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I don’t want to move to Essex for e-books

Sony e-book Reader
Image by Irish Typepad via Flickr

Part of the East Riding of Yorkshire Council’s Library service, my local public library is pretty good. OK, so its welcome experiment with Sunday opening was sadly short-lived, cruelly demolishing this family’s regular Sunday stroll into town for fresh books (’voracious’ really is the best word to describe the manner in which certain members of the household consume the things). And the recent hike in fax charges makes it (bizarrely) cheaper for me to take out an ongoing subscription to eFax than pay the council to use their service once every month or two. More depressingly, its online catalogue is truly, shockingly awful. Yes, I know that I used to work at a company that — amongst other things — sells the competition. But honestly, what sane member of the book borrowing public could love this, and its frustratingly quirky behaviour?

All of that aside, this particular Library seems to do a good job of providing the things that libraries should; plentiful computers (not that I have ever needed to use them), a well-stocked reference library (ditto), decent coffee, big cakes, a great range of childrens’ events… and books. Lots of books. In fact, so far, absolutely any book I’ve ever wanted them to have. If it’s in a different library, I request it online, they get it, and send me a text message to come and pick it up. Free of charge. If it’s not in any library in the East Riding, they buy it for me and send me that same text message when it’s ready for collection. Again, free of charge. Good, huh?

Over the past few months, I’ve been taking a growing interest in the market for ebooks and ebook readers. GigaOM Pro has a useful report on the Evolution of the e-Book Market by Paul Sweeting. This and a few other reports have justified my subscription to the site already.

There is no Kindle here in the UK, although The Bookseller was reporting yesterday that the launch may be sooner than we thought. Sony’s Reader sells in Waterstones stores, and the company is making much of their early access to Sony’s new Touch and Pocket devices.

As capabilities increase and prices fall, the biggest problem facing the e-book market remains content. When the iPod was young, we were able to take content we already owned (on CD, for example) and transfer it to our new device. Yes, we bought (or otherwise acquired) new material, but we also had access to all of our sunk investment in music on various physical media.

The same is not true in the e-book market, as there is no effective means to take a book from my shelf and inject it into an e-book reader. To get a book onto a reader, we either need to buy it again or hope it’s old enough to be in the public domain, and Rob Styles considers some of the implications in a recent post.

Now there is certainly a community of early adopters that will buy these devices, download some ‘classics,’ buy new books, and be reasonably happy. But the need to effectively start again must be sufficiently concerning to give the vast majority of potential consumers pause for thought. Shouldn’t the publishers and device manufacturers be doing more to address that?

A brief flurry of Twitter conversation earlier this week suggested two broad models to incentivise take-up, both of which must surely be worth further consideration.

My preferred option is to leverage existing loyalty programmes. My Waterstones Card, for example, presumably tracks purchases that I have made with it. So why doesn’t Waterstones’ online store permit me to buy electronic versions of books that they know I’ve previously purchased for a discount? Maybe 50% off the e-book version of a physical book I own, or even down as low as 25%? These days, Waterstones purchases are a small proportion of my book buying. Like many others, Amazon is usually where I turn first. But as a seller of the e-book readers, Waterstones wants me to buy the device, and they want me to buy the e-books too. So encourage me to do so by giving a discount on the purchase of e-books that I’d otherwise be pretty unlikely to repurchase at all. Who knows. I might visit Waterstones stores more, and buy more new books there instead of through Amazon. An approach like this wouldn’t see me filling the device with huge numbers of books. But it would help to get my ebook library going, and help to ensure that the free Dan Brown Waterstones are offering with the device doesn’t look lonely. I’m not going to buy a device to get a book I don’t want. I might buy a device if I can see an affordable path to filling it with the content I do want.

The second approach, which Ian Dolphin suggested, is to bundle the e-book version along with the hardback version of new books. This could, presumably, be for free or at some significant discount. O’Reilly already offers similar bundles, so the model could work.

Which brings me back to libraries. Part of Sony’s announcement this week is an arrangement that makes it far easier for owners of the device to borrow e-books from participating libraries. This, again, helps to avoid the consumer’s vision of digital tumbleweed blowing across the screen of their expensive new device. If the e-book market is to become viable, we really need to be doing more of this sort of thing in order to build traction.

Unfortunately, in the UK at least, the number of participating libraries is very low, and I have no desire to move to any of those places. Is this something that more library authorities should begin to offer (surely hard to justify, with so few potential beneficiaries), or is there actually scope for some sort of national proposition? Could MLA do it for them, and offer something tangible to kick-start their notion of a national library offer?

Without some more creative thinking by publishers, book sellers and libraries, e-books and e-book readers aren’t going to go anywhere fast.

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Paul Miller works at the interface between the worlds of Cloud Computing and the Semantic Web, providing the insights that enable you to exploit the next wave as we approach the World Wide Database.

He blogs at www.cloudofdata.com.