Ebooks

I love books. At art school we learnt how to print and bind them, but I was reading them long before that and I’m one of those people for whom death by bookpile is not an unrealistic threat. So it’s the physicality of books as artefacts as well as the knowledge and fantasy they contain that has always appealed to me.

I also love computing machinery and high technology. Combine this with books and you get ebooks. “Ebooks” is a misonmer. You don’t call an ogg vorbis file an e-vinyl, or an ogg theora track an e-VHS. They should be etexts. But the ebook name has stuck. An ebook reader is a physical device used to read ebooks. I was using an old Palm Pilot, then my Android phone. I’ve now bought a BeBook One and installed the free OpenInkpot on it to get a free software ebook reader system.
The BeBook uses an e-paper display, which means the display flashes black before each page refresh (you get used to it, which surprised me) and the image remains even if the system isn’t drawing any power. I won’t pretend that the resources used to manufacture and deliver the BeBook are less than those consumed in the production of many dozen paper-and-ink books, but it is energy efficient. Ebook readers might appear to be a temporary aberration, dedicated devices that will soon be superseded by general-purpose devices such as the iPad. But I like to concentrate when reading, and that means that the absence of a Twitter client is a plus not a minus for a dedicated ebook reader.
Like the music industry’s ten year sulk over Napster, the publishing industry and far too many authors who should otherwise know better regard the vastly increased audience and demand for books in electronic format as a threat rather than an opportunity. Many books that I would purchase as ebooks have two problems. Firstly, they have idiotic DRM on them that prevent me buying and using them on the hardware and software that I use. Secondly, they have ridiculous prices that are equal to or greater than the hardback price for the same book despite the greatly reduced production costs of the ebook.
There are two ways of looking at the freedom to read an ebook. 
Free Software requires that you be able to use the software that displays the book as you see fit and that the book not require any limitations or controls in the software that reads it. DRM and proprietary ebook reader software breaks this. Free reader software like OpenInkpot and FBReader, and free and open formats like epub without DRM added support this.
Free Culture requires that you be free to use the book, at the very least to have your fair use/fair dealing rights, and preferably to have the freedom to use it without restriction. Ideally the book will have a copyleft licence such as Creative Commons BY-SA, but it must at least not have DRM applied.
I prefer books that are both free software and free culture, but it’s difficult to avoid non-free culture of value.
Out of copyright works are ideal. The best source of these is Project Gutenberg, which now provides epub version –
The website Manybooks formats up Gutenberg texts in many different formats and aggregates other texts as well. It’s a good way of finding contemporary books available under Creative Commons licences –
Google Books has many out of copyright books and magazines that Gutenberg doesn’t.. These are available from archive.org, which has many other out of copyright and Creative Commons licenced books as well –
Smashwords ebooks are not Creative Commons licenced but are DRM-free and reasonably priced –
FLOSS Manuals are producing collaboratively edited manuals for free software –
And Artists Ebooks are exploring the possibilities of ebooks by artists –
I’ll post some specific ebooks to try in another post, but the above are where most of the ones I’ve read have come from.
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Posted in Culture, Free Culture
4 comments on “Ebooks
  1. I’m thinking of getting into the business of manufacturing eBooks.
    Do you have a rough idea of how much it costs to produce each copy of an eBook?
    Given a retail price of about $10 per copy I’m wondering if the profit margins are sufficiently high enough.

  2. Rob Myers says:

    To produce each ebook costs (COST OF MANUSCRIPT PRODUCTION / NUMBER OF EBOOKS COPIED SO FAR) + (COST OF CONSUMABLES SUCH AS I.T., BANDWIDTH AND ELECTRICITY USED TO DOWNLOAD EBOOK). The latter will be at most few pennies but will never actually be zero. The former will vary depending on how popular the book is. We might disagree about the first half of the equation, but it is a causal part of our ability to get the book for close to zero cost.
    I’m using the word “produce” rather than manufacture here as I think it’s more accurate. The author may decide that producing the ebook is a means to an end rather than a monetisable end in itself. And too many authors who should know better (see above) complain about free ebooks meaning they’ll have to do more work in between blog posts about their public speaking roles and magazine articles. I still buy their (physical) books, because I like physical books (see above).
    I reserve a special degree of disapproval for publishers who price ebooks above the opportunity cost of downloading a copy from a filesharing site (see above). For me that’s about 5-7USD. As a patron of the arts I’ll gladly pay the author for an ebook, more gladly if it’s CC’d. But DRM means the deal is off.
    So I can’t tell you the cost, but it isn’t zero and it isn’t the only economic factor in the production of the text. It is however likely to be considerably less than the hardback price , unlike the DRM-infested ebooks for “Reality Hunger” and “You Are Not A Gadget” that I haven’t bought recently.

  3. Alix says:

    I’m so glad I found your blog!! I’m working on writting a paper for my english class and my topic happens to be ebooks (or etexts as you call them) and their place in higher education. My theory is that the files (documents, text, what ever you wish to call them) will become more widly used even if the devices themselves don’t. I wanted to cite your blog in my paper if that was alright with you and I was also wondering what your thoughts where on the matter. Do you think that ebooks will catch on in higher education? Thanks so much!!

  4. I was solely interested in the cost of manufacturing a copy, i.e. divorced from any costs in typesetting, etc.
    I’m thinking of selling copies of WikiTravel guides as eBooks.
    I could also sell copies in bulk for discounts, e.g. “Buy five copies of ‘The WikiTravel guide to Paris’ and get 10% off!”
    I reckon I can save on bandwidth by allowing the download of eBooks via a cache, i.e. by adding .nyud.net:8080 on the end of the download link.
    Obviously, if a purchaser (identified by IP address) downloads more copies than has been paid for, I can report them to the ministry for information retrieval (one doesn’t need evidence for copyright infringement these days, so licenses don’t come into it).
    Anyway, I’m really having difficulty reckoning the costs of each copy as more than about $0.00001. Too cheap to meter if you ask me.
    So, at $10 per copy I think the profit margin is just about high enough. Unfortunately, my calculator hasn’t got enough digits to tell me the profit as a percentage.
    I’m going to be RICH!