e-Books? More like Pee-Books! Am I Right?

I wanna go ahead and further crystallize some of my lingering discomfort over e-books.

Peruse. Review. Discuss. Give me high-fives, or fling aspersions (aspersions = rotten cabbage) at my head.

Behold: The MP3

The MP3 is the granddaddy and reigning pimp of the “digital song file” world. Other, perhaps better (and some certainly worse), formats exist, but really, MP3 is still the way we think of our songs.

An MP3 is a file type. “I downloaded an MP3” can translate to, “I downloaded a song,” but it might be a spoken word, or a podcast, or a sound effect album filled with cars honking, poop noises, and animal howls.

The MP3 is fairly versatile. Good for the consumer, bad for the company. I can take an MP3 and I can: play it on my computer, play it on my MP3 player or iPod, play it on my stereo downstairs, upload it to my FTP and offer it to readers of my blog (as Gareth does over at Friday Music), burn it to a CD and listen to it anywhere that a CD can be listened to, and so on and so forth.

I can also open a folder and see the MP3 file. I can delete it. I can move it. I can copy it. I can back it up.

Even if I were to go to a more proprietary format like, say, the iTunes protected AAC file, I can still do a lot of this. I can burn it to a CD, which means I can make MP3s out of those AACs in one hot minute. That’s an important fact: I can take a physical object and turn it into a digital thing. From CD in my hand to MP3s on my computer. Perfectly legal. No problems.

The MP3 is a filetype. It never pretends to be a physical object.

Now: The e-Book

If I download an e-book, what happens?

If it’s iBooks, I download the book and I sync it, and I get the ePub file. I can, in theory, read this book on any device or application that will examine that format. The iBooks app is bound only to my i-Devices, but the filetype will fly free and play well with others.

If it’s the Nook, it’s — and correct me if I’m wrong, I haven’t done this yet — a DRM version of ePub, readable only on the Nook software. Possible that the DRM is from the publisher, not from Barnes & Noble.

If it’s the Kindle, well, you can get the Kindle software on anything (I downloaded the Kindle app to a squirrel outside and can now use him as a reading device), and the Kindle will play well with PDF but not ePUB. If I download the book directly from Amazon, I think it generally comes as the AZW (proprietary DRM blah blah blah) format. I do not know how to extract such a file or what I could do with it if I did.

Other such readers exist: Stanza. Bookshelf. Kobo.

Onto the “e-Comic”

If I buy a digital comic (does anybody call them e-comics?), it goes into my comics-specific app and… I think pretty much stays there. Again, if any of my details are off, let me know. But I downloaded some comics onto one of the many ComiXology-based apps last night and, first, they stay married to the app, at least initially. For example, I downloaded some comics. Let’s take “Chew #1” as an example. I downloaded it into the Image app.

I’m told that with a ComiXology subscription, I can always redownload my comics. Which sounds good. And I’m told this across a number of the apps — Image, Marvel, DC, ComiXology. Apparently I can even access them on my computer. Of course, when I try to do that, Adobe tells me I need to redownload Flash player, which crashes on me any time I try, so that’s fun. Further, my comics are still married to the app in which I procured them: I open ComiXology, DC, or Marvel, and I do not have access to Chew #1 despite the fact that I am logged in across the board.

(Okay, I went ahead and opened — egads — IE 8 and used the ComiXology page there. I go to My Comics and I see… mmm. Nothing. No Chew #1, and in fact none of the comics I’ve downloaded.)

This is, of course, frustrating.

I feel like I’m told, “Here, you can drink this coffee, as long as you drink it in the kitchen.”

“But I want to drink it upstairs.”

“Okay, but you have to wear these special shoes to drink it upstairs.”

“Fine. I’ll wear your special shoes. I don’t know what shoes have to do with coffee, but I’ll do it. Except now, even wearing your special shoes, the coffee won’t leave the kitchen.”

“That’s because you haven’t installed this suppository yet. Here. Stick this in your ass.”

“Oh, fuck you.”

Regarding Versatility And Physical Copies

I can burn MP3s to a CD and take that CD anywhere.

I cannot burn an e-Book or a digital comic to a real bound physical object. I just can’t. I suppose if I had one of those awesome espresso book machines I could, but I forgot to buy that option when I purchased my desktop computer.

Yes, I can take the book with me in physical format via my iPad or iPhone, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Obviously the e-books must be physically carried around — until we develop psychic digital crossovers with our minds, I cannot pluck e-books from the ether and jack them into my brainspace. MP3s obviously work on an MP3 players, but I mean to suggest that the MP3 can be then turned into physical media: CD, DVD, USB key.

Price Point Is The Sticky Wicket

Because of the very clear limitations of digital comics and e-books, I then get caught up on the cost. An MP3 is generally one dollar, and that’s the sweet spot. Won’t ever pay more than that. And albums often reduce this cost if you buy them together. We’ve been trained that this is the Way Things Are — the MP3s cost less than we’d pay for physical media, which is almost ironic given the fact that the MP3 is in many ways more versatile from the get-go. I can basically do whatever I want with this little music file. It’s why I no longer buy CDs. I couldn’t tell you the last time I bought a CD.

The price point of eBooks and digital comics is stickier (for me, maybe not for you). A book tends to follow a certain path, price-wise. Hardback is the highest price, then maybe a trade paperback for a lower price, and maybe a mass market paperback for an even lower price, and then, eventually, bargain bin for its bare bottom cost. The e-book is outside this sequence. You look at a book like Little Bee, and the trade paperback version is almost half the price of the Kindle version. The Kindle version has no physical presence and cannot be made into a physical object. It can be read on an e-reader (subject to battery life), yes, but it is not more versatile than the book (again, to me). Especially over the long-term. If I buy the book, I am only bound to my ability to keep that book safe. I can treat it like a king, put the book in a velvet slipcase, and it’ll probably last a hundred years. What happens if Amazon goes away? Or the publisher decides I shouldn’t “have” that book? Nobody controls the books on my shelves. Nobody controls the MP3s in my collection. It’s not about pure physicality; it’s about how completely I can control the Thing That I Bought. The only proprietor of these media should be me. Not Amazon. Not the publisher. Not Apple. Not my iPad or my apps or any of that.

So, to me, if I’m getting something that is less elegant and less functional than the real thing, it should always — always — be cheaper.

Same goes with digital comics, which are even less versatile than e-books, as we’ve learned. And yet, most comics are $1.99 or even $2.99. For a comic I can’t share with a friend. For a comic I can’t roll up and stuff in my back pocket. For a comic I can’t cut apart and paste on a corkboard to show off the awesome art. For a comic that is once again reliant on battery power, on my ability to purchase an expensive device, on my ability to store the comics on said device, and so on and so forth.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: at $1.99, I will buy no more comics. If they were $0.99, I’d buy a shitload of them. I can probably save money by waiting till the comics I want are collected in trade paperback or graphic novel format anyway — it’s often cheaper than if I were to buy the digital versions.

If e-books were around five bucks, I’d buy metric fucktons. I don’t think $9.99 is actually that bad a price point, mind you, and I’m fairly comfortable with it — but, a lot of new releases are $11.99.

It’s why price point is a problem for me. If I’m taking a worse format — worse in the sense that is is less versatile and, importantly, offers me less control over how I use it — then I think the prices remain too high.

(And yes, I’m an author saying this. Yes, I should be angling for higher prices so I can afford that yacht. But I’m speaking as a consumer — and, as a writer, someone like JD Konrath gets it. You look at his ebooks and how much is he charging? Three bucks or thereabouts.)

For The Record, I’m Over The Experiential Problem

I used to be wary of e-books because I didn’t like the lack of physical context, but I said that as a person who didn’t have a good e-reader. I like reading books on the iPad. Not as much as a physical book, no, but it’s a nice experience. And reading comics is a fucking dream. It’s like the iPad is itself a big hard comic book machine. It’s why I lament the cost being (for me, for me, always for me) too high — though I guess I should be happy. If the comics were $0.99, I’d probably spend $100. At $1.99, I spent about four bucks.

Also In Case You Missed It, YMMV

Your mileage may vary on all this. I’m not speaking as an authority, and I’m very likely behind the curve on all this. But I do think we’re in danger of supporting formats (Kindle, for example) that offer us very minimal control in not just how we consume the products, but how we manage those products.

I can go to a directory and say, “Here are my songs.”

I can put a CD in my car stereo and say, “I’m going to play my songs in whatever order I want to play them.”

I can point to my backup drive and say, “That thing is chock full of music, videos, photos, software.” (Ahem, legally purchased, Corporate Dobermans. Legally purchased or procured.)

But my e-books? What do I do with them? My digital comics? It’s apropos that Amazon’s service is called Whispernet, because that’s how substantial it feels — as easy to grasp as an uttered whisper.

I know, I know, I’m probably an old man yelling at the tides on this one.

I’ll buy e-books (and probably not digital comics) when the price is right. I think they do offer a number of advantages. I just want to see the consumer have control over the medium, is all.