Missing The Point

A WIRED story coming out of Book Expo America once again reveals the gap between reality and what some of the leaders in publishing think.

Susan Petersen Kennedy, president of Penguin Group USA, said publishers will not make the same mistakes as the music industry, which had an epic struggle over electronic distribution and piracy and lost huge market share.

“It’s always treated as if the publishers are the Luddites,” she told Reuters in an interview. “The devices have not caught up with the content. Contrary to popular opinion, the book is actually so far more flexible.”

[Emphasis mine.]

Take a look at that last pair of sentences. What do they mean? Let’s break that first one down: The devices have not caught up with the content. The two readers I have (Sony Touch and iPad) allow me to read, to adjust the type size, to highlight passages, to make notes and to double-tap a word, immediately bringing up a dictionary to tell me what that word means. In addition, if the device is hooked into the internet, hotlinks become live, so I can immediately go to the net and purchase the next volume, or learn more about the book. So, the way I see it, the devices do everything a print book does, and more.

The second sentence, however, is the one that I find even more puzzling. What does she mean by flexible? Moreover, is flexibility even a quality that makes any difference in this battle? I don’t think so. Print books are heavy and bulky. In the space of a single thin paperback or less (a smart phone or iPod Touch) a reader can carry thousands of books. And, sure, print books won’t run out of power, but battery life is a silly measurement. After all, it’s not how long your battery will last, it’s how long are you going to be between chances to recharge your device? In the last three years of hauling a iPod Touch around, that’s been absolutely never for me.

Right now, the only edge your mass market paperback has over an ebook reader is that you can’t use it between the ground and 10,000 feet on a flight. Might be the longest 20 minutes of your life going up and down, but that’s what the inflight magazines are for.

Jim Lowder pointed me to another article coming out of BEA that illustrates more problems with publishers and the way they address ebooks.

Dominique Raccah, of Sourcebooks, agreed that the new technology was a great way to connect authors with readers. However, she refuted Defiore’s argument that eBooks made life easier for publishers. Through a series of slides, Raccah stressed that making digital books is complicated for publishers because formatting them is so complicated. “We have thirty new steps to format the book to be an eBook and that is before production and meta-data,” she said.

[Emphasis mine.]

Thirty steps? I wish I had seen the slides. When I went from text file to ebook for Talion: Revenant it took exactly seven steps:

1) Get a cover made.
2) Get a spacer illo made
3) Insert Bookmark breaks (insert a line at each chapter head and four other places: a search operation for 30 lines)
4) Insert spacer illo tags (insert a line at each 3 line break: a search operation for two dozen lines)
5) Insert hotlinks (cut and paste from a file)
6) Gather illos and text file into a folder
7) Run Michael Zapp’s Legend Maker software to create the epub and Kindle file.

Total time for those seven steps less than two hours. In a week or so, I’ll be taking my novel Eyes of Silver and prepping it from scan to epub. I’ll track my time and let you know how long it took. The real question is that if I can do things in less time and with fewer steps than traditional publishers, what’s going on in New York? While Susan Petersen Kennedy protests that publishers are not Luddites, their understanding of technology and their use of it really casts that statement in doubt. And the usual retort of “Well, Mike, you understand this stuff and are comfortable with it,” just doesn’t wash. If you and your staff are not comfortable with things, hire someone who is!

And here’s the real dark side of things for traditional publishers. They’re looking at their ebook sales and using their growth to calculate how much time they have to get their ebook business squared away. But they’re not the only folks selling ebooks. In the last two months I’ve sold more copies of Talion: Revenant as an ebook than Bantam has sold of The Grand Crusade as an ebook since 2003. Sure those numbers show the surge of ebook sales that has been growing sharply, and TR sales benefit from it, no doubt at all. But traditional publishers are not tracking data on my sales, or on the sales of any other self-published electronic publication. Traditional publishers numbers are as reliable as the data on tomato sales a farmer gathers when he only counts the sales from his roadside stand. The numbers do not measure supply or demand, so are good only in relation to other numbers he’s gathered.

While my ebook sales may not amount to much in the world of traditional publishing, they’re important for two reasons. First, someone buying a book from me isn’t buying a book from them. Second, since I don’t have their overhead, I can sell for less. This means I am shaping what folks see as a reasonable price for ebooks. This means my sales, and the sales of other authors who are offering books for $5 or less are shaping perceptions that traditional publishers are going to have to deal with.

Ultimately it’s not a question of publishers being Luddites or not. It’s a question of their being in touch with reality. Right now, not looking very good on that front. As far as they’re concerned, it’s not raining where they are, just up in the mountains. So there shouldn’t be a problem pitching a tent in that dry river bed, should there?

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24 Responses to “Missing The Point”

  1. My biggest issue with eBooks thus far – is the pricing, which I suspect publishers are justifying due to these imaginary 30 steps. You don’t have to pay for paper or production – so why the hell are ebooks not insanely cheaper than their on the shelf counterparts?

    I can buy that some of the pricing is for instant gratification, and that’s okay by me. However to consistently see books (on Amazon.com) for the Kindle that are more than the paper version (and shipping doesn’t matter here as I have prime and get free 2 day shipping) – unless I need the book for research ASAP I wouldn’t pay extra for the digital version. This also explains why nearly all of the Kindle books in the Top 20 on Amazon are FREE books.

    Example – a book I needed last week “The Language of God” by Francis Collins. The hard back edition is $5.50. The Paperback is $6.00 and the Kindle edition is $12.00. DOUBLE the price of the hardback or paperback. That’s nuts. But that is par for the course thus far with shopping for Kindle books. Until publishers take a tip from iTunes (something Apple isn’t even doing with it’s bookshelf) and price things appropriately, the digital versions of new media won’t hit the mainstream.

    Good post, as always Mike.

  2. Swoopy,

    You’re absolutely right. A chunk of it is that traditional publishers have broken their ebook divisions off, so they aren’t talking with the other divisions. Therefore if one side of the business does one thing, they may not get the memo. It’s nuts, and it is killing them. They just don’t see it.

  3. If you pick up a paperback book, you can totally bend the pages back and forth (and with a hardcover, you can do that with the pages inside). Can’t do that with an ereader. Duh.

    Other than that, no, I can’t make any sense of what those publishers are saying.

  4. The thing that bothers me on the eBooks isn’t the eBook. If nothing happens to them, they’ll take over.

    No, it’s the infrastructure. I’m not joking when I keep asking the industry to put a hand crank and solar panel on the damn things.

    My other hat says “environmentalist.” Briefly, the US power grid’s a kludged together piece of crap, solar and wind have huge problems (mostly economic and political, which pisses me off). Etc. We’re perfectly poised to go through massive blackouts, and that makes me feel less than warm and fuzzy about electronic media at the moment.

    We can also go into the long supply chains for the electronics, although I recently found out (Chemistry and Engineering News, no link) that the Obama administration is quietly encouraging industry to get serious about mining lithium and rare earths in the US (yay!). Still, those long chains are an issue.

    As a result of all this, I’m cynical about all electronic media, at least in the reasonably long term. In the next decade, I think eBooks are going to move like the Cloverfield Monster, and I hope no one nukes New York trying to kill them. In the longer run? What what’s happening in Africa. If eBooks take off there, then we’ll know that they’ve grown up enough to survive.

  5. I was half expecting the word “overhead” to be a link to the February article with the comment about publishers and Manhattan offices 🙂

    I was thinking about this the other day, and the main thing I think dead trees still do better than digital is serve as a souvenir of “stuff I like”. I like having shelves full of books in my house that visitors can look over and get a sense of what I like (as well as the fact that I like reading in the first place). They’re also much easier to lend, since they only require that the recipient have the ability to read, rather than needing an ereader of some description.

    However, I expect we’ll eventually move to a world where dead tree books are very much the exception rather than the rule.

    I think I’ve mentioned this before Mike, but have you ever wandered over to Mike Masnick’s Techdirt site? A lot of the issues you’ve been writing about from a publishing point of view for years tie in with the general themes of what he’s been covering for years from a music/movies/public policy angle (although he’s started looking at the publishing world recently as well).

  6. That’s been my biggest reason to hold out on getting an ebook reader … the price of ebooks. The publishers & the retailers are arguing over pricing as it relates to hardcovers, and seem to think I should be happy to pay 10.00 to 15.00 for a book because it’s substantially less than a hardcover book.

    But I buy almost exclusively mass market paperbacks, which appears to me to be the bulk of at least the genre book market. My reality is that ebook pricing should be based off of mass market paperbacks.

    As a customer/reader, I assume that profits are being made off of mass market paperbacks – larger volume, lower expense (as opposed to hardback). And when you remove the physical expenses of mmp, you should be able to make a profit on an ebook that costs LESS than a mmp.

    So telling me that I’m getting a deal paying 12.00 for an ebook that only costs me 7.00 in paper format leaves me scratching my head.

    What is more likely to swing me over to ereaders is the convenience of format for books & stories I buy direct from authors, or for the backlist ebooks I’m seeing on Smashwords & Amazon that are posted directly by the author. I’ve started getting those in pdf format to read on my netbook, but I’m thinking an ereader would be more convenient.

  7. This may not be the place to ask this question, but since you have such a good grasp of ebook publishing, I’ll ask you:

    Does this (no longer very) new technology make it possible for new writers to sell ebooks directly to the public, cutting out publishers entirely?

  8. The downside of eBooks for me is that I have to pay again to get an electronic copy of a book I already own in dead tree format. (sometimes it’s vastly worth it: see Taliion: Revenant!)

    Speaking of which, YAY! ebook of EoS!

  9. I just found about a certain publisher handles eBooks. Any format you want to download or read online. Took me 10 minutes, including loading a free app on my iPad, to spend $100. When I have a few more minutes tonight, I’ll copy other versions into other readers to see which format I like best.

    Another publisher of old game source books has them available in print or via PDF. I gave them money as well as my old books are worn out back when I was actually playing the game a decade or two ago. I still adore that game universe. They have ePub novels as well, though I snagged them via Kindle because I saw them there first.

    eBooks today are not like a decade ago with Adobe and Microsoft Reader. Thank goodness!

  10. Annoyed by the lack of a Kindle version of the recent Jim Butcher book “Changes” (due to the Amazon/publisher flap), I even refused to buy the hardback at Amazon’s price of $9.99.

    It was not difficult to wait two days and borrow the book from a friend.

  11. As long as dead tree books exist, they will be my preference. E-readers univerally give me a headache when trying to read complex or long pieces.
    And, it is not likely that I will be willing to purchase an e-reader as long as readers remain tied to specific distributors (like Amazon’s Kindle or B&N’s Nook). So, my second choice is the print book in PDF format I guess.

    But, I’ll miss books if they ever do give way completely to electronic readers. They are prettier and more tactile.

  12. Wax cylinder, 78 RPM phonograph, LP vinyl, 8-track, cassette tape, DAT, CD, MP3 — the media just keep changing, and like it or not, the book industry is going to have to change to keep up.

    I don’t think paper is going away, but the e-train is a’coming.

    The publishing industry, until relatively recently, wouldn’t even accept digital manuscripts from writers for contracted books because they couldn’t agree on a standard format. I wouldn’t expect them to lead the way into the electronic frontier. When I asked my main publisher in NYC why my backlist wasn’t being offered in e-book form, they kinda shrugged and said they were working on getting there.

    When they reverted a few titles to me, I stuck them up on my blog for a cost of basically zero, save what it takes me to email a copy to a buyer, and asked for five bucks a pop. Sold a few, and however many that works out to be, it’s more money than I was getting before …

    Steve

  13. Mike –

    Is there a reason I have to put in a phone number on your store just to sign up? I would be paying through paypal (if you have it) and would like to buy Talion. But providing my phone number seems like a bit of an intrusion.

    – Pete

  14. My problem with new eBooks and many publishers’ current pricing model is that it seems like some publishers are using some sort of “gas-pricing” model for eBooks. For example – I paid $6.39 for Shutter Island. A week later, just before the movie came out, the price was something like $4.49. When the movie came out it went to $7.99 then $9.99 a few days later – 4 different prices in a span of 3 weeks. What is that all about? Simple supply-and-demand says scarce items cost more but eBooks aren’t subject to scarcity – they’re just bits on a server and can be delivered as-is whenever necessary whether 1 customer or 1,000 customers buy the eBook.

    Regarding the cost of putting together an eBook, I am astounded that the major publishers can’t find talented people from the “information generation” that were babies in the early 90s and are just now entering the work force and looking to make a future for themselves. I agree with Mike’s statement that the publishers need to get out there and find someone that can do the formatting work. If it is an issue of lack-of-tools, hire someone to develop high-powered formatting tools and amortize the cost across the time saved to produce formatted eBooks and the increased sales of eBooks that will result from a better product with better, more consistent pricing.

    I work in I.T. so maybe I’ve got a skewed viewpoint but I think there is less than 6 degrees of separation between most people and someone who has a grasp of technology (or at least someone who has the brains to read a few web pages, software manuals, and/or how-to guides and can figure it out).

  15. I really hope more authors start with direct selling. Its also more satisfying for me as a consumer to skip the middlemen and pay the producer directly.

    That said, I believe real books are the “luxury” item. I would pay more for them because they have extra value.

    Btw.: You probably know Baen? Looks like a shop that does it right… (But they could really use somebody who reworked their website jungle)

  16. Yes, this tech makes it possible to go direct. That’s what my Digital Career Guide is all about.

  17. I know you are right, you know you are right, and the publishers will continue to play ostrich. I don’t really get it. I mean they can deny all they want to, but it will never make it true and this resistance just hurts them in the long run. I’ll look at it like this at least more and more authors are moving the books they can to ebook themselves and that means I can put the money in the hands of the people who deserve it. So the only other thing I can add to the discussion is don’t forget a Kindle version. 🙂

    With that once you can do an ebook of “A Hero Born” then I’ll have my favorite books from you. Off topic but have you ever considered any continuation of Locke’s story? I wasn’t at all a fan of “An Enemy Reborn” but wouldn’t mind some more adventures of Locke. Is this one of those instances where the rights are never going to revert back to you or possibly not the demand for it?

  18. One thing to consider is device life. A typical portable electronic device will only last at best a few years before it begins to fail. Its battery life will get shorter and shorter until you virtually have to plug it in (or replace the battery) to use it, and through normal wear and tear it will probably have failed completely inside five years. Market forces will render it obsolete inside ten.

    Whereas I have paperback books that I purchased over a decade ago that are still in excellent condition.

    Continuing maintenance on a reader plus overpriced e-books equals fail, so here’s one reader who still prefers dead-tree and may continue to for some time yet.

    So I don’t think publishers are as threatened as you think they are. Conversely, I don’t think they’re as safe as they think they are.

  19. I purchased the iPad a while back and have loved it as an eBook reader.

    That being said, I haven’t bought very many books from the publishers. I have downloaded public domain books and loaded them onto my iPad, but haven’t paid for a single book yet.

    I actually looked up Michael’s books and found some, but think that I will purchase them directly from him so that he gets more money. No need to pay Amazon.

    My biggest gripe is of course, the too high price. That being said, I don’t necessarily feel that they are overpriced per se, but that they are overpriced when coupled with DRM.

    They are basically wanting to charge me more than a paper book for something that I don’t even own. They want to “lend” me a digital version that they tell me where (on what device) I can and cannot read the book that I purchased. And there is no guarantee that tomorrow if they decide to change their DRM and programs that I won’t have to pay them AGAIN for the exact same content, just with a new DRM. Or if they go south that I will even be able to read any of my purchases in the future.

    There is a convenience factor with eBooks, but anyone who looks at that price as a purchase price and not as the price for a rental that can be recalled or taken away at nearly any time is kidding themselves.

    So, I refuse to pay for any eBook that has DRM. I want to purchase my books, not rent them.

  20. The problem I have with ebooks do not have a standard like mp3 for audio. epub is great but pubs and some authors don’t like the low/ no DRM for it. PDF that is dangerous since it can execute code. lit is too locked into microsoft. txt DRM is not there at all. If it weren’t for the DRM being practically not available in epub I think this would be the standard. Not all ebook reader cover all of these. Some just use their own.

    That is what makes ebooks inflexible, no standardization.

  21. I think DRM will become less and less of an issue. Authors who are worried about stuff being stolen or worry about not getting “resales” are just being silly. DRM-less epub works across most platforms, and since Amazon has an app for everything this side of toasters, their format is fairly universal, too.

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