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eBooks won’t have a happy ending

Publishers are getting ready to embrace eBooks. I think they’re making a big mistake.

Books aren’t music. You don’t read a book when you’re concentrating on something important, you don’t skip between chapters, books and authors in the space of a few minutes and you don’t need 1,000 different titles to read on the bus.

Unless you’re constantly hopping on and off planes or lugging around heavy textbooks, the electronic book is the answer to a question you didn’t ask.

…there isn’t much illegal content to drive hardware sales, which mean that the Kindle is some way away from being the iPod of books. If publishers are smart, they’ll keep it that way.

28 replies on “eBooks won’t have a happy ending”

Any single use device such as the Kindle will be limited in its acceptance. Conversely; the success of the iPhone and the iPod Touch is due to their capability to do numerous things, and do them seamlessly.

The days of “must-have-one-of-everything” in gadgets are over.

I think you’re right, but we’re a good bit away from proper convergence. If you compare the display on an early PalmPilot to the one on the iPhone/iPod Touch you’ll see what I mean: electronic paper right now is roughly equivalent to the former. When it’s the latter we’re going to see some extraordinary devices. I’ve been writing about this recently (won’t be in print or online for a bit, sorry) and some of the ideas are mind-blowing and entirely feasible.

This looks like far more promising technology:

The book chain has purchased a new device that prints up books at the speed of 105 pages per minute from a catalog of more than 400,000 books with another 600,000 books coming up within the next few months according to the company.

Digital distribution of traditional books. Excellent plan.

But:

Now some might say that the technology is obsolete since there are already alternatives like the Amazon Kindle or Sony’s E-reader which will make books a thing of the past soon.

They haven’t thought this through, have they? I mean, have they never used a book? Are they not aware of what criteria any rival product has to meet?

I don’t think he does disagree with me – I’m arguing from the perspective of traditional, mainstream book publishing and he’s coming at it from the perspective of a writer. he says in the piece that ultimately the price of ebooks will be zero and writers will make their cash elsewhere, which is fine if you have a platform such as boing boing and the associated fanbase (and paid gigs in Forbes, the Guardian etc etc etc) but not so good if you don’t. As you say, works for him. Would it work for every author? I really doubt it.

> I’ve read one of his books for free and intend to buy some more

What if it’s just as easy to get the others illegally? Possibly easier, if ebooks are DRMed and gadget-locked…

> Digital distribution of traditional books. Excellent plan.

Print on demand is becoming amazing, very very quickly. I’d love that facility in the average book shop. Or supermarket. I don’t care where.

Well, he gives all his books away for free if you know where to look. They’re all available in Stanza to download.

I think that his publisher, Tor, are a traditional publisher. They’ve experimented with giving books away for free in unprotected PDF format. The thinking is: get an audience by giving books away and you’ll have lots of people willing to pay for the printed versions too. Some won’t, some will but the net effect may be more sales.

It’s worked for him.

DRMed eBooks may go the same way as DRMed music, I don’t know. I do know that I don’t like DRM, especially as it doesn’t prevent piracy and only serves to make the electronic versions of products a pain to use for legitimate purchasers

> It’s worked for him.

Oh, indeed, but I’d argue – as he does – that his product isn’t books as such; his product is Cory Doctorow. Whereas with a lot of authors, probably most of them, the product is what you buy in Waterstones. So writers who simply publish as a means to a wider media pundit career will be fine; writers who don’t have high traffic blogs won’t be.

You’re seeing some of that in the music business now. Money from sales is pretty much vanishing, while money from touring is working for acts that are already established, not so well for acts that aren’t.

> I think that his publisher, Tor, are a traditional publisher.

You only half-quoted :) I said traditional, mainstream. Tor are a very big SF/fantasy publisher, but their books aren’t mainstream IMO.

> The thinking is: get an audience by giving books away and you’ll have lots of people willing to pay for the printed versions too. Some won’t, some will but the net effect may be more sales.

Do you think that’s happening, though? Does free web content ever urge you to, say, subscribe to magazines?

I thought Doctorow missed a pretty obvious point when he mentioned that one of the benefits of giving books away for free is more writing gigs for magazines. As if magazines aren’t prone to exactly the same technological problems as books. I can imagine some other writer deciding to write in magazines and newspapers for free in order to drive up his book sales — and it might well work. But it’s difficult to see how you could have a large number of writers of both types without them all starving to death.

> Does free web content ever urge you to, say, subscribe to magazines?

Quite the opposite. Free Web content enables me to read the few gems of goodness in a publication without having to dredge through all the shite filler they put between their covers.

I did subscribe to National Review for one year in order to pay for their Iraq War coverage, which was unbelievably good (mainly because so many US servicemen were emailing them in real time). But I think that was an exception to the rule. And I only read the first couple they sent me; the rest weren’t even opened.

Sorry in advance, I’m very tired so this might be a bit more incoherent than usual. Yeah, that bad.

> one of the benefits of giving books away for free is more writing gigs for magazines.

In the short term that’s madness. Too few titles, word rates staying low at best and falling at worst. The problem – oh yes! – is that too many people are willing to write for free. Giving books away for free in the hope you’ll make money from mag work is a risky strategy in the current climate, to say the least.

That said, there was a piece in the WSJ today (I linked it on twitter) arguing that the future of ebooks is in micropayments, so ironically enough mags – which currently look pretty shaky in most sectors – could come out quite well. But the article also suggests that the future of the book may well be the serial with constant cliffhangers, intros written to sell books rather than draw you into the story. Imagine a Jodi Picoult cover, again and again:

Your Dog Has Been Eaten
Your Husband Says It Wasn’t Him
You Found Dog Tags In His Wallet
WHAT WOULD YOU DO??????

Gaaaaah.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Doctorow, but I don’t think what he’s done is easily reproducible. He’s a web celeb who also writes, not a writer who’s become a celebrity through his writing. Do you know what I mean? That’s a tough thing to emulate.

I do agree with Doctorow that the idea of writing and living off the royalties is bunkum. The typical income per book – unless you’re very lucky – in mainstream fiction is about four grand, because advances are rarely recouped. It can be less in non-fiction, especially if the publisher makes an arse of distribution. But I don’t see how electronic books can be guaranteed to make things better, unless you have the combination of talent and timing to be another Cory Doctorow.

According to public lending right (authors royalty organisation) the average income for book writers dropped from £7000pa in 2000 to £4000 now. 80% of writers have a day job, not because they want to, but because the money they make from books doesn’t pay the rent.

PLR pays royalties for library loans, and tops out at £6600 – 80% of PLR’s top earners, ie the ones who actually get close to that some, say those royalties are essential to their survival. As far as I know, ebooks don’t generate PLR payments or anything like that.

For what it’s worth, my last PLR cheque (I’ve got more than 10 books out there) was for £13 :)

Even if your book’s a big hit and flies off library shelves, you need to do a hell of a lot of radio, TV, magazine work and journalism to even reach the minimum wage, let alone a decent wage. And radio, TV and magazine work is all drying up, while the web is rather keen on everybody writing for free. I just don’t see the shiny new world the ebook evangelists describe.

Don’t get me wrong, I can see how it’s good for me, as a reader. Don’t see how it’s good for the people I read.

E-Readers will definitely grow in popularity, but the technology isn’t quite there yet. High prices, less refresh rates, and availability of books are preventing growth. Once these draw-backs are fixed, sales should boom. It may not rival something like an ipod, but there exists a very large market out there for business/academic/pleasure readers. Also I’m not sure where the author is looking, but illegal ebook content is quite easy to find. After the prices come down a bit, I think we’ll be seeing an ereaders section in every techno-gadgets chain.

I don’t agree! For voracious readers, eReaders are a godsend. Some of us DO like to read more than one book at a time, and when we finish one, we want to go right on to the next one. Plus, the wireless connection on my Kindle means I’m never without reading material. A few weeks after I got my Kindle my son wound up in the ICU. I spent hours just sitting every day. Fortunately, I always carry my Kindle in my purse, and it kept me from going nuts.

I think over time the multi-function device will give the dedicated eReader some serious competition, but the e-ink screen is a real plus for reading novels. And eventually, when they can make multifunction devices with screens that don’t cause eyestrain (or more sophisticated eReaders), ebooks may evolved from print analogs to something more complex.

The rumors of a “Large” iPod touch (about 4x as big as the current model) would make it just about the the perfect size for an eBook, and if they could keep screen resolution high (with the same OS) then it could serve as a platform for other media as well. Technical considerations aside, the “killer ap” is the ITunes store. When authors figure out that they can make a lot more money selling directly to the reader at $1.99 a pop (netting about 70%) publishers will disappear. Even a mild best-seller (100,000 copies) will keep an author going for a couple of years. A specialty author who has a catalog of 20 or more perennial titles will be able to create a very attractive income stream. But any widespread eBook success will come from its being incorporated into another, more versatile device. I’ll say that in 7 years it will be the dominant publishing platform, less time than that if the economy can recover before then.

Hi Karen. I agree entirely – my argument is that the ebook is bad news for *publishers*, not readers. As Professor Batty puts it:

> When authors figure out that they can make a lot more money selling directly to the reader at $1.99 a pop (netting about 70%) publishers will disappear.

I think you might be right. The numbers are interesting, though: if you assume that paid apps account for 1/3 of the total (which is probably over-optimistic, but I’ve no idea what the numbers are) that’s 1/3 of 35,000, or about 12,000 apps accounting for around 300,000,000 downloads. At $1.99 a pop that’s 25,000 downloads an app, with the authors pocketing $71,000 each. Obviously that’s going to be distorted by the big hitters – both in terms of what they charge and the numbers they get – so my gut feeling is that you’ve got a handful of really big numbers doing big money, and a lot of apps bringing in beer money. Pretty much like publishing and music is now :)

Right now, though, I think publishers are making the same mistake as the music business. Ebooks aren’t any cheaper than printed ones most of the time, and in many cases they’re actually more expensive than the printed ones. If prices don’t go down fast, publishers will be giving books away for free against their will via DRM cracking and illegal copying. Especially when ebook readers of whatever shape are more popular than they are now: currently the Kindle skews to an older, more honest demographic.

I think what’s interesting is how authors will get exposure. When I interviewed some successful iPhone app developers things like being picked by Apple were huge factors, and word of mouth was a big deal too. To an extent publishers do that job now, whether by inking deals with bookshops for prominent displays and/or ads, or by running adverts, getting books to the right reviewers and so on. It’ll be interesting to see whether authors embrace it, with all the work that entails, or if they prefer to hide behind the skirts of traditional big publishers. Could be interesting.

This would be a very good time to start a good, professional, serious ebook review site, you know.

Here’s a question: if you were writing a mainstream book right now, which direction would you go in? Would you try the agent/big publisher thing with epublishing as a last resort, or would you go electronic immediately? Based purely on what’s available now, eg Kindle isn’t in the UK, Apple doesn’t have an eBook iPod, etc etc etc. I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts.

It’s interesting reading various people’s opinions on this. I’m yet to be convinced either way, though I do think that eBooks are a definite benefit for the user, as well as the publisher.

OK, here’s the thing. Electronic goods have a much smaller production/distribution cost to the physical versions. Books, even more so than CDs. If eReaders take off (and they will when they become cheap enough) there’s the potential for publishers to receive bigger margins than present.

Piracy is obviously a problem, but the people I’ve read that have tried this (and I take your point about internet celebs here Gary) tend to report that the electronic versions haven’t hurt their sales of physical books. John Scalzi was another one to do this.

I think it has promise. Electronic books are a much more efficient way of delivering content to users without the need to print out on expensive paper.

It’ll be interesting where this goes. I’m sure that there’ll be differing effects in different genres but I also hope that the cheaper distribution costs will help both the writers and publishers

Gary– I don’t agree ebooks are universally bad for publishers. I think they are the current challenge. Publishers have to learn how to publish economically with new platforms and new distribution. If they don’t, they won’t make it. The ones who figure it out will survive and even flourish.

Hi Karen. No, I don’t think it’s universally bad. But from where I’m sitting it looks like publishers are repeating the mistakes the music business made. Digital prices as high as, or higher than, print prices; a confusing DRM format war is brewing, Amazon’s making an early move to dominate the space, that sort of thing. And we already know how that turns out. There’s been a lot of press this week about Dylan making number one in the album chart: it’s not that Dylan is suddenly popular, it’s that album sales are so completely and utterly screwed that a Dylan album can top the chart. I think e-books are in real danger of going the same way.

> Publishers have to learn how to publish economically with new platforms and new distribution. If they don’t, they won’t make it.

Yes. Absolutely.

Rutty:
> Electronic books are a much more efficient way of delivering content to users without the need to print out on expensive paper.

I agree. the hard bit is getting the business model right. I’m inclined to believe that the real reason music piracy is so prevalent is because the record companies haven’t come up with compelling, legal services: never mind locking the stable door after the horse has bolted; they spent a decade pretending the horse was still there. Look at Apple’s iphone app store: piracy of those apps exists, but most users can’t be bothered. The challenge to publishers IMO is to find that kind of model rather than the ones the music biz has been chasing: the iTunes App Store for books, not MSN Music for books :)

Gary– well, it sounds like we’re actually saying the same thing, then. I guess this proves how fragile language is.

p.s. congrats on the interface directions for posting! it’s the first one I’ve seen that told me exactly what to do if I got the anti-spam word wrong.

Hope you realise, you’re putting bookcase makers out of business with your electronic optimism?

Think about your study or living room – I bet one or the other has a few dirty great shelves, packed with reference manuals and novels. How the feck’ do I prove that I’m intelligent when that’s reduced to an ebook reader in a dock?

I’m an avid book buyer for me ebooks will be a godsend as I just don’t have enough space to keep all the books I have.

It would be amazing to have all my books in a handheld device.

What has put me off buying so far is the fact that a uniform format has not been settled on. We are still in the Betamax v VHS stage.

I don’t want to purchase dozens of books and then find I can’t read them in a few years time. Also the cost of readers and especially ebooks are still too high.

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