Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Essay: What's Required for an eBook Ecosystem

One of my criticisms is that outside of the US/UK (and Japan), a lot of countries simply don't have the "infrastructure" for eBooks to flourish. I want to break down the points when I talk about infrastructure.

Ubiquity of eBook Reading Devices: While I think it's possible to nurture an eBook-using community using desktop computers, the popularity of eBooks--at least the ones you pay for--is due to the rise of portable eBook reading devices. What consumers from the US/UK take for granted is the price of these devices and how uncommon they are in other countries. For example, daily minimum wage in the Philippines is $8.00 (that's $8.00 a day, not per hour!) so even the cheapest Kindle is never an impulse buy--at least to the common Filipino. That daily wage is better spent buying a cheap novel (there's a lot of cheap romance novels here with Harlequin-esque covers) for under $2.00, hence my skepticism of paperbacks becoming obsolete here (at least at this point in time). I'm part of the middle-class/upper-class and my budget for books tends to be in the $8.00 ~ $10.00 price range, so I have more leeway when it comes to eBook purchases, but the "upfront" cost of a dedicated eBook reader is still a significant investment. The only time I can imagine eBooks taking off here (as far as this criteria is concerned) is with either the rise of cheap eBook readers (around the $20.00 mark) or if it was somehow subsumed with an existing, prevalent technology (such as mobile phones, which IS ubiquitous here and other countries).

The second problem is the availability of eBook Reading Devices themselves (I'll qualify this statement though in my third point). Do you think Kindle devices are being sold in local stores? Or Sony Readers? The only device that's become commonplace is Apple's iPad (which isn't a dedicated eBook reader per se), and not only is it expensive, we're also far from Apple's list of priorities (For example, I got an email from Apple with "Introducing iPad 2" in the subject line and "iPad 2 is currently unavailable in the Philippines" in the body). Related to this is also the consumer's knowledge: do they know how to operate the device? Do they know about the different eBook formats, and whether their device can support their format of choice? At the end of the day for example, owning a Kindle is moot if you don't know how to use it. (For the record, I don't think Kindles are hard to use, but it is an issue for those devices that don't have their own ecosystem and lack elegant design.)

The third problem is simply lack of knowledge and awareness. Do Filipino readers know that we have local eBook readers like Redfox's Wizlib G51 E-Book Reader or CD-R King's 7" TFT Multimedia E-Book? (I'm not promoting these devices by the way; I've tried CD-R King's reader and it wasn't an elegant experience.) Or that you could read books via SMS with Wattpad? You can have solutions, but if the public is not aware of them, then the point is moot.

A System to Purchase eBooks: Owning (and knowing how to use) an eBook Reader is just one part of the equation. The device is useless after all unless you can load books into it. The first hurdle is where to purchase eBooks, and to anyone outside of the US/UK, that's not an easy answer. For example, Amazon? Sure, but that's assuming a) you own a credit card and b) that credit card is recognized by Amazon (i.e. valid in the US). Also depending on where you are in the world, Amazon is charging you an extra $2.00 (way to go to encourage developing countries to buy eBooks). Barnes & Noble doesn't sell me eBooks outright (or to anyone outside of the US and covered territories) while Apple's local iBookstore has a very limited selection when it comes to fiction (i.e. mostly books in the public domain). For science/fiction fantasy, there are vendors like Wizard's Tower Bookstore and Weightless Books, or even individual author websites, but the problem goes back to consumer awareness. This is also, in part, due to geo-restrictions on eBooks (which, to the casual consumer, sounds counter-intuitive to the technology).

The second problem, even as I mentioned alternatives above, is the fact that not every consumer owns a credit card. This is poignant in the Philippines, as even my co-workers have to be rejected multiple times by the bank in order to avail of a credit card (and even then, only half of us owns one). What's more common are alternative micropayment transactions, such as prepaid cards for mobile phones and Internet. In our case, solutions might be GCash or Smart Money for mobile phone users. Other countries have similar micropayment schemes such as Paymo and Zong. Dao Pay enables consumers to pay via their phone bill. Another possible solution is to simply sell eBooks as physical media (for face-to-face transactions), like CDs (or flash drives and SD cards for those with higher budgets) locally.

A question I get asked is how can this can be established by a local publisher. And that's honestly a big hurdle. Big companies like Amazon and Apple have the luxury of having a good back-end (i.e. if you lose a copy of your eBook, their website has a copy which you can re-download) and name recognition. A local fledging publisher for example would have to train consumers to shop at their website, as well as establish an online server that's not only intuitive for consumers to use but secure as well for transactions to be conducted with confidence.

These are, in my opinion, two requirements which have various implications. And I'm not yet delving into formats, DRM, rights and copyrights, etc.

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