Wednesday, December 09, 2009

by Miriam
I know Jane wrote about the issue of publishers delaying eBook publication, but now that Simon & Schuster and Hachette have officially jumped on the creaky bandwagon, I feel that it bears more discussion. Or maybe just a short rant by yours truly. It makes no sense, people! You could argue till you’re blue in the face that this move is going to result in more book sales and I won’t be convinced. As the26thstory blogged today, there’s no evidence that someone who’s committed to their Kindle, Nook, or eReader is going to plop down $25 for the hardcover instead of waiting for the eBook.

Sure, those of us who love the heft and weight of a hardcover (or even paperback) book and feel that holding one in our hands instead of an electronic tablet enhances the reading experience and who actually can’t wait another second to read an author’s work, will buy the hardcover. Then, there are all those college kids and young adults who love books but are financially strapped. That’s an audience that’s been mostly ignored by publishing folks for years because, wait for it, they don’t buy books. In my view, that’s also a market that grew up with iPods, MacBooks, and all their electronic offspring and who are less needful of the smell of paper and binding glue to enjoy a good story well told. And, there are all those moms at book clubs across the country who need to save money wherever they can and who might buy that $9.99 eBook instead of waiting patiently for their local library to have it available but who’ll never plop down the $25.

As far as I’m concerned, this new development is nothing more than publishers running scared. Instead of embracing the eBook revolution and figuring out how to make money off their product in all possible formats at a time when the market is in the midst of tectonic shifts, their solution is to clamp down on availability of that product. Seems just plain silly.

Your vehement opposition to my viewpoint is most welcome.


  1. Every publisher is treating ebooks like it's just another format: hardcover/softcover/ebook.

    It's not. It should probably be best thought of as an adaptation, like a radio version. For the moment, not all that many people have radios.

    The distinction is this - bibliophiles love the object, the going into the bookshop, the cover art, the dustjacket, getting it signed. The book also contains information, but at times that's totally incidental - when people buy first editions, for example. There's a simple truth here that publishers just don't seem to get: that is never, ever going to go away. It's already a niche thing for hobbyists, that's the sad fact. But the good news is that those people are here to stay, in probably the same sort of numbers as now.

    The idea that 'the kids' are going to want to upload novels en masse onto their gadgets ... it's ridiculous, the worst kind of wishful thinking. For at least two generations, reading once you've learned to read has been a quirky, insular, weird habit. Quirky, insular weird kids - the sort of people who grow up to be authors, agents and editors - will still be buying books a hundred years from now. Everyone else still won't be.

    The softcover stuff ... there's just no sense in the Dan Brown model for Kindle books. The theory is that people don't want to waste shelf space on a book they'll only read once. Here are their current options: 1) spend $7 on a paperback and lend/donate/stuff it in a box when they're done, 2) borrow it from a library, 3) spend $300 on an ereader, $10 per book, 4) don't bother. (3) just makes no sense at all, the publishers really need to be worried about (4) and, most of all, how to get them to read more books.

    The ebook is solely about the information. It's for people who want facts. Whether that's 'what happens at the end of Harry Potter?' or 'where's a good place to eat in Lisbon?'. It's basically for people who want to pay a premium to get better information than they can get for free on Wikipedia. It's the business model everyone's laughing at Murdoch about. At least in book form you get a nice book.

    There will be types of books where people aren't interested in the format, only the information. Expect surges of interest in cookery books, travel writing, wedding planning, that kind of thing. Information based around contingent things - things people are doing now that they might not be next year. Simple 'I want to know about' stuff.

    Fiction will emerge for Kindles - seamless Choose Your Own Adventure stuff; massive serial epics, a chapter every couple of weeks; bundled complete works.

    But the ebook is not just a different edition of the same thing. Treat it as an adaptation and draw up contracts accordingly.

  2. I want to violently agree with you. I have a Kindle for travel, love books (real books) at home, audio books for car travel. I don't really care what format I'm using. What I care about is a new voice, a new story, an old friend, something I never thought about before. eBook or paper book -- as long as the story captivates, I'm so there. But if the story is sloppy or dull or I don't like the characters, etc., it is immediately out of my life.

  3. I've never read an e-book, but that is the best argument for them that I've heard.

  4. I actually agree with your opinion, although I feel that to a certain extent the points you make will become more valid when (or if, as some like to argue) e-readers become much more prevalent than they are now. (A year ago, I would never have wanted an e-reader. Now I read tons of stuff online and am starting to prefer it that way, so it's easy for me to see it becoming a more dominant form. I'm not as sure it will completely dominate paper-based forms, but I can see it becoming more popular.) However, like Anonymous above me, I agree that the current model is a bit silly for books currently released as mass market paperbacks. I wouldn't buy a $10 ebook when I can get the paperback for $7, and publishers are going to have to address that rather than try to stick to a flat-rate system for ebooks.

  5. Perhaps Publishers fear that what happened to music will happen to books. The iPod devalued music in the minds of consumers to the point where hardly anyone PAYS for music any more. All those millions of iPods are full of pirate music. Can you see the same thing happening to your Kindle or your Nook? I'm sure the smart publishers can.

  6. The above comment is exactly my concern. Holding out on e-releases seems silly, e-books are here and should be embraced.
    A literary napster though, would be just about the end for new authors. Personally, I'd be happy to know my work is getting read if it was pirated by the reading public. But the same folk enjoying my work had better be willing to wait another several years for more since I'd have no chance of writing full time.

  7. I should do my homework before looking at blogs, but I recall reading a great article about changes in publishing. I think it was in the November issue of Walrus Mag, and I think the author was N. Richler.

    Anyhow, the point of the article was to compare movies & music to books.

    In the last century, music has gone from old gramaphones to 78, 33/13, 45s, 8-track, audio casette, reel to reel, CD, and now digital.

    Changes to meet demands and to embrace technolgy.

    In the last century, movies have gone from silent flicks to blu ray and all those things in between (remember VHS versus BETA?)

    Again, changing to meet needs and to adapt to new technolgy and new delivery modes.

    Books have been paper, paper, paper. Hardcover or paperback. That's been it for many years. Too many.

    Like it or not - changes happen. Embrace, adapt, suck it up, whatever... but don't get left behind.

    As your post said, we now have a generation who have grown up with iPods. If they want their books the same way they want their music, I say go for it!

    Cheers, Jill
    "Blood and Groom" is now in stores!

  8. Uh, as part of that iPod generation? I find it incredibly amusing to read, over and over and over again, that my generation isn't as attached to physical books because of the technology we grew up surrounded by. The only people my age who read ebooks that I know of are the ones who read pirated copies, and they're only choosing pirated copies because they're free.

    You know what's great about my iPod? (Because yes, I do have one, as do many of my friends.) All those CD's that I have lying around my house? I can copy them onto my computer and move the songs onto my iPod. When my favourite artists come out with new CD's, I can buy them and then have both the physical CD and the digital version. So while buying the iPod does take a decent chunk of cash, I can buy music however I want to. This goes beyond formats; it's about both physical and digital copies. I can play my physical CD on my old CD player, then go out of the house and listen to it on my iPod. (I can also download songs from iTunes and burn them onto a physical CD. Handy, that.)

    The problem I have with the whole e-book/physical book thing is that it's not the same as iPods vs. CD's. It's just not. It's either/or, not both. I prefer physical books, but I understand why having an e-reader would be handy. But right now it's either/or, and I'll choose physical books any day because I like the way they feel, the way the smell, the process of going to the store and looking at them. I don't want to pay for an expensive new e-reader if I can't read the books I want physical copies of on it without paying twice. If I could get my physical copy as well as an e-copy when I bought a book, I might buy an e-reader. But right now, it's not worth it for me.

  9. I love, love, love books! Their smell, texture, everything. I read about eight books a month but I don't buy them. As a would be author with a tight budget I can't afford them. I have two library cards and live in Brooklyn where you can get books on stoops for free. If someone gave me a kindle, I wouldn't be able to help myself.

    There are many great books out there I want to read and I have to patiently wait for chance or the library put a copy in my hands. I can't afford the $25, but I would splurge on the $6.

    Miriam, I'm with you on this one.

  10. Thanks for all the great responses. I love all these thoughtful and intelligent arguments. My main point above was that instead of shutting the door on eBooks (even temporarily) in order to try to stimulate already stagnant sales for hardcovers, publishers should be looking at how they can work with and profit from this new technology and the business opportunities it offers. I wish that they would devote more energy to figuring out how to make the pricing work for both the authors and themselves and how to deal with the piracy problem (which is different from that in the music business but no less a threat)instead of merely taking away an option for consumers -- a move that I feel is punitive without being effective in the longrun and which might actually encourage the kind of piracy that all of us who are looking out for authors' best interests are afraid of.

  11. The piracy problem is going to explode in a few years time when home printers will do what Lulu does now - bind nice glossy covers on things. For the moment, it's more like pirated movies on VHS - you just don't get the same experience with a pirated ebook as you do with a physical book (and the cheapest way to buy a book is still, easily, to just to buy it).

    Movies on DVD now routinely come with digital copies. Some books have done similar things - the tenth book in one Star Trek series came with a CD-ROM of the previous nine. Hardback books should routinely come with a digital download code - if it expired after a year, that's even an incentive to buy now and not wait until it's remaindered. It costs the publishers very little, it's added value, it's a simple way to get the reader over to their website to see other titles and to collect their email address.

  12. Last year, I'd have disagreed with this. My teenagers, and weirdly enough, most of their friends, are all against the idea of e-books. Like the second-to-the-last Anonymous, they buy music from i-Tunes and download it on their i-Pods, but they want REAL books. The students I teach are a different story. Show them a book and they flinch, open up a laptop and they perk right up. This is a huge market, and it is growing every day.

    And has anyone has mentioned the fact that a lot of real books are pirated, especially in Asia?

  13. Have to agree. The publishers would seem to be shooting themselves in the financial foot in this instance. Those with ebook readers will be wedded to their machines. They ain't gonna go to the store to get a newly released book. They will wait for the ebook release. Those who prefer physical books in their hands will buy those just as they always have. To think ebooks will necessarily siphon hardback sales if they are available simultaneously is akin to whistling in the dark, clicking your heels three times or crossing the street to avoid the black cat. All of it is a bunch of hooey. And those are current sales they are missing. And they wonder why they are losing money on books. They need to come into the 21st century. Eventually they must come to embrace the inevitable, but how many publishers will still be left standing when they do? To hesitate is to flirt with fiscal eviceration and eventual not so proud, publishers. Wake up.

  14. I actually suggested to my mom that she might want to consider saving up for an e-reader. She has arthritis in her hands, so large books (ie Stehphe King's Under the Dome) are very difficult for her to hold and read.
    But, saying that, i know she would never give up her love of mass market romances and crime fiction.

  15. i love my iphone, my Ipod, my laptop(s), and all other sorts of techie-nerdphilia. But you cannot tell me that a kindle (or whatever) is better than a book. I love the real deal, and there is no replacing it. Another thing that electronic media buyers need to keep in mind is that there is still no standard. You can buy a kindle, and load up with all your favorites, but who's to say that tomorrow, apple or microsoft won't come out with their own version of it, that will not read the kindle format. A few months (years?) later, it becomes the standard, and now you are stuck with the equivalent of a Betamax library.

  16. I have a different perspective on Jill's comments about a comparison between the fluctuation of music and movie format and the stability of the book format. I think this comparison demonstrates that the future of books may not follow the same path as music and movie formats.

    For one thing all forms of music and movie media referenced require a device to allow you to experience them. Books do not require the same mediation, and I think that means they have an inherent efficiency that ebooks lack.

    I'm not against ebooks, and I think they will become more and more popular, but I don't think that real books will go the way of phonograph cylinders - at certainly not at their current price point.