OK, so typically I like—or at least highly respect—Jeffrey Trachtenberg’s Wall Street Journal articles about publishing. He’s one of the better book reporters out there, and it’s nice that the WSJ covers our little industry. But his new piece, Authors Feel Pinch in Age of E-Books, is a bit troubling.
There are two main points in here, both of which are valid and will play out over the ensuing years: 1) advances for literary novelists (especially debut writers) are down from the “golden days,” and 2) ebook sales are increasing while hardcover sales are decreasing, and the economics of this seem disadvantageous to everyone.
One of the interesting assumptions in here lies in that “golden age” crack above. As Trachtenberg points out, a lot of literary novelists receive “small” advances from their publishers:
In some cases, independent publishers are picking up the slack by signing promising literary-fiction writers. But they offer, on average, $1,000 to $5,000 for advances, a fraction of the $50,000 to $100,000 advances that established publishers typically paid in the past for debut literary fiction.
Let me try and break this down a bit: First off, within the past decade, the number of fiction titles being published has skyrocketed. Click on the top press release on this page to download a pdf of publishing stats from 2002 to 2009. As you can see, fiction has basically doubled, from 25,102 books published in 2002 to 53,058 in 2008, and a projected total of 45,181 in 2009.
In terms of opening the doors to more writers and making more forms of literary expression available to readers, this is a great thing. But unfortunately, book sales (regardless of format), don’t really keep pace with this. Apples to oranges here, admittedly, but the most recent stats from AAP indicate a decrease in net sales for publishers of $.4 billion.
It doesn’t take a MBA to see that with slow growth in sales and rapid expansion in offerings, something has to give.
For anyone who doesn’t know how advances works, here’s a brief overview: in the traditional publishing scheme, authors are offered an advance for the rights to their books. Although certain behavioral economics-based stuff comes into play here (reputation of the author, perceived bidding wars, friendships and loyalties), in the most pure economic sense, advances should be based on what an author is expected to earn back through sales. So, if you expect to sell 3,000 copies of a $15 book, and are planning on offering a 8% royalty rate, a $3,600 advance would be appropriate. Other things can figure into this, such as foreign rights or film sales, or whatever, but generally speaking, this is how this should work.
Just going with those numbers for a minute, in this case, the publisher would receive $45,000 in total revenue from these sales, which has to cover the author’s advance ($3,600), the printing costs (~$6,000), bookseller discounts ($22,500) and marketing expenses ($3,000). (Typical Digression: I’m taking a pricing class now in which one of the main tenets is that you don’t include fixed costs—salaries for salaried employees, sunk costs of overhead, etc.—when figuring out whether to take on a “project” or not. Most publishers will include these costs in order to demonstrate just how fucked they are when it comes to publishing books. I’m going to let these go for now, because it is impossible to figure fixed costs when analyzing what it costs to make a book. We operate with low overhead and next to no employees. Random House does things a bit differently.)
To pull this back to the article at hand, this is where I think Trachtenberg ends up focusing on the wrong thing. His main beef seems to be that it’s totally screwed that publishers aren’t keeping food on the plates of literary authors. And as someone who loves, loves, loves, writers and their books, I agree that this situation sucks. Do I wish all my writerly friends could get $200K every four years in order to live well (enough) and have the opportunity to write a genius work during this period? Absolutely. But for that to happen, from a semi-sane economic perspective, they’d have to sell 167,000 copies of each of their books. That’s quite possible if your name ends in Larsson or Franzen, but for most literary writers? Fuck. And. No. Five figure sales are decent for the majority of writers, with quite a few of those 50,000 works of fiction selling far, far fewer copies.
One could (has? will?) write a series of articles about why these sales are so low (blockbuster model, crappy distribution schemes, more attention paid to nonfiction than literary fiction, the Internet, etc., etc.), but the main point is that there’s a fairly direct correlation between sales and an author’s earnings.
And here’s the weird leap in the article: As Trachtenberg points out, royalties for hardcover sales are much higher than those for ebooks. (According to the graph, an author get $4.20 on the sales of a hardcover, $2.27 on an ebook.) This is absolutely true, but the thrust of the article seems to make this some sort of zero-sum game in which the growth of the ebook market will eventually overtake the sales of hardcovers, and suddenly everyone will be twice as poor as they used to be. (Not to sidetrack this already rambling post, but these royalties—15% for hardcover, 25% for ebooks—aren’t standard throughout the industry. Just saying.)
What he doesn’t mention is that a) this has been the case since the existence of paperbacks (numbers I work with: 10% royalties on hardcovers listing for around $25, 7.5% on paperbacks selling for $15, which means an author earns $2.50 for a hardcover sale, and $1.13 for each paperback unit), and that b) this is simply price discrimination with different customers buying different forms of the products at different prices. It’s really not all that uncommon or as catastrophic as it’s being portrayed.
The nagging assumption here is that no one will buy the hardcover if a cheaper ebook is available, thus screwing the entire payment system. That ebooks cannibalize sales. But there’s not a lot of evidence for this yet. I’ve heard a number of anecdotes contradicting this and stating that people who wouldn’t buy the hardcover are buying ebooks (thus expanding the audience), or more disruptive to the WSJ argument, that giving away free ebooks has led to increased sales of the title overall.
If anyone has hard data, send it along. The only thing cited in this piece is that “sales of consumer books peaked in 2008 at 1.63 billion units and is expected to decline to 1.47 this year and 1.43 billion by 2012.” Is the decrease in sales of hardcovers? Trade paperbacks? Mass market titles? And the insane growth in ebooks (estimates that these will make up 20-25% of total unit sales by 2012), is that reflecting only a decrease in sales of hardcovers? Or are these replacing the mass market romances people used to buy? All the data here seems weak and speculative.
I know this is longer than Clarrisa, but quickly, there are two final things I want to say . . . First off, rather than focus on ebook pricing and the
backwards slow-to-adapt struggling publishing industry, we should instead focus on audience development. We simply do not live in a culture that can support 50,000 works of fiction a year on sales alone. Period. If we all paid full price for 100+ novels a year, well then, maybe. [Insert witty joke about the total impossibility of that happening in a culture that still supports American Idol.]
Check this quote from Nan Talese:
“We aren’t seeing a generation of readers coming along that supports writers today the way that young people supported J. D. Salinger and Philip Roth when they were starting out.”
Yep. We aren’t. And probably won’t.
Also, this whole “author’s deserve $50K advances for simply putting words on paper” argument is weird to me. I don’t mean to sound like an elitist, but seriously, of the 50,000 works of fiction published in 2008, how many deserved to be? 20,000? 100? Somewhere in between, surely, but the point is, some books are simply printed, others are works of art that won’t appeal to everyone, and a select few are picked up by the mainstream culture and make tons of money.
I’m a bit touchy about this article because it seems to be attacking indie presses (“they only offered a $3,500 advance! Cheap bastards!”), which is misguided, and because it’s reinforcing a publishing system that is failing. And next week, there will probably be a piece about how Random House’s advances are way too high and that the blockbuster model is ruining our culture. There’s just nothing sane here.
To counteract the latent vituperative bent of this post, I think everyone should check out OR Books. Incredibly innovative, great authors, zero advances, quick turn around time for books, and only selling through their website. This is a different option. It runs counter to everything talked about above, and, if successful, could provide some ideas that other publishers could learn from. Learn and adapt. The answer isn’t always to freak out; sometimes topics deserve reflection and thought, and sometimes there’s a third way to do business.
As many other bloggers have mentioned over the past week, Google recently came out with an announcement that there are 129, 864, 880 books in the world. This post explains how Google got to that number (very interesting), defines what a “book” is (”‘tome,’ an idealized bound volume”), and references a silly April Fools joke (adding a turkey probe to a library’s catalog).
Another big announcement from recent weeks was Jeff Bezos’s statement that Amazon.com is now selling more ebooks than hardcovers prompting (once again) the endless string of “OMG print books are almost dead!” articles. This one by Malcolm Jones fits the “I’ll miss physical books” category of reactionary pieces, but still implies that the days of hardcovers and paperbacks are numbered.
Which, taken to the extreme, brings up an interesting idea—what are we going to do with these millions of books (and billions of copies) once we fully convert to an e-world?
One idea comes from Matej Kren’s art installation “Scanner”—currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Bologna, and which looks a little something like this:
This week’s Consumed by Rob Walker (whose Buying In is an all-time favorite book of mine) is all about books as art:
For starters, books have served as useful raw material for conversion into an impressive variety of artworks. Jacqueline Rush Lee has created a body of work that turns books into organic-looking shapes — sometimes pages are rolled, sometimes they seem to grow from their open covers, sometimes they’re squashed into wholly different forms. Su Blackwell’s intricate cutouts rise from old books like impossible pop-ups; Stephen Doyle has made tanks and staircases from paper pages, resting on open books that serve as pedestals. Guy Laramée and Brian Dettmer have each created compelling three-dimensional objects by carving or otherwise restructuring books; Robert The has cut books into gun shapes. Thomas Allen has made vivid images of figures rising from lurid pulp paperbacks. Photographers like Paul Octavious, Victor Shrager and Abelardo Morell, among others, have made pictures that linger over book details, or rearrange book groups, in memorable ways.
(Although honestly, the coolest, almost meta, bit of this article is the final paragraph about Busted Typewriter, which hollows out books—including Buying In—to serve as Kindle cases, giving you the feel of a “real” book to go with the convenience of e.)
All of this brings to mind Julio Cortazar’s short story “End of the World of the End,” which opens with a sort of vision of the electronic, self-publishing world:
As the scribes will persist, the few readers there are in the world are going to have to change their roles and become scribes themselves. More and more countries will be made up of scribes, and more and more factories will be necessary to manufacture paper and ink, the scribes by day and the machines by night to print the scribes’ work. First the libraries will overflow the houses, then the municipalities decide (now we’re really into in) to sacrifice their children’s playgrounds to enlarge the libraries. Then the theaters will go, then the maternity homes, slaughterhouses, bars, hospitals. The poor use the books like bricks, they stick them together with cement and build walls of books and live in cabins of books.
This isn’t enough to stem the flow of books, so a new idea is proposed:
The President of the Republic gets on the telephone with the presidents of the republics, and intelligently proposes to cast the leftover books into the sea, which act is accomplished simultaneously on every coast in the world. Thus the Siberian scribes see their works cast into a sea of ice and the Indonesian scribes etc. This allows the scribes to step up their production as the earth again has space to store their books. It does not occur to them that the sea has a bottom and that at the bottom of the sea the printed matter is beginning to pile up, first in the form of a sticky pulp, then in the form of a solid pulp, and finally a tough though viscous flooring which rises several feet a day and will finally reach the surface. Then much of the water invades many of the lands and there is a new distribution of continents and oceans, and presidents of various republics are replaced by lakes and peninsulas, presidents of other republics see immense territories newly open to their ambitions, etc.
As time goes on, this landmass of pulp becomes home to nightclubs and casinos, causing the scribes to store all their books on land once again. The ink and paper companies go bankrupt, the scribes write on “slabs of wood or rock or on stone tiles, etc.”
On the earth the race of scribes lives precariously, doomed to extinction, and at sea there are the islands and casinos, or rather the ex-transatlantic liners, where the presidents of the republics have fled to refuge and where they hold enormous parties and exchange wireless messages from island to island, president to president, and captain to captain.
And there you go.
Sure, it’s undeniable that e-books are going to play a significant role in the future of publishing (according to this survey from the Frankfurt Book Fair, most professionals believe e-sales will surpass sales of traditional books by 2018—more on this article later in the week), but it’s clear from these two recent articles that that particular moment is still off in the future.
In the L.A. Times, Carolyn Kellogg nicely summarizes the quick rise and fall of Dan Brown as the great e-book hope. Basically, on September 15th, when The Lost Symbol was released, it was found that Amazon.com sold more copies of the Kindle version than they had of the hardcover. But, well, um, that didn’t last:
But it was only a moment, one that lasted less than 48 hours. By the time the week was out, with more than 2 million copies sold in the U.S., Britain and Canada — breaking the publisher’s previous one-week record set by Bill Clinton with “My Life” — hardcover sales had easily eclipsed sales of the ebook. Of the 2 million copies sold, only 100,000, or 5%, were electronic versions.
Although the overall sales levels aren’t there, the pattern is in keeping with what one might expect. Kindle-users want immediate gratification with very low purchasing costs. They don’t want to drive out to B&N to wait in line to buy the hardcover. They don’t want to wait for free shipping. They want books when they want them, and for something like this, that means they wanted the book the day—or even the very minute—that it became available. So of course, there was a quick burst in sales of The Lost Symbol followed by a tailing off . . .
More harrowing for e-book advocates is this story about Princeton’s disappointing experiment with the Kindle DX. I always thought that textbooks and classrooms would be one of the first places to really glom onto to the promise and possibility of e-books and e-reading devices. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening quite yet. From The Daily Princetonian:
When the University announced its Kindle e-reader pilot program last May, administrators seemed cautiously optimistic that the e-readers would both be sustainable and serve as a valuable academic tool. But less than two weeks after 50 students received the free Kindle DX e-readers, many of them said they were dissatisfied and uncomfortable with the devices.
On Wednesday, the University revealed that students in three courses — WWS 325: Civil Society and Public Policy, WWS 555A: U.S. Policy and Diplomacy in the Middle East, and CLA 546: Religion and Magic in Ancient Rome — were given a new Kindle DX containing their course readings for the semester. The University had announced last May it was partnering with Amazon.com, founded by Jeff Bezos ’86, to provide students and faculty members with the e-readers as part of a sustainability initiative to conserve paper.
But though they acknowledged some benefits of the new technology, many students and faculty in the three courses said they found the Kindles disappointing and difficult to use.
“I hate to sound like a Luddite, but this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool,” said Aaron Horvath ’10, a student in Civil Society and Public Policy. “It’s clunky, slow and a real pain to operate.”
This is kind of unfortunate, especially since it sounds like more of a device issue than anything else. Still seems like there’s a great opportunity here with the right device/content mix . . .
Yesterday’s Publishing Perspectives (which you should really subscribe to if you haven’t already—it is that consistently good) had an interesting piece about a digital distribution company for ebooks that is being set up by Planeta, Random House Mondadori, and Santillana (the three biggest publishers in Spain). Here’s more from Emily Williams’s article:
This initiative will go hand in hand with a major marketing effort starting with a splashy launch of e-books and e-readers this holiday season through at least one major retailer. They have set a goal of having every frontlist title able to be published simultaneously in both print and ebook form by mid 2011. [. . .]
In negotiations with the Association of Spanish Literary Agencies (ADAL), the publishers have agreed to price ebooks at 80% of a printed books cover price, with a standard 25% royalty rate. Booksellers will be offered a maximum discount of 50%. The two groups hope to sign an agreement soon.
Although the Carmen Balcells Agency isn’t too keen on this 25% royalty rate (they want 40%!! Not sure if they realize yet that although they have a stellar list of authors, this means absolutely nothing if there are no publishers in business to publish said authors’ books. Agents!), this seems pretty civilized and like the Big Three actually thought this all through.
What’s really interesting to me is this 80% of printed retail. In a completely free market, I still believe that supply and demand will bring the amount readers are willing to pay much closer to $9.99 than 80% of a typical hardcover. But, like in a number of countries, Spain operates under a fixed price law that determines what price books are sold to the public. In other words, there is no discounting, which greatly changes the retailing landscape.
This “long tail effect” has not yet had much of an impact on the Spanish book market, which has not embraced online book retailing to the same extent as other countries. Spain reliance on fixed book prices has kept away powerful online discounters like Amazon.com. This gives publishers much more leeway to experiment with pricing on their own terms, and will also determine how Spanish ebooks will be sold internationally. In most cases Spanish publishers control the worldwide Spanish language rights to the books they publish (both native and translated authors) and will be able to sell their ebooks to consumers anywhere in the world. However, because of price controls those purchases will have to go through Spanish booksellers or other sites that respect the terms set by the Spanish market. This would likely exclude Amazon, who will not only be unable to sell books in Spain, but will not have access to the vast majority of Spanish language titles for either the US or Latin American market.
Anne-Solange Noble of Gallimard is a huge proponent of this law, and was asking me at BEA about why we don’t do this in America. (Short answer: propose something anti-free market like this and you’ll be tarred and feathered as a Communist.) Her argument is that the fixed price law has helped keep independent bookstores in business, and allowed publishers to continue to publish poetry and other sorts of books that typically don’t sell all that well.
Personally, I am in favor of something like this, because it would level the playing field in a potentially interesting way. Part of the problem with the book industry is the fact that every outlet has raced toward the middle, and the same books are being promoted at all the stores at the same time. With certain exceptions (the City Lights, McNally Jacksons, Seminary Co-ops of the world), most stores strive to be the same as every other store. You can get the same book anywhere—even online. So for your average reader, price becomes the only distinguishing factor between B&N, Amazon, or Idlewild. If the ability to set your own prices were removed, it would be a lot easier (or tougher, depending on your point of view) to highlight the value-added components of these outlets.
Putting all that rhetoric aside for a second, the other reason I think this is such an important story is the line about Spanish publishers being able to sell their books all over the world. When I was in Buenos Aires last year, this “Spanish world rights” issue really caught my attention. Since the largest Spanish language publishers are in Spain, and since they tend to buy world Spanish rights to the books they publish, a reader in Argentina has to pay an exorbitant amount for a book imported from Spain. Ebooks solve this dilemma, eliminating all of the shipping costs, etc., and, if the device is cheap/good enough, could revolutionize the Spanish market around the world.
This is a pretty broad set of challenges, ranging from some more content based questions (“Literature is language-based and national; contemporary society is globalizing and polyglot,” or “Contemporary literature not confronting issues of general urgency; dominant best-sellers are in former niche genres such as fantasies, romances and teen books”), to challenges of audience development (“Means of book promotion, distribution and retail destabilized,” or “Ink-on-paper manufacturing is an outmoded, toxic industry with steeply rising costs”).
Regardless, it’s a really interesting list that does point to many of the concerns and issues underlying our industry. Here are some of the others I think are most interesting:
Media conglomerates have poor business model; economically rationalized “culture industry” is actively hostile to vital aspects of humane culture.
Long tail balkanizes audiences, disrupts means of canon-building and fragments literary reputation.
Barriers to publication entry have crashed, enabling huge torrent of subliterary and/or nonliterary textual expression.
“Convergence culture” obliterating former distinctions between media; books becoming one minor aspect of huge tweet/ blog/ comics/ games / soundtrack/ television / cinema / ancillary-merchandise pro-fan franchises.
I wondered when someone would speak out against Oprah’s endorsement of the Kindle. From the Vroman’s Bookstore Blog:
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or, I don’t know, focusing on the election or something, you probably know that Oprah is just crazy about Amazon’s ebook reader the Kindle. It is, in fact, her “new favorite thing in the world.” This is bad news for bookstores, as Amazon uses a special ebook format on the Kindle, one that only they can sell. In the past, Oprah’s book endorsements, in the form of her Oprah’s Book Club picks, have been a boon to bookstores everywhere, raising the profile of the titles and making bestsellers of authors like Dr. Oz and Wally Lamb. Most recently, her endorsement of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle helped boost sales during an otherwise slow month. That could all change with her endorsement of the Kindle. What happens to bookstores if all of Oprah’s fans start buying their books on the Kindle?
I realize this is an old article (I think I’ll be catching up for days . . .), but this piece in the Independent is strange, conventional, and interesting all at once.
Can intelligent literature survive in the digital age? starts with the question of how the internet age is changing the way we read, with Nicholas Carr’s recent article from the Atlantic Monthly (entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) providing a great summary of these changes:
“As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s,” writes Carr, “media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
Carr quotes a research programme that monitored the behaviour of researchers visiting information sources. Most of the researchers, it found, hopped incontinently from site to site, never staying longer than a few paragraphs, apparently unable to sustain interest in one text. The report’s authors coined a splendid phrase: “...there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging, as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts, going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”
John Walsh is (somewhat rightfully) appalled by this state of things, and goes into a series of laments for the “literary” novel, claiming that back in the heyday of Amis, Rushdie, Barnes, readers were willing to give “experimental, inward-looking, linguistically challenging fiction” a try. But today? Adam Mars-Jones Pilcrow “sold only a few hundred copies.” (That might have to do with the book/author . . . Not saying, just saying.)
Then, as predicable as the sun, he turns from reader’s attention problems, to their fear of challenging books, to his hatred of the e-book. (This is the point where we enter Andy Rooney territory.):
It seems oddly coincidental that the e-book is coming into our reading lives around now. With its hand-tooled leather binding, its don’t-be-scared page dimensions (two-thirds the size of a standard paperback), its flexible typeface and typesize formats, and the astounding capacity of its memory (it can store up to 160 standard-size titles), it is user-friendly, glossy, rather pretty in its ingénue novelty. But its callowness makes you weep.
The instructions tell you, “One battery charge is equal to 6,800 page turns (that’s enough to read War and Peace five times over on a single charge!)” Yeah, right. But it’s not going to happen on the Sony Reader. Nobody is ever going to read Tolstoy on this fatuous device. It’s an electronic simulation of a page, but it’ll never convince you it’s a book, to be read by your sentient eyes and brain. It doesn’t have the solidity, the pages, the tactile companionship of a book. You’ll never know where you are in the story, or how much of it is left. You won’t have the cover artwork, to steal inside your head and become a lifelong reminder of the book it encased.
And you can’t turn the pages.
I’m not entirely sure all three of this main objections are causally related in the way he implies, nor do I think Charles Dickens is necessarily incompatible with the digital age.
But anyway, it’s clear that this guy hates the future. And the present. And, at least on some level, feels like book culture is being sullied by things like this blog. (I assume, I assume. Although maybe he’d appreciate the lengthiness of all my posts . . . Take that ADD readers!) So, of course, right under his article are a series of comments from various professionals . . . several of whom aren’t nearly as reactionary. Here are a few highlights:
The agent : Clare Alexander: “I’m spending much more time talking to publishers about legal issues and far less time on creativity. There’s also the other side of the digital revolution – that original ideas filter through to print from the internet. Yes, occasionally a blog becomes a book – about sex, usually – and the really original ideas percolate through, but most stuff online is crap!” (_Ed. Note: As are 85%+ of all books that are published, so I think that’s a moot point._)
The new-media lecturer: Sue Thomas: “Will books exist in 50 years? Definitely, but they will also be just one of the many ways we experience art. I feel quite cynical about the cloak of preciousness that’s been woven around the novel: it’s such a recent medium – we’ve only had it a few hundred years and yet you often hear people say, ‘We’ve always had novels.’ No we have not!”
The author: Tracy Chevalier: “Younger people are more adventurous in the way they take in information and not so emotionally wedded to the book as older people. The music industry has paved the way in terms of expectations of how we receive information and it’s natural that our industry will have its iPod moment.”
The Google guy: Santiago de la Mora: “Does Google Book Search symbolise the death of the [printed] book? On the contrary, it gives books more visibility and makes it easier for people to buy them, or to know they exist in libraries. Now they can be read by anyone, anywhere. I’m originally from Columbia: I know what I grew up with and that the biggest barrier in life is no access to information. So from a personal viewpoint, it’s a beautiful project.” (_Ed. Note: Absolutely. This is similar to what I saw going on in Argentina._)
The librarian: Richard Ovenden: “Our reading rooms are still as busy as ever: the most high-quality digitisation does not replace the power of seeing the original artefact. However, people are now more aware of what we’ve got: a recent report identified a generation that felt that if something wasn’t online it didn’t exist. So if you digitise things, it does exist to that generation.”
The publisher: Jeremy Ettinghausen: “Penguin is the publisher that invented the paperback: innovation is in our DNA. We were early bloggers, the first publisher with a podcast; our Blog a Penguin Classic project won us an award. We have 5,000 friends on Facebook, we’re on Twitter, and were the first to go into Second Life, where we took William Gibson, the writer who invented the word ‘cyberspace’. We don’t believe books will disappear – 99 per cent of our revenue still comes from ink on paper – but the way people read will change.”
The digital convert: Chris Meade: “Could you compare a blog or a story told via Twitter to Dickens? Well, Dickens wrote in soap opera-like episodes. It’s always easier to decide where the cultural action has been, but hard to spot it at the time. These things are happening and we need to adjust.”
And then, the most bizarre:
The teacher: Andrew Cowan: “Ahead of this interview, I talked to [my students] about digitisation and not one of them had heard of Twitter, and they were all hostile to the idea of e-books. They’re not immersed in digital fiction, either – some have been published online, but feel it’s second-best; they’re concerned about the lack of editorial control on the Net and only pursue it because there is a dearth of [print] outlets for short stories. None of them keeps a blog, though one admitted sheepishly that she’d started one, and the others were all smirking about it. This is the new generation of writers.”
Probably not the “new generation,” but whatever.
After all the recent Kindle discussions (which are still ongoing in today’s Shelf Awareness), this Publishers Weekly article about comic book publishers embracing the possibilities of digital publishing jumped out at me. In terms of engaging and trying to please their fans, the comic industry seems miles ahead of book publishers.
The diversity of initiatives is dizzying: Marvel Comics, Boom! Studios and Viz Media have made select back issues available in digital form; DC Comics and Top Shelf Productions now curate Web sites of comics developed specifically for the internet; Korean manhwa house Netcomics offers comics online for a small fee; and Tokyopop, Devil’s Due Productions, Papercutz and Virgin Comics have joined with mobile digital publishing services like uclick and GoComics, to distribute their content on mobile phones—not to mention e-books, animated comics on iTunes, or the smart phone-based reader from ClickWheel, which also offers a format for reading comics on the iPhone.
And in terms of the age-old (well, decades-old maybe) question about the impact on sales of giving something away for free online:
And while no print publisher is yet prepared to give away all its content online, some are beginning to conduct experiments to gauge the potential impact of free Web distribution on print sales. This January, Boom! Comics broke ground by releasing a new periodical comic, North Wind #1, in comic shops and on the Web simultaneously. Despite the objections of some comics shop retailers who saw the day-and-date release as a potential threat to their in-store sales, the first issue sold out within a week and went to a second printing.
“Usually on the fourth issue, you’re seeing a 10%–20% sales decrease, but we saw a 20%–30% increase,” says Mosher. “By the end, there wasn’t as much opposition as there was in the beginning.”
Here’s an interesting take on the idea of social marketing. On Amazon’s site there’s a feature to See a Kindle in Your City:
We’ve heard feedback that many Kindle owners love their Kindle and like showing it off. Some of you even said you have trouble reading Kindle in public because people always ask, “What is that?” We’ve also heard from prospective customers who would love to see a Kindle before they buy one.
We created the “See a Kindle in Your City” area to help prospective owners connect with Kindle owners to get a chance to see the device in person. We started with a selection of cities – find yours or start one for your city. Whether you want to meet at your local coffee shop, a public park, or your favorite watering hole is up to you. We hope you enjoy meeting your fellow Kindlers.
In the public park? Or watering hole? This sort of sounds like a Craigslist hook-up scheme for Kindle owners. . . . There’s one photo included in this section, although I’m really not sure how this relates to finding a Kindle . . .
The discussion board can’t be searched, but in pages 1-5 (of 35!) there’s no listing for Rochester, NY. I just might have to start one . . .
In a bigger picture sense, I’m sure the idea of creating a “Kindle Community” was discussed at a number of marketing meetings. It’s not a terrible idea, although this discussion board doesn’t quite seem to be the best way to make this happen. And based on what others are saying about the elusiveness of seeing a Kindle in the wild, it’s almost a Zune-like experience. (That Rob Walker column is awesome if for no other reason than the reference to the term “rocket up your Zunehole.”)
The first is from The Guardian:
Blackwell’s is to become the first high-street bookseller in the UK to offer print-on-demand books while customers wait. The innovation will be delivered by an “Espresso Book Machine” (EBM), which can print and bind any one of a million titles.
Set to be piloted this autumn in a branch that is yet to be announced, the chain plans eventually to install EBM machines in all 60 of its shops across the UK. The machine can currently print about 40 pages per minute, but a newer model due later this year is expected to double that speed. [. . .]
[Blackwell CEO Vince] Gunn stressed that embracing print-on-demand did not imply that shops would run down their stocks of conventionally published books. “People come into shops like our Broad Street branch in Oxford because they love browsing. The EBM will simply add to the number of available titles available. We believe in a combination of ‘clicks and bricks’.”
It’s interesting that there are only 11 or so of the Espresso Book Machine’s in the U.S., but will soon be more than five times that amount in it the UK . . . And this idea of “click and bricks” is intriguing.
On the more electronic side of things, Joe Wikert just got a Kindle and has a pretty solid review of it. He does have good things to say about the design and functionality, but his criticisms are pretty damning, since they all revolve around content:
130,000 is a smaller number than you think. I’m referring to the number of Kindle edition books available on Amazon. As of right this minute there are 131,637 books available, and while many bestsellers are there, it’s amazing how many I want that aren’t. I’m looking for a great World War II book to read now that I’ve finished Citizen Soldier and World War II For Dummies. The selection is fairly limited and I can see where this will be a roll of the dice every time I go searching…at least until the number of available titles grows by a factor of 10.
Ditto for newspapers and magazines. I was thinking about returning to BusinessWeek via the Kindle but it’s not an option…yet. There are only 16 magazines and 19 newspapers available. Talk about tiny numbers… At about $1.50 per month for several magazines the price feels right, although I’ve seen plenty of customer complaints on Amazon regarding content that’s in the print magazine but not the Kindle edition. Amazon and their publishing partners need to fix this ASAP.
Why would I pay for newspapers/magazines? I’m wondering whether I can rig up an RSS feed option where the key newspapers and magazines are accessible via the Kindle’s browser instead…all for free. I’ll dig into it and see if I can come up with a viable solution.
The browser is as slow as advertised. I’ve heard complaints before and they’re legit. In Amazon’s defense, Kindle is an e-book reader first and the browser is just an experimental feature. As slow as it is I hope it doesn’t go away. It will do in a pinch but you wouldn’t want to depend on it for very long.
Last week, Idea Logical posted a speech that founder Mike Shatzkin (really, you should read his bio, it’s incredible) gave to the Danish Book Trade. The article, entitled The Future of Books for Publishers and Booksellers is one of the best I’ve ever read about the current publishing situation and what’s to come. It’s that perfect blend of insider publishing talk, theoretical statements about the future, and business analysis that I’ve come to really love . . .
It’s almost impossible to summarize and excerpt from this—the whole essay is so good—but it is incredibly long, so here are a few highlights . . .
Shatzkin starts off making an incredibly useful distinction between horizontal and vertical organizations:
he 20th century consumer media were horizontal in their subject matter — that is, very broad — and format-specific. In the States, that means entities like CBS or NBC in television, The New York Times, or Random House. All of these companies provide content across the full range of human subject interests, but they pretty much stick to their formats: broadcast, newspapers, and institutions that have traditionally relied on other horizontal institutions (like newspapers, magazines, etc.) to get the word out about their books.
Leaving this idea aside for a moment, Shatzkin then runs through the list of things that are changing/developing in the publishing industry, including ebooks, print-on-demand, audiofiles, etc. And he doesn’t just recap the technology or the concept, rather he explains how the distribution system is currently set-up, what major players are influencing the different segments, how this might evolve, etc.
He also looks at the ways these technologies are/will influence publishers and booksellers. Especially worth mentioning is this piece on the Espresso Book Machine:
The Espresso prints and binds one book at a time — one-color and paperback only, although with a full-color cover — and is intended for in-store use. There are only a handful of them in place, but they offer the entrepreneurial bookstore some very intriguing opportunities to expand their business. We have encountered a very entrepreneurial bookseller at the University of Alberta in Canada who has made one work profitably in his store within months.
Last month, Espresso announced a deal with Ingram by which the Lightning repository of files will be made available for delivery on Espresso. That suddenly makes the Espresso proposition a lot more likely to succeed.
I’ve been making fun of the EBM for a while now (seriously though, just look at this thing) but this agreement changes the entire game. Now if it only looked a little more like a Mac product instead of a contraption built out of spare parts in someone’s garage . . .
He also covers some of the implications of social networking sites and the way that data is being tagged and categorized these days:
My hunch is that we’ll see vertical “portals” for every conceivable subject: an overall organization that serves as a guide to every topic of interest. Think of wikipedia entries turned into entire web worlds. [. . .]
The taxonomies by which information is organized in each niche will be constantly evolving. The standards experts of the future will be much more concerned with reconciling taxonomies across niches. Some obvious ones will need to be rationalized, like farming and gardening, cooking and dining, business travel and pleasure travel and adventure travel.
Leaving the horizontal media of the 20th century behind will mean that multi-niche successes, what today we call mass market successes, will become relatively rare. As people find it easier and easier to delve deeply into what interests them most, they will spend less and less time exposed to things that interest large numbers of people. Word-of-mouth requires that people be speaking to each other to work.
And to leave no concept untouched, he gets a bit into the “long tail” idea of Chris Anderson’s:
The concept is simple. In the days before the Internet, the choice of products available — let’s say, books — was pretty much limited by retail shelf space. If a book wasn’t in a store, the barriers to discovery and purchase were very high and the book essentially left the field of commerce.
Amazon.com, of course, changed that overnight. On the net, shelf space is unlimited. By using Ingram and Baker & Taylor, America’s two large wholesalers, to start, Amazon offered many times more books than any terrestrial bookstore. [. . .]
What this means is Amazon can sell a copy or two of a nearly unlimited number of books, which, taken cumulatively, far exceeds the number of copies sold of the 10-20 uber-bestsellers that are everywhere at any given moment. Basically this theory rewrites the business model that supports the major chains, arguing that in the long-run, it’s better to sell a few copies of an infinite amount of books than to sell a ton of copies of a handful of titles. There are problems with this idea though . . .
What this says to me is that the long tail Anderson has identified is great for consumers and great for the retailers that can sell the long tail books, which primarily means Amazon. It’s great for Lightning. But the long tail is not a good thing for publishers or authors. From their perspective, the primary impact of the long tail is to bring them competition that 10 or 20 years ago would not have been on the field with them.
Anyway, going back to the original point about horizontal vs. vertical organization and how this is impacted by all these techno-social changes, Shatzkin echoes something I’ve been thinking for a while: thanks to the combination of a fragmented culture and the digital revolution, smaller presses with more specific publishing interests (in contrast to a press that does fiction, cookbooks, travel guides, and biographies) stand to gain a lot more from changes in technology and the marketplace than large, “legacy” (to steal Shatzkin’s term) publishers.
Shatzkin actually lists some of the challenges these big presses face, which seem pretty daunting:
It’s not an accident that the biggest trade publishers have been slow to move in the direction of change. The speedboats can zip around the harbor; the supertanker has a devil of a time trying to turn around. That’s a generalization which masks the very specific reasons big publishers remain stuck in old models.
First of all, the horizontality of their history leaves them a legacy list that reflects the randomness of mind by which it was acquired: there are few niches with any critical mass of content. [. . .]
The second big problem of the big houses is that their brands, which were built over a long time and are perceived to have great value, have only business-to-business, or what we call B2B, value. Consumers don’t know who published the last book they read, and they pretty much don’t care. [. . .]
(He does go on to indicate that there’s a very big difference between Chelsea Green branding itself and HarperCollins—something that I completely and totally agree with. I’m 99% sure I’ll love a NYRB or New Directions book and make my purchases based on “loyalty” to their “brand,” but with Random House, I buy on a book-by-book basis, rarely taking chances on purchases, since their books are all over the place.)
The third challenge for big companies is the requirement to keep making money with their current models, which are horizontal and which are book-specific. Smaller, owner-managed companies can more nimbly make decisions about experimentation with their future direction than big companies that report to investors about the value of their holdings.
The fourth challenge for big companies is that they are, of necessity, more highly structured than smaller ones. In the Internet age, when editorial, marketing, and sales functions get harder to divide neatly, structure and hierarchy can be the enemy of constructive change.
I strongly encourage anyone who’s made it to this point to go read the whole article. It’s much more illuminating and interesting that I can convey . . .
DailyLit, an online service that delivers installments of books via email or RSS feeds, announced on Wednesday a deal with publisher Grove/Atlantic to serialize House Rules, a thriller by Mike Lawson, ahead of the book’s June 10 publication date.
The deal marks Mamaroneck, N.Y.-based DailyLit’s first new-title deal. The company, which works with publishers that include Chronicle Books, Oxford University Press and Harlequin, as well as a library of open source publications, has in the past distributed books only after their print release date. House Rules—to be released in 139 installments, for $9.95—marks its first title to be released pre-publication, an option DailyLit says can help publishers create hype before a book is released.
For whatever, I love serialized novels, and plan on trying out DailyLit at some point. (Though probably with one of the free offerings.) I know E.J. is skeptical of this format, figuring he (and by extension, most people) would fall behind, and the rss/e-mail bits would pile up and up until reaching the point when it was like reading the full book, but in e-mails. Which I can see happening—especially with Moby Dick or something like that—but I think I’d personally keep on top of it for a new book that I’m getting a chance to read weeks before it’s released. (For instance, I would pay $10 for a serialized version of the 1000+ page 2666 if the sections started appearing in June . . .)
Joe Wikert makes a good point about the rise of the “all you can eat” subscription model and how this might play out in the book world:
As this BusinessWeek article notes, the pay-per-song model might be living on borrowed time. All you can eat subscription models like Rhapsody are gaining popularity. It makes sense to me. After all, I don’t care how much music I “own”; I just care how much I have access to. Would I pay $12.99/month for the right to fill up a 30-, 40- or 80-gig MP3 player with all the music I could possibly want? You bet, especially since I’ll know the door is always open to download even more as my interests and tastes change.
Now stop and think about how this applies to the book publishing world. Could you imagine a model where you pay $X/month for access to an unlimited number of books? It’s never going to happen in the print world but I think this could be the killer app for the Kindle, a world where manufacturing and distribution costs are zero. Access to every single book in the entire Kindle library could be yours for a monthly fee. Assuming the monthly fee is reasonable this could be the model that really kick-starts the e-book industry.
Although I don’t think the Kindle presages the end-times, I’m personally not a big fan of e-books and would be a bit happier if I didn’t have to worry about acquiring electronic rights and whatnot. That said, I’ve been a big proponent of the “unlimited” model for a while. I subscribe to Rhapsody, to Netflix, and the idea of having unlimited access to as many books as you want, immediately and anywhere is sort of appealing.
In other words, I’m not shelling out $400 bucks to buy “Kindle versions” of books (which apparently lack most footnotes), but under this model, I could see this catching on with a substantial nuimber of readers. For a while, I’ve been of the mindset that e-books would catch on when the product/model available solved distribution problems. Allowing readers to “test the water” of as many books as they want, downloaded instantaneously to their little device, accomplishes just this . . . And in contrast to the Paperspine idea, delivery would be instantaneous, and Amazon wouldn’t face the same inventory problems inevitable in the Paperspine model.
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
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Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .