Blog Post

Competitive Shopping — the Sense Behind Multiple e-Book Sources

By the middle of this year I expect we’ll have a big selection of e-book readers to choose from. There were dozens of readers on display at the CES 2010 this month, and it seems that every gadget maker is working on one for the market. I am still a firm believer that in the e-book world content is king, and that just having a reader on the market is not that big a deal. A reader with little available content is just a hunk of plastic, consumers want the ability to get the books they crave. Giant e-book sellers like Barnes & Noble (s bks) and Amazon (s amzn) have a big advantage in this area, with each offering hundreds of thousands of titles on their respective online stores. But the formats between the two stores are not compatible, and like any other retail segment competition could help keep prices competitive. Don’t believe that? I was in the market for some new e-book releases, and was surprised to find how widely the prices varied.

First up I was in the mood to pick up James Patterson’s latest — Witch and Wizard. I hit up Amazon, B&N, the eReader store (a subsidiary of B&N), Fictionwise (another subsidiary of B&N) and the Sony Reader Store. Here’s what I found:

While the three major e-book sellers have obviously gravitated towards the $9.99 price for new releases, in the future if a consumer owns a reader that is tied into one store then there is no guarantee the price will be competitive. A lot of reader makers are embracing ePUB format for books, and that’s a good thing, but that’s only half the battle for new releases. These books will almost certainly be infested with a DRM scheme, and just because a given reader can handle the ePUB format it will still stick the owner with whatever DRM system it supports. That will likely tie a given reader to a particular store. And as you can see, prices may vary.

It’s almost looking like the smart money is on putting multiple readers on a given device, like an iPhone (s aapl), so that content can be read from more than one source. Of course this makes keeping an online library much harder for the consumer.

40 Responses to “Competitive Shopping — the Sense Behind Multiple e-Book Sources”

  1. Just to add one more point, or rather a question: by the time an enthusiast reader pays $800 for an “islate” or “iPad” or whatever (i.e. basicallt the price of a PC basically) how likely is it that they are going to have any tolerance for someone telling them that they dont own the content and they cant read it here or there.

    And if ALL content isnt readable on that platform, how likely is it that the enthusiast reader will buy the “iSlate 2.0” or “iPad 2.0”.

    Not likely at all I think. So for me, its pretty clear that the DRM will have to go – or this whole “e-reader” movement will flat on it’s face. It’s already ludicrous that the two largest book retailers (Amazon and B&N) are selling “books” in hardware and software that actually have nothing to do with each other. Can you imagine if you went to BestBuy and bought a “CD player”, then found out that the “CD” you bought on cannot be played on it? The book industry is collectively committing SUICIDE through this anarchy. And DRM will not extend their lifespan whatsoever.

    • A very good point! One that I did not really consider since I buy DRM free, or DRM “removable” format ebooks only. The impact as people figure this one out is going to be interesting.

      I currently have around 4000 physical books. I just checked in Calibre and I am up to 321 ebooks, so already closing in on 10%. I have books that I bought over 30 years ago and still reread occasionally. I absolutely need the same kind of lifespan for the ebooks. With standard formats, no DRM, and available converters, digital data can easily outlast paper books. The life cycle is something I considered when I started my elibrary since I do CAD design system support for a living and maintaining and reusing data is a huge issue given the rapid churn of both software programs, and hardware platforms.

  2. Dennis James

    Taking off DRM also had another factor involved. The publishers realized a piece of the legal sales of music was better than nothing as much CRM-ripped music has been bit-torrented to the point it was available anyway.

    The lost revenue from ripped music is many billions (or so I hear), but the sales of legal music ain’t no pittance either. I also agree that other music resellers had to stop Apple as well. There was no other way to beat them other than lower retail price so much that taking off DRM was a better money-making solution.

    And so it will be with ebooks. BTW, I also do a lot of writing for a lot of folks and I see the train a comin’ on this one. I mean, where are we? We are writing pretty close to real time on this blog. That couldn’t have happened 10 years ago.

    The best we could have done is sit somewhere in a gymnasium in a circle of chairs with 10 other people we just met.


    • You realize that much like CD’s, books have been around forever in analog i.e. (non-DRMed) format – and many copyrighted periodicals and books are already out there in PDF and ebub format on torrent sites or whatever?

      Besides, the folks who REALLY like books are much like those who like music: they are not loyal to any publisher. They want access to ALL publishers at all times. And DRM is not going to cut it in the long run with these folks. Its okay right now in early days showing them “cool hardware”. But once a year or two has passed, these devices start breaking and competitors come out with better ones, its going to hit home that the DRM’d ebook aint like you hardback. At that point there will be a backlash and the momentum will stop.

      Book publishers are going to have to lose the DRM and focus more on value added, subscriptions and so on. They will also have to shrink and lose a great deal of their existing brick and mortar retailer network. Think about it like this: how many software stores do you see these days compared to when we all used to go out and buy programmes on CD’s and floppies?

      As for the periodical and newspaper publishers, I think their print product will have to remain free in price. They will need to consolidate horizontally with other news providers in the TV and web sectors. And what little money they make will come from convenience form factor eg.
      – a printed newspaper at a newsstand (that’s why we pay for it today even with the same content free, isnt it?).
      – subscription based high quality phone and web applications that augment the news consumption experience
      – maybe somehow develop useful functionality that can link into the social media experience

      Again they too will have to shrink further.

      And yes, the outcome of this is that what we know as the “quality” or “professional” media industry will shrink and consolidate. There will be even more “amateurs” at it.

      And all this DRM nonsense will have to go. It’s just a waste of time. Basic text contect is going to go towards zero value just like the basic act of a voice-only call is essentially free if you have broadband line.

  3. This market isnt any different than music. If the industry wants the digital market to stick, they will have to get rid of the DRM. I certainly am not investing any any device and corresponding DRM’ed product – consumers should have learned by now. Look at all the pooor souls who have WMA and Itunes DRMed music. All that money was a waste.

    • Geoff, I don’t think the digital music market stuck by getting rid of DRM. What happened is, Apple overnight starting taking over music. They had both the #1 devices and the #1 music store, all of the consumer mindshare, all of the advertising, all of the retail presence of note, and starting taking over from the large music retailers, started overtaking Amazon and even started threatening Walmart. They began to wield an amazing amount of power.

      The major industry powerhouses responded by making sure other stores became viable, and thus things like Amazon’s DRM free music store was born.

      I don’t think they gave up DRM to increase sales, they gave it up to ensure Apple didn’t become the defacto online music store. To a certain extent, it worked, although Apple still has by far the largest market share online and outsells many brick and mortar stores – but Amazon has a sizable footprint these days.

      I don’t think we’re seeing that with books yet, as Amazon may dominate the market with Kindle – but Sony has sold a significant number of readers, Barnes and Noble seems to be doing quite well with early sales, and the majority of the population does not yet have a device, leaving the industry wide open. With the iPod, there was a much higher percentage of consumers with iPods than there are consumers with eReaders, and we’re seeing the market share not necessarily point towards one early vendor getting some 80-90% of the market.

      ePub / Adobe Digital Editions is more a driving force with non-Amazon vendors trying to get market share, then book publishers trying to give market share to other companies – they don’t need to, nobody has demonstrably owned the market, and there are competitive devices taking a foothold.

      In my mind it has to do with Sony’s reader being one-upped by Kindle with it’s wireless, but the original Kindle having such an atrocious form factor. By the time Kindle 2 came out, Kindle had taken over, but there was clearly room for innovation. Nobody has been able to our iPod the iPod, but out-Kindling the Kindle seems quite possible now.

      • Oh and a site note, hopefully that money wasn’t a waste. In the MP3 player world (or iPod world as all but Zune owners tend to call it), people with Plays for Sure devices got screwed. People with iPods were given the chance to “upgrade” to non-DRM versions (the iTunes Plus upgrades). While it was thirty cents more per track, that was fair at the time, since the non-DRM tracks were $1.29 when that plan came out.

        One would hope if eBooks lost DRM that vendors would unlock them in a similar showing of good faith. If Sony is an indicator, that may be possible – they switched to ePub and let everybody redownload and upgraded all hardware to support the newer format, even their older, discontinued models.

    • I think a more valid take, is if the publishers want to participate in the digital market they need to get rid of the DRM and do value add. The equipment and skills required to do a rather professional looking ebook from a hard cover is well within the reach of the average person. Popular books that are not being simultaneously released in paper and electronic format are getting ripped within days or weeks of release. The Harry Potter series is an example of this.

      I have been following this one with a great deal of interest since it touches on both technology and books (favourite interests) and the ripped books are easy to find. Interesting enough, I am seeing far more rips of books without official ebooks releases that pirated copies of official ebooks. My take away is that people are willing to buy if available.

      I think that ebooks are here to stay. The question is who will be producing them and will the publisher and more importantly the author benefit.

  4. The nice thing about using a device like the B&N nook is that I can buy ebooks from stores like eReader, Fictionwise, or Kobo using the discount codes I get just about every single week as a newsletter subscriber and read these books from all of these stores (and the Barnes & Noble store) on my nook without even having to use Calibre to strip the DRM. I get coupons from B&N too so I only buy books at discounted prices now for my nook.

    Plus, with the nook I can check out the excellent collection from my local public library for free using ADE. It seems to me that Adobe Digital Editions is the driving force behind having a consistent ebook format across multiple platforms, with the exception of the Amazon Kindle.

    • Just one small correction… Calibre is ebook management software… it does NOT remove DRM. It does a great job of converting ebooks between most of the formats, if they are DRM free.

      I am very interested in the Nook since it is running Android and is easy to tweak to all other software to it.

  5. eReader Engineer

    The iSlate invitations have now went out. The invitation CLEARLY indicates a COLOR eReader is on its way. Not just any reader mind you, no, this is the Jesus eReader !

    Apple will once again set the bar extremely high for an existing technology. They will redefine the space. Look forward to getting all your eBooks in VIVID COLOR from the geniuses in Cupertino. No more lame B&W crapware from the book retailer. You deserve better and Apple will make sure the consumer gets what they really want. Only Apple is capable of launching something as game-changing as the iSlate on January 27, 2010.

    It will be a new brighter more colorful world that awaits you on the morning of the 28th ! It will never be the same again.

    Apple You ROCK !

    • Rodney Reynolds

      I hope Apple can keep pressure on the publisher to release the Color version of all those eBooks for similar price to the BW version, lets say $12, would be reasonable. And keep the price steady for a few years like they did with all those iTunes music.

      I am sure the book publishers are just as greedy as the record industry and Apple tamed them quite well, so a repeat in the book sector of iTunes will be schweeet !

    • It’s not an e-reader, but a netbook without a keyboard. Do you really want to read books for hours on a slate with its LCD screen? You can do that now with your desktop or laptop or netbook. Not sure what the slate/tablet will do differently in terms of reading a book.

  6. All the various DRM and format schemes make a huge point for general purpose ebook readers running a light weight but fairly standard OS… like say Android. That way you can read multiple formats and be reasonably confident that if a new formats becomes popular someone will release a reader program for that format, or add that format to an existing program.

    Plus you get to control your ebooks (where they are stored, how they are backed up, which devices you want to load them on, etc).

    With proprietary readers you are stuck with whatever formats they support and there is no incentive for them to release updates to support competing formats.

    • The major players do a pretty good job here, in that Amazon, Sony, B&N and Kobo all allow you to download files to your computer and store them. The only question is what happens if they discontinue their offerings and turn off their activation server. Already activated content will be fine, but if you get a new reader/pc/netbook/mac/etc you wouldn’t be able authorize your content for that new device… see Microsoft and Plays for Sure for an example of a company wrecking paid content for former customers.

      • and that is evil, plain and simple. Why is it every time we get a new media format, the media publishers try and restrict it more than previous formats?

        If I buy a book, it is mine… I can lend it, sell it, trade it, reread it as many times as I want.

        If I buy an ebook I want the same rights and freedoms. I do not want to be dependant on one proprietary device or service to be able to continue to read my books. Which is why my first preference is DRM free books, followed by removable DRM.

        I will not buy content that is locked to a dedicated reader, or kept online for my “convenience”, or that has terms and conditions that allow the retailer to remove a book that I have purchased.

        Ebooks should be treated exactly like paper books.

        What is ironic, is that I see the rather draconian measures some of the larger publishers are adopting, backfiring and driving more authors to self publish. It is happening is the music industry and the means test for a writer is lower than for a musician. They can also go direct to the retailer.

        Rather than trying to restrict and control, perhaps the publishers should consider how they can add value and adapt to the realities of a changing consumer market.

      • @Bj: One issue I have with stripping DRM completely is the huge issue of download piracy for these books.

        As an author-to-be, we see hundreds of print and e-formatted books being given away on some internet sites now. Just like piracy of movies and music, the lost royalties due to the author can be crippling to their income.

        At least with a paper-book, you can’t give it away/loan it to ten thousand people in an hour.

        As a realist, I don’t know if DRM is the answer – the music world has plainly gone away from it, so maybe the book world should too.

        But I did want to defend the authors who earn out their advances and future royalties over sales, not pirated downloads.

      • Replying to Pam’s point… [reply system does not seem to allow 3rd level nesting…]

        I am not advocating piracy. I don’t condone or support it. However, I do not agree with handing away my rights to my property to a 3rd party that may decide to change their terms and conditions, go out of business, or fail to continue to support their product on new technology as things change.

        A bigger reality is that people need to wrap their heads around the FACT that data is just data. Back when a book, was the result of a trained scribe (likely a priest) labouring for months or years it had a different value and was very hard to copy. Now with ebooks piracy could become a big issue. However, trying to deal with it with DRM is going to fail, since adequate layers of protection defeat ease of use. It has not worked for music, it has not worked for movies, it is not going to work for books.

        One big thing books have going for them is the consumers. A typical novel is going to provide 4-6 hours of enjoyment. Paying a dollar or two/per hour is a no brainer and most people genuinely want to support their favourite authors and keep them beavering away writing new books.

        If the ebooks are available at a reasonable price, in a timely fashion I cannot see piracy really taking off. On the other hand, when publishers let books go out of print, refuse to release electronic copies (especially true of backlists), or delay them… people will create them.

        If the option is paying $6-10 for a professionally done ebook in the format of your choice, knowing you are supporting your author, that is easy to acquire, or hunting down a pirated copy, that may have formatting issues, or need converting, I think most people will buy the book. But if people get used to the piracy route and get good at it, because that is the only way to get the ebook, piracy will grow and flourish.

        Change is happening in the publishing industry… to books, magazines and newspapers. The companies that adapt to the new realities will do well, those that refuse to change will get buried. It is up to the publisher, and retailer to make their content and delivery system compelling enough that it offers value over the alternatives. Look at Apple and iTunes… they seem to be doing ok.

      • bj says:

        Look at Apple and iTunes… they seem to be doing ok.


        While that’s true (they are doing “at least” ok), what’s important to remember is they BUILT their dominance WITH DRM, maintained it in the face of publishers handing Amazon the right to sell the SAME MUSIC without DRM, and now continue to maintain it after receiving their own permission to sell non-DRM music.

        That kind of defeats the argument of DRM killing off publishers. The scary part is transference, not obsolescence. Look, when tapes went the way of the Dodo Bird, MOST people lost access to their music as tape players got old and weren’t as easily replaced, or if they were easily to find they just didn’t want to. When CDs begun to dominate, few people had burners and computers and were connecting tape players to the input jack and burning their content, and even those with the expertise just bought new copies of important stuff since the quality went.

        CDs were great, because it’s trivial to rip. DVDs are almost as trivial to rip, but now we have the DMCA to contend with. Music on CD seems to have been the last pre-DMCA media form. DVDs, BluRays, eBooks, DRM encoded MP4 movies bought from Apple, etc all have this issue. It’s not DRM that I object to, when it’s done right (Apple and device sharing, eBooks shared on multiple readers and consistant implementation of Adobe Digital Editions, etc), it’s the lack of transference, or a consumer’s bill of rights per-say.

        If eBook sellers promised to:

        1) Continue DRM
        2) If they discontinue their current system and continue to sell content transfer your material to the new system.

        I’d be a lot happier.

        Look, if Microsoft cancelled Plays for Sure, came out with the Zune, and let people get Zune content, they’d silence many critics. The remaining critics weren’t going to do Plays for Sure anyway.

        Look at Sony… they dropped their file format for ePub and their DRM for ADE. They gave EVERYONE the books in the new format for free, and updated discontinued players.

        That’s DRM I can live with…

      • I actually was pointing to Apple and iTunes as an example of innovation and value add, not about their late adoption of and jumping on the anti-DRM band wagon. They made it cheap and easy to find and buy single tracks, rather than having to buy entire albums.

        If publishers, and/or retailers make it cheap, easy, simple, and convenient to buy ebooks from them rather than searching out pirated copies, or ripped books… consumers will reward them with money.

        I already buy some ebooks directly from one publisher since it is easy and I can buy advance copies before the hard cover is even released (actually pay a premium price over a regular ebook for that, $15 rather than $6). That is a great example of innovation, and the creation of an extra revenue stream.

        Another example: My dad, whom while not a technophobe is far from computer savy, just bought an ereader since his library offers ebooks, and he can download them rather than driving 45 miles into town to borrow books.

  7. JK — KoboBooks and Sony’s Reader store use Adobe ADE encrypted ePub exclusively. Barnes and Noble has MANY (but not all) in an ePub format now, but use a form of ADE not yet compatible with other devices – they have mentioned on their forums that they are working with Adobe to include this scheme in the next ADE server release which will allow their books to authorize for Sony and other readers.

    There are others, but these are the big three right now. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a DRM advocate, but I am a realist, and seek the DRM solution with the least headache. I did the same thing with Apple, I bought music from iTunes since it worked on PCs, Macs, iPods and iPhones, you could share with multiple devices, and all of those devices could play non-DRM files as well and you could even burn to CD and re-rip which while slightly decreasing the quality did provide a way to strip the DRM without violating the DMCA.

    I see ADE as being close to that scenario – more content on more devices.

  8. Quentin Dewolf

    the problem is that until all available books can be read on any device then you are always going to want a book that is not available for your device making price irrelevent. Small laptops/tablets/$200 netbooks can now read everything and are color.

    • Converters exist for most formats. Mobi, prc, rtf, and lit all convert really well to ePub. PDF is a bit hit and miss. Strangely enough txt is the worst format as you tend to get giant blocks of text without formating, which I find rather unpleasant to read.

  9. Some random comments…

    I think that multiformat readers will end up winning the war… I have seen a couple readers that support epub, mobi, prc, pdf, lit, and txt.

    Stripping DRM is easy, especially in PDF files. My thinking is that if I buy it, its mine, same as a paper book, and I can convert it into whatever format I want to consume it in.

    I use Calibre as a ebook library management tool on my netbook. It will read just about anything, supports content management to most readers, and does conversions to most formats. I have settled on converting everything to ePub for actual consumption on my readers. I am not thrilled with the tight integration between content providers and readers, like the Kindle, as it is open for abuse.

    Publishers need to just get over it. ebooks are here to stay and they can either embrace the opportunity or lose sales. For example, Robert Jordan’s series “The Wheel of Time” is very popular, however Tor does not really like ebooks and is very slow to release them. A ripped copy of the latest book, was available within days of the hard cover being released and with scanners and OCR technology the rips are very well done.

    I purchase a lot of books, and have a large library (over 4000 books). I am consuming most new books on ereaders, since I do not buy hard covers (no space, and cannot justify the significantly increased cost). Some I will end up purchasing again when they are released in paperback. If the publisher releases ebook versions in a timely matter (not 3 months delayed) and at a reasonable price (similar to the paperback price, $6-10) I will happily buy them. If not, I most likely can find an alternate source, or just borrow the book from the library.

      • Depends on the DRM… :-)

        For PDFs, mostly qpdf, pdfedit, pdfcrack. A lot of the DRM is basically locking the PDF so you cannot easily convert it.

        I don’t like PDFs since they don’t play nicely with some of the readers I like. Ebooks should live in a format that is easy to reformat to suit whatever size of screen at whatever font size you are consuming it on. Like I said, I have settled on ePub as a standard format.

        DRM is stupid for the most part since it is just data. Serious heavy weight locking and encryption needed to actually secure the data gets in the way of actually consuming it.

        Beyond the philosophical objections I have to DRM on something that I purchased, my big concern is being locked into a particular media, format or playback device. Who knows what I will be consuming on 10 or 20 years from now. As long as I have the data in a readable form I can convert it to suit.

  10. johnkzin

    Android is getting multiple readers as well, it seems.

    An EnTourage eDGe can read books from it’s own store (using the built-in e-reader software), as well as and (using’s software for Android). I seem to recall there was a fourth store it can buy from, a well. (and, of course, there’s all of the places that just sell PDFs).

    If Amazon would get off their butts and release a “Kindle for Android”, then that would just about be perfect.

    I’ll probably be buying an Adam instead of an eDGe, but that still gives a good selection of e-books to buy. And, while it’s true that having to keep track of which e-book I bought from which store, I’d rather have the choices than not. I also think it’s not only in the best interest of the consumer to have access to multiple stores … it’s also in the best interest of the e-book seller to be on as many platforms as they can support.

    We just need a convenient way to organize all of them. An app that will run on Windows, Mac, Linux (at least Ubuntu), Android, and perhaps iPhone (if that’s what the “Apple Tablet” will run) that lets you organize all of your e-books, no matter what source they came from. It may not be able to actually display the content, but that’s ok. It just needs to help you keep track of which books you have (in all known formats), where you got them, and what viewer(s) can read them. Sort of like your own personal e-library catalog :-)