An American Editor

November 28, 2012

The Holiday Gift: To eBook or to Hardcover?

Increasingly, the reader in the family is reading ebooks and many of us are thinking that an ideal gift for the ebook reader is either an ebook gift certificate or some desired ebooks themselves. In my case, I was thinking about asking for ebooks (as opposed to asking for hardcover books), but then I got to wondering: If I give an ebook as a holiday gift, what message am I sending to the gift recipient?

My off-the-cuff answer is “I love you” or “It’s great that you are my friend” or some similar positive message. But after mulling the matter over for a while, I wonder how positive the message really is. Yes, I know that many readers prefer to read ebooks and that increasingly readers only want to read ebooks. Yet the question arises because this is a message-bearing gift, even if the message is left unsaid.

When I give a reader a hardcover book, I give the reader something they can see constantly. As it sits on the bookshelf, it acts as a reminder that I cared enough to give them a gift. Depending on the book, it may also have a visual presence that is much more than a reminder that the book was a gift (think of a book about paintings, for example). Plus, if given to, for example, a grandchild, I can inscribe the hardcover with something pithy, like “Happy 9th birthday. Love, Grandpa.” The hardcover is a constant reminder that I care. A few years from now, when the grandchild loses all sentimentality and wants to raise some cash to buy the latest video game, the grandchild can sell the hardcover on the used book market and get a few more dollars toward the purchase price — the hardcover gives again.

The hardcover also is returnable and exchangeable. I bought the book that promotes being a carpenter but mommy and daddy want the child to have a book that encourages a career in quantum physics. I think dragons and fairies are great for 8-year-olds; mommy and daddy think a grounding in reality is better.

The ebook, on the other hand, doesn’t really have a presence. It becomes one of hundreds on the reading device; it doesn’t stand out and remind anyone that this was a gift given with love. And let’s face it, the ability to inscribe something pithy in an ebook just doesn’t have that “magic” ring to it. Of course, since I am buying the ebook for someone else, I also have to hope — with all fingers crossed — that the ebook is properly formatted and isn’t riddled with errors. Giving a poorly formatted, error-riddled ebook as a gift is like giving a TV without a remote control — it will work but the recipient will be a bit grumpy about how well it works.

Plus when I give an ebook, what am I really giving? A license that can be revoked on a capricious whim by the seller (consider the recent Fictionwise debacle); a book that can be here today and gone tomorrow because a cloud failed; a book that cannot be exchanged or returned should it turn out to be the wrong book or inappropriate because about midway through it has a steamy erotic scene even though the book has been rated great for 8-year-olds (or, in today’s vitriolic political environment, the book discusses evolution and the parents are creationists).

I suppose the answer is to give an ebook gift card but how impersonal can one get? That is OK for a business associate, but is that what I really want to give my child or grandchild? What thought (and effort) goes into giving a gift card? I think of gift cards as the gifts of last — last resort and last minute — the gift that says I ran out of ideas; I can’t think of anything for you (what message does that send!); I ran out of time to do shopping; I got lazy; and so on. Besides, how memorable (or exciting) is it to receive a gift card? I can’t ever remember dragging a friend to my bedroom to show him the gift I got from Granny when it was a gift card.

I guess I could avoid my dilemma by simply not considering buying books at all as holiday gifts, but as an editor, I’d like to support my industry in hopes that it will continue to provide me a livelihood for years to come, and, more importantly, books are the gateway to knowledge and there is nothing better than spreading knowledge. Additionally, when that remote control race car finally has seen its last days and joins the scrap heap of once-loved toys, the book I give should still be available.

If my child or grandchild is like me, he or she will treasure books they receive and think of holding them for future generations. Few of us do that with the busted light saber we received for last year’s holiday. That’s another positive to hardcover books — they can be passed on to subsequent generations and evoke the same positive emotion in that generation as was evoked when the gift was originally given. They are the gift that can keep on giving.

Yes, the same is true of ebooks. The text file can be given again and again, perhaps for hundreds or thousands of generations to come and each giving will be in pristine form — assuming that 100 years from now there will be devices available that are capable of reading the file. We assume that today’s text file will be forever readable, but that may not be so. Today’s popular or dominant formats may simply be echoes of the past in the future. A hardcover book, however, we know is likely to be readable 500 years from now because we are reading books from 500 years ago.

(Remember this video of a monk being introduced to the wonders of the new-fangled gizmo called the book?

Even if this is how it has to be done 500 years from now, it at least can be done, which is something that cannot be said with certainty about an ebook file.)

In balancing the pluses and minuses of to ebook or to hardcover, I come to the conclusion that for gifts I will give, I will give hardcover books, not ebooks. eBooks send the wrong message and not enough of the message I want to send. Even for gifts to me, I will designate hardcover desired. I want to be reminded regularly from whom I received “this” book and for what occasion. I do not want the gifted book to simply become another file among my many thousands of already-owned ebook files — a file that once read will most likely never be seen again. I want to know that someone cares and be reminded that they care.

What are your gifting plans?

April 14, 2010

Gift Cards in the Agency Age

As most ebookers know, the big 5 publishers, conspiring with the consumer’s “best friend” Apple, have instituted the agency pricing model — they now set the selling price to which all retailers must adhere. Why did they jump at this pricing scheme? Because they thought their ebooks were being devalued when they were sold at $9.99. I wonder what the big 5 think now.

So, how do you buy agencied books at a discount? U.S. Sony users have the answer this week: buy $25 Sony eBookstore Gift Cards at Target stores for $15 — a 40% discount. How does this thwart agency pricing? Well, if the agencied ebook price is $14.99 at every ebookstore, using the Sony Bookstore Gift Card reduces the effective price to $9.00 — even less than the dreaded $9.99.

I don’t know who is absorbing the loss on the gift card, whether it is Sony, Target, or a combination of the two, but I do know that the deal is great for anyone whose ebook reading device can handle ePub with the Adobe DRM, which is most devices. I bought 10 of the gift cards and am thinking of buying another 10 before the end of the sale.

If this works as well as I think it will, Sony should see a significant increase in sales. I know it will see a significant increase in purchases made by me. A 40% discount is mighty enticing, especially when it is on any ebook, not just New York Times bestsellers that I don’t read. But more importantly, this could turn into a wave of me-toos from other ebooksellers.

How can they get away with this? Well, I admit I’m just speculating, but here are my thoughts. First, the agency publishers cannot control the price that an independent retailer like Target can sell a gift card for; similarly, they can’t control the price that Amazon can discount gift cards.

Second, gift cards represent cash — unspent cash. So a $25 gift card, whether it cost $5 or $50 to buy, was bought with cash and represents $25 cash and can be used to purchase $25 worth of goods. State and federal regulations govern this.

Third, the ebooks are being sold at the agency price; they are not being discounted. When the ebooker buys that $14.99 agency priced ebook, $14.99 is deducted from the $25 credit that the gift card represents. The agency publishers have nothing to complain about and no agreements (to the extent I have knowledge of them, which is to the extent of what I read in the press) are violated.

So who wins with the discount gift cards? The gift card ebookstore who gets my money in advance and who now knows that I will buy at least $X worth of ebooks from it because the gift cards aren’t usable elsewhere. Plus I am now encouraged to look at, in this instance, the Sony Bookstore whereas before I only occasionally looked for a book there. In addition, because people who own ereading devices other than Sony but that are ePub-with-Adobe-DRM capable can also buy books at the Sony Bookstore, Sony gains access to more ebookers.

The gift card seller (i.e., in my case Target) who lured me into its store, a store I rarely go to, to buy the gift cards and hopefully something else.

eBook authors and publishers because I have now committed to buying ebooks that I would not otherwise have bought. The Sony gift cards I bought are not redeemable for anything but ebooks at the Sony Bookstore.

With only the Sony Bookstore gift cards currently available at such a discount, ePub and Adobe are winners, too, because devices that aren’t hampered by being unable to read (without stripping DRM, which most ebookers either cannot or will not do) ebooks in ePub with Adobe DRM can make use of these gift cards — that’s a lot of ebookers.

And me, the ebooker, who is able to buy ebooks at a discount. In this case, I am the big winner because a 40% discount is a bigger discount on an ebook than usually offered once you look past the New York Times bestsellers.

The only losers today are the international ebookers who live outside the United States who do not have access to the gift cards; they need to be bought in person at Target. But this might be the first breath of wind in a brewing storm where the ebookstores begin competing by discounting gift cards. Will Amazon and Barnes & Noble join the fray?

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