Wednesday, January 27, 2010

IF A TREE IS FELLED IN THE WOODS TO MAKE A BOOK THAT NOBODY READS: A few questions and observations I had after reading the iPad comments, which moved quickly from the tablet itself to a discussion of e-books (or ebooks, see below) and the future of that industry:
  1. Should it be e-books or ebooks? I know that the dictionaries have adopted email, but ebooks looks weird to me. I need a ruling from the style manual.
  2. Multimedia content seems incompatible with paper-screen and the cheaper processors that I assume Kindle uses. If iBook becomes a real competitor to Amazon, we're looking at VHS vs. Beta or Blu-ray vs. whatever the other standard was called, I've forgotten already.
  3. There is a wide range of what people make available as add-on content for DVDs, but most of it seems either low-cost (commentary tracks, maybe a cheap "making of") or sunk-cost (deleted scenes, bloopers, audition footage, storyboarding). The multimedia content you would have to add to a book seems both high-cost and outside what you ordinarily expect would be within a traditional publisher's competence. It seems like a very risky move to try to add that content just to move an e[-]book from a $10 price point to a $20 price point.
  4. What is the unit manufacturing cost and shipping cost of a book, anyway? I always assumed that the available unit profit margin from an electronic book (i.e., price) is greater than the available profit from a physical book (price minus manufacturing, distribution, and remaindering), leaving aside the issue of how profits are divided up between the publishers and retailers.
  5. Which leads me to this observation: as long as most consumers buy and read physical books, the threat of e[-]book piracy is relatively minor. If the publishing industry were to move to principally electronic distribution, wouldn't we expect the same seismic changes we've seen in the music industry? Huge loss of revenue to piracy, meaning that content costs have to be spread over fewer units, creating pressure to pay most authors [even] less and to cut costs [even] more? Lowered barriers to entry leading to market-share loss by traditional giants, counterbalanced by rise of smaller independent publishers and some successful self-publishers, which translates into publishers losing power to critics as the principal mediator between artist and audience?
  6. And will (not would) that be a good thing or a bad thing? Do you prefer the current music industry model or the old one?
  7. Incidentally, in an e[-]book world, what happens to children's publishing?


  1. isaac_spaceman4:27 PM

    Also, how will e[-]books solve the Costanza Conundrum -- how to make a multi-hundred-dollar reader that people feel comfortable bringing into the bathroom? 

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  3. lisased4:43 PM

    I have the effect-on-children's-books discussion regularly, and many people agree with me that children's books may be the last material published in book form. Reading for kids is so tactile (and sometimes oral) that I find it hard to believe parents will let board books and picture books disappear. Three year olds may be fascinated with what they can see on the e-book, but no parent will let a three year old bang on a relatively delicate and expensive computer.

    My iPod changed my life, but I won't invest in a Kindle or iBook until they can do for me what the iPod did: allow me to load my current book collection onto the reader without having to replace/repurchase books I already own.

  4. Squid4:58 PM

    It puzzles me that people will pay to upgrade from LP to cassette to CD, or VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray (or HD DVD), but won't pay to change format in books.  If we'd moved from LPs straight to MP3s, would iTunes have seen the same resistance?

  5. Well, there was a decided step up in either quality or portability (or both) for each one of the changes for music or movies.  Thus far, there hasn't been a step up in "quality" for both text, and the step up in portability is negligible, given that a book is far more durable than an electronic device, though the device can obviously store many books.

  6. Benner5:08 PM

    Are e-books properly thought of as an upgrade? CD's offered superior sound quality (ironically, iTunes is a step back in this regard). Whether reading on paper or a reader is a superior experience is subjective. I can imagine a lot of people appreciating a text size enhancemt feature, for example.

    E-books resolve the storage issue, so it has that, just as the iPod can relace cumbersome CD's. But so do lending libraries.

  7. Maret5:13 PM

    My thoughts:

    1. I vote e-books.
    2. Agreed.
    3. I agree it's a risky move to add that content for price reasons. I'm more interested in how it will change the creative process. I can easily imagine a writer like Mark Danielewski, who does very creative things with fiction in print, doing something amazing by incorporating video and other multimedia technology into an ebook. And how-to books with added video instruction could be invaluable.
    4. Shipping varies (at least in terms of retail) depending on quantities ordered, and whether you're ordering from a publisher or distribution house. It can be pretty expensive though -- the issue of returning books that don't sell (like when a store orders 500 copies of the new Dan Brown and still has most of them 3 months later) is always being discussed because the freight costs get so high. Some publishers are trying to play with a "no returns" model.
    5. & 6. Yes, the music model mode is very much a direction the book industry could take, with all the pros & cons that come with it. There are some tremendous indie presses out there who, because they are smaller can be more experimental, and who are really trying to explore the future of publishing in an exciting way, without all the doom & gloom. And while personally I can't imagine giving up print books, the music model of today is vastly preferable to me: I like being able to buy single tracks, sample artists more easily, and I definitely listen to more music and different music than I did before the rise of MP3 technology. And I am for anything that gets more people to read more often and explore and different authors outside of their comfort zone. If e-book technology makes that simpler and thus creates more avid readers, then I'm all for it. The piracy issue/less pay for authors is a big one though -- the entire model of the publisher/author relationship is going to shift if the book industry changes as dramatically as the music industry has.
    7. I agree with lisased, but aslo think that really sturdy, durable e-readers could be made as a format for kids books that could then also incorpoarte multimedia and fun with art/animation.

    Obviously this is an area I think a lot about -- sorry for the entremely long comment.

  8. Andrew5:29 PM

    For the dozen or so people who already own parts of their libraries in e-book format, the iPad at least doesn't require a complete chanageover. It will run the Kindle iPhone application and support the .epub standard format. Google offers epub downloads of over a million public domain titles:

    I suppose that if you really want to transfer your books to e-books, you can do that with a scanner, like this guy:

  9. Childrens' books, sure, but also adult picture books: art, photography, coffee table, etc. I imagine they'll be late to go and hard to adapt too.

  10. bill.6:52 PM

    1. Both are correct, follow your personal preference or house style guidelines
    2. probably
    3. yes and for most books additional multimedia content would be forced and pointless
    4.  Magcloud ( will let you print a 100 page full-color magazine for 25 cents a page. Guess book is 1-5 cents a page?
    5. I just don't see a 500 page book being pirated to the same scale as a 3 minute hit song. In the short term, I think we're more likely to see the growth of print on demand (like Espresso Book Machine): If the bookstore/ mall kiosk doesn't have your book, wait 20 minutes while a hardbound copy is created while you wait.
    6. In your scenario mostly good, because I prefer the current music industry.
    7. Apps.

  11. Nancy6:55 PM

    I cannot place books in the same technological continuum as music. Electronic music just makes sense. Aside from mourning the loss of the album cover as an art form (which it often was), there is not really any downside, loss, or diminished experience involved in electronic music. Books, however... no. I can't NOT have an actual book. I may use an e-reader for convenience but never by preference. Thomas Jefferson said, and I have a magnet of my fridge repeating, "I cannot live without books." 

    I guess I am on the e-book train too. To me ebook looks like another gazelle-like creature found in the African veldt.

  12. isaac_spaceman7:02 PM

    Also pornography.  Pornography will never survive the migration from print to electronic media. 

  13. isaac_spaceman7:11 PM

    Re (5):  Assume that almost everybody has migrated to e-books for all purposes.  A college student can download a biology textbook for $25 or unlock and copy a frat brother's version for free.  Which is more likely?  A person reads a book a week, and realizes that she could save $520 a year by getting those books via torrent.  Is she more, less, or equally likely to do that as compared with her likelihood of downloading music for free?   

    Come to think of it, by the way, textbook manufacturers whose market is the hotbed of piracy might have to go to a different model, like licensing the textbook rights to the school in exchange for making the school responsible for collecting per-student user fees, and then allowing free downloads.  The school is more likely to be a repeat player and rule-follower, and could even tack an administration fee on top for additional revenue. 

  14. Marsha7:24 PM

    For the record, I have no problem taking my Kindle into the bathroom.

    For me, the Kindle accomplishes two things:
    1. It allows me to get a hold of the book I forgot to buy for book club without having to wait for it to be delivered or going to a store, and it does so at an acceptable price point.
    2. It allows me to store many books at once (and to download a lot of classics for free) so that I can take one lightweight thing with me when I travel instead of several heavy books.

    I am a book person, I have tons of them and I will continue to buy them. But for books that I don't think I'm going to care about keeping (the ones I would have donated or given away after reading them) the Kindle is just fine.

    Music is consumed so differently than books that I have trouble imagining the model working the same way. Several reasons:

    1. How many times have you read your very favorite book? How many times have you heard your favorite song (or any popular song, for that matter)?
    2. We rarely read books as background for doing other things. We don't read books while we drive, or wash dishes, or play with the kids. You might read a magazine on the treadmill, but it's pretty rare to see someone at the gym with an actual book propped up there.
    3. Have you ever photocopied chapters out of a bunch of books, put them in a binder, and given it to someone with the label "Freshman Year Mix Book"?
    4. Have you ever photocopied an entire novel to give to your friend the way you burned a CD (or taped a record) for them?

  15. Lou W7:56 PM

    I spend $79 per year for Amazon Prime (awesome, awesome, program that I've never regretted), and I can get almost any book I want in 48 hours with no shipping cost (about 20% of the time it's one day).  I get all the advantages of the physical books, with most of the advantages of E-Books; very quick acquistion that doesn't require driving somewhere, low-cost (paperbacks ~$10, mass market ~$7, and HB ~$15...I average right about the $10 cost I'd pay for e-books), a record of what I own (one of my favorite features, I go to the product page and Amazon tells me I bought in in July 2005.), and mass market books are small enough that the transport and storage is a negligable issue.  I see no reason to ever switch to e-books.

  16. christy in nyc8:18 PM

    <span>3. Have you ever photocopied chapters out of a bunch of books, put them in a binder, and given it to someone with the label "Freshman Year Mix Book"?  </span>

    Well, NOW I'm going to!

  17. I'm a HUGE Amazon Prime fan.  Especially because my dad put me on his membership (apparently you can extend benefits to up to 5 family members), so I get all of those benefits for nothing.  It's a brilliant move on Amazon's part, because I use it a lot. 

  18. christy in nyc9:05 PM

    4. The material and printing costs less per book the more books you print at a time. But storage costs are very high as well, so you can't just print more than you think you'll need. And all other kinds of overhead (most of which is paying the people who work on the book) are incorporated into the paperwork done to see if a book is expected to be profitable across all formats. So...while the margin is potentially much larger per book on an ebook, if physical book sales drop, then the already-tiny margin on those gets even smaller, and ebook sales are still a tiny enough part of our business that it can't hope to save an otherwise failing book. As long as physical books exist at all, making books in general profitable will be a challenge.

    5. I was actually reading today in a report on the Digital Book World conference going on right now that the vast majority of online book piracy actually involves leaked pre-publication versions of the books, as opposed to people filesharing purchased ebooks.

    Music and books are different in a zillion ways, but I do think the main goal should be to provide a conveniently available, high-quality, reasonably priced product that customers want to buy, and the current music model does seem to have finally gotten to that point. What the price should be, and what portion of it should go to whom, well...I certainly haven't figured it out yet, and that's where the differences between books and music really come into play.

  19. I've been thinking about doing Amazon Prime recently and I think you may have just sold me on it.

    I'm sort of meh on the whole e-book thing. I can understand the appeal of having so much reading material at your fingertips without having to lug around a bunch of books, but I don't know, I really dig actual physical books. I won't be purchasing a Kindle any time soon. 

  20. Amazon Prime dissent. The problem, for me, is that Prime just ships with UPS. I have had such a lifetime of horrible experiences with UPS that I would rather pay more to ensure that only USPS or Fedex throws packages at my door. Luckily, most of the time I select the slower free shipping option and it usually arrives just as fast as if I'd paid for the upgrade.

  21. Philomena Throckmorton10:03 PM

    5&6--I bought a used Sony E-Reader for a 2-month trip to Africa and it was brilliant to have dozens of books with me that didn't clog up my luggage.  All but two were copyright-free, though, and the reason I haven't bought a Kindle is because I get almost all my books through the library.  If I bought everything I read, even at $10 per book, it would cost me $1500 a year, mostly for books I don't care to keep.  I don't torrent music or video and I'm an old fogey who pays for online content, but I might torrent books.

    I've never made a "Freshman Year Mix Book" or photocopied a novel to give to a friend, but I certainly give away lots of books, and I never made a mix tape off of a phonograph record either--it was just too much work.   If the bar to copying goes down, there will be more of it.  

    2.  Agreed that if multimedia becomes a real factor tablet computer > e-ink.  While it's a little unclear what that additional content might be, a lot of authors have increasingly elaborate websites for their work and I could see that wireless access in the tablet might add a lot.  Im thinking particularly of something like the extra stuff at Charles Bock's webpage for Beautiful Children (a book, I might add, that I didn't particularly like).  Also you could, for instance, have an amazing annotated version of something. But I'm not sure how much of that stuff I would pay extra for--the key is really the book.

  22. kenedy jane11:05 PM

    Marsha - you are a woman after my own heart.  I have the same two reasons for owning a kindle.  Although for me, it was less about the book club books (because I download those at the meeting when we pick them) and more about being able to download and start a new book when I finish my current read in the airport while waiting for my daughter's perpetually late flights.

    I was afraid that I would never be able to live without the tactile book thing.  I have to say I don't miss it.  And, as my 40 something year old eyes grow ever weaker, I'm loving the different text sizes.  I usually like to read books and them pass them along to others and I am missing that, though.

    And for the record, my kindle has visited the bathroom as well...

  23. Anne5711:25 PM

    I have Prime through my brother...and they usually ship to me with UPS too, but the box I got today was shipped Fedex...the first time that's happened.

  24. Hannah Lee12:56 AM


    I'm oldschool and would rather hold a book in my hands and leaf through the have something tangible that I can share with others. That being said, I can't speak to the economics of bookselling, but I can give you my impression of the music industry in a way that relates to the publishing industry.

    When I go my local retail music store, I can only buy what they have in stock. If I went to purchase the latest CD by John Hiatt, Bruce Cockburn, Brandi Carlisle, Josh Ritter,Madeline Peroux, G Love, or Bon Iver or fill out my catalog of Paul Simon or Paul McCartney music, if the local Newbury Comics or independent store doesn't stock it, I can't buy it. But online, electronically, all these artist's songs are available. The limited inventory of non-electronic stores becomes a stopper for me. If the same product were available locally, in hardcopy CD form at a similar price, a bricks and mortar store would be my first choice, but often I can't find what I want in a bricks and mortar store.

    The same thing happens with books. When buying books, I've been fortunate enough to live close to the Harvard Coop, Tatnuck Booksellers and Jabberwocky, so sourcing books is not usually an issue. But if there was a title only available electronically or in NYC, I absolutely would buy it electronically, even though I prefer buying and reading books in an oldstyle paper form. The capability to get any title I wanted would be the thing that would push me toward a Kindle or iPad or other ebook platform. Even then, if it were a book I cherished, I would still try to find a paper version of it. There's something about the physical book,...knowing how far in and where on the page favorite passages are....something I can't get from the electronic version of a book. I guess that shows that literature is more than a collection of words strung together - reading a book on Kindle is comparable to reading a newspaper get most of the content but the experience is very different.

    The multi-media addition to books just confuses me...I want to experience the book the author imagined...if suddenly a bunch of multi-media stuff gloms on to a novel, it might add to my experience some ways, but distract from my experience in others.  (the way metadata and pop-ups takes away from my experience reading articles may provide more information ,but it can be incredibly annoying.  Really, sometimes I just wish I could slap "Bing" into oblivion its pop-ups are so distracting on some sites.).


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  26. calliekl7:54 AM

    Nothing is stopping the same frat guy from just taking someone's previously used copy, as long as they didn't sell it back at the end of term.

    What they could do is make 2 tiers of pricing... either pay less for a book that "expires" at the end of term (like what's been going on in the VG world lately), or pay more for a book that you can still access once the class is over, but has some restrictions on the number of devices it can be present on.

  27. Heather K9:53 AM

    This may be TMI, but I bring my Kindle into the bathroom.

  28. Heather K10:13 AM

    I love my ebooks and my book-books and my local library, and when I got a Kindle last summer it just became another tool for me to love books and reading.

    For books I cherish and read the cover off or force everyone I know to read, I definitely buy a physical copy.  Sometimes I met this book through the Chicago Public Library which I hit up at least once a month.  However these books require me to carry a much bigger heavier bag around on Public Transit.

    My Kindle has been brought into the fold (and often is in my purse right next to a physical book) for a variety of reasons.

    1) I am an actor with a group here in Chicago that does original works.  Sending the 75pg manuscript to the Kindle and bookmarking my scenes is a WAY more manageable way to tote that around and I can add notes and blocking to it in the form of notes (although would like to chat with amazon about making that function a little more user friendly).  Plus I can do this at $0.15 a manuscript instantly of for free from my computer with the cable.

    2) I read books fast.  On a two hour flight with 45 minutes of pre-board wait time and a good 30 minutes to an hour in a cab or on the train.  That is at minimum one whole book (unless I am reading a mammoth book).  Add in more flights, layovers, delays and anytime on the vacation where I might want to read and we are talking me bringing three to four books on any trip just in case.  Or the Kindle and 80 books (what is on it right now).  This is my FAVORITE aspect of the Kindle.

    3) I think we can't overestimate how much easier it is to read embarassing books out in public on the Kindle.  Would I have read any Twilight novels on the bus without it probably not (now would that have been a better life choice? YES)?  The same goes for trashy romance novels, fantasy, sci-fi and other genre type books that seem to make the covers as embarassing as possible for people to read in publc.  And yes I read them sometimes, just like most of the time I try to eat healthy (ish) but that doesn't stop me from eating nachos at the ballpark or the occasional candy bar. 

    Although I also have the Kindle app on my itouch which means no matter where I am, my favorite book (Pride and Prejudice) and all of William Shakespeare are with me too.  In my pocket.  And I paid $0.80 cents for them.

  29. Marsha10:36 AM

    Never really thought about the "embarrassing book" factor. Brilliant. (Does that solve Isaac's porn argument? Probably not.)

    I should note, for the record, that I didn't buy a Kindle, and that technically, my Kindle isn't even mine. It was a gift to my husband, who is much less interested in it than I am. So I snagged it. I doubt I'd have bought one for myself, but I do like having it. It'll be a long time before it replaces books for me (especially because I also try to use the library) but it's kind of like having a CD player at home and in the car, plus iPod and iTunes and music on my phone. Lots of ways to enjoy similar things.

  30. Genevieve10:44 AM

    Another Amazon Prime user and giant fan here.  I use it all the time, and everything arrives very quickly (no UPS problems, ever). 

    E-books don't work for me in current form, because there's too much of a flash when the page is turned - it's a migraine trigger.  Plus I love the tactile book, and I loan books to friends all the time.

    Marsha, I read books while I do some other things - toothbrushing, getting dressed, etc.  Not the same as music, and obviously doesn't work for anything mobile, so your essential point is right.

  31. Heather K12:20 PM

    ALOTT5MA fave Felicia Day tipped me to that idea.  And I actually didn't buy my Kindle either (it was  abirthday gift) and I probably wouldn't have bought it (because not quite enough value for the cost yet) BUT I do love it, and I did name it Dolores.  And she is my constant companion (also sometimes use the read aloud feature to have it read me the New Yorker at work like a podcast).

  32. Paul Tabachneck1:38 PM

    1. E-books.

    2. HD-DVD.  I still think the backlit screens are a concern -- People are going to get a case of iStrain.

    3. The price point is already set at 12.99-14.99, right?  Right there, I'm buying my ebooks from Amazon at 9.99, even if I have an iPad.  Which, by the way, is the worst branding since Unobtainium.

    4. Can't say.  I will admit that this is a thing I do not know.

    5-6.  I think the only danger here is if the publishers don't get on board, which they have for the most part, so the point is moot.  The big meltdown with MP3s was that the RIAA became more obsessed with stopping the technology than growing into it, making hackers out of ordinary end-users. 

    7.  Children's publishing is, to me, the unkillable thing.  The pop-up books, the oversized volumes -- I think there's something valuable we lose when we eschew the physical format.  Little Golden Books, I could see going the way of the dodo, but something like Goodnight, Moon needs to stay as it is.

  33. Tosy and Cosh3:36 PM

    Books fall into two categories for me: Books I like to own, and which I will pay extra for the copy to put on the shelf, and all other books, which I use the library for. As someone upstream mentioned, how often do you reread a book? I try and limit the physical books I buy, because I am cheap and because I have limited shelf space. For me, the library is a perfect solution - free, close-to-unlimited access to whatever I want to read. I get the travel argument, because I too read quickly and take multiple books on trips, and if I was a heavy traveler I'd probably go digital. But as it is an e-reader of any stripe holds very little appeal.

  34. bill.5:29 PM

    of course the killer children's e-book will be when AI is intelligent enough to produce "A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer."

  35. alex s.6:56 PM

    So, the difference between your local library and Napster is . . . ?

    Snark aside, I think this is one of the (many) real issues that need to be resolved as books become digital.  I don't believe piracy loss is even close to the RIAA estimates for the music industry, but it's easy to see the problem if people start downloading best-sellers directly from or  Libraries would either have to pay for their users, or introduce some delay before books are available.

    FWIW, I'd be willing to accept much more stringent DRM if it brought costs down.  Restrict my eBook to my specific device or CPU, but let me share the savings because a tree didn't have to die in the process.  (From what I can tell, Kindle prices are higher than paperback prices; that just seems wrong.)

  36. I got a Kindle for Christmas, and I can vouch for its goodness. The plusses have been well-documented here--portability, privacy, ease of purchase, cost (I buy a lot of new releases). The variable text size is a nice thing for me. Another good attribute is that you can read while your hands are busy (not a porn reference, I swear--I've read a lot in restaurants where you don't always have a hand free to hold a paperback). And my favorite feature--anything you can copy into WordPad, you can upload to the Kindle for free. So I've put magazine articles, online newsletters, etc., on the device and it's been great.

    I'm going to miss lending books to others, and "bookmarking" things you've read seems to be a little bit complicated. Multimedia doesn't do well on an e-ink device like a Kindle, at least right now. I'd love it if it had a touchscreen (using the arrow keys to get to footnotes is clunky--don't try reading Bill Simmons or David Foster Wallace, whatever you do).

    Also, ebooks. I'm antihyphen.

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