Are eBooks Really That Bad?

According to the latest sales figures, print books are experiencing something of a renaissance whereas eBook sales are declining. There also appears to be a bit of stagnation when it comes to eBooks, as a lot of titles simply don't appear in this format. 

Does this mean that people really prefer printed books or are other factors at play?

In this post, I'll look at what may have caused this downturn and explore some interesting similarities with the music industry. I'll also take a look at the history of eBooks to help uncover what's really going on.

The Long Wait

Although you probably think that eBooks were something Amazon introduced along with their Kindles, the story starts long before that. I remember Microsoft delivering eBooks on my HP Jornada handheld in 2000 and there were always options to read books on screen in the years that followed.

The biggest problem was hardware, as very few people wanted to read a book at their desk.

Despite a false dawn for tablet computers in 2003, where innovative and flexible hardware failed to take off, we'd have to wait a few more years for right hardware. Manufacturers really needed to deliver something that was light and flexible enough to allow users to simply slouch down on the couch and read. 

It was clear that no one wanted to read a book on their desktop PC and this made all the software pretty much irrelevant.

A Troubled Start

The arrival of decent hardware didn't provide all the answers though, as we were then treated to a format war. Barn and Noble had a device, Amazon had theirs and there were plenty of other smaller fish trying to get their little piece of the action.

At a time when an eBooks really needed to be an eBook, we were presented with multiple software formats and incompatible devices. 

There was also a huge differences in prices and ease of access. Despite the new hardware, a lot of eBooks required you to download an app and pay a premium price to view it on your computer.

The eBook Revolution

Around 2011 things really got interesting. For starters, the iPad had arrived and we'd been treated to some very interesting second generation e-readers.

Reading and eBook

You could now buy an eBook at far lower price than its print counterpart and then read it within seconds on whatever device was at hand.

There were very few downsides. Most e-readers now had backlit screens, you could have your book collection with you at all times and they didn't clutter up your room.

In my opinion, Amazon presented the best option. Kindle books were great value and easily accessible and the Kindle readers were lightweight and flexible. They also released apps for other devices, so you didn't need to buy a Kindle to read one. 

This, along with Apple's iBooks gave people everything they needed. If you had an Apple device you had everything, and it looked like there was no turning back. 

The Decline of Print

In the years that followed, it wasn't just books that were being viewed electronically. Magazines and comics had also gone online and this was good news for us consumers, as they were also cheaper and more flexible. 

Multimedia elements were also introduced and they really made a difference. Books soon joined this party as well and it was pretty spectacular. An electronic book could offer readers video, interactivity and audio. It really brought everything to life and with new devices like the Kindle Fire, it looked like these features were here to stay. 

After owning some great multimedia books myself, like music titles from Queen and the Rolling Stones and the making of the Star Wars movies, I can honestly say they are great experiences.

With all sorts of books available for great prices, I think it's safe to say that this was great for consumers and great for Amazon and Apple. It wasn't great for publishers though and they clearly had problems with it.

The Decline of eBooks

Despite some great advances, I think it's safe to say that eBooks have taken some serious steps backwards in recent years. From my perspective, multimedia has pretty much disappeared, the quality has gone downhill and consumers are being let down.

I think this essentially comes down to the fact that publishers resented the fact that Amazon and Apple encouraged authors to self-publish their work. They probably had issues with the low prices as well.

I honestly believe that a lot of publishers have adopted the wrong attitude towards eBooks. Instead of acknowledging that they sold information, rather than manufacturing physical books,  and adapting, I think they simply refused to accept this new world. 

I can only image what the recent Dorling Kindersley Star Wars titles would have been like as multimedia eBooks.  

This is all great shame, but it's important to acknowledge that publishers aren't entirely to blame. In my opinion, Amazon didn't exactly help themselves.

By encouraging self-published titles and introducing Kindle Unlimited, a subscription package for selected titles, I think they have contributed to the decline of eBooks. In my experience, the quality of 'Unlimited' titles compared to the titles available for standard purchase is considerable. It hasn't escaped my notice that a lot of them I've come across are self-published as well.

I think the best way to describe this is that it's like Netflix, but without the decent movies.

I don't think Amazon have done themselves any favours in terms of hardware either. From my perspective, both the Kindle and Kindle Fire ranges seem to have stagnated and the high-end models, like the Voyage and Oasis, are prices beyond what most people are willing to pay for an e-reader.

The Future

I see similarities between the decline of eBooks and the resurgence of vinyl albums. While I accept that people love the physical touch of an actual product, I can't help feeling that there's more at play here.

The big question is whether people are being influenced by the interests of the publishing and music industries?

After hearing repeated complaints over the years from the music industry about the 'injustices' of steaming services like Spotify, I was shocked when I visited a music shop recently. Among the wall of high-priced vinyl, they were selling a David Bowie SINGLE for FIFTEEN POUNDS. While it was admittedly a picture disc, it reminded me of the days when stores would sell 'import' CD singles for staggering prices.

This is surely the reason why people flocked to streaming services in the first place and it really makes it hard for me to feel sorry for the music industry.

I can't help thinking that the same thing may be happening when it comes to books. Like vinyl, I'd probably be a lot more responsive to physical books if the prices wern't so high. I've also noticed the prices of Kindle books creeping up in some cases.

It's not all lost though, as some simple changes could put us back on track. Publishers require customers, so it's up to us to make our feelings known and make it clear what we want. 

Amazon also have to do their bit and I don't think a shakeup of the Unlimited service would do any harm. They also need to bring their high-end Kindles down in price, as I'm sure people would use a Voyage a lot more than a dated Paperwhite.

We also need to make it clear to everyone that we expect multimedia content, so start feeding it back right now.

I think high-quality, multimedia books that we can instantly access on all our devices for a nice price will benefit everyone. I also think it would help if people really took a second to consider why they prefer physical books and what may have influenced this decision.

Whatever you prefer though, I hope you enjoy your reading.