Tag Archives: amazon

The End of the Printed Book (coming soon, but not yet)

So I live in Israel and while it’s not too hard to get popular books from best-selling authors in English, it’s a bit harder to get things like technical books, or more niche books like those that deal with genealogy. Finding ways to get English books to Israel cheaply is somewhat of an obsession with much of the English-speaking community here, and it’s not so simple. Amazon.com was a long-time favorite for many years, although now-Amazon-owned BookDepository.com seems the better deal (books are a little more money, but shipping is free). Of course, with the rise of eBooks one would think eBooks are the simple solution – usually cheaper and no shipping charges. My wife recently got an iPad, and when I decided to order a book recently (Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community by Eviatar Zerubavel) I thought about getting it as an eBook. The price was almost half the printed version ($9.99 on Kindle versus $18.21 in Hardcover on Amazon) and that’s without considering shipping for the hardcover.

I’ve been a book collector for more than twenty years, and while not all my books make it out of my library, I do lend many books out. Considering how hard it is to get niche books like an academically-published one like Ancestors and Relatives…, here in Israel I figured it would be highly likely I would be loaning out the book at some point. So how does one loan out an eBook? First I think it’s worth taking a look at who the different players are in the eBook field.

So the big players in eBooks are Amazon (with the Kindle), Barnes & Noble (with the Nook), Apple (with iBooks) and Google (with Google Books). Amazon has long been the leader in this field, with both the hardware (the Kindle) and the store (Amazon.com) to provide the total package for eBook reading. In fact, Amazon is really the only company that offers software on just about every type of device (Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad, Android, and of course their own Kindle devices) and in that they have a real advantage. When Barnes & Noble, the retail leader in book sales in the US, launched their eBook platform called the Nook, they introduced one feature which had been missing from the Kindle – the ability to lend books. Amazon quickly copied that feature and made it available on the Kindle, but with the same odd restrictions – you could only lend a book once to a friend, and only for 14 days. Sure, I wish everyone I lent a book to would return it in less than two weeks, but that’s not reality. Why does it matter how long the book is lent for exactly? When a book is lent out, you cannot view it yourself, which makes sense. If I can’t view it while it is being lent out, who care how long it is being lent out and to whom? Herein lies the problem with eBooks as they currently stand – you’re not buying the book, your essentially leasing it. In fact, even with the lending features of Kindle and Nook, not all publishers allow books to be lent – you need to check each book when you buy it and see if lending as a ‘feature’ is enabled.

In the days before Apple launched iTunes and the iPod, digital music failed to take off in a major way. The reason it failed was that it was easier to freely download pirated music than it was to buy and use music from the big labels. Apple fixed that, not by eliminating all the restrictions music companies wanted on the files, but by removing enough of them that using digital music legally became easy enough that most people wouldn’t bother trying to get it illegally. The big breakthrough was that Apple had the store (what Amazon and Barnes & Noble now have for books) tightly integrated, and that Apple got the music companies to loosen their restrictions so that customers could play music on multiple devices (their Mac, their iPod and their now their iPhone for example) and could even burn CDs of their music for their own use. Most people don’t really remember what digital music was like before Apple, but none of that was possible. Sure, the iPod was a breakthrough device when it came out, but the real reason it was so successful was the integration with the iTunes Store and the improved licensing from the music companies.

The problem with eBooks is that none of the companies have yet hit that sweet spot of great device, great store integration and good enough licensing. It’s hard to even think about licensing a book. It reminds me of a used book store I used to visit almost 20 years ago in Jerusalem that had a copy of a book that was out of print, yet highly in demand, so they rented it out. It was bizarre and I didn’t rent it. I waited a little longer and I found a copy for sale elsewhere. Eventually the book came back into print and everyone could get a copy. The iPad is a great device for reading books, and the various Kindles and Nooks are also good devices. The new Kindle Fire is really trying to compete with the iPad, and is perhaps the first device that will be able to do so, but while there are devices that are great, and there is store integration which works okay (I wouldn’t yet call it great on any platform), no one has gotten the licensing right yet.

It took years of battling between Steve Jobs and music companies to get the licensing right for music – and that battle included a visionary like Steve Jobs and music company executives that finally ‘got it’ (perhaps they were forced into ‘getting it’ by Jobs). How long will it take for book publishers to ‘get it’ is anyone’s guess. It’s already possible to download illegal eBooks, although I don’t know if the book reading public will adopt that as quickly as the music listening public did in the days before the iPod and iTunes.

One company that seems to be getting ready for the inevitable move to eBooks is, believe it or not, IKEA. Apparently, they are creating a deeper version of their popular (some might say ubiquitous) BILLY bookcase in order to accommodate the display for physical items, perhaps larger coffee-table style books, but not actually rows of books.

Music needed easy purchasing and a liberal licensing scheme so that people could listen to their music on all their devices. Books needs the same things, but something more. People listen to the same music over and over, but they don’t read the same book over and over – instead they lend it out to others. The book publishing industry needs to come to grips with this difference and make their eBooks as lendable as their printed cousins. Until that point, buying books for reading on digital devices will not be ubiquitous (not even as ubiquitous as BILLY bookcases). What’s worse is that as a ‘leased’ product instead of an owned product, what happens if the publisher decides to change the terms after the purchase, further restricting the usage of the book. What can you do about that? Not much, other than wait for the publishers to wake up and figure out that books are not music, and they need to be treated differently.

So in the end, I ordered the book from the Book Depository web site, and will get it in a couple of weeks. It’s a little pricier, but I get to own the book and lend out as often and to as many people as I like, without having to worry about what the publisher thinks. Of course, since Amazon bought Book Depository they’ll still be getting my money, but at least I’m getting something tangible for that money. In the future no doubt I will be buying eBooks along with the rest of society (I do not believe my grandkids will be buying physical textbooks) but for the time being I’m doing my share to help the paper industry.

The Search For…Books.

In my youth I was avid book collector. I spent a good dozen years working on building my collection of books, finding books in stores across three continents. The books I was collecting dealt largely with the British Mandate of Palestine, during the years between WWI and when Israel became an independent country in 1948. From bookstores in big cities to a bookstore I used to visit inside a barn that would only open in the summers, from Boston to New York to San Francisco to Jerusalem, I visited a lot of stores to find books. I even remember searching the basement of a large used bookstore in Hay-on-Wye in Wales, during the Hay Festival many years ago. I actually found a number of good books which I had to ship back to the US, which took months to get to me as book rate shipping was slooowww.

Things have changed a lot since then, with the Internet being the main cause of the changes. An interesting anecdote illustrates the point. Before I moved to Israel, I used to visit a couple of times a year. Each time I visited I would try to visit a series of used bookstores scattered around Jerusalem. Usually I would make a day of it and walk to all of these bookstores one at a time. One store was located right in the center of the city, run by an older man. He would buy whole collections of books from families in Israel and would sometimes have books I was looking for after such a purchase. After visiting his store for a few years I asked him if he had an e-mail address so I could contact him occasionally to see if he had gotten any of the books I was looking for in stock. He laughed at me, of course he didn’t have a new-fangled e-mail address. The following year I visited the store again and lo-and-behold he had an e-mail address on his business card. Progress. The next time I visited his store, he had a computer on his desk. Not only did he have a computer, but he was searching eBay for items to sell in his store. I don’t think he was yet selling items on eBay back then, but now he has a large ‘Ebay Store’ where he sells items online.

The above story is fairly typical of the evolution of small bookstores in the age of the Internet. On the one hand, in the old days you could find real bargains on books if you found them in a store that didn’t know anything about the particular book, on the other hand it was also very difficult to find specific books. Booksellers would offer search services, where I guess they contacted other booksellers and asked about the existence of the book in other stores’ inventories. Today the Internet has changed how used books are bought and sold. If you’re looking for something very specific, you’re unlikely to find a bargain anywhere. Every small bookseller out there, even the one in the barn that only opens during the summer months, is hooked up to the Internet. The bookseller may not have a web site where they sell their books directly, but at the very least they know how to price specific books based on the prices for the book elsewhere on the Internet. Booksellers upload their entire inventories to bookseller network sites like alibris.com and abebooks.com, which handle the web site selling, and allows customers to search across thousands of tiny booksellers and see all of their inventories in one search. You can even search across these different network sites by using a site like bookfinder.com. Chances are if you can’t find a book on bookfinder.com, you won’t find it in any store anywhere (at least for the languages it supports). That is a very different environment from the days when I originally went from bookstore to bookstore searching for books. Today it’s not about searching for a specific book, but more about figuring out which ones you can afford to buy online. Something is lost in the translation of course, and searching online is not the same as wandering the aisles of used bookstores, smelling the aging books, finding books one wasn’t really looking for, or finding the one amazing bargain you could never have imagined. Progress.

Specialist used booksellers would publish paper catalogs of their books. Usually they would send out these catalogs to their customers a few times a year, showing new acquisitions. Can you imagine the costs involved in such a practice? How many booksellers do you think mail out hard copy catalogs today? I still get e-mail catalogs from these some of the same booksellers that used to send me paper catalogs, even years later, which is a smart way for me to look at their new inventory. I imagine if e-mail didn’t exist, I would have been dropped from these booksellers’ mailing lists a long time ago, for not buying books recently.

Of course, no discussion of the change in finding books would be complete without discussing the impact of Google Books. Google has made deals with libraries across the world, and worked with them to scan millions of books and put them up on the Internet. For books out of copyright, the whole books are posted online for viewing. Google has built, for lack of a better analogy, the world’s largest library. You can even download PDFs of the books for off-line viewing. For books still covered by copyright, Google works with the publishers to restrict what parts of the book the publisher wants people to be able to see, and directs people to buy the book if they want to read the whole book. Google’s recent move into selling eBooks will blur the lines between library and bookstore.

So what does all of this have to do with genealogy you’re asking? Well, strictly speaking this blog is not solely about genealogy. The truth is, however, that there are a lot of books on the topic of genealogy that you can find free on Google Books, or you can locate physical books through many of the various search sites I mentioned above. You can preview the books on Google Books, or sometimes on Amazon (when the publisher has added a preview) and then search online for the best price on a used copy. Amazon also lets you buy used books, but checking the other sites will give you more buying options. Amazon owns AbeBooks.com, chances are the used book results on Amazon and the results on AbeBooks.com will be fairly similar.

I still find it hard to pass by a used bookstore and not wander the aisles for a few minutes, even if I don’t end up buying something I enjoy look for books, I enjoy the smell of the books, I enjoy the very fact that there is a small business dedicated to selling books. Searching online is not the same, although it is gratifying when that one book you’re looking for shows up after a 30-second search online instead of spending years looking for it in dozens of bookstores. Happy hunting.