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

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

“Authors must blog” and other truisms displaced by an evening with Pynchon

I’m about halfway through Inherent Vice, which I’ve been waiting for like a sinner waits for confession, because a good novel cleans the soul. I am thinking about why great writers’ works are important, even when some of their books are treated as toss-offs compared to more momentous efforts. In this case, a mystery novel, a private dick story with a psychedelic twist may not seem as big an effort as Mason & Dixon or Against The Day to some, but for the aficionado of a particular author’s work these “second-tier” efforts are the zest and riff that make a jazzman not just cool for the college crowd but skull-ringingly great regardless of who is listening, square or not.

I got to thinking, between hits of Doc Sportello and The Golden Fang, about the meme of the moment, that “publishers are on the lookout for authors who blog” and how that is interpreted by many to mean that all it takes to win a publishing deal is a blog—the story or non-fiction pitch will just fall into place once the contract is signed. Shortened to the quick, the same logic makes all bloggers writers, which conflates the genre with accomplishment.

No, publishers don’t think that every writer needs a blog (even though some may think its easier to source book material from blogs), but it’s convenient to sell the idea to the masses that would like to have published a book and think that authorship is like being an executive on teevee, just one sexy tryst and then another cut-throat meeting before cashing the daily paycheck and leaving for a night on the town, the kids stowed with the nanny and plenty of time for sleep and a visit to the gym between 6 AM and Eight-in-the-morning when the dry cleaned suit appears and it’s back for another romp at the office. If we are all going to live that life, sooner or later the con is going to end. No, writing and instant success because of a new technology, as though Shakespeare would have fallen flat if the words had been scratched on stones, are antithetical realities.

Thomas Pynchon never blogged a word in his life, that we know of. He may have written the Wanda Tinasky letters in an age before everyone could be a wit with a keyboard ,though not necessarily a wit, but so, too, Benjamin Franklin enjoyed pseudonymous letter writing, and Ol’ Ben certainly agreed with Dr. Johnson that only a blockhead writes for free. Authorship is a kind of work that is different than writing, it involves intent and rigid self-criticism, or a very good editor. If you have a blog, the route to publication is certainly shorter today, but that doesn’t mean the work is “writing,” except in the sense that we indulge ourselves in writing a journal or to a friend.

The point is, dear reader, that the story of e-publishing is all glitz and revolution designed to justify readers’ investment in hardware that, to date, does nothing to transform reading beyond addressing a certain breed of convenience. The story is embellished with how-to books that proclaim “you too can be a best-selling author, your buttocks massaged by nymphs and sensually inspired favors of the Muses pumped into your bloodstream in only two hours a week” and e-reader product horse races that, while they signify capital investments and marketing with a furious vengeance, do not represent the innovation that will transform the market for reading. In the end, it will take an author to transform reading using new tools that we haven’t encountered, yet.

This is a market increasingly fed with truisms that, when you read someone like Pynchon, whether you like his work or not, makes the e-reading promotional tactics sour in the mouth and anyone can taste the treacle they are. Then, we can see that how-to articles and product reviews of devices are marketing of feel-good drugs instead of the story of hard won accomplishment.

Thinking about LibreDigital’s $15 million funding

LibreDigital this week brought down a $15 million B-round, adding Triangle Peak Partners to first-round investor Adams Capital Management, and signaling a potential flurry of investment in e-book distribution plays. The company facilitates file conversion and delivery for publishers of books, magazines and newspapers. Based in Austin, Texas, and founded in 1999, LibreDigital has evolved and suffered with the publishing industry, to which it sells content conversion, warehousing, browsing and distribution services. Now that it has $15 million in new capital and the burgeoning e-book industry on which to hang its marketing, LibreDigital is getting its day in the sun. The question is, is that sun rising or setting?

LibreDigital’s clients include major book publishers, such as Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, newspapers including The New York Times and USA Today, and many magazine titles. With e-book sales exploding, albeit from a very small base, LibreDigital seems poised for growth.

The company’s emphasis on helping its publisher customers experiment with marketing programs and pricing strikes me as on target, because only a wide range of options will help differentiate electronic titles from their paper counterparts. Price, of course, is only one dimension of value, though it is the one getting the most attention right now. Alas, another continuing problem is the rights management question, which LibreDigital appears to solve primarily through application-based restrictions, for example, these terms for the downloading of The New York Times. In other words, DRM is the main defensible feature of the distribution system. The solution offered by LibreDigital through Newstand.com does allow printing (no copying) of files rather than locking the data to electronic format.

There is no record of patents or patent applications by the company, a search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database suggests. What, exactly, then is the company selling? Service, though they are described as products. The careers of the management team point to expertise in process development and management, exactly Continue reading

A la carte and the Apple tablet

Wired‘s Brian X. Chen has a vision of Apple’s tablet with an interesting angle: The potential for a la carte pricing of books. It’s not a new idea, but his point about college students being excited about buying individual chapters of a textbook rather than the whole book rings true to me.

Would publishers consider pricing a textbook by the chapter? I doubt it, but this is something their primary customers may respond to, giving publishers an opportunity to experiment profitably. After all, if a textbook in paper costs $80 and can be broken into 15 $5 chapters that can be sold separately to more buyers than could or would buy the whole book, the possibilities become intriguing.

Offering chapters as free promotions is old hat, of course. What about rewarding buyers of chapters with rewards that encourage more purchases? If, after buying three or four chapters, the reader gets the whole book or credits toward chapters of another book by the same author, that could be an interesting twist.

The rest of the article anticipates Apple’s wiping the competitive table with Amazon’s Kindle and solving the world’s problems with tablet-of-destiny. Chen suggests that application-based delivery of books is a good idea. It isn’t because it represents the ultimate form of DRM–a book that won’t play unless the customer complies with strict rules about the device, application and codebase of the iPod Touch operating system. Apple, unlike Amazon, does not provide forward compatibility for applications or, if iTunes is any indication, will not curate a customer’s collection of e-books for redownloading if the file is lost.

The writer confuses a monolithic distribution technology with convenience. Texts, however, need to be portable to be useful and profitable on the lower price readers expect to pay for e-books. Portability is good for readers, writers and publishers.

Moreover, Chen is eager to see Apple fix e-book pricing with “arm twisting.” That perspective ignores the fact that Apple’s interests are in selling the device (and content that runs on that device, and only that device) but not necessarily with the interests of authors and publishers who need greater freedom to explore creativity than a universally low price point for e-books would allow.

Making a paper book e-lectric: Selected great histories of the book

Bill Hill, who has been part of the digital publishing world for decades now, tells about his reading of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, one of the definitive texts about the evolution of books. Throughout his studious reading, he turned to his computer to find more information:

In other words, my printed book became an interactive multimedia experience which was far bigger and richer than the original. It took me a lot longer to read – but it made the book come to life, and I learned a lot more.

This raises some interesting questions. For instance, I would have liked to have had Eisenstein as an eBook on my Kindle. It’s such a heavy, awkward monster to handle – especially when reading in bed.

However, on Kindle as it is today, that would have made for a much poorer experience – no Web browsing for links… And I’d have hated to see the mess that Kindle’s small screen and poor graphics would have made of the title page of De Fabrica…

Not only the small pages, but the lack of citable references within the book (word location is relative) and the poor graphics, among other features, would make the book less than it is in paper if forced into the Kindle. Yet, this is exactly what a great e-book will be, something that, while enclosed within the logical arrangement we call a “page” has pathways to deeper and contradictory studies, so that the book becomes an argument and extended discussion. Eisenstein’s challenge to traditional scholarship is vastly engaging and impressive, as Hill notes, but reading only within her perspective becomes, to paraphrase Albert Camus, a trip within the writer’s efforts to justify their limits.

Eisenstein’s book, particularly the two volume version, is excellent. Also consider these titles as must-reads for, combined with Eisenstein’s astute analysis, a fuller picture of the evolution of the book:

Of pricing and piracy, the discussion rolls on

Several postings on the ongoing debate about the “right price” and potential piracy of e-books deserve mention today. I’ll only reiterate that the formulae should be “Value at the right price.” Each worth a read (or listen):

The “Bookster” Threat, from The Abbeville Manual of Style (via TeleRead) and very interesting comment thread, too.

An ebook experiment stirs up conversation, from The Shatzkin Files on the Sourcebooks-holding-back-BranHambric story.

Journalists Debate E-book Pricing, a podcast from GalleyCat.