Spam has hit the Kindle, clogging the online bookstore of the top-selling eReader with material that is far from being book worthy and threatening to undermine Amazon.com Inc’s publishing foray.
Thousands of digital books, called ebooks, are being published through Amazon’s self-publishing system each month. Many are not written in the traditional sense.
Instead, they are built using something known as Private Label Rights, or PLR content, which is information that can be bought very cheaply online then reformatted into a digital book.
These ebooks are listed for sale — often at 99 cents — alongside more traditional books on Amazon’s website, forcing readers to plow through many more titles to find what they want.
Aspiring spammers can even buy a DVD box set called Autopilot Kindle Cash that claims to teach people how to publish 10 to 20 new Kindle books a day without writing a word.
This new phenomenon represents the dark side of an online revolution that’s turning the traditional publishing industry on its head by giving authors new ways to access readers directly. [. . .]
Some of these books appear to be outright copies of other work. Earlier this year, Shayne Parkinson, a New Zealander who writes historical novels, discovered her debut “Sentence of Marriage” was on sale on Amazon under another author’s name. [. . .]
Kindle spam has been growing fast in the last six months because several online courses and, ironically, ebooks have been released that teach people how to create a Kindle book per day, according to Paul Wolfe, an Internet marketing specialist.
One tactic involves copying an ebook that has started selling well and republishing it with new titles and covers to appeal to a slightly different demographic, Wolfe explained.
Maybe I’ll write something about publishing business models and pricing and whatnot later, but for now here’s the press release about our ebooks. Which I think you should rush to your nearest device and purchase immediately.
June 7, 2011—Open Letter is proud to announce the launch of a new ebook series for international literature. Beginning today, the first nine titles in the collection will be made available on e-reader devices such as Kindle, Nook, and iPad, among others.
To highlight this event, each book will be priced at $4.99 at launch—a limited offer lasting until June 30, 2011. Currently available ebooks include translated titles like the award-winning A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Polish writer Jerzy Pilch and the Russian classic The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov.
The Open Letter ebook series also boasts what is believed to be the world’s largest ebook collection of Catalan literature translated into English, with titles such as the modern classic Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda.
“We believe the best publishing model for Open Letter is the one that gets great international literature into the hands of readers. That’s why we’re so excited, not only to be offering a large selection of our books in both print and digital formats, but also to be putting these ebooks out there at a price that allows anyone to take a chance on something new,” says publisher Chad W. Post.
The current collection includes: Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador and The Pets, Jerzy Pilch’s A Thousand Peaceful Cities and The Mighty Angel, Mercè Rodoreda’s Death in Spring and The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda, Quim Monzó’s Gasoline and Guadalajara, and Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov’s The Golden Calf.
To see the full collection to learn more about each title, click here..
Now, it’s nothing new for Amazon.com to release sales information without any actual hard numbers (how many Kindles have been sold?), but this announcement in The Bookseller begs a explanation:
Amazon.com customers have bought more Kindle e-books than both hardback and paperback books combined for the top 10, 25, 100 and 1,000 bestselling books on Amazon.com over the last 30 days. [. . .]
Steve Kessel, senior vice-president of Amazon Kindle, said: “For the top 10 bestselling books on Amazon.com, customers are choosing Kindle books over hardcover and paperback books combined at a rate of greater than 2 to 1. Kindle books are also outselling print books for the top 25, 100, and 1,000 bestsellers—it’s across the board.”
As a good friend pointed out last night, with ebook sales making up less than 20% of a publisher’s total sales (probably much less than 20%), this seems not just inaccurate, but basically impossible. And to be honest, it just doesn’t feel right.
Which raises a few questions: Is there any mathematical explanation that could make these statements make sense? And if not, why release something like this?
My math skills are less than amazing, but these two perspectives (Amazon sold more ebooks than print one; Publishers sell four times more print books than e-versions) could be reconciled, if the great majority of print books were being sold by outlets other than Amazon, whereas almost all ebooks are going to the Kindle.
This does make some degree of sense. Since we’re talking about just bestsellers here (Kessel’s 2:1 statement only applies to the top 1,000 bestselling titles), Barnes & Noble, independents, and most crucially, non-bookstores (Costco, Sam’s Club, Target, etc.), will make up a much larger percentage of total print book sales than they would for a typical midlist title.
So, if we pretend for a moment that Amazon’s numbers aren’t bullshit, and that they control approx. 80% of the ebook market, this would mean that their market share for print book sales of bestsellers is less than 10%. (I think. Again, though I like math in theory, that theory is very abstract and far away from my life.)
To make this as concrete as possible, let’s pretend there’s a book that sells 1,000,000 copies total—both print and ebook version. Assuming ebook sales make up 20% of the total, this book sold 800,000 print versions, 200,000 ebook versions. And if Amazon controls 80% of the ebook market, then 160,000 of these ebooks were Kindle editions. And if the ebooks sold at a rate of 2:1 over print versions on Amazon, Amazon only sold 80,000 print editions, which is a pretty small portion of the print book market.
And if publishers are overestimating e-sales, and the real figure is closer to 10%, then Amazon accounts for even less of the print market.
Again, totally pulling these numbers out of my ass, and I’m probably miscalculating all over the place, but in trying to do whatever necessary to reconcile these two statements (ebooks 2:1 over print, ebooks are only 20% of a book’s total sales), Amazon looks a bit weaker than I would’ve expected.
So what does this mean? Well, one possible crack-pot interpretation is that Amazon is cannibalizing its own sales. That it would so much rather people buy the Kindle version (even at a loss), making money off of the device itself. (Digression: I was going to put “making money off of the device itself and complementary sales of other products,” but that’s a weird flaw in the Kindle-as-selling-tool argument. Amazon makes tons of cash off of spontaneous additional purchases: “I want Freedom . . . and a toaster!” But the Kindle is wedded to book purchases only. Interesting.)
And maybe this is a reflection on society itself. We’re so driving by instant satisfaction (I feel frustrated and delayed simply having to sign in to the U of R’s wifi every morning. Can’t this process be automatic so that I don’t have to wait 30 seconds to check my email?) that if we want a book, we want it now, meaning that we’ll buy it on our Kindle if we prefer the e-version, or in the checkout line of Wegmans if we’re print bound. Why wait for Amazon to ship it?
All this scares me deeply. For a Bulgarian novel contest that I’m judging (more on that later), I put a few of the pieces on our office Kindle and read them at home last night. It was fine, but to be honest, I mainly just wanted to check out what other books I could buy for the Kindle. (Especially since our Kindle is tied to Nate’s checking account.) I thought it sucked when the lines in the text were all jacked up, crankily complained via text messages about how this minor flaw made the sample feel even more ephemeral than it already did, etc., etc. In some ways, I feel like I’m all over this digital revolution or whatever, but in others I’m just as cranky and myopic as fricking Andy Rooney and think we should all slow down and spend more time actually reading rather than seeking out our next purchase.
As to the why of Amazon’s timing, that’s pretty obvious. Yesterday B&N announced the new version of the Nook which has a color touchscreen and is being positioned as a “reading tablet.” (Which is somewhere between a Kindle e-reader and an iPad tablet.) It does look pretty cool, and might actually satisfy the needs of a particular group of customers. Rather than compete on products, it does make more sense for Amazon to come out with a bad-ass statement about how many ebooks they’re selling.
Basically, I think they were scared of this super-lame chart from B&N’s presentation:
Last Thursday the publishing news of
month year century broke with the announcement that the Andrew Wylie Literary Agency (one of the largest, most powerful, most intimidated, most unscrupulous literary agencies out there) had launched Odyssey Editions so they could publish ebook editions of a number of backlist titles by the best-selling Wylie represents, such as Midnight’s Children, Invisible Man, Lolita, Portnoy’s Complaint, Borges’s Ficciones, Brideshead Revisited, and many more.
Approximately 5 minutes after this was announced the entire book world went a little bit apeshit.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, although it is sort of a wet dream for anyone really interested in the future of the business of publishing . . . To an outside reader, this might seem pretty mundane—suddenly some famous books are available for the Kindle—but it’s actually a very layered story, the ramifications of which will be playing out for months and months to come.
Maybe the easiest way to unpack this is to go through each of the parties involved and look at their level of pissed. And there’s no better place to start than Random House.
Frequent readers of this blog are most likely aware of my skepticism with regard to the big corporate commercial publishing model. These presses do amazing, fantastic books—immediate case in point is David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet—but I can’t say I’m a big fan of the way they rely on the blockbuster model, on producing more and more books to outrace returns, etc., etc. There’s no need to rehash all the “This is the End of Publishing! We’re all gonna die!” lines of thought, but it’s worth pointing out that ebooks are one of the crucial issues—how much they’ll sell for, what royalties should be, how this could jack a press’s cash flow, and so on.
From a publisher’s perspective, Wylie’s move is pretty much a direct assault. First off, there’s the whole question of whether this is even legal. Prior to the advent of ebooks, contracts would usually assign a publisher the right to “print, publish, and sell the work in book form,” which, pretty typical when it comes to book contracts, is a bit vague. I don’t know exactly what’s in a Random House contract, but obviously royalties rates for hardcover and paperback editions are stated, as are any and all subrights, such as splits for film or foreign sales. But what’s missing from most all of these is any mention of ebooks. Who really knew this would be an issue? And besides, doesn’t “book form” include electronic versions? It’s still a book, right?
At least that’s the line of argument that most publishers try and promote. Little problem is that almost ten years ago, before the Kindle was a glimmer in Jeff Bezos’s eye, Random House filed an injunction against the epublisher Rosetta Books, claiming that Rosetta had violated Random’s rights by publishing e-versions of a number of Random House titles. Unfortunately—for Random—they lost. (Here’s another summary of the case.)
This test case established that unless specifically noted in a contract, an author owns the ebook rights to their works. Therefore, the estates technically control ebook rights for all of these classic titles that Wylie represents, thus allowing him to either a) sell the ebook rights to the highest bidder or b) simply publish them himself.
When I was in France last fall for the study trip, this issue came up once or twice. Our trip took place shortly after Jane Friedman had launched Open Road Media and had bought the ebooks rights to a bunch of William Styron titles out from under Random House. A few of the big publishing people who were on the trip argued that rights situation aside, this was really offensive, since [insert publisher here] made all the original investments to promote these titles and help establish them as “important works.”
And it is true that Wylie is riding a bit on the coattails of those who came before him. Does Odyssey need a marketing budget to promote The Adventures of Augie March? Fuck and no. It’s Saul Bellow for Christ’s sake. Just let people know it exists and that’s good enough. (At the moment the sales ranking for the Odyssey edition of Lolita is #577.)
So, insulted, irritated, and whatever, Random House issued a missive against Wylie, including this awesome section:
The Wylie Agency’s decision to sell e-books exclusively to Amazon for titles which are subject to active Random House agreements undermines our longstanding commitments to and investments in our authors, and it establishes this Agency as our direct competitor. Therefore, regrettably, Random House on a worldwide basis will not be entering into any new English-language business agreements with the Wylie Agency until this situation is resolved.
Maybe New Directions will be able to retain the rights to all the Bolano books they’ve been publishing . . .
Oh, and yeah, if I didn’t mention it before, Odyssey books are only available through Amazon. Which pissed off a few other groups of people, including independent bookstores and readers who don’t use a Kindle.
Michael Orthofer has a great post about this whole situation that touches on the Amazon-exclusive issue. In many ways, this is unfortunate, but whatever. I’m not entirely sure Wylie is really trying to “reach readers” at all—this seems more like a provocation to increase ebook royalties while making a little quick money for some of his big time authors.
On the independent bookstore front, Square Books in Oxford, MS, put together a Wylie World display featuring books that are “not for sale”:
Amazon manufactures a reading device, the “kindle,” which requires its owners to buy digital merchandise exclusively from Amazon – a bit like our selling you books that you could read only by using the bedside lamp you must also purchase from us. And this would be the only way you could read these books. Wylie’s authors’ electronic books will be available only via the kindle, only via Amazon, a soiling of first amendment principles that many of the agency’s authors, such as Arthur Miller and Salman Rushdie, have fought so hard to protect.
As you look at this display, we encourage you to think about the ramifications of this effort to vertically integrate the book industry and limit or exclude access to information and free expression. And, as always, we encourage you to support independent booksellers everywhere. Together we can let books live.
Again, not breaking news that indie stores are in trouble and that ebooks are disruptive to their (struggling) business model as well. But this display illustrates the level of pissed that’s going on at both of the key players in this deal. Publishers have their own issues with Amazon and seem a bit more focused on Wylie, the rights issue, the possibility that other agents could do something similar . . .
Or, other agents could at least start demanding higher royalty rates for ebooks. Enter stage right—the Authors Guild, who issued an interesting statement that has four main points: 1) yes yes yes authors control their ebook rights and publishers can suck it, 2) it’s scary when an agent becomes a publisher, 3) exclusive deal with Amazon equals bad, and 4) this is all a result of stingy publishers:
To a large extent, publishers have brought this on themselves. This storm has long been gathering. Literary agencies have refused to sign e-rights deals for countless backlist books with traditional publishers, even though they and their clients, no doubt, see real benefits in having a single publisher handle the print and electronic rights to a book. Knowledgeable authors and agents, however, are well aware that e-book royalty rates of 25% of net proceeds are exceedingly low and contrary to the long-standing practice of authors and publishers to, effectively, split evenly the net proceeds of book sales.
Bargain-basement e-book royalty rates will not last. Low e-book royalty rates will, as e-book sales become increasingly important, emerge as a dealbreaker for authors with negotiating leverage. Publishers will, inevitably, agree to reasonable royalties rather than lose their bestselling authors to more generous rivals and startups. We suspect publishers are well aware of this and are postponing the unavoidable because it seems to make sense in the short run. We believe this is short-sighted.
(My absolute favorite line from this release: “A major agency starting a publishing company is weird, no matter how you look at it.” Yeah. Totally weird.)
Who knows what’s really going to happen with all of this. As Boyd Tonkin stated in this post, “Wylie aims to provoke, and to annoy. He has done both.” These ebook concerns have been brewing for a long time (the Rosetta thing is ten years old, the Authors Guild has been bitching about ebook royalties for years), and it’s interesting to see that Wylie’s forced the issue now, a couple weeks before the entire publishing industry tends to shut down, only to emerge in the pre-Frankfurt build-up . . .
In the end, I’m more fascinated by this whole situation that concerned about it. It does totally suck that we don’t have ebook rights to most of our titles—mainly because foreign publishers were really reluctant to include these in a pre-Kindle world—and that now the agents have a bit more power in terms of negotiating with us over these rights. It sucks that I sort of respect Wylie for throwing down the gauntlet and livening up the whole ebook debate. It sucks that I don’t have time to reread Lolita (although I would read the actual paperback edition).
But it’s great that this publishing kerfuffle lead to the creation of the
EvilWylie and GoodRandomHouse twitter accounts. Not the funniest of twitter accounts, but still, it’s fun to see tweets like this:
EvilWylie Thank you for following! Evil Wylie has granted you exclusive rights to turnJaneFriedman’s tweets into a musical.
EvilWylie even sent one directly to me . . . After grumbling about how stupid Arizona is as a state and baseball team for trading Dan Haren to the Angels (he should've come back to the Cardinals), I was informed that EvilWylie had negotiated that deal. Bastard!
Every time I feel like I’ve said all I really want to say about e-books and digital revolution (see all of these pieces from my recent trip to Paris), some crazy announcement or other is made, feathers are ruffled, barbs are traded, and I feel the insane itch to comment . . . And no matter how much I try and resist (just look away from the Simon & Schuster/Amazon.com pissing contest, just walk away), I always feel like I’m sucked back in.
This time it’s two separate and seemingly unrelated articles that got me to thinking about e-book release dates. First, from the Wall Street Journal:
Simon & Schuster is delaying by four months the electronic-book editions of about 35 leading titles coming out early next year, taking a dramatic stand against the cut-rate $9.99 pricing of e-book best sellers.
A second publisher, Lagardere SCA’s Hachette Book Group, said it has similar plans in the works.
“The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback,” said Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS Corp. “We believe some people will be disappointed. But with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”
I’m sure any and all regular readers of this blog already know where this is going. There’s no point in focusing on the “predatory pricing” tactics of Amazon.com in this particular post. (Tactics which sound pretty similar to the “predatory pricing” tactics of the big box stores a few years back, but wtf? those price cuts helped corporate publishers to consolidate and expand, so there wasn’t nearly the same amount of hand-wringing as there is when a tactic starts to nibble at their bottom-line. I’m not making any judgments about Amazon.com or B&N or Borders or the business of bookselling as a whole, but fuck me does this whole thing sound hypocritical. To pull from my favorite bag of sports cliches—winning makes all problems go away. But once you start losing, it’s time to point fingers . . . And in this recession, big publishers are making the Detroit Lions look legit.)
But I can’t resist making fun of this: “with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”
Yeah. Booming sales of e-books is a huge problem. Everyday publishers lament the fact that readers are buying their books. That activity must be nipped in the bud!
OK, to stop being facetious for a second: clearly Carolyn Reidy doesn’t hate the people who buy S&S titles, she hates the fact that they won’t pay the inflated hardcover prices that have kept this industry afloat and static for the past X number of decades. Those bastards! If these sales continued to expand, no one would be paying $29 for a 400-page book of questionable worth. And then S&S would have to figure out how to cut costs, how to publish more successfully, etc., etc. And that would suck. For Carolyn Reidy. So instead, she wants to at least delay you e-book readers from getting your e-book when you want it.
This decision follows a pretty standard model: You can see the movie at the theater now, or wait 9 months for the DVD; you can buy the hardcover now, or wait a year for the paperback.
You can buy the physical CD now, or wait . . . crap—that analogy doesn’t work. Wonder why . . .
The big gamble here is that readers value immediacy over price. That you want a book so bad that you’re willing to pay an extra $12-18 to get it rightnow instead of waiting four months for the discounted e-version. And that there’s no clear differentiation between p-book readers (god I hate that term, but whatever) and e-book readers.
Which could be totally wrong.
I don’t know how much market research S&S has done on e-book readers (I’ll guess zero, but who knows, maybe they polled their own employees), but it’s possible to imagine a scenario in which there is a group of readers who have invested $250+ in an e-reading device and only want to buy e-books, and a different group of readers who only like to collect hardcovers, and a third group that will always wait for the paperback. (I fall into that category.)
If this is the case, and if e-books are booming, and if the people who read e-books help spread the word about titles they read and love to other readers who fall into one of these three categories, than S&S maybe handcuffing their own sales by preventing books from achieving their maximum sales velocity when released.
Just imagine if a CD came out, then we all waited four months to buy it through iTunes. Most of the reviews and publicity would take place at one point in time, whereas a massive amount of sales would happen at another. There’s a real disconnect here between marketing efforts and word-of-mouth, but whatever, Reidy gets paid the big bucks to make money for shareholders and increase the bottom line, not to increase the access readers have to great literature.
Over the weekend, Margo Rabb wrote an interesting essay for the New York Times called Steal These Books about which titles are most often stolen from bookstores. There’s one paragraph in particular that caught my attention:
But this doesn’t mean that every reader is contributing to the bottom line. Only 40 percent of books that are read are paid for, and only 28 percent are purchased new, said Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group, a consultant to the publishing industry. The rest are shared, borrowed, given away — or stolen.
Those are some fascinating statistics, especially in relation to how we conceive of e-book readers. Granted, this is in relation to books that are actually read and we know most publishers really only care about books that are sold (a fine, but financially crucial distinction), but it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the e-book world.
One reason publishers are so jacked with optimism for an e-book future (as long as it conforms to their present ideas re: pricing, DRM, etc.) is because it will allow them to cut down on all of this “borrowing” and “giving away” of books. Things will inevitably change, but for now, the idea of being able to sell a e-version to every single person who wants to read the book, jacking these percentages way, way up just through technological limitations, is very appealing. To some people.
Yesterday afternoon, Barnes & Noble sent a strong message to Amazon that it’s not about to give up the ghost, no matter how many Kindle accessory ads show up in the New York subway. As reported at Digital Daily, B&N has launched a 700,000 title ebook store (there are only 300,000 titles available for the Kindle, but more on that in a second) that is compatible with the iPhone, Blackberry, PC/Mac desktop, and the much anticipated Plastic Logic eReader.
So now Amazon has the Kindle, Borders has some sort of deal with Sony, and B&N has Plastic Logic . . . things are about to get a lot more interesting in the world of ebooks. Especially in terms of price points for devices and ebooks . . .
There are a few strange things about this announcement by B&N that jumped out at me. First off is this quote from the President of BN.com:
“Today marks the first phase of our digital strategy, which is rooted in the belief that readers should have access to the books in their digital library from any device, from anywhere, at any time,” said William J. Lynch, President of BN.com. “As America’s #1 bookstore and newsstand, our goal at Barnes & Noble is to build a service that revolves around the customer, enabling them to have access to hundreds of thousands of titles and read on their smartphone, PC, and many other existing and future devices. We want to make eBooks simple, accessible, affordable and convenient for everyone.”
As John Paczkowski pointed out in the aforementioned article, by “any device,” he actually means “any device except the Sony eReader, the Kindle, and any soon to be announced Apple device.” What pisses me off about this “business strategy” (don’t even get me started) is how short-sighted all these companies are being. From what I’ve heard in talking to some of the major publishers, ebook sales make up a miniscule portion of overall revenues. Like 3% small. Now rather than try and create a demand in readers for ebooks by working with a universal format (a la mp3s, which play on tons and tons of devices) and then profiting off of the creation of the best ebook store, or best ereader, everyone’s trying to create their own proprietary format to get you, as a customer, locked into their particular system. The existence of its proprietary format is one of the reasons there’s been so many cranky articles about the Kindle and the fact that you don’t really “own” the ebooks you buy, that, like in the case of Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm (irony well noted), they can just vanish from your device . . . But instead of putting the reader’s desires first, corporate bookseller/publishers once again demonstrate their contempt for their customers and their inability to rationally analyze what’s happened in the recent past to the music (not to mention TV and movie) industry . . .
Secondly, this 700,000 title number is pretty sketchy. From the B&N press release:
More than a half-million public domain books from Google, which can be downloaded for free. Readers can discover and explore this rich treasure trove, including everything from classic works by well-known writers to long-forgotten and obscure titles that are historically much harder to access.
So how many titles are actually for sale on the B&N ebook site? Oh, that’s right—approximately 200,000. Which is less than two-thirds of what Amazon has available for the Kindle. But please, don’t let me stand in the way of your “math” and hype—you’re right, your device is bigger, your site is the “World’s Largest eBookstore,” etc. Unfortunately, after downloading the B&N ereading program, I couldn’t find a single book I wanted to buy . . .
(Of course, I probably shouldn’t post this until after my sales call with B&N tomorrow morning . . . )
Over at ZDNet, there’s a really interesting chart at the bottom of their article on this announcement listing all the parts, players, and possible entrants of the “Device Value Chain,” “Platform,” and “Content Value Chain.” Very interesting . . .
There seems to be a common refrain in many discussions of e-books, the idea that publishers should charge next to nothing for e-books because it doesn’t cost publishers much to produce them. This reflects a lack of understanding of a publisher’s costs. The cost of manufacturing a book is only the final cost in an extensive process. 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…and while I agree that e-books should be priced at a greater discount to hardcovers than $2.00, we need to move the conversation beyond the idea that e-books “don’t cost publishers anything to make.” (from the Harper Studio blog)
What strikes me about this bit is that most people who are critical of the commercial publishing model are critical of both huge advances, and the amount of redundancy and waste that goes into producing a book—all of which is still included in Miller’s model. So, rather than find a publishing model that’s sleek, efficient, keeps costs down, and makes ebooks available to readers everywhere, Harper Studio is trying to invent a new publishing model that’s a lot like the old publishing model, but replaces overpriced hardcovers with overpriced ebooks. Huh.
1 For instance, Miller’s been getting a lot of praise for his “innovative” new imprint, Harper Studio. One of the oft-cited innovations is his elimination of author advances. Granted, when you read this, it sounds intriguing—instead of paying big advances, authors split the profits 50-50. Well, by “no advances,” what Miller means is no advance over $100,000. Just one example of how you should be careful in interpreting his statements.
This article in the Christian Science Monitor about e-books and indie presses is fantastic for showing how smaller presses are more proactive when it comes to e-anything.
But it’s not the bigger houses, such as Macmillan or HarperCollins, that are moving the fastest. Instead, some of the most extensive restructuring efforts are being undertaken in the independent publishing world, traditionally a hotbed for innovation and experimentation.
Last month, in a much-trumpeted example, New York’s Soft Skull Press announced it would begin to move its entire catalog online. Richard Nash, Soft Skull’s publisher, tells the Monitor, “The aim is to have every one of our front- and back-list books available [digitally] by the end of the year.” (Heavily illustrated books, which are very expensive and unwieldy to convert, will likely be the exception.) If successful, it would be a feat unmatched by any corporate publisher.
And the reasoning why places like Akashic and Soft Skull are getting things done online before the bigger publishers is a sentiment often repeated on this blog:
“In general, I’d say the big publishers tend to be really dinosaurs, intrigued by e-books but afraid of them,” says Paul Biba, the coeditor of Teleread, a leading e-book blog. “[Younger readers] have grown up with a whole different way of looking at the world, and I don’t think many publishers understand this. They think people are just sitting down in leather chairs and reading hardcopy books.”
In some important ways, the infrastructure of a typical independent press is better suited to a digital transition than its corporate counterparts. Smaller staffs mean decisions can be made quickly, without much internal friction. And editors and writers are often more open-minded when it comes to distribution and marketing. As the publishing world undergoes its most radical changes in centuries, the fast and light ethos could be an asset.
And on the other end of the spectrum, it’s equally cool that Matvei Yankelevich from Ugly Duckling Presse is quoted as saying
that many followers of independent publishers have an emotional attachment to the printed word. “I don’t think,” Mr. Yankelevich says, “that people who are reading poetry, for example, would buy that poetry in e-book form. They might read a sample of the poem online, though, and that might put books in the hands of the audiences. It’s more a question of opportunity.”
If you’ve ever picked up an Ugly Duckling book, you’ll know why Matvei is “emotionally attached” to print—their books are stunning, with great texture and a very unique look and feel. And the quality is great as well, which is why UDP has a couple finalists on the Best Translated Book of 2008 award for poetry.
(I have to admit, it’s great to be able to point to an article that includes three of my favorite presses . . . )
Both of these stories came out last week, but are really interesting bits about the impact of free ebooks on sales.
First off, HarperCollins did a special promotion for Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, in which you could, using HC’s Browse Inside program, read the whole book for free. (To the best of my knowledge, you couldn’t download the book, something readers complained about. Actually, it seems like readers weren’t all that keen on the entire HC Browse Inside program—56% of those surved said that they didn’t enjoy the process.) HC tracked the results, tried to correlate this with sales and came up with the following, which Neil Gaiman posted on his blog:
The Indies [ie. independent booksellers — Neil] are the only sales channel where we have confidence that incremental sales were driven by this promotion. In the Bookscan data reported for Independents we see a marked increase in weekly sales across all of Neil’s books, not just American Gods during the time of the contest and promotion. Following the promotion, sales returned to pre-promotion levels.
This is what a lot of ebook advocates have argued for a long time. Although on the other hand, one could speculate that the fact that the majority of people didn’t like the HC Browse Inside process led to more people buying the actual book after getting frustrated with the web version. Regardless, more copies were sold during this promotion, which is good for the author, publisher, and bookstores.
On the same day, I came across this article about Tor’s free download program.
A few months ago Tobias Buckell noticed a trend in his book sales that most midlist novelists don’t typically see. His book Crystal Rain, which had been released in mass market paperback a year before, experienced a sudden spike in sales, more than doubling from the previous week. [. . .]
When Buckell opened a Bookscan account to track his sales he had to sign a nondisclosure agreement barring him from giving any specific numbers, but in a phone interview he asserted that the sales bump was significant enough not to have been a fluke.
But what caused this sudden increase?
Because of all the myriad factors that drive product buys, it’s incredibly hard to pinpoint specific triggers, but it just so happened that the jump occurred right after Crystal Rain’s publisher, Tor Books, had released a free e-book version of the novel online.
Tor began putting out free e-book titles earlier this year to pump up subscriptions to its email newsletter. It will use that newsletter to promote a new science fiction “super site” it’s reportedly launching on July 20 to coincide with the date Americans landed on the moon. Rather than posting the books at a specific URL where people can go to download them, only those who have joined the newsletter list are given access to the titles.
There have been other instances of publishers giving away free e-books—like the promo last year for Beautiful Children by Charles Boch, or the entire Wowio setup (which, you know, is offline right now)—but I suspect that more results like these will lead to even more experiments, hopefully from both large corporate publishers and indie presses.
Hon didn’t fancy the Sony reader so much, (“It’s a bit of a mess…and at $350, it’s not worth it”) except that if you ditch the Sony software and load up some open source goodness you can: “download the entire contents of the BBC News website, Newsweek and the New York Times, format them with a table of contents and links, and then add them as books to your Reader”. That sounds awesome.
I was more interested in the e-book angle though, as I’m a complete gadget-freak and computer nerd, and also because it’s something that we’ll have to face up to soon as a publisher. The Bookseller article is pretty boilerplate. Find techy who says, “Get with it! It’s coming! Now!”:
Hon believes that some publishers are chronically behind in preparing for a digital market, and that a surge in demand for e-books (especially once reading devices proliferate) will see piracy decimate publishers’ margins if they are unable to offer e-books at a reasonable price with ease of access.“It’s surprising how fast things can change. Once five million e-readers are out there on the market . . . And if you look at people growing up now, they will say, ‘why would I want a book when I can have an e-book?’ They’re not going to be bothered about pirating books.” He thinks that, like some music labels, some book publishers will go bust in the new economy.
And mix with publisher who is hedging their bets, and claiming there is something special about the book-as-object (without noticing that certain people thought, and still think, the same thing about vinyl records):
Most publishers, however, don’t see themselves in this way. Michael Bhaskar, who recently joined Pan Macmillan as head of digital publishing, disagrees that a tipping point will come. “It won’t be the death of the publisher, just a slight change. It’s foolish to underestimate how brilliant a piece of technology a book is. Within five years digital content will not be more than 5% of revenue for trade publishers,” he predicts. “After that, there will be a new generation of e-readers and mobile reading. But it won’t be a big bang like iPods or a sea change like newspapers. A book has a sanctity in the way an e-book doesn’t.”
I don’t think it’s that difficult to see how this thing will play out. It’ll follow what happened to the music business model very closely, I’d guess, although I do think it’s still a few years off. The technology has to reach the point where innovation can come from the bottom-up (it’s already beginning to happen). Let’s be real, Sony and HarperCollins will not be the ones to lead this revolution.
Someone, somewhere, will figure out a way to get the content from printed page to digital content quickly and easily (Think CDs to MP3s). Scanners will get cheaper and better, and that will have unintended consequences (Think CDRs and CD burners for your computer). Someone else will figure out a way to share the stuff (Think Napster), or sharing will piggy-back on the existing sharing systems. First the nerds, then the semi-nerds (like me) will catch on and start reading these books on their computers, not minding that it’s a little less convenient than reading a physical book. Some forward-thinking entrepreneur (Think Steve Jobs) will suddenly see an opportunity and make an e-reader that doesn’t suck and that will become a must-have thing.
By then it’ll be too late and the big publishers will put together a bunch of half-ass attempts (Think the new fee-based Napster) to put the genie back in the bottle, while holding on like grim death to their not so suddenly outdated business model, and will rot from within.
All of this seems inevitable to me.
Encoding a song to 1s and 0s was a trivial technical leap, and MP3s becoming a de-facto standard wasn’t really a necessary step in liberating the content from its nominal producers. There are a raft of different codecs that could just as easily become the ‘standard’. There’s nothing exceptional about the iPod either; it just took existing technologies and put them together in a thoughtful way.
Publishers talking about needing a standard before making any moves, or waiting around for the magic-bullet Sony e-reader, is just talk that they use to justify doing, essentially, nothing.
A standard will emerge.
An e-reader that replaces the book will emerge.
So what are publishers to do, then? For now, we should give it away online. Preferably marked up as XML for portability. I think it’s a big opportunity for smaller, independent publishers—who don’t have to empty the corporate ocean with teaspoons—to play a big role in influencing the future of the book.
The number of people who will take advantage of those files will be small, at the moment. But by giving it away now, in an open format, publishers can get ahead of the curve and foster technical innovation at the grassroots on their terms, instead of being blindsided by a technology that emerges on its own, and which answers to no one. This isn’t something the majority of publishers would be willing to do, however, as no one has figured out a way to ‘monetize’ the process yet.
What I’d be more worried about, however, is being stuck, ten years from now, selling a product that nobody needs anymore, like music companies and their cute plastic CDs. Sure, you can milk cash out of books for a few more years, but once people abandon them—and they will—where will publishers be? Running around trying to sue everyone and his sister while the world passes them by?
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“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
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