Why Digital Books Won't Spread Like Digital Music

Bud Hunt posed a question tonight asking why schools should consider replacing their paper books with eBook readers. After reading and writing responses, I think I know why you (or your school) should hold on to those dead-tree versions a while longer.

People want, even expect, to access books digitally. Wasn't "all the world's libraries in your computer" one of the early promises of the internet? We will still get there someday, but our vision is being clouded somewhat by our memories and experiences with music. I, like you, used to get my music by going to a store and buying the CD (or tape or record). Now if I want music, I can download it instantly, put it on my mp3 player, and take it everywhere. Now that we have that model to follow, why should digital books be any different?

What we lack in the book world are all those college kids in their dorm rooms, ripping their CDs and posting mp3s to their FTP server or onto P2P networks. The music labels certainly didn't want a digital music market, but it quickly became so easy to get music for free that they had to compete on the digital level or risk their business. iTunes and Amazon's mp3 store exist, in large part, because studio executives knew that selling music for $0.99 a track was better than getting nothing at all. Now digital music is everywhere, both legit and otherwise, and the record labels know that raising their prices would only drive customers to illegal downloading.

I'm a college student. I have books. I have a scanner. But if you think I'm going to sit here and scan my books so I can share digital copies with the rest of the world, you're crazy. I'd love to have PDF versions of all my books, but it's not worth my time or effort to digitize them. I know plenty of people who rip CDs and share their mp3s, but I don't know a single one who "rips and shares" their books. The book publishers aren't working with the same market forces as the music labels, and thus can afford to be conservative and patient with their business.

Our eBook revolution is going to happen, to be sure, but it's not going to look like the mp3 revolution. It will be slower, DRM will be as restrictive as the publishers and device manufacturers can make it, and there's no real pressure driving content prices down. Don't think so? Look what happened when Amazon tried to hold their ground on Macmillan's price hikes. Not that I like to promote any sort of illegal activity, but you might want to wait until someone breaks Amazon's (or somebody else's) DRM and spreads universally-readable versions of those books all over the internet. Until then, I wouldn't worry about missing the eBook revolution.