The lament of a disillusioned ebook reader: the frustrating experience of buying and reading ebooks

There was a time when I used to work in publishing. Digital publishing, specifically. Those years, and we’re talking about 2009 to 2014, were undoubtedly interesting: no one had any idea of what an ebook was, and the lucky few that did were scared to death by piracy and product devaluation driven by digital. No publisher got their act together from the beginning, and trying to buy (and read!) an ebook from the publisher’s website was mostly a frustrating experience. The only retailer able to offer a proper ebook buying experience was Amazon, but that comes with a lot of strings attached, including a sub-standard .mobi document format.

You’d expect that a lot of things have improved in the last couple of years. But I’ll argue that buying ebooks is still a mostly depressing, frustrating and infuriating experience for me, notwithstanding the fact that I work with computers for a living and I have no problem, moral or practical, about doing 90% of my shopping online. I’ll try to explain the main pain points that make me wary of buying ebooks to this day. And I’ll be as honest as I can, if not utterly blunt.

Book discovery sucks.

So, this is going to be really basic, and applies to books in general, not digital editions in particular. Bear with me for a moment, will you?

Publishers rushed to their social media outlets at the very early days of the frenzy. It was promising, all the smart kids with fancy credit cards were there, and it was free. Isn’t it lovely? Potentially unlimited exposure, millions of university-educated, high-income eyeballs. For free! Coupled with the unlimited supply of interns eager to get a work experience in the special places where culture is made, you’ll easily understand why any respectable publisher maintains a social media presence and thinks in terms of hashtags and trending topics.

I’m sorry, but I don’t really care about any of that. I don’t care about your author’s twitter QA (because come on, unless you publish Nobel prizes or Fields Medal claimants, what they say outside of their books is none of my business). Twitter might be popular among columnist and cultural critics, but for me it’s a convenient way to stay up to date on current, volatile affairs. Not the right place for literature. Not the right place for long form, focused reading. Quite the opposite, actually. I appreciate that curating a twitter feed it’s the easiest thing you can sell as working experience to an intern, but frankly it’s not worth my attention. You know what you could do? A friggin’ newsletter. I know, right? Oldstyle. Boring. But any respectable digital marketing professional will tell you how effective those newsletters are when it comes to conversion. They get more attention, because I can’t just scroll past them and never see them again. And please, while you’re there: put something interesting and valuable in them, don’t just copy-paste your press release or the book description I can already find on your website. And sorry to bother you again, but if you don’t provide any e-commerce feature on your website, why don’t you just link me to someplace I can buy your book from?

You know what I care about? I want to be able to search for a book on your website. Again, it’s boring, it’s web 101, but it’s something every customer will do, and trust my professional view on that: in 2016 we have the technology to turn a couple of keywords in a result page with the right book on the top. That’s something Amazon does really well, and I don’t think I ever browsed past the first page in order to find what I was really looking for. But it’s not rocket science. If you’re doing ebooks, you have a the whole metadata and data for your catalogue at your fingertips. Get a software engineer to explain you how and when, but I guarantee that the search results will dramatically improve. Trust me on that, it’s not rocket science.

Another thing I care about, is the availability of the book. I don’t know what’s wrong with you people, but more often than not I click on a review, proceed to read an intriguing and detailed opinion on why I should really read that book, then I agree with that and look for the book only to see that it’s due to be published months in the future. This is something that happens a lot with US publishers, I don’t recall ever reading a review for a yet-to-be-published book in the Italian or British market. I don’t get it. Why would you do that? Explain it like I’m five, pretty please.

Purchasing ebooks sucks

There’s so much wrong with this, I don’t even know where I should start from.

First of all, if you publish a new book in 2016 and don’t make an ebook available at the same time I hate you. Seriously, that cultural war is over and no one won. There are a lot of books I can’t be arsed to spend shelf space on, but I still want to read just because I’m curious. Please, make them available in ebook format.

Second, if you price the paperback edition at £12 and the ebook at £11, you’ll make me want to stab you in the face. There’s no way you’re going to convince me to buy a bunch of bits and bytes for about the same price that gets me a paper book I can touch and feel. I know, the content is king and whatever, but that’s not how the consumer market works. I value a physical product more than a zipped set of html files, sorry about that. And again, I work with computers for a living. You won’t persuade me, and — just try to trust me on this — you won’t convince the average Colin from Hull. I expect an ebook to be consistently cheaper than a book.

Even worse, please don’t make your ebook more expensive in your website than it is on Amazon’s. I. don’t. even. I know this may sound difficult to believe, so there goes your proof:

The book itself sounded quite interesting. but I didn’t buy it

You know what’s cool? Ordering a book and getting the ebook for free, to read while your paper book arrives. It’s not rocket science either, and Verso Books does exactly that. It just makes sense, right? You control the user checkout process, so the chances of giving away free ebooks with no purchase made is zero. It’s just a matter of watermarking an epub on the fly and offer a download link that only works for logged in customers.

That was the main problem to overcome when I first proposed a book-ebook bundling mechanism to the publisher I was working for. If you’re really curious, part of the code is still on github, and it worked by asking the customer to take a picture of a book page. Another option was printing one-use coupons to redeem on the publisher’s website, but I quit the company just after launching the first successful test, and they didn’t really do much experimenting afterwards.

But yeah, you can use ebooks as a convenience accessory to your “real” book sales. There’s the technology to do that, and it would make economic sense: let’s make customers pay the premium for a paper book, and give them the ebook for free, or make them pay a smaller amount for just the ebook. Bring your Excel, I’ll help you with the math.

Reading ebooks sucks

Brace yourselves, this is the nasty part. Unless you’re an Amazon customer.

Let’s say that somehow your customer found the way through your clumsy social media and your clunky ecommerce, and successfully bought an ebook of yours. High five, big success. Now what?

If you’re like any other publisher on the planet, you have opted for a hard DRM on your digital publications, meaning that your customer just downloaded a strange ACSM file within their browser. If they are on a mobile device, let’s hope they had Adobe Digital Editions already installed, otherwise your customer support reps will receive an angry call. If they’re smart enough to have used a desktop computer to purchase, clicking on the ACSM file will open Adobe Digital Editions (assuming you had explained that to them as part of your checkout process) and will be asked for their Adobe credentials.

Yes, this still happens in 2016. Your customers, registered on your website or a retailer’s, will have to provide some details to Adobe, a third party completely unrelated to the publisher, the author or the retailer, in order to verify they have the right to consume your content. That’s completely stupid, and offensive, and did I already say it’s stupid?. And it’s useless. If you’re anything like me, you’d already removed the DRM with a click and uploaded the resulting file to your Dropbox, to sync with all your devices. DRMs were cracked years ago, specifically ACS4, but the same ineffective protections are still the industry standard. So at this point, the only result you’re after is pissing off your customers. No real piracy protection. You’re giving Adobe money (a lot of money) for a broken technology, you’re scaring inexperienced customers, and you’re wasting thirty seconds of my time. Is it worth it? Let me repeat that: you’re wasting your money and everyone’s time. Spoiler: it’s not worth it.

You should use watermarking instead, i.e. embedding identifiable information about your transaction on the ebook’s contents. Of course that can be stripped, more or less easily depending on the technical choices you make, but it’s cheap and discourages the potentially dishonest customers from sharing your content with the whole planet. Also, a watermarked ebook is a compatible ebook, and I can use any ebook reader I like to read it, present or future. I paid good money for your content, and I expect those words to be fully available a few years in the future.

My last point is the only thing that consistently got better during the years: ebook quality. There used to be a slew of severely badly formatted ebooks on the market, but not anymore: almost every ebook now is aptly formatted, well structured, and it’s a valid ePub(2) document. It’s a real step forward, and this means that publishers started changing something in their production departments (or they’re choosing better outsourcing companies for their digital conversions, I don’t know for sure).


Sorry, it was long and angry. I know it fully and I’m sorry for that. But it was a genuine lament of despair, a collection of some of the most compelling reasons why I’m not enthusiastic about buying ebooks these days. Every other industry made it really easy for me to give them money: music, services, supermarkets, food delivery. Why can’t we make it easy for publishing as well? All I want is books, relevant and accessible books. Why are you guys so keen in making my life difficult? I swear to God, being an adult is already complicated. Surely I won’t pay to make it even more difficult or to waste more of my time.

Thanks for listening.