even if I don't instantly love a song, I'm likely to listen to it anywhere from ten times to two dozen before I decide it's not for me. I feel like I've gotten my money's worth, even if I never listen to it again. I reread books far less often, and I don't reread them at all if they didn't engage me the first time through. I wouldn't feel like I'd gotten my money's worth out of an e-book I didn't intend to reread, and I'd have no way to legally pass it along to someone who might enjoy it more.

kaolin fire said...

@Memory if you get a PDF of GUD through us, there are no technical limitations on you sharing it... plus we give you one free "send a PDF to a friend" as well. ;)

But ... yes. Shareability is a very good point. It's almost absurd how much harder it is to share a good ebook than it is to share a good book, because of DRM, etc.

Liana Brooks said...

I'll have to step in and say that I disagree on the first point. I'm probably an anomaly, but I prefer paperbacks (because they're easy to carry everywhere) and I reread books constantly.

Sometimes they aren't even the best books, but I'd rather read than watch TV. I have books scattered across the house, in the car, in my purse, at the park, at the doctor's office, in the traffic that's not moving...

I went through my collection and about 30% of the books I own are second or third copies. A few are fifth or sixth copies I've owned (sometimes because the original copies wandered off with friends), and a handful are on copy seven or more.

With Tolkien and Shakespeare I have multiple extant copies because I receive them as gifts. I try to keep one copy pristine and the rest are well used.

*shrugs* It happens. I know not everyone reads like I do, so your argument is valid. It's just that there are outliers out there. And I'm one of them.

The rest of your article I agree with. For format, I'd rather take a $7 book somewhere and risk it getting lost than a $200 e-reader. I prefer reading pages to screens.

Jeff C said...

Good points. I thing the big things still holding back ebooks are the format and drm issues. We really, really need a standard format to emerge. If you know where to look, you can find ways to convert just about any format to one readable on your device of choice (iphone kindle/stanza for me). But still, its a hassle to need multiple ereader programs to handle all the different ebook formats. I would really like to replace my paperback purchases with ebooks (though I would continue to purchase hardcovers).