Over at Thinking Outside the Book Maria Langer wrote an excellent article about ebooks.
This is my comment and response. Please read her article first.
I think the ‘problem’ of ebooks is particularly acute in the area of technical writing — software how-to manuals and the like — more than it is for fiction.
Information in the right place and format
When a person is using software they are already at the computer, looking at the screen. More and more often they are using a laptop and may be in a place where also using a printed book is inconvenient or impossible.
If I’m using Program X and want to check how to use fancy-feature Y I’d much rather open up Preview, search for ‘widgettybob’ (a term related to the item I don’t understand) and read Page 72, than walk into the other room (provided I’m not on a plane or train), find the book, balance book and laptop on my knee, refer to the Table of Contents, Index, leaf through pages ….
How to drive away honest readers
Digital Rights Management (DRM) that locks up ebooks only angers and inconveniences honest people. Those who are inclined to steal will find a way round anything — as Maria mentioned with the pirated copies. And I believe that most people are honest, especially if we make it easier for them to be honest than not.
The role of publishers
Publishers have a role in matching up the expertise and writing / teaching skills of authors with readers who want that knowledge. Once upon a time publishers fulfilled that role by marking paper with ink. Limitations of technology and transport led them to package books in certain formats of paper size, colour, number of pages and so on.
New tools, new possibilities
Now publishers have exciting new tools at their disposal, new distribution methods, and new challenges. It’s awfully hard for them, I imagine, but if they are to thrive they must embrace the new and find their role in it. They can only die a painful death if they try to fight against what their supporters (the information-buying public) want from them.
In non-fiction, especially computer manuals, people don’t buy books; they buy ‘packages of information’. They want to know how Tab B fits into Slot A. They want that information now. They don’t buy computer manuals as light bed-time general interest reading.
Give the readers what they need
Printed books aren’t in fact a good format for answering information queries; ebooks are. And what’s more, while print books are extremely limited — often by cost, but also by technology — ebooks can grows and stretch to fit the reader. Screenshots don’t need to be postage stamp sized grey blurs. Instead they can be thumbnails with a link to a full-colour readable size. An ebook may include or link to video, audio, slideshow, web pages, live examples, downloadable stuff.
Readers can, or should be able to, resize the text, bookmark pages, copy parts and paste into their own learning / record-keeping system.
An ebook can be flexible and useful and adaptable to its reader in ways printed books can never be.
Follow the money
The remarkable thing is that readers will pay (a reasonable amount) for things they could get free, if they perceive the package they’re paying for provides value. Some people will spend 5 hours searching, reading free blog posts and web pages to find out how to make the widgettybob slide into Tab B. Others will spend 5 minutes and $5 to buy the ebook that gives them the answer in another 5 minutes. And they’ll tell their friends about it, and some of them will buy the ebook too.
[publishers] need to provide quality content in a format that’s convenient for readers. If that’s a printed book, fine. But if it’s an unprotected PDF with hyperlinks to internal and online content, publishers need to accept that — and make their ebooks the ones readers look for when they need information.
I say: publishers of computer manuals must do that or they’ll be out of business soon.