e-Books Frustrating Customers by Repeating Sarnoff’s Record Player Incompatibility

By Katie Sheridan

What’s the similarity between the story of the first records and the e-book trend?

No, it’s not the beginning of a bad joke; e-Books and their publishers are unconsciously following the history of records.

An article from PBS Media Shift titled “E-Book Publishers Must Provide Flexible Access to Avoid ‘Media Hell’” talks about the frustrations e-book customers are having due to incompatibility between e-books and e-reader devices. This frustration harkens back to the introduction of records.

e-Book publishers would be wise to avoid the path of David Sarnoff if they wish to satisfy customers. Photo by slgckgc via Flickr


The first records came in a variety of 78 rpm and 33 1/3 rpm. Both kinds of records would work on a single record player. But David Sarnoff, RCA Chairman, invented a third kind of record; one that was not compatible with the original record player. Now people had to buy new equipment if they wanted to listen to 45 rpm records. Or if Sarnoff’s 45 rpm record player was the first device they bought, they were stuck with buying Sarnoff’s records only.

Record customers became confused between products and frustrated with the entire industry, and eventually records became standardized.

And now publishers are repeating history. The article’s author, Dorian Benkoil, talks about his initial vision of being able to read his e-book on multiple devices and use features like text-to-speech and highlighting no matter what company he got the book from.

Benkoil was disappointed and frustrated after multiple attempts to find an e-book with all of the things he wanted. The first book he bought was from Google Books. They restricted the text-to-speech function in hopes of selling audiobooks separately. Next he tried iBooks. They would not let him read his book on non-Apple devices.

I would argue that all of these money-making strategies publishers and e-book manufacturers are putting on their products are not helping sales. They may even be losing money because of them. I understand that publishing companies are not as lucrative as they used to be, but restricting customers to the point of frustration can’t be a good long-term idea.

How can publishers make money without impeding on all of the wants of consumers? Are the publishers justified in making e-book content incompatible? Do you believe publishers will gain more by making material compatible between e-books? Or are the money-making strategies they are employing now the best they can do? And just for fun, isn’t David Sarnoff a sleaze? Who else heard the infamous stories in J30?


10 responses to “e-Books Frustrating Customers by Repeating Sarnoff’s Record Player Incompatibility

  1. I believe that if there can be an agreement somehow to have the material compatible between the readers, that this would help make all the companies more money. Then, the companies can focus on improving specific qualities and functions of their e-reader, instead of worrying about having rights to specific materials. Furthermore, this will allow publishers can earn more money, as more people would be willing to possible purchase e-readers, and thus the publisher’s works as there will not be as many glitches between using the various e-readers. I mean, there are itunes programs for both Macs and PCs, so those Ipad and Ipod owners that don’t use Macs are still able to use those Apple products with their PCs. Why can’t something similar be done with e-reaaders?

    • Exactly! I’d bet a lot more people would be interested like you said and also suggest an e-reader to friends. I think many people are still technologically unsure at this point in time and any frustration they encounter turns them off to certain devices. I agree with you that the publishing companies would be wise to make sure customers are at ease.

  2. Total sales would probably decline a little to begin with should the conversion be made, but the overall appeal would increase and the impact would be negligible in the long run. However, with so many competitors, a single product would ruin the market for most of the companies and no one wants to take that chance.

  3. I understand your point. Any business is a tricky situation when it comes to competitors. I just wish companies would look at the long-run effects more often, but the fear that goes into taking such a damaging risk makes sense as well. It doesn’t look very good either way they go though. I consider myself a pretty technologically savvy person and I still got frustrated trying to borrow an e-book from the library via my computer. All I kept thinking was, “This wouldn’t be happening if I could get the physical book.”

  4. I own a Nook and have never run into problems with downloading e-books. I’ve never been frustrated with the divisions between Apple, Barnes and Noble and Amazon and their products. Like the others, having a uniform product would be great in theory, but it’s not likely to happen anytime soon. Research is key for people wanting to buy an e-book reader. Look into all your options to make sure you buy the one that fulfills your needs.

    • So all of your books allow you to use text-to-speech and highlighting and note-taking? Huh. It sounds like Barnes and Noble may have already figured out their priorities and simplified the process. I’m glad.

  5. I think this is a really interesting connection to the history of records – who would have thought the two would have anything in common? Since I don’t have an e-book reader, I don’t have personal experience with compatibility or incompatibility. And while I could see some companies – especially Apple – making their products exclusive to their reader to maximize profit, it seems like the Kindle and Nook are leaning more toward compatibility.

    • Apparently so! As Katelyn said, she hasn’t had a problem with her Nook. Maybe this only applies to the iPad. But if so, why wouldn’t Katelyn have trouble with the same e-books? Now I’m confused. Could it be that the iPad’s e-reader app/function was created to block certain features of specific e-books? Something doesn’t add up here… Sorry for thinking out loud just then. Haha.

  6. I seem to think that if a person purchases an e-book, they should be able to have access to it on any device because they paid for it. If a person is going to pay for the additional services an e-book offers, in comparison to a physical book, then these services should not be restricted..

    • I completely agree. Where is the advantage of purchasing an e-book/e-reader if you become so restricted in your abilities? You’re already paying a bundle for the device plus the book, so it is only fair that e-book publishers work for the customer and allow them more access. Of course, life isn’t fair and businesses must do what they believe will keep them in business. We’ll just have to see if their restrictions will keep them in business.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s