Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Wave of the Future for E-Books?

An article came out today in Business Week Online. It’s called Free Downloads – After This Message and deals primarily with music downloads, but also concerns books, and therefore authors. For several years now, the music industry has struggled with songs being pirated on the Internet.

The answer to illegal downloads seemed, to me, to go in phases. First, the industry tried to educate the people doing the stealing, to show them they weren’t just stealing from a huge anonymous music publishing industry, but from the individual struggling (as well as big name) musicians. On a side note, here in Austin, the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World, there’s a push for a unified help for struggling musicians in the area of health care, who, since they’re self-employed, have to pay for themselves or go without.

Second, to try to stop the illegal downloads, the industry went through a phase where they sued those who downloaded huge numbers of songs without paying. They went after websites like Napster, but they also targeted individual downloaders. For a while it seemed like either you had to pay per song or download only those songs put up by the artists for free.

Third, at the same time, they tried to put in safeguards so that even if one paid for downloads, you couldn’t then share those songs with others. Movies were treated the same way on DVDs.

Now, we seem to have reached a new phase: music for free without fear of legal repercussions. Well, not totally free. The music comes with advertising.

And, as in the past, the book industry is paying close attention. Ads in books? Of course, some books already have advertising. You’ve most likely read paperbacks with advertising in the back for books by the author or by other authors of the same publishing house. This would be ads outside of that. The Business Weekly article said online sites where books can be downloaded would create user profiles so that “PDF-formatted e-books can be embedded with appropriate ads every 30 pages or so.”

WOWIO, one of the sites considering this idea, already has a lot of ads on their site. They have free books available, but they also have, for example, a contest of sorts. You “create a WOWIO account, download your favorite ebooks (including comics), then search through the ads. If you find a Golden W emblem, click on it to claim your prize.” This would take it a step further (which they’ve already implemented on some books) and put the ads inside the downloaded books.

Some questions here. Would readers continue to download ebooks if they have to put up with ads every thirty pages? How much revenue would these ads generate? How would the revenue be disbursed? How much goes to the site? How much to the publisher? How much to the lowly author? How much to however many middlemen are involved in the process?

And before you say no one really reads PDF books, think again. It’s becoming more popular and more companies are coming out with improved readers. And consider the book industry as a whole. Fewer books are being read. Just as the movie and music industry had to readjust to the changing world that includes the Internet, so does the book industry. The questions include how, when, in what way, and how can it be done fairly.

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