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Better eBooks!

What’s wrong with the ebook industry (and how I’m making something better for my customers)

Paul Ingraham • 10m read

I make and sell ten ebooks. (I also call them “tutorials” or “guides” because consumers are mostly still uncomfortable with the idea of ebooks. But they are ebooks.) My ebooks could only be more hand-crafted if I carved them out of wood. This is a rant about what’s wrong with “mass produced” mainstream ebook publishing so far, and how tiny publishing companies like mine are trying to give customers a better product.

Not necessarily succeeding, but honestly trying. 😉 And we have some advantages.

Read on any device. No lending limits. Free future editions. And more!

My format is clearly better in some ways, not only because of my content but because of how I deliver it. My policies are permissive and generous, and my technology floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. Although I’m proud to have a great and competitive product, I am also irritated by how crappy many ebooks are. I truly wish the new ebook products from Amazon and Apple and Barnes & Noble were better competition. No matter which hat I’m wearing — reader, writer, publisher — the industry is disappointing to me, and I’m full of determination to do better for my customers, at least.

If books matter — and they obviously do — then it should also matter how they are published. And it obviously does.

I was publishing books electronically a good couple of years before anyone had ever heard of a “Kindle,” and I embraced the potential of e-publishing without any idea that I was committing to features that might outshine the mass market ebooks of the future. I actually didn’t know I was doing anything unusual. I was just trying to publish good book-length documents.

I started to think my own format was a particularly good idea as I started comparing them to other ebooks. I have read dozens, maybe even hundreds of books on my iPad and Kindle over the years, so I have extensive experience with “traditional” those formats. They certainly have their strengths, but they also have a lot of issues and limitations. Here are some of the advantages I’ve noticed for my publishing format:

  1. Buy here, read anywhere, on nearly any kind of portable device, without installing a custom app — if it can browse the web, that’s all you need.

  2. Far simpler login/authentication.
  3. Free future editions, forever. DIAGRAM
  4. Minimal DRM.what’s that?Digital rights management (DRM): it’s used by all the big publishers to limit e-book piracy … and we all hates it. You hates it, I hates it. DRM annoys customers, prevents real ownership, makes honest lending nearly impossible, locks e-books to one kind of reader … just yuck. We hates the DRMses, my preciousss! e-books are “low DRM.” I do protect my (preciouss) books a little — but a lot less than big publishers do.
  5. Generous lending privileges, and very simple lending mechanics. (Even as a very experienced Kindle user, I still don’t lend Kindle books — too much hassle.)
  6. Copy and paste long passages with no restrictions. (Kindle is fine with this, but Apple is still bloody awful: as of 2023, you still can’t conveniently copy anything in copyrighted books from their store.)

Read on anything: Kindles, iPads, phones … whatever you like

I get a lot of questions about this! These devices are getting popular — almost standard. I realize there’s still jillions of people who don’t want or can’t afford Kindles or iPads. But they’re not exactly rare anymore. Here’s a good example, from Mac developer Daniel Jalkut:

My only disappointment in your product was that I do feel limited not being able to easily pop this stuff over to my iPad.

Now Daniel’s about as Mac savvy as they come: he actually builds publishing technology (a popular Mac tool for desktop blog editing, MarsEdit). So he was quick to get the idea when I pointed out some fine ways to read my books on an iPad. But if Daniel needed a nudge in the right direction, I think it’s safe to say that the average customer doesn’t know what their options are.

And, yes, it’s absolutely possible to read my books on iPads and Kindles and every other imaginable smart phone or dedicated e-reading device — literally anything that can connect to the internet. This is not an accident. I designed it this way. I built my books using “device agnostic” technology quite deliberately. I saw the coming storm of competing e-reading devices and formats and deliberately stuck to a publishing method that would be as universally accessible as possible. Simple web pages always have been, still are, and will remain the single best way to get information to the largest number of users. So for me the question is: how well does a device handle web pages?

First, the iPad provides by far the best web-reading experience of all the portables. On the iPad, you get the finest of everything, no compromises: every feature of the online document works and you can read it in your favourite chair.

The Kindle web browser, by contrast, is really not very good. In Marco Arment’s Kindle 3 review, he warns that “you do not want to use this unless absolutely necessary,” and I agree. E-ink screens utterly suck at scrolling, and you have to inch your way downwards through the document. It’s much better to just use Amazon’s free document conversion service, which can convert my books into a Kindle-friendly format — because they are in a universal and unlocked format to begin with (easy to convert). You need to fuss around for a few minutes with the technology to figure this out, but it’s a useful trick to learn.

Perspective’s important though: flawed as the Kindle may be for this purpose, it is still at least as good, in many ways, as printing it out. It’s much the same with all the dedicated e-readers.

And all the smart phones do a decent job — with a small screen, of course, but nonetheless readable.

Lending is a no-brainer

You can lend my ebooks. It’s better than lending real books. No disclaimers. My lending policy is much more generous than any major vendor. Lend away. Whatever. It’s a big world, there are always more customers, I’m generous, and I’m sure you’ll recommend my books if you like them and the way I do business. This is not complicated.

I really think it’s bizarre to try to keep people from lending, or to make it worse than lending paper books.

Until a few days ago, you could not lend Kindle books at all, short of passing your Kindle to someone. I was not really surprised by the restrictive terms of their shiny new lending plan: 7 days to accept loan offers, 2 weeks to read, US only so far, not all books lendable, the owner can’t read during the loan period, yada yada yada. Seriously, Amazon? Shorter than a library loan? I can’t get through a copy of National Geographic in two weeks. I don’t think I’ve ever returned a borrowed book within two weeks in my entire life. In fact, I suspect I’ve rarely even started reading a borrow within two weeks. When I loan out books, I expect them to be gone for months. Justin Blanton writes:

With the current model, it isn’t hard to imagine that the three-week limit will require a fair amount of coordination between parties so that the loan isn’t wasted. For example:

Lender: “You have to check out this book I’m reading!”
Borrower: “Yeah?”
Lender: “Yeah, I should be done with it later this month.”
Borrower: “Hey, are you done yet?”
Lender: “I just finished it. I’ll loan it to you in a few minutes.”
Borrower: “No, not yet, I won’t be able to finish it within three weeks if you send it now. Send it on February 18th.”

Absent that conversation, you likely are putting a lot of pressure on the borrower to find time to start and finish a book within 21 days.

Barnes and Noble has a similarly restrictive lending option for the Nook — the same two-week maximum and just one book at a time. I love the smell of paternalism in the morning.

iBookstore books remain unlendable.

Imagine buying a book and the bookstore clerk tells you: “Okay, you can lend this to one person at a time, for two weeks maximum. Oh, and you can only lend one book from your entire collection at a time. Try to pull anything more than that, and we’re coming after you.”

Riiiight. The gall.

All my life, I have been delighted by the power of computers to do things better than they could ever be done before. My idea of ebook lending from the beginning was defined by an idealistic sense of wonder at a friendly future. Why shouldn’t ebooks be far, far easier to lend and share than paper books? It’s fantastic that you can lend a book out … and still keep reading it yourself! How cool and future-y is that?

My lending options aren’t infinite. I ask readers to exercise some self-restraint, and I have a security system that does issue gentle warnings if the lending is getting ridiculous — it would be trigged by more than five people accessing the content on the same day, say. I need to make a living. But I have this crazy idea that ebooks should be an unambiguous upgrade from paper books. The options should be better. The product should be better.

Otherwise, we might as well all just keep reading paper!

Books that are always up-to-date, and no charge for future editions

Why should an ebook ever be out of date? What’s the point of making books electronic if you can’t automagically update them?

I constantly upgrade and expand my books, about once per month on average. There will generally be a few significant updates per year, especially if some important science news came along. And every customer can get those updates. And not just that year, but … forever. For life.

If you buy a “standard” ebook from nearly any other publisher, it’s frozen in time — just as if you’d bought the paper version. If a new edition comes out in a year or two, you’ll have to pay full price to get the new stuff. Unfortunately, this is one of the many ways that publishers are (stupid, stupid, stupid) trying to make ebooks just like paperbooks. They think that consumers are too simple in the head to appreciate the benefits of new technology, apparently.

And of course they want to charge full price for future editions.

Little publishers like me are coming along and saying, “Are you kidding me? I can do better than that!”

For decades, health science books were generally pretty much obsolete before their ink had dried. Like any fast-moving field, health information desperately needs to be kept magically up-to-date. Ebooks are absolutely perfect for this challenge. It’s a bit of a dream come true. I’m glad I lived to see this.

Normally you have to re-buy new editions of books — at full price plus inflation! — and they still get obsolete. Most people will skip editions, due to the cost. With my ebooks, you pay just once.

Copy and paste like it’s going out of style — because it is, apparently

It’s a bit hard to believe, but both Amazon and Apple have gone out of their way to make it difficult to copy and paste quotes and passages from their ebooks. It is actually impossible on the iPad with any book you paid for. And Kindles technically allow copying, but in a rather roundabout way that I bet 99% of customers never figure out.

For pity’s sake … why?

Copyright “protection,” presumably. They don’t want you to “steal” the book by copying and pasting it. Of course it makes sense to prevent only the copying of large passages, but instead they interfere with any copying. Just to be sure.

Nothing about ebooks today seems more insulting to me as a consumer. It’s unthinkable that I would want to inflict such a pointless, self-defeating limitation on my own customers.

Lots of people like to highlight and collect quotes and even long passages from their books. I’ve had a “quote file” growing for more than 25 years now. I have quotes in there that I copied from books I read when I was in my teens. And I have been using those quotes to promote those authors and books that entire time — generating sales for the publisher.

Imagine if they hadn’t “let” me copy passages! Imagine the word-of-mouth advertising for those authors and books that would never have happened.

Oh, yes indeedy: I want you to copy what you like from my books. I want you to publish excerpts on your blog, give me credit, and promote the book! It would be sheer stupidity to get in your way.

This is yet another case where the big publishers are deliberately crippling ebooks to keep them as much like old-school books as possible.

Refunds should be easy — and they are easy here. And nowhere else.

My customers are a pretty contented bunch. I make it clear that satisfaction is guaranteed and getting a refund is easy, but hardly anyone asks. My refund rate is just under 1%, compared to the 8% return rate typical for retail.

In any traditional bookstore, you can certainly get a refund. And you can get a refund from me. Why would I refuse to refund? Am I self-destructive? How would it help anyone if I refused to give an unhappy customer a refund? Do I want people running around out there bitching about my business? So you get a refund if you want a refund, period. Within a few hours, a day at most.

But compare this to the rest of the leaders of the ebook industry …

Kindle? Well, Amazon has a stingy, barely advertised 7-day return policy on Kindle books. After that, you are out of luck.

And Apple literally will not give you your money back. At all. Period. No discussion.

Isn’t that sweet of them? And this from a company that blows away their competition in every customer satisfaction survey!

And that’s why my books are not in the iBookstore and the Kindle store

No, my books are not there. They could be, and they probably will be in time, maybe even soon. But I haven’t taken the leap yet. I don’t want six different “frozen” editions of my books floating around, all out of sync, and customers paying full price for next year’s edition. I don’t want customers unable to copy and paste, unable to lend, unable to get a discount on future editions, unable to get refunds. Again, how does that help anyone? (Except Apple and Amazon, of course).

Meanwhile, I want customers to know that my ebooks are genuinely better — freely readable on every popular portable device, using the wide-open technology of the world wide web. Why wait?