Dear Dr. Boli: What do you think of these “ebook” things? —Sincerely, Mavis Buckle, Reference Librarian, Carnegie Branch Library, Blandville.

Dear Madam: Dr. Boli finds that ebooks are still in a very primitive state. He would like to do one simple and obvious thing with ebook readers, but it cannot be done with current technology. All Dr. Boli wants is an ebook reader that will sync to the paper copy of the book at home. One ought to be able to come home and find the bookmark stuck in the same page where one left off in the ebook while one was waiting for the streetcar. It is a very simple thing, yet no currently available device can do it, and that is frankly appalling.


  1. Jared says:

    On an uncommonly serious note (which is to say that it is uncommon that I should respond seriously, rather than to say that this note possesses seriousness in an uncommon degree), I find it somewhat perplexing that one so rarely finds print editions and ebooks bundled.

    These days, I do the majority of my reading (excepting books borrowed from a nearby university library) on a Kindle, and while much of this reading consists of older works in the public domain, I sometimes purchase newer titles as well. Most of the time I’m content to simply purchase the ebook edition, but there are occasions when I wish to own a copy of a particular book, but still appreciate the convenience of reading at least part of it as an ebook, which I can pull up on my phone while waiting somewhere, or carry with me more readily.

    The marginal cost of producing an additional ebook is de minimus, the only cost being 3G transmission, for which Amazon (and B&N etc.) already has a contract, and conversion, which they’ve already accomplished. Obviously they still need to make money on this, but if I own the physical copy, why not let me have the ebook, or add it on for a small price (99 cents rather than $9.99, perhaps)?

    The only real issue I see is that one might purchase the book and either gift it or immediately resell it while keeping the ebook, but in the latter case, the transaction is unlikely to prove economically advantageous, and instances of the former do not seem sufficiently likely to undermine a model of adding the ebook for a small additional fee.

    Perhaps Dr. Boli can use his methods of persuasion to convince major publishing houses to adopt this approach. I was thinking that perhaps he could deny them licensing rights to the letter “M” until they have done so.

  2. Baen Publishing, a science fiction publisher, already has the tendency to bundle some of their more popular bestsellers, such as volumes of the Honor Harrington series by David Weber, with a CD-ROM containing not only the complete Honor Harrington series in a variety of eBook formats, but dozens of other books by the same publisher as well. Often, these other books will be the first volume of other, similarly bloated series of science fiction or fantasy franchises, or earlier works by authors who share overlapping fanbases with the book the disc is bundled with. In this manner, they build interest in the publisher’s back catalog, lower the perceived entry barrier for new readers to pick up the seventeenth book in an ongoing series, and encourage fans of one author to branch out to other authors in the same publisher’s stable.

    While I understand that books of cardboard characters hurling missiles at each other from starships is unlikely to interest The Good Doctor, even if said stories are conscious homages to the Napoleonic-War epics of Patrick O’Brien, Bernard Cornwell, and C.S. Forrester, but it should not be difficult for publishers of the sort of public-domain victoriana favored by Dr. Boli to do something similar. Bundle each Dickens, Austen, or Trollope novel in paper format with a CD-ROM holding not only that novel in eBook format, but EVERY OTHER WORK BY THAT AUTHOR, and a selected work or two by a dozen or more other authors likely to be of interest to fans of the work being purchased. The sort of person who buys 150-year-old novels in this day and age is likely to want hard copies of those books to sit on their shelf, even if just as a status symbol, so introducing them to more authors suitable for such enshrinement on a highly-visible bookshelf is likely to be lucrative for a publisher wise enough to launch such a bundling scheme.

  3. Russ says:

    CD-ROM? Really? The entire premise of ebooks (and music, and digital content, and the cloud, and the internet) is that there is no physical media. Burn your own CD, or impress your own wax cylinder, if you’re in to status displays of yestertech.

  4. Dr. Boli says:

    To be really “retro,” as the young people say, one could hire a bard who keeps all the good stories in memory, ready to be recited whenever anybody calls for entertainment. Still, Dr. Boli does like books. An ebook reader is a wonderful thing, a portable library of potentially infinite size, and for that reason Dr. Boli has more than one of the devices. But there is something about a real book that appeals to the senses, rustling paper and cool cloth binding and smelly ink and all. Dr. Boli will be sorry to see books go the way of the Edison cylinder, which will happen about three years from now.

  5. The data could just as easily be downloadable from a website using a one-time-use username and password printed in each book, if one really wants to avoid physical media.

  6. raf says:

    The data could just as easily be downloadable from a website using a one-time-use username and password printed in each book….

    Providing a whole new incentive to browsing … with your smart phone. I wonder how many one-time-use codes would still be active if anyone actually bought the book. Maybe the password would need to be printed on the register receipt — or emailed to the purchaser.

  7. Sean says:

    Baen has been doing ebooks since before ebooks were cool. Since at least the late 90’s, in fact. Furthermore, they always have and still release their ebooks in a variety of open formats including Word and pdf, with the explicit note that sharing and copying are fine with them. So long as copies are not sold.

    At that time, and for quite some time afterwards, CD’s bundled with books were a fine medium, often easier to use than slow internet connections and cumbersome unzipping software. Today, they maintain a free library of several dozen e-versions of their titles, which largely serves the same purpose.

    They also have free samples so extensive (often nearly half of the finished novel) that not buying the finished work is nearly impossible.

    I would agree with Mr. Mess about the more and more cardboard nature of the characters of both David Weber and several other Baen authors. You can only go back to the same well so many time.

  8. This probably wouldn’t help Dr. Boli, fond as he is of books out so long they’ve been published in hundreds of editions and formats, but more recent works only as yet available in a few dozen formats and languages might be linked to an e-version in the following manner.

    For eBooks linked over the internet to a publisher who can keep records of all the various versions of hardcopy published books, one should be able to highlight a word or paragraph, select the hardcopy edition you own, and get an immediate citation for the corresponding page, paragraph, and line to turn to in order to find that place in the text in the hardcopy version, and vice versa. Not quite as easy as moving a bookmark, but good enough to allow one to fairly easily shift between reading an eBook and the more convenient and pleasant-to-use hardcopy version.

    I myself own no eBook reader and much prefer hardcopy books, as they are actually more likely to survive a drop in the bathtub while reading without permanent damage…and if they do become damaged beyond usefulness, one book thus damaged is a lot cheaper and easier to replace than an entire eBook reader that may contain your entire library.

  1. […] Boli would not have imagined that the mere mention of ebook readers could lead to such spirited discussion among his regular correspondents. Clearly the topic is one […]

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