eBook Pricing Post iPad Tuesday, Feb 16 2010 

A colleague sent me an article from the New York Times last week discussing the likelihood of eBooks prices going up.  Ever since the fabled iPad was rumored, I wondered what would happen to the eBook market.  I was greedily hoping the announcement would bring prices down like it did for music when Apple first opened the iTunes store.  (Of course, we all know what happened to iTune prices once Apple established a strong customer base.)

Considering much of the clamor for the iPad was lauding its ability to be a multimedia device and e-reader in one, many believed the device would do to eBooks what the iPod did to music.  In other words, make book buying a cheaper and more convenient online experience.  After all, who buys CDs these days?

The interesting thing here is that Apple, in Jobs’ attempt to gain a sense of exclusivity, capitulated to publishers’ desire to set their own prices for their book catalog on the iPad.  The deal quickly had ramifications outside of Cupertino, and Amazon was also agreeing to McMillan’s demand to raise prices of bestsellers from $9.99 to up to $14.99 a download.

Since Apple was a second (well actually more like a third or fourth) comer, they couldn’t strong-arm publishers to give them special pricing to entice customers.  Amazon had that racket nailed down already.  So instead of strong-arming the publishers, they did the opposite.  They allowed publishers to dictate the prices to them in an attempt to garner enough support to build a viable and attractive catalog for their iBooks store.

So how is Jobs going to justify higher device and media costs?  Wow factor.

If you saw Jobs announcement for the iPad, you noticed that many of the things he focused on was about the interface.  Like the Nook, you can peruse the bookstore by seeing cover shots of books in the library.  Apple, of course, upped the ante a bit by putting the books on a virtual bookshelf that leads to a secret entrance into the bookstore.  I gotta admit, cool looking.  But would it make me go out and replace my Nook for an iPad?

He also showed how a finger swipe turns the page and how the other functions work–bookmarking and the like.  Again, all interface.  I wonder how the reading experience is outside in sunlight?  Or, how long you can read before your eyes get fatigued?

Of course, he also talked about embedded videos and other mixed-media elements the iPad would be able to support because it is, well, a computer.  Sounds interesting, and it is a feature that could possibly change the way people write books (like graphic novels).  But what kinds of videos are going to be embedded in books initially?  Commercials, maybe?

So let’s review the reasons why the iPad is good for eBooks: a cooler interface, video ads, and, oh yeah, higher book prices.  And don’t forget you do have to buy the device first.  That will set you back anywhere from $500-$700 dollars, and if want to be able to use your device away from WiFi hotspots, another $30 for use of AT&T’s already overtaxed (thanks, iPhone) 3G network.  How could anyone pass up this deal?

Well, obviously, I’m not convinced that the iPad will be as well received as many think.  I’m skeptical that there is a need for such a device.

Do you know why I love my Nook?  Because it’s convenient to carry and use, and it does its job very well.  Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to hold a 10 inch device to read my paper while I have my lunch.  I want instant on and an easy-on-the-eyes reading experience.  If I want to browse the web and check email, I can power up any of my PCs to do that; they all run Ubuntu, so they load rather quickly.  Besides, they all have the conveniences that make surfing the Net fun and enjoyable–a physical keyboard, stereo speakers, etc.  Okay, I admit, being able to navigate to any place on a page by pointing with my finger is a cool feature.  However, the iPad, as I see (granted I haven’t seen one in person), lacks one major factor that makes e-readers cool (and a viable replacement for printed books), the ability to mimic the reading experience of an actual book.  Books don’t interrupt your reading with an email alert, or try to distract you from the words by embedding videos, and they won’t even allow you to surf the Net.

In terms of book pricing, don’t get me wrong; I am all for writers getting paid for their craft.  After all, without them, there would be no books to speak of.  I believe that everyone should get compensated (if they so choose) for their time and effort should they provide a valuable service or product.  However, what I don’t agree with is how publishers use the poor author as an excuse to raise prices.  If the publishers are so concerned about the author, why not take a smaller cut and give more to the author?

Why raise prices anyway?  One astute person who was interviewed in the aforementioned Times article suggested that since there is no printing, shipping, and storage costs with eBooks, it seemed absurd that publishers could justify raising prices.  Seems logical; however, the counter-argument the publishers make is that printing and handling of physical books is only a small portion of the overall publishing cost.

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the publishing industry to say if this is a valid argument.  All I know is that the old lesson of economics will come into play here–supply and demand.  I’m certain the publishers who inked deals with Apple are banking that the iBooks store makes eBooks as ubiquitous as music bought from the iTunes store (and hence, driving up demand).  The problem I see is that people are reading less today than before.  The eBook, I felt, would be one way to get people reading again.  Unfortunately, I’m concerned that the new price-point is going to alienate would-be readers.  Instead of reading, they’ll spend the $15 dollars on the DVD version of Kite Runner instead of Khaled Hosseini’s, much better in my opinion, written narrative.

I don’t want to come off as some maniacal anti-Apple/Jobs Linux fanboy, but we have to realize that Apple is rebuilding what Microsoft was forced to break down–a restrictive market.  At least Gates didn’t require you to buy a Microsoft computer to run his software.  Jobs got his groove back and is willing to take on all comers.  But at what price?  You can’t use Flash on the iPad because Jobs feels Adobe is lazy.  Whether he’s right, isn’t the issue.  It is the fact that you, as the end-user, CANNOT decide this on your own.

For me, the cost is more direct; I’ll have to pay more for eBooks thanks to him.

The Nook with Ubuntu Cont. Friday, Feb 5 2010 

Lee Seigel of the New York Observer likens Steve Jobs’ presentation of the iPad to Moses presenting the Ten Commandments to the Jews.  He says:

On Mount Sinai, Moses received the Ten Commandments written on twin “tablets,” then climbed back down into the desert wilderness and explained the new law to the Jewish people. Clutching his own “tablet,” Steve Jobs orchestrated his appearance before the world press last Wednesday along Mosaic lines, presenting his device as if it heralded the dawn of a new age. Not only that, but the hyperventilating media went on and on about Mr. Jobs’ talent for “shrouding” his announcements of new gadgets in secrecy. The Tablet. The Shroud. Who says that technology is any less mystifying than religion?

So now that Steve Jobs brought the iPad down the mount the world can begin turning again.  I’m a little concerned how the iPad will affect prices for eBooks.  Hopefully, all of Jobs back-room dealings with publishers doesn’t drive the prices up too much.  We’ll have to see.  I did see a recent article that suggested that Amazon will soon be raising their prices because of new deals with publishers that are asking to set their own prices (seems that the iBook store has given them more leverage, and they’re beginning to assert it).  Regardless of what happens, I’m not giving up my Nook just yet.

I wanted to follow up and talk about my month-long experience using the Nook.  So far, I love it!  I haven’t found anything that has shaken my confidence in the device.  Just so that people don’t think I’m some crazed Barnes and Noble shareholder or hardcore fanboy, I will admit that I had a couple of incidences of freezing.  I did hard restarts both times, and everything worked fine afterwards.  The freezes occurred when I was opening a new eBook.  While it was formatting, it seemed to freeze.  Of course, maybe I was just being impatient.

Regarding some earlier complaints that the OS was slow and buggy.  I’m not sure if the new version of the software fixed many of those issues or not; however, I’m pretty satisfied with the speed and response of the device.  It’s not setting any new speed records; however, in terms of what it needs to do, it seems just fine.  When books or documents are first opened, the Nook does need to format them to whatever parameters the reader sets, so that may take a few seconds to do.  But come on, how fast does it need to be?  The act of reading should be an enjoyable and relaxing activity.  The few seconds the Nook takes to format a book gives me an opportunity to sip my coffee.  Just because it’s an electronic device doesn’t mean the cold numbers of diagnostic tests should determine it’s worth.  The quality of the experience is more important when assessing a device like this.  Take NASCAR for example, the fastest car in qualifying isn’t always the best car in the race because of numerous factors–like handling, how the car reacts in traffic, etc.  Same here.  I’m not editing or ripping videos–speed isn’t that big of an issue…unless, of course, it’s freezing.

I also wanted to clarify something I mentioned in my earlier post.  I stated that although I was able to copy some PDF files to my Nook, they did not render properly when I opened them.  I am happy to say that I can retract that statement.  I reopened my PDF documents and changed the font to “extra small,” and guess what?  It rendered perfectly–exactly as it looks when printed.

I also promised to check the audio player, so I converted some of my OGG and WAV music files to Mp3s and transferred them to my Nook.  The files played without a hitch.  The nice thing is that you can play the files while you’re reading.  Although I wouldn’t suggest people do any hardcore reading while listening to music, it is nice to be able to play some background music while perusing the newspaper.

In terms of material available, so far, I’m happy.  I like that I can download a lot of free content.  Many of the classics are available as downloads through B&N’s bookstore.  I also bought a few books and am currently doing a 14-Day trial with the San Jose Mercury News.  I wanted to get a NY Times subscription, but decided that $10 a month is a little too pricey.  I can look at the Times online for free.  The SJMN subscription price on the other hand is quite reasonable at $5 a month.  I do like the paper because they are based in Silicon Valley, so have a lot to say about the tech industry.  The Bay Area is also much closer in terms of region to me, so many of the articles have a little more relevance too.  I will more than likely keep the subscription even after the trial period ends.

Lastly, and most importantly, synchronization and managing my book/music library has worked very well.  As I said before, Ubuntu and my Nook work fine together.  Since Ubuntu mounts the Nook and the installed SD card as mass storage devices, moving files is easy and painless–drag and drop to the file browser windows.  So far, I haven’t had any issues working with my Nook in Ubuntu–I wonder if Moses’ iPad can claim that.