The Lost Symbol’s e-book sales to date: 100,000

Early evidence, in the form sales figures from The Lost Symbol publisher Doubleday, reported by Silicon Alley Insider, suggests that e-book sales, while explosive on the first day after the book was released, remain relatively small overall. Doubleday says that 100,000 of the two million copies sold so far are e-books. That’s five percent, which means people did not buy e-readers to buy the book, and that smartphone applications weren’t an extraordinary contributor to sales.

So, of the approximately 1.6 million dedicated e-book readers in the market, plus the approximately 3.1 million smartphones with e-reader applications, Dan Brown’s new book sold to two percent of the installed base. That may simply mean that the book isn’t the major hit that was expected. I still think that over time more e-copies will be sold than hardbacks, but paperbacks are the editions that will earn any profits Doubleday finally collects.

The Bookends

IN WHICH WE FIND PUBLISHING AS AN INDUSTRY WAS ALWAYS ONE BIG CRISIS, NOT A GOLDEN ERA ENDED BY THE RISE OF THE INTERNET, AND THAT THE AUTHOR’S ASPIRATIONS, LIKE HUMAN NATURE, HAVEN’T CHANGED. PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION PROCESSES AND TECHNOLOGIES HAVE CHANGED. THE RESULT IS NOT A CRISIS OF PUBLISHING, BUT THE CRISIS OF AN ORDER ESTABLISHED OVER THE LAST 500 YEARS, AS PUBLISHING ROLLS FORWARD, REACHING NEW HEIGHTS.

Inexpensive, well-made and authoritative books let readers “converse freely with the glorious dead.”—Aldus Manutius[i]

“At the new user-driven fundraising site KickStarter, a group of 100 strangers chipped in $30 apiece to self-publish a 100 page book–one page for each contributor.”—Galley Cat Blog, MediaBistro.com, June 2, 2009

Writing is solitary business. Publishing has always been a collective effort that blends authorship, financing, design, printing, packaging, marketing and sales to produce the rare breakout hit, it’s a process that has been simplified by technology without conceding simple answers to the question of how to achieve a profit. The evolution of publishing is laid clear in the story of two books, one that ended the era of incunabula, the first 50 years of print, and another that fulfilled the self-publishing dream in the first decade of the 21st Century.They are the bookends of the paper-publishing era. Neither is a great work that will be assigned in literature or theology classes for centuries after its publication, nor are they particularly well written, but their successes mirror one another and tell a great deal about how publishing has changed and will change, as well as what publishing skills will remain vibrant with the rise of new technology and the reinvention of publishing society beginning in our time.

hypnerotomachiaFra Francesco Colonna was a Dominican friar, the anonymous author of the bizarre and erotic antiquarian romantic fantasy Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Published on the eve of the 15th century in Republic of Venice, the book has become one of the most valuable printed works in the world.  Five hundred and six years later, William P. Young, a church-going salesman and motel night clerk from Boring, Oregon, penned a Christian psychodrama, The Shack, that started out as a photocopied work shared by his friends but found a market online, selling 3.8 million print and e-book copies by January 2009[ii], climbing to the top of The New York Times bestseller list for dozens of weeks[iii] on the strength of Internet “word-of-mouth” endorsements by thousands of readers.

A monk writing in Treviso, Italy, in the 1460s didn’t dream of being published, because there were no publishers. The process and business norms authors and readers take for granted today would take hundreds of years to mature. As Francesco Colonna took up his quill, there were perhaps 50 to 70 printing presses in the world. He could not have dreamed that his allegorical love story would reach print and become “the most famous published work or all time.”[iv] Hynerotomachia Poliphili, as it came to be printed, included erotic images strikingly out of the 15th century mainstream. Colonna must have feared its publication would cost him his place in the church, should he be discovered its author. He would never make any money from the work. His publisher would lose money. Yet, the product of those labors made a work of real art. An early edition Hypnerotomachia recently sold at auction, in a depressed market, for $22,543.[v]

Half a millennium later, a salesman and part-time Web developer living in suburban Portland, Oregon, in 2005 would have little hope of being published by a major publishing house, because the process of getting a book into print had become so hardened, involving byzantine networks of author’s agents, editorial relationships, publisher projections that rule the risks taken each season. The sheer distance a Christian title must traverse to make The New York Times’ paperback fiction bestseller list, a general book category, is as daunting as the chances of publication of the Hypnerotomachia when it was written. Once he started thinking of publishing his photocopied book, what William P. Young found was that he didn’t need, but could leverage, the publishing industry to get his book to sell a million more copies than Continue reading

A book evolution, not revolution

We often hear arguments that the age of the book has passed or that, with the advent of e-books, the book is doomed. It makes good copy, just as populist-sounding charges that publishing is “corrupt” does, but none of these arguments recognizes the human cultural tradition that we build on rather than destroy. Is it true that no one listens to radio now that television has reached 50+ years of use? No, we remix our attention and what is valued. Books, both paper and digital, will live side by side.

I write this because of two Fast Company pieces of the last 24 hours, one of which I helped edit for my good friend, Marcia Conner, the other reporting on the possibility that Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol could sell more copies in digital form than hardcover. I am sure The Lost Symbol will sell more e-copies than hardcovers over time, if readers don’t find they are disappointed by the book—it’s virtually assured, just as cheaper paperbacks outsell hardbacks. The important question is whether e-book versions of The Lost Symbol will cannibalize hardback sales or be additive. Only a few weeks time will answer this question, as the initial hype wears off and sales become more “normal.” Based on pre-orders, the book has been in Amazon’s best sellers list for 150 days; all those copies were delivered in the last 24 hours. Currently, The Lost Symbol is #1 in both Amazon’s book and Kindle stores. Shortcovers is reporting its biggest sales day in its short history, exceeding its previous one-day sales by 100 percent.

Fast Company‘s Kit Eaton dissects Stephen Windwalker’s claim that e-books will outsell hardbacks, based on day-one figures that are largely guesswork. Eaton suggests that while Kindle sales may be strong, it doesn’t mean that e-book versions of The Lost Symbol will outpace hardcovers. With one million copies sold after such an intense marketing Continue reading

The cold realism of a former publisher

Daniel Menaker, former Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House and fiction editor of The New Yorker writes in the Barnes & Noble Review about the realities of publishing, including the dynamic and paradoxical pressures of choosing books that will produce a market success. A must read for BooksAhead readers, as it strips away the mythos of publishing to reveal the true business. For example:

4. Financial success in front-list publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big bestseller. But the bestseller lists paint nothing even remotely like the full financial picture of any publication. Because that painting’s most important commerce color is the size of the advance. The second-most important color is the general level of book-buying. The volume of sales of the No. 6 book on the New York Times fiction bestseller list in 2009 is significantly lower than the volume of the No. 6 bestseller five years ago. Four and three and two years ago, too, almost certainly.

Highly recommended. Read it, think. Menaker describes a rapid tectonic shift to e-reading, over the next decade, which will catch a lot of attention in the e-book blogs, but this is not a column about e-books. It’s about the current limits on editorial investment and their potential to change.

UPDATE: Mike Shatzkin has a typically penetrating and thoughtful piece about Menaker’s article.

Reading Steve Jobs: Why 45 e-reader devices don’t make a market

Thomas Jefferson hacked bookstands for partial continuous attention

Thomas Jefferson hacked bookstands for partial continuous attention

As I develop the coverage here at BooksAhead, I have decided that trying to break news stories about e-reader devices doesn’t add a lot of value for the reader, especially when there are few differentiating features or functionality. Way back in the early 90s, when a new Ethernet interface card for the Mac—I was networking editor at MacWEEK—it became clear that an occasional summary article covering all the recent releases would be more useful than many individual articles announcing yet another Ethernet card.

However, sometimes a real breakthrough would come along, and that would get an individual article. The most important change in the early networking card market was something subtle and largely unheralded: The addition to writable ROM chips to cards eliminated the need to return a card when its software was defective. Yet, for several years, Ethernet card developers hesitated to include EPROMs in their products. Once they did, new features proliferated, such as Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), because cards could be updated in response to changing technology rather than having to be replaced. It sounds trivial, yet it made a huge difference.

The e-reader device market is looking a lot like the Ethernet card business back then: It’s a developing commodity market. Price is becoming the only differentiator, but the functionality is still very limited compared both to books and what e-books could be. The action will soon turn squarely on format and networking of documents, just as the Web became relevant when the browser changed hyperlinks from navigating between documents to navigating within parts of many documents.  Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson designed a bookstand for reading several titles to accommodate the limitations of books (the idea is older, but Jefferson’s is one of the most elegant solutions to the problem). Readers want to use books and the knowledge and enjoyment they contain, not just consume them.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this issue since I wrote about the ePub standards maintenance process beginning a couple weeks back. There are huge business opportunities in the Continue reading

Open letter to Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry: Kill your hardback business

Sir:

I read with interest your comments in the Financial Times of August 31, 2009, regarding the fact that “unilateral pricing by Google, Amazon and other e-book retailers such as Barnes & Noble could destroy publishers’ profits and kill the lucrative trade in hardbacks.” I write to warn you that, if your primary concern is retaining the profit in hardbacks, you will repeat the errors of numerous of C-level peers in media companies, from newspapers and magazines to the music and television industries. Instead, you should be prepared to wipe out your hardcover profits over the next five years to retain your relationship with readers. The real reason Amazon is selling e-books at a loss today is to take the demand-creation relationship away from you.

The hardcover is a package for printed content. Despite it’s wonderful history, the codex form factor in its various sizes of hardbound pages, is just a package, albeit one tightly bound up in the distribution processes traditional to publishing. The hardback book has led the publishing parade for centuries, but has given way in the era of industrial publishing to paperbacks, so that now far more than half the books published are never released in hardback. Hardbacks are seldom profitable, despite what the FT article says, relying on unexpected hits to produce the lion’s share of profit at a publishing house. Predictably successful hardback first editions, such as the upcoming Dan Brown novel, The Lost Symbol, are less profitable than the surprise hit because of the deep discounts demanded by retailers online and off.

Hardbacks are the best way to test the market for viable trade paper titles that will thrive in your midlist, because they are more likely to end up in discount bins than as returns. Rather, I should write “Hardbacks were the best way…” as the e-book is poised to take the place of hardbacks as first-edition-to-market because they can be sampled by chapter and, even, given away to spark readership wildfires. Newspaper companies failed to see that preserving the newspaper killed the news that made the daily edition valuable. The form factor in newspapers and books are deeply integrated into the distribution systems on which these industries rely. Moving books or morning editions from place to place has been the key to profitability for publishing since before any of us were born. It’s over, as newspaper companies prove daily.

Distribution is no longer the hard problem in publishing or any form of information delivery. It’s a competence that Hachette should shed in favor of outsourced relationships with, among others, Amazon and Google. Amazon can move books much more cheaply than any publisher. They could probably print them more cheaply, too. Both Amazon and Google can move virtually unlimited volumes of bits anywhere on the planet at a fraction of the price Hachette can deliver books to retail.

Amazon is not poised to tell Hachette and other publishers that it will pay a smaller share of $9.99, they are thinking about whether Continue reading

The Lost Symbol will be a dollar sign

The Da Vinci Code sold more than 81 million copies worldwide. Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol, will be released simultaneously in hardcover ($16.17 at Amazon, a 46 percent discount) and for Kindle ($9.99) on September 15th. Five million paper copies of the book will be printed, one digital copy will be encrypted several million times. Likewise, Sony is certain to offer the book at the same price or lower in its e-book store, taking its losses on The Lost Symbol to drive sales of its Reader devices.

What we will witness is a test of how far hardware vendors will go to increase unit sales of their respective devices. Since Random House will collect between $12 and $13 per copy from digital channels, the hit to Sony and Amazon’s top-lines will be substantial. Each will pay millions to keep The Lost Symbol at the top of their device’s bestseller list. The symbol lost in all this hoopla will certainly be a dollar sign, but it may result in greater uptake in e-book formats generally and, perhaps, a “winner” among the current dedicated e-book readers.

The Lost Symbol is the title that could make or break the current generation of e-reader devices, firming up reader’s investment in the platform and format in which they read digital books. I don’t think that Dan Brown’s latest will sell millions of Kindles on its own, but it will be the title that converts some readers to Kindle or Sony Reader. Both Sony and Amazon see royalties paid on this book as a sunk cost they expect to recoup from hardware sold. If the hardware revenues don’t follow, this book may convince one or both of them that dedicated e-readers aren’t the best business.

If there are approximately 3 million Kindle-compatible devices (Kindle hardware and iPhones running Kindle for iPhone) and some 500,000 other dedicated e-reader devices, as well as perhaps six million other software-only readers installed, electronic sales of The Lost Symbol could account for up to five million copies, matching the first print run. That will be a huge accomplishment.

However, because e-reader hardware is still too expensive for most consumers, e-book sales will likely be slower than print sales after the initial release, especially when paperback editions appear. The key market to watch then will be e-reader application installs on smartphones and computers. Since e-book applications that run on phones and PCs carry little migration cost, we can expect to see an explosion in sampling of reader apps if digital copies of The Lost Symbol are going to pace paperback sales. The only possible channel through which The Lost Symbol could continue to sell 50 percent of total copies sold in digital format is e-readers on phones and PCs.

In the long run, the economics of reading will drive adoption of common formats not incompatible e-reader hardware. I’d be very surprised if Dan Brown’s next book isn’t offered in a single digital format—most likely ePub—that can be read on any device or in any e-reader application. By then, Kindle will be compatible with ePub, because Amazon’s goal is to grow share of books sold, not just to be a e-reader hardware vendor.

ePub format wins critical victory—will it help Sony compete?

Sony Readers will offer only ePub-formatted books through its eBook online store and devices, dumping its BBeB proprietary format, according to The New York Times. This is an important step toward compatibility between e-reader devices, one that will challenge Amazon’s dominance in e-books to date, because Kindle will soon be markedly separate from Sony, Plastic Logic and other devices that support ePub. HarperCollins and Random House have signed on to the Sony ePub initiative. HarperCollins already offers ePub books.

ePub isn’t the ultimate solution to the question of an e-book standard, but it does solve the basic problem of making books readable across multiple devices. As Gartner analyst Allen Wiener told the Times: “If you see some Adobe executive up on stage with Steve Jobs when they announce the tablet, at that point Amazon has a lot to worry about.” Adobe Systems developed ePub as an “open” alternative to other e-book formats, however it is also pushing its PDF format as a solution for presenting formatted documents—Amazon promotes PDF formatted books for the Kindle DX. There’s no absence of a relationship between the two companies. ePub can still be made into a proprietary format by developers who add, for example, a proprietary DRM (in contrast to its built-in DRM) or display extensions to the basic text display capabilities of ePub.

Amazon can solve this problem by updating its existing Kindles and adding ePub support to new units, something I believe is already on the calendar. Jeff Bezos only has to make an announcement that Kindle supports ePub, which he has foreshadowed, to prevent a user migration. Amazon can retain its lead by adding ePub versions to its store, allowing buyers to download ePub versions.

So, while it is to Sony’s credit that it is leading the way toward document portability, the initiative still lies with Amazon.

Premature evolution: E-book standards alone won’t solve the publishing problem

Peter Osnos, writing at The Atlantic, reiterates PC World‘s Tony Bradley in calling for a standard e-book format, writing that “it is a good place to start.” His article, however, suggests that the reproduction of reading is also the end of the road:

“As readers become increasingly familiar and comfortable with reading and listening devices and the machinery for producing books on what are essentially a new generation of copiers, books can be instantly available. If readers come to believe they can get Good Books. Any Way You Want Them. Now, and publishers can provide them without the waste, inefficiency, and consumer frustration that comes from scrambling to put out the right number of printed copies, I believe that books will hold their own–and maybe more so.”

Osnos has been working with the Caravan project, whence his Good Books slogan comes, with The Century Foundation for some time, commenting occasionally on the progress. A key idea in his posting today is that e-book reader devices (hardware and/or software) are a “new generation of copiers” and that distribution is the challenge “for books.” As I wrote last week, responding to Bradley’s article, getting words on the digital page is only a small fraction of the challenge ahead, and that any standards should not prevent the development of enhanced reading experiences that transcend the printed book, which is solely a delivery platform, not a networked environment comparable to the Web. It’s my opinion, but it bears repeating as often as we hear the argument that words on a page make a book.

Distribution is the challenge for publishers, not the form we know as the book. Books are packages, which have been applied successfully to moving thousands of words from printing facility to the public for centuries, distribution is the key to making money as a publisher. Books are changing, just as the products produced by every other industry has been transformed in whole or part by digitization. Yet, Continue reading