The Best of Times or Worst of Times for eBooks?

eLABorations: They're easy to get and read, but burdened by shortsighted copy protections and high costs

I love books. I have thousands of them stuffed into bookshelves, boxes and any flat surface in my house. I also love technology, willing to suffer the pains of half-baked gear to try out new ideas, and have three PDAs—two I own and one I have for testing.

Given this combination, I have been eager to try out eBooks. For the past 18 months, Ive been deliberately buying electronic versions of books I wanted to get anyway, to see how well the medium worked.

Its been a mixed experience, and Id be interested in hearing how other book lovers have found eBooks.

On the plus side, I like the technological convergence. Since I carry a Compaq iPAQ 3870 on my belt anyway, theres nothing extra I have to do to have several eBooks with me at all times. Theres no extra weight and I can access any book within a few seconds wherever I am.

Reference material is very compelling in eBook format—its very useful when needed, and quite unportable in print format. Microsofts Encarta Pocket Dictionary is surprisingly complete, and I also carry multilingual dictionaries when I travel. Bible software works great on a handheld device. I would love to have an encyclopedia on a PDA, as well as field guides to birds, rocks and stars, but havent found this material yet. (Let me know if you have found any options here.)

With 256MB CompactFlash cards and the 1GB IBM Microdrive available, theres no space reason that PDAs cant hold large reference works complete with pictures and sounds.

Another area where eBooks do better than print publications is in making classic works (those in the public domain) easily available to a huge new audience. Online organizations like the marvelous Project Gutenberg (, the University of Michigans Internet Public Library ( and small press publishers like Eldritch Press ( all make classics more accessible than ever before. (Eldritchs Web site starts with "Here are free, accessible books. Read them and go in peace.")

Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Plato, Thoreau and many others are accessible to anyone with Web access for free from anywhere on the Web. This is a fabulous benefit of technology to reading and education.

I havent found new fiction as compelling in eBook format, with the exception of audio books (again, a convergence benefit--I can play them on my PDA while working out without having to find a separate player or worry about a different set of batteries).

Readers rights restricted

My biggest beefs have been copy protection restrictions and cost. Digital management rights code in Microsoft and Adobe eBook reader software makes eBooks much less flexible and less attractive than paper copies. Rights long established for books—that you can loan them, sell them, give them away or whatever else you want—all are taken away with digitally protected eBook content (true for most new eBooks).

Libraries are really struggling with this issue; some are turning to buying hardware reader devices and loaning these out instead.

I love passing on a book I enjoyed to friends, and cant have that enjoyment with a rights-restricted eBook. As a result, I dont buy eBook versions of books I anticipate I will really like because I want to be able to share the joy of experiencing them with others.

And think long-term: When copyright protections expire on current works near the end of this century (assuming copyright terms arent extended yet again), will copy protection software release its hold on its material as it enters the public domain?

Where will the used eBook market come from? Given comments on Amazon.coms used book marketplace from the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers, I grimly suspect that publishers would be happy if the used book market disappeared entirely, blocked technologically by encryption that prevents anyone but the first purchaser of a book from reading it.

Ironically, the friction-free Internet has caused a huge boom in used book economic activity. Online used and new bookstores are wonderful tools for book buyers. I love, and use it as much as a book encyclopedia as a book marketplace. I spend a whole lot of money there, too.

Digital rights at issue

Digital rights management is also a real software headache. I get my audio books from, which has a good selection and good prices (compared to other audible book formats), but its PDA software is really buggy.

It also requires that listening devices be "activated" in order to play protected content, and I spent two days suffering as I tried to install, uninstall, configure and update the software to work without errors with my iPAQ, all the time sweating over accidentally using up my quota of activations.

I asked Cliff Guren, Group Product Manager for eReading at Microsoft, who heads up the group that creates Microsofts eBook reader software, how first-sale rights (allowing books to be sold or given away) would be preserved with eBooks.

"A lot of these issues are legal issues and Im not a lawyer, said Guren. "This is being debated widely in Congress right now about digital rights. In terms of your technical question, in our format it is not possible to share an eBook, or loan it to someone else in the manner you are talking about."

"One thought I would leave you with is that there is a cultural or societal issue that we are all working through. There are lots of things we used to do with print books; some of those we will be able to do with eBooks and some we wont," he said. "On the other hand, there are things you can do with eBooks you cant do with print books. There are trade-offs with any new technology."

Guren also held out the possibility that publishers could design digital rights management software and software companies to provide readers with the same rights they have with print books.

"As [digital rights management] becomes more elaborate, its conceivable youll be able to do something like that," he said. "Im not committing that well do that, but one can reasonably posit that youll be able to do all sorts of things. A publisher could sell a book at a different price for one you can loan vs. one you cant. Theres a lot of interesting possibilities going forward."

Books are at the center of our shared cultural commons; digital rights software shouldnt be acceptable until it protects the legal rights of readers just as well as it protects those of authors and publishers.

What are e-words worth?

My other big beef is pricing. eBook versions of new titles are ridiculously expensive given their low, low distribution and materials costs. I have been consistently comparing the eBook and paper prices of new books Ive wanted on, and more often than not, eBooks versions are more expensive than their matching hardcover versions. I couldnt believe this.

When I add in shipping, the price difference goes away, but given eBook rights restrictions and still inferior reading experience, theres no way Im going choose eBook over hardcover titles if the price is similar.

Older titles have more reasonable eBook prices, usually comparable to paperback prices, but its clear that publishers and consumers havent yet worked out what the eBook format is worth (either positively or negatively). At most, eBooks should never cost more than the price of the cheapest paper version of a title available.

I am glad to see a growing trend to pass more of those fatter eBook margins to authors--something that makes eBooks more attractive to me.

A few authors and publishers are also showing new thinking when it comes to book economics, and doing well for it. Science fiction author Eric Flint gives hard numbers for his own earnings going up because of online publishing. Baen Books offers a subset of its catalog in free online versions as well as a paid (but cheap) subscription service to read other Baen titles.

The short story format, one I love, is getting a breath of new life through online publishing. Online bookseller Fictionwise ( stands out for its selection of short stories and novellas, formats that arent economical to publish by themselves in print versions.

So, overall, theres a lot of paranoia and cluelessness, coupled with a few flashes of daring and reader-friendliness. Thats pretty much par for the course when it comes to commercial cultural industries and the Internet. I expect that I will be buying a lot more eBooks in a few years than I am now, and I hope authors are getting paid more because of it. Well see if the book publishing industry and distribution channel wants that to happen or not.

Readers, are eBooks working for you? Let me know at