On the surface, the op-ed piece that FSG publisher Jonathan Galassi wrote for the Tiimes this past weekend seems pretty mundane. His main point seems to be that good editors at good publishing houses make good books better. Or more directly: publishers do more than simply print and sell books. They have special knowledge about book-world things that not many other people have.
All that is true. Absolutely. And I don’t think anyone would really argue with that. (We all know the value of a great editor, right? And although authors will bitch—they always bitch—about the amount of publicity their publicist is getting them, I doubt more than a handful of authors would really enjoy all the legwork that goes into pitching a book to reviewers, arranging a tour, etc.)
Even Galassi’s conclusion feels a bit tautological:
In this increasingly virtual age of open access and universal availability, it’s important for readers to keep in mind what it is that a publisher does for an author. A publisher — and I write as one — does far more than print and sell a book. It selects, nurtures, positions and promotes the writer’s work.
An e-book distributor is not a publisher, but rather a purveyor of work that has already been created. In this way, e-books are no different from large-print or paperback or audio versions. They are simply the latest link in an unbroken editorial chain, the newest format for one of man’s greatest inventions: the constantly evolving, imperishable book — given its definitive form by a publisher.
(Although I must admit, I’m a bit confused by the closing line. Is “man’s greatest invention” an imperishable book as produced by the publisher or simply an imperishable book? Is this some chicken-and-egg zen thing? Like there is no book that presupposes a publisher?)
To the general reader, this op-ed piece might not sound like much. But this is actually a pretty well-crafted statement about a couple of touchy e-book/future of publishing issues.
First off, in the very first paragraph, Galassi brings up the situation regarding the e-book version of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. In case you’re not familiar with the behind-the-scenes positioning related to this, the basic story is that although Random House is the publisher of the print version of Sophie’s Choice, Jane Friedman of Open Road Integrated Media (and formerly of HarperCollins), bought up the e-rights and this will be one of the first e-books she publishes.
In response, Random House issued a blanket statement claiming that the “book and volume publishing rights” in their standard pre-e-everything contracts actually included e-book rights, thereby preventing estates from selling off e-book rights to some other publishers. Er, in Galassi lingo, “e-book distributor.”
Rather than jump into this legal fray and try and make a claim that, like the constitution, these old-school contracts are totally open to interpretation and subtle time-adjustments, Galassi instead appeals to the logic that without a great editor (and publicist and sales force and and and), Styron wouldn’t have been known for shit, and thus Random House should be the one to benefit from his success—in whatever form that takes. Remember, there would be no e-book if there weren’t first a print publisher.
This argument is definitely appealing. No one likes to think that they could do all the ground work on something only to have a third-party come along and profit off of your hard work and expertise. And the subtle move of making Open Road a e-distributor is kind of brilliant. In the court of public opinion, Galassi’s scoring some major points here.
And although it may not be as explicit, I also think you could read this piece as the beginnings of an argument about how e-books should cost the same as a print version. After all, the amount of editorial expertise and work that goes into producing an e-book is the same as what goes into the print version . . .
E-book pricing and rights issues are the 2010 battlegrounds, and this is a great foundation-laying piece for one side of the argument. Galassi is one of the best publishers in the business (and I say that not just because of his on-going commitment to literature in translation), and a pretty brilliant guy. And I know that I would be seriously pissed if someone came along and bought the e-rights to some of our books right out from under us and managed to make
thousands hundreds tens of dollars off of Kindle sales.
That said, the business world is the business world, and where there’s an opportunity to make money, someone is going to step in and exploit it. It’s the American Way. Right? And as sick as pure capitalism makes me, it only seems fair that authors have the right to benefit through new sales of their work that have opened up due to technological advances. Maybe if Random House, FSG, and the like offer their authors an incentive (a new advance just for the e-book sales?), the estates wouldn’t be tempted to sell the rights to an e-book distributor . . . Simply laying down a claim to these rights—solid argument and all—feels just a bit totalitarian and creepy.
Then again, that’s why/how these companies are making millions of dollars in profit every year . . .
Putting aside the environmental, financial, and promotional advantages to sending eARCs to independent booksellers, the one paragraph of Jessica Stockton Bagnulo’s post that troubled me was this:
I think for a lot of booksellers right now, the idea of an e-reader provokes growls of hostility because it’s associated with the Kindle, which is a proprietary platform sold and administered by Amazon, our primary competitor. We indies can’t sell ebooks for the Kindle, so if readers buy a Kindle it means, on some level, lost sales for us. But the Kindle is not the only e-reader, nor even necessarily the best! The Sony Reader, the iPhone, the Google phone, and other electronic devices can also be used to read ebooks — and those platforms are wide open for ebook sales from indie bookstores, provided our ecommerce technology is up to par.
Just as we have to educate our customers (and ourselves) that Amazon is not the only option for buying online, we’ll have to make some efforts to make sure those who want to read ebooks know that they have options besides the Kindle, and that they can still “read indie while reading e” (feel free to steal that tagline). And ebook-reading booksellers are the perfect group to start spreading that word, to make sure that we can make ebooks a part of our business model rather than just more competition.
This all sounds good, but I’ve yet to see a realistic, functional business plan for an independent bookstore that incorporates the selling of e-books. Or even beyond that, a plan that even accounts for the attrition of book sales due to an increase in ebook popularity.
Independent bookstores run on such a small margin that if sales of e-books reach a certain level, I think bookstores are going to have to go through a transformation to stay in business, but I honestly can’t figure out what the end result of this transformation would look like.
The “bundling” idea—which Bob Miller of HarperStudio—is one that’s been talked about a lot. Basically, a reader could buy a book from a store, and then for an additional $2-$5 get a code to download the e-version of that same book.
Personally I doubt that I would ever do this, but some people might, and it’s not a bad way of incorporating bookstores into the equation.
That said, I think it’s foolish to overlook the draw of immediacy that e-books/readers will have over the mass readership in America. Americans are pretty impulsive people, and the idea that a book (or album, or whatever) could come up in conversation, and within one minute — without even leaving your barstool — you could purchase and download that book/album/movie is like crack to most of us.
If e-books do become a preferred way or reading — due to price, availability, the coolness of the e-reading gadget, etc. — then why would you ever go into a bookstore? To browse the physical books that you’ll then download through your e-reader for half the price? That’s not a viable bookstore business model.
Some people have also floated the idea of indie bookstores selling e-versions through their website, which, in my opinion, is beyond impractical. Most indie stores have very rudimentary e-commerce sites, despite the fact that people have been selling things online for decades . . . That’s probably not going to change if these same stores start selling e-books for download through their sites.
Sure, one can pretend that loyal customers will still purchase a download through their local store because they love it so much, but a) most customers aren’t loyal and b) unless that purchase can happen immediately and wirelessly (a la buying a book with a Kindle), it’s just simply not going to work.
Besides, a viable business model for e-reader creators is to include a “e-store” that’s wirelessly linked to the reader itself, allowing users a seamless interface between wanting a book and purchasing it, and Amazon/Sony gets to keep the profit from sales of the reader and sales of the book. Win-win . . . for everyone but bookstores.
I know that even if e-book sales expand, physical books will still exist. It’s not that which worries me. It’s the idea that with enough book sales turning electronic and occurring outside of bookstore, the miniscule margins keeping booksellers afloat will vanish . . .
So, maybe I’m missing something. Or maybe someone out there has a brilliant concept of what bookstores will look like in an e-reading future. Either way, feel free to e-mail (chad.post at rochester dot edu) or post your comments below. And I’m sure I’ll write more about this topic later . . .
I have to visit a graduate seminar later today to talk about e-books and the future of the publishing industry, so the impact e-books will have (or rather, are having) on publishing structures (like indie bookstores) has been very much on my mind the past few days, so finding Jessica Stockton Bagnulo’s post about recent discussions among smart indie booksellers about e-readers was absolutely perfect.
Jessica’s main focus in her post is on replacing traditonal print advanced reading copies with e-version—something that makes a lot of logistical sense to me. The unit cost for printing galleys is more than the unit cost for the finished book, and (for small presses at least) it’s quite an expense to print and mail even just 250 ARCs of a book. Not to mention that these 250 copies have a pretty weak reach. A huge proportion go to reviewers who never review the book anyway, with only a handful ending up with enthusiastic booksellers.
And from a bookseller’s perspective, not having to receive and carry around tons of heavy books makes a lot of sense:
Here’s the next most important issue: E-readers make sense for people who read in massive quantities. Many of our sales reps are already reading on Sony readers, and it makes sense for booksellers too. We’ll all most likely still be reading plenty of pbooks (that’s print, or “real” books), but since it’s in our job description to read widely and quickly, carrying around many on one device makes sense.
This sentiment is echoed in Jenn Northington’s modest proposal, in which she presents this idea:
my initial idea was pretty basic: publishers provide a small group of booksellers, who they already send loads of arcs to, with an e-reader. then, they make those ARCs available as, say, pdfs to download. the bookseller, in exchange for the e-reader, agrees to read x number of ARCs from those publishers per season.
Which also sounds reasonable, especially if the upfront costs were split by a number of groups: a consortium of publishers (big and small), the American Bookselling Association, Sony (I doubt Amazon would be a welcome partner in this, and Apple is too full of itself to see any gain from engaging with booksellers in this way), and possibly the bookstores themselves (like $10/reader to demonstrate a commitment to the project).
Jenn lists a ton of the pros and cons to this idea, with “increased access to ARCs for booksellers” being the pro that’s most appealing to me.
There are a number of other indie booksellers writing about this same idea, including Stephanie Anderson from WORD, Rich Rennicks of Malaprop’s, Arsen Kashkashian of Boulder Bookstore, and Patrick from Vroman’s.
And just for the record, NetGalley was designed as an interface for publishers to distribute e-galleys to reviewers and booksellers and other “professional readers.” From what I’ve heard (I have yet to use the service), it’s pretty solid, the only problem being that there’s a per galley charge to publishers, something that indie e-ARC idea wouldn’t necessarily include. And NetGalley (at least for now) only allows you to read the books on your personal computer, which works against the inherent transportability of a physical book or an e-reader.
Anyway, I think the eARC idea is a complete winner, and I really hope this moves beyond the conceptual stage . . . I’d be happy to send 1,000 eARCs of Open Letter books to booksellers across the country.
I think the bigger problem for a press like ours is to try and get booksellers to pick up our books when a Corporate Rep is visiting these same booksellers every few weeks, telling them about THE NEXT BIG THING from Conglomerate X that will be EVERYWHERE next week and that ALL the customers will be talking about. (Sorry—maybe I should start a unnecessary CAPS blog.) But that’s the case now, and by distributing way more e-versions of a book, there’s a much better chance that some bookseller will “pick up” one of our eARCs and get excited about it. (I think that’s a necessary quote.) Although this is one of my big concerns for our e-book future—whether or not e-books in general will make it easier for small presses like ours to directly reach readers/reviewers/booksellers, or if the old systems will dominate even more than they do now thanks to their money and their extensive infrastructures, making it even more difficult than ever to break through the marketplace noise than it is now. More on that in Part II . . .
This piece at GalleyCat about the “informal boycott” going on at Amazon for e-books costing more than $10 is very curious. Readers are tagging $10+ e-books with a 9 99 boycott tag and making rational arguments as to why the price should be under $10:
“Kindle books are kinda like movie tickets. While you can re-read the book, you cannot: donate it to a library, sell it to a used book store, sell it on Amazon’s Used Marketplace, [or] trade it to a friend . . . The publisher does not need to pay for paper, glue, press time, press employees, insurance, ink, boxes, or shipping. Amazon does not need to stock its warehouse, pay staff to fulfill orders, or pay shipping. The price needs to reflect these VERY important facts.”
Of course, a couple months ago Bob Miller of HarperStudio posted an argument about why e-book prices should be almost the same at traditional print book prices:
Whether a book is printed on paper and bound or formatted for download as an e-book, publishers still have all the costs leading up to that stage. We still pay for the author advance, the editing, the copyediting, the proofreading, the cover and interior design, the illustrations, the sales kit, the marketing efforts, the publicity, and the staff that needs to coordinate all of the details that make books possible in these stages. The costs are primarily in these previous stages; the difference between physical and electronic production is minimal. In fact, the paper/printing/binding of most books costs about $2.00…so if we were to follow the actual costs in establishing pricing, a $26.00 “physical” book would translate to a $24.00 e-book…
Related to this, when I was at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, a representative from Hachette gave a speech about ebooks and expressed a great fear about the “iTunes price setting model,” in which publishers have little to no control over how much their ebooks are sold for.
His argument was that publishers had to be able to set their own price to ensure that they make enough money per unit to stay in business. In my opinion, he seemed to be completely ignoring the market forces on price points, instead sticking with the old, obscure, cost plus value, sort of way of setting book prices.
This isn’t nearly as big as the Tropicana redesign, but it’s in the same vein . . . Granted, it’ll take more than 250 Amazon customers tagging books to effect a change, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens to the prices of the tagged books. And if $9.99 becomes the accepted standard for e-books, what’ll happen to HarperStudio and their innovative model?
If:book has a really cool article on something that I hadn’t yet noticed (not having a kindle, a sony reader, or an iphone): all of the text on these devices is fully justified.
if a computer is going to hyphenate something, it needs to know what language the text is in. This is a job for metadata: electronic books could have an indicator of what language they’re in, and the reader application could hyphenate automatically. But that won’t always help: in the text on the Kindle screen, for example, der Depperte isn’t English and wouldn’t be recognized as such. A human compositor could catch that; a computer wouldn’t guess, and would have to default to not breaking it. The same problem will happen with proper names.
I can see why this is the case. It’s a difficult problem to solve, so, in that great tradition of computer programming, a solution becomes the solution because the problem-solvers aren’t end users themselves. I don’t think these e-book readers will take off until someone seriously studies the problems of reading on these things and takes the time and effort to offer some thoughtful solutions.
In The New Atlantis, Christine Rosen has a great article about reading and ‘digital literacy’.
The Kindle will only serve to worsen that concentration deficit, for when you use a Kindle, you are not merely a reader—you are also a consumer. Indeed, everything about the device is intended to keep you in a posture of consumption. As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has admitted, the Kindle “isn’t a device, it’s a service.”
In this sense it is a metaphor for the experience of reading in the twenty-first century. Like so many things we idolize today, it is extraordinarily convenient, technologically sophisticated, consumption-oriented, sterile, and distracting. The Kindle also encourages a kind of utopianism about instant gratification, and a confusion of needs and wants. Do we really need Dickens on demand? Part of the gratification for first readers of Dickens was rooted in the very anticipation they felt waiting for the next installment of his serialized novels—as illustrated by the story of Americans lining up at the docks in New York to learn the fate of Little Nell. The wait served a purpose: in the interval between finishing one installment and getting the next, readers had time to think about the characters and ponder their motives and actions. They had time to connect to the story.
We are so eager to explore what these new devices do—particularly what they do better than the printed book—that we ignore the more rudimentary but important human questions: the tactile pleasures of the printed page versus the screen; the new risks of distraction posed by a device with a wireless Internet connection; the difference between reading a book in two-page spreads and reading a story on one flashing screen-display after another. Kindle and other e-readers are marvelous technologies of convenience, but they are no replacement for the book.
I still haven’t really organized my thoughts about e-books, digital reading, etc., but the more you read about it the more fundamental, and complex, the debate seems.
One difference between the screen and the printed book is that the former has no depth while the latter has the illusion of depth. When you read an e-book, you read from edge to edge. When you read a printed book, you read from the edge to the interior, and then the interior to the edge, again and again and again, a metaphor of immersion (unlike edge to edge reading). And this is the case whether you read left to right or right to left (or even up and down, as do the Chinese, since the sequence of columns moves to the interior). The “frame of reference” becomes the center. The physical act focuses the reading experience. [. . .]
Is this bad? Only to those of us who grew up with the metaphor of depth and immersion. I find it interesting that, as cinema explores the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional screen and virtual realities re-define artificial “reality”, the e-book is providing the means to move in the opposite direction, away from representation.
If you’re curious about the new Kindle, Engadget has a hand-on photo gallery and some video..
One of the best technology websites around, Ars Technica, takes a look at e-books. What’s most interesting to me about this particular article is that it was written by someone, John Siracusa, who was there at the very beginning of e-books.
I honestly can’t remember the first e-book I read on its 160×160-pixel screen. Like I said, there was no blinding flash, no instant conversion. What happened instead is that I just put another e-book on it when I finished with the first. Because, again, what else was I going to do with it? (Yes, I know, it does other things!)
At a certain point, I realized I’d read my last five or six books on this thing. Without noticing, I’d gone off paper books entirely. Only then did I take the time to examine what had happened. Why was reading off of this tiny PDA not just tolerable, but (apparently) satisfying enough to keep me from returning to paper books?
Here’s what I came up with. First, I was more likely to have my Palm with me than a book. When I had an opportunity to read during the day, my Palm was there, and a paper book, had I been in the middle of one, would not have been. (Incidentally, this also lead to a vast expansion of the definition of “an opportunity to read.”) Second, I could read in the dark next to my sleeping wife without disturbing her with bright lights and page-turning noises. (The tan-on-black reader color theme was affectionally known as “wife mode” at Peanut Press.) Third, I was loathe to give up the ability to tap any word I didn’t understand and get its dictionary definition.
That’s pretty much it. Of all the virtues of e-books, these were the ones that sealed the deal for me, personally. Your list may be different. Or maybe you’ll never be satisfied by reading anything other than a paper book. All I ask is that you give it an honest try.
As someone who is inordinately interested in technology, e-books should be an easy sell for me, and yet I still have yet to read an entire book online, or on an e-book reader, or on a PDA/smartphone. I even had a Handspring Visor for a while, and I used to (if I’m remembering correctly) download articles from the NYTimes to it. I think I even put some e-books on it, but I never did read more than a few screenfuls of text on it.
While I agree with much of what Mr. Siracusa has to say (the success of the e-book is inevitable), he doesn’t seem to think the form factor from these devices is all that important, arguing that people already are accustomed to reading lots of text online in sub-optimal conditions (see the Internets).
I’ll say it again: people will read text off screens. The optical superiority of paper is still very real, but also irrelevant. The minimum quality threshold for extended reading was passed a long, long time ago.
However, I think that THE crucial issue for e-books is the form factor of the device that you’ll be reading the book from and the way the software on that device works. Once that gets sorted out, once people have access to a device that solves the problem of text-presentation as well as physical books do, the rest of the problems that surround e-books—how to make money off of them, DRM, distribution, etc.—will fall away quickly. It wasn’t the MP3, or Napster, or iTunes that spelled the end of the CD and DRM; it was the iPod.
And I’m betting that e-book device won’t be the Kindle Part Deux.
For an author’s perspective on e-books, read this
There’s not a lot new here, but some of the numbers are interesting. The e-book market tripled from 2005…to $30M?
Although e-books may one day transform the industry, another new technology that is less visible to readers is already making itself felt. Print on Demand (POD), which allows books to be printed and bound to order, is making millions of books available even if they appeal to only a narrow readership. Here, too, academia leads the way. Stephen DeForge of Ames On-Demand says his POD business, which specialises in printing small runs of customised books for schools and universities, has been growing by 45% a year since 2001. Last year his firm printed more than 800,000 books in runs as small as ten copies at a time.
The opportunity has not been lost on Mr Bezos. In March Amazon announced that it would require all the POD books it sells to be printed by the company at its warehouses. Mr Bezos says that this enables Amazon to have a book ready to ship within two hours of an order being placed online. Between POD and the Kindle, Mr Bezos thinks he can sell “any book ever printed in any language”. But printers and distributors, like booksellers before them, fear the oncoming Amazon juggernaut.
PW Daily today pointed us to Zinio, who are giving away more than 100 classics on their site and who “wanted to showcase the most impressive on-screen reading experience while maintaining the integrity and feel of the old classics.”
What this means: You can go to their site, and browse their “virtual library,” which is set up to look like a row of leather bound books on your shelf. When you click on one of the books, it opens the Zinio reader, which provides the aforementioned “most impressive on-screen reading experience,” in your browser. The reader is set up to look like a book. You can even “turn the pages” by dragging a corner of a page on to the other page.
Dear Zinio, this embarrasses both of us. First, you’re assuming that I’ll like your service because it reproduces an experience I’m familiar with, which suggests that you think I’m a dummy who is afraid of the internet. Second, this reader is about the furthest thing away from the book reading experience I can imagine; and that the Zinio people think providing a thrice-removed, hollowed-out shell of a familiar experience will drive people to start using their service gives you some idea of how far the Zinio people are from understanding the future of e-books.
Not to mention the fact that every one of these books (I assume) is available on Project Gutenberg, who have the common decency to provide public domain books in an open format, while Zinio’s ‘innovation’ locks you into an, at best, awkward, and horribly slow, in-browser reader or an equally awful desktop client.
When you’re making Amazon look like forward-thinking folks with their Kindle, you know you need to go back to the drawing board.
According to Mark, Random House is letting you download—free of charge, those generous scamps—Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children, although only for a limited time. I guess once the time expires everyone’s PDFs…just disappear, or something. Its a nice gesture, anyway, and we’d like to see more people getting on the ‘why don’t we give it away’ bandwagon, especially for those books, unlike Charles’, that aren’t, and likely never will be, on the Times bestseller list.
Now if I can just convince Chad and every agent, author, and cultural institution that this is a good idea for Open Letter and translations…
It seems like the e-book discussion is becoming something of a cause celebre here. Apologies if you find it boring, but here’s another take from Jon Evans at The Walrus. There isn’t much new here (except for the fantastic word ‘onpaper’, which I love), but it’s worth a read anyway.
A few years ago, my first novel was published. It did pretty well, won an award, was translated and sold around the world; the movie rights were even optioned. Now I want to put it online — no charge, no hook, no catch. My motivation is simple: greed.
My publishers are resolutely opposed to this idea. They fear it will “devalue the brand” and set a dangerous precedent. They fear, intuitively but wrongly, that fewer people will buy a book that is also given away for free. But most of all, they fear the future — and with good reason. Book publishing is a dinosaur industry, and there’s a big scary meteor on the way.
Newspapers, with their readerships and profit margins being hammered by television, free dailies, and the Internet (Yahoo! News and Craigslist, among others), have been forced to adapt or die. Even the august New York Times now has more readers online than “onpaper” (for the moment a neologism). The broadsheet’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., has speculated that in five years’ time it might stop producing a print edition. Magazines are way ahead of him. Many scientific journals don’t bother printing physical copies. Premiere, once one of Hollywood’s mightiest arbiters, recently announced that it will henceforth exist only online. Slate, an online mag covering politics and current events, is turning a profit, and long-established titles like the Atlantic and the New Yorker give selected content away for free, using the web to drive subscriptions. If you thought the Internet revolution ended with the dot-com flame-out in 2001, think again. We are witnessing the beginnings of a massive tectonic shift.
Mssv points out a leaked image of the next Sony E-reader:
It’ll still cost $300.
The New York Times has a brief survey of the upcoming electronic book initiatives from Amazon and Google:
In October, the online retailer Amazon.com will unveil the Kindle, an electronic book reader that has been the subject of industry speculation for a year, according to several people who have tried the device and are familiar with Amazon’s plans. The Kindle will be priced at $400 to $500 and will wirelessly connect to an e-book store on Amazon’s site.
I have no faith in Amazon’s ability to create a device that will convince people to spend ‘$400 to $500’, nor in their ability to craft a device, or user interface, that would be useful to anyone. And they’re locking down their e-books in a proprietary format. Blech.
Google is just putting books online and charging a small fee, which is not exactly breakthrough stuff.
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