e-paper

Still True: It Only Matters That It Sells

The debate about ebooks and digital being the future IS over.

Sometimes in the whirl of debate, discussion and faux innovation that has surrounded the shift to digital, you can forget fundamental principles. Something about the tone of the discussion at the moment got me thinking about where we are and what it means.

That brought me to something I wrote just under four years ago:

Which of course is no major deal. Why on earth should publishers worry? Does it really matter if a book is sold as a paper product, as an audio CD, as a downloadable eBook or as part of a subscription based updatable online book, or indeed some combination of these?

NO. IT ONLY MATTERS THAT IT SELLS.

If anything they should be jumping in this direction as quickly and rapidly as possible. They should agree a format that is cross industry and cross device. They should look for attractive price points and better reading devices. Publishers in short should be looking for ways to grab the market and sell more books

I get the sense that most publishers at least in the UK, USA, Canada and Germany and probably in France, having tasted the sweet ambrosia of digital revenue and seen the impressive growth of ebook sales, are there now.

Maybe they don’t admit it too loudly, but I’m sure most senior level publishers have looked at the numbers, and they like them.

What does that mean?
Of course the flip side of what I said four years ago is this:

You can see then book publishers face a problem like print publishers. EBooks do not attract high prices. That is to say that I think most people feel that an eBook is less valuable than a real live (dead in Jeff Jarvis’ world) paper book. If an e-reader appears that quickly changes the market and shifts content online and into digital form as rapidly as music sales have shifted, traditional publishers will be faced with enormous difficulties. Their print runs will need to slide, their high costs need to be removed and eventually some books will simply no longer be printed in books and will remain exclusively as eBooks.

Print runs sliding and high cost cutting will not be fun. In fact it will be unpleasant for pretty much everyone in the industry, but make no mistake, if the first part of the prediction is true, then the second part is inevitable. The structure of the industry MUST change if it is to adapt (that forgoes the obvious strategic issue of whether survival in a digital world IS possible for now. There’s some discussion of this over at Mike Shatzkin’s blog recently).

The debate about ebooks and digital being the future IS over. What’s going on now is the shake out of how publishers change and adapt. I get the feeling that, for many people, this will be far more painful.

Beautiful morning here in Dublin, almost makes me hold back in posting this!
Eoin


Image with thanks to Flickr user Cloudsoup and CC

Links of Interest (At Least to Me) 11/12/2009

Editor & Publisher and Kirkus Reviews to close. Frankly I find this a little strange. Even spinning them off might have been better, though survival on their own would have been pretty unlikely without serious reorganization and a fundamental rethinking of the business models.
Here

Canongate is profiled in the Wall Street Journal, that Jamie Byng has an eye for a book that can be packaged. It’d almost make ya jealous.
Here

Frankly, I don’t buy this Apple Tablet nonsense much. Apple cannot single-handedly change the industry, though they may try. In any case when Steve Jobs announces this on a stage somewhere, I’m sure I’ll want it, but until then, I shall waste no energy waiting or wanting.
Here

On the other hand, both Mike Shatzkin and Michael Hyatt have articles about new display systems for content that they claim will change the book world as we know it. I think both are right that change is coming but I have more sympathy with the Sports Illustrated demo video on Michael Hyatt’s post. After all that looks like a faster webpage with some extra features rather than something new. Webpages are the answer and so putting the web in every hand you can is the way forward for publishers and makes more sense than creating new, confusing and unnecessary formats. The trick is to make the customer pay for access to your content, not find a fancy way to display it.

Publishers, Survival is not a right!

Eoin Purcell

Craning for a book (From Flickr user: gaspi)

Craning for a book (From Flickr user: gaspi)

Noble thoughts, but misplaced
I read an interesting blog post the other day about the demise of print publishing. It was written by Indie Publisher, Barbara Philips of Bridge Works Books on the Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency blog. The ideas were worthy and valid (if pervaded by a sense that publishers have a RIGHT to exist) and in fact will work for a while, but overall the post was totally misguided.

For the record the suggestions were:

1) change immediately the pernicious practice of Returns. Speaking of buggy whips, bookseller and wholesaler returns of unsold books to the publisher for full refunds is an anachronism that should be stopped immediately and all publishers, large and small, should rally against it and set a date, say January 2012, after which no returns will be countenanced.
2) Make life easier for the beleaguered publisher. I’ve often observed there seem to be more writers out there than readers. If an author wants her book to be published by a legitimate publisher, with professional editing, distribution and publicity, she might consider becoming a partner with the publisher who signs her up, either by giving up advances on royalties or royalties altogether and taking a cut of the profits. This would be especially good for first-time authors.
3) Continue to expand other venues for book selling, and find new ones, for instance, publishing simultaneously in offset print and digitally. Right now, as we wrangle, a few large publishers are trying this method out.

Dealing with them one by one
Killing Returns is a double edged sword. Yes it will save publishers from the practice of retailers and wholesalers paying for new books by returning old unsold ones, but equally it will force publishers to cut print runs (reducing margin) and find better ways to sell books than stacking them high and hoping display does the trick (as it often does). I’m not saying this is a bad thing, in fact both these things would be good for publishers, it’s about time we printed the right amount of books rather too many and connecting with the audience properly is well worthwhile in the medium to long term.

Changing the publishing deal. This is eminently sensible. HarperStudio seem to be making some waves by following this strategy (Combined with Killing Returns). The problem, as I see it is that this remains a short termist strategy.

As the cost and difficulty of becoming your own publisher crashes (the last barriers remain access to bricks and mortar bookshops and distribution) more authors will take their self created platforms and followings and become their own publisher avoiding entirely the traditional distribution channels and selling online.

Being against Selling in more ways is like being against Apple Tart (Pie) or (Cotton) Candy-floss. Sure everyone wants to sell the same content in as many possible formats as we can, but what if consumers don’t want to pay anything like the were willing to pay for the print version?

The Traditional Publishing Model

The Traditional Publishing Model

These are not strategies, they are tactics
None of these moves are actions that will change the fundamental reality of book publishing for Indie or Major publishers. There are real strategies that might work (no-one knows though). You can delve into a niche like Osprey, Tor or Adams media. You can try and be the best marketer of general books as I believe HarperStudio is. Even better you can buy the best assets (Seth Godin‘s Purple Cow(s)) there are and use them as the foundation of your publishing business like Bloomsbury is doing. But the rest is just window dressing on a collapsing superstructure that cannot hold.

What The Digital World Enables

What The Digital World Enables

If you don’t trust my judgement on this, read Seth Godin’s recent post on competing with the single minded, read Mike Shtazkin on vertical niches, read Tim O’Reilly’s archive on publishing.

The world has changed. Publishers should certainly try and embrace a new way of business, but it needs to be entirely more radical than just killing returns, changing contracts, selling through more channels and sharing profits with authors. The industry needs to embrace the reality that power has shifted away from publishers and get on with figuring out if we can survive this shift the impact of which is only gradually being felt. Eventually everyone will realise that it has happened (Amazon and Google have certainly figured it out and so have Apple) and when they do, the change will become much more rapid. YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO SURVIVAL.

I am the proud owner of Season Two of Mad Men in DVD, sadly Season Three is already started, I am destined to be behind the curve in that show!
Eoin

Publishing, but not as we know it

Eoin Purcell

A screenshot of SCD Library Website

A screenshot of SCD Library Website

Hopes & Dreams
I went to Children’s Books Ireland’s talk on Thursday 11th June on the future: Publishing but not as we know it | ebooks, digital publishing and children’. Aside from the very minor quibble, that the panel had no publisher (odd given the topic) it was nonetheless by far the most interesting group assembled to talk about the topic that I have seen for some time in Ireland.

I arrived late and so missed Samatha Holman of the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency who I have seen talk recently about Google and possess probably the best understanding of Copyright law (both national and international) in Ireland. This added greatly to the discussion because it enabled her to cut through the hopes, dreams and wishes right down to the what was allowed and what had yet to be agreed, always useful when discussing the future!

I also missed Peadar Ó Guilín which annoyed me, as I found his contributions to the discussion after the main talks, fascinating, even if he seemed an evangelist for no longer needing publishers*. If I have him wrong, I’ll apologize.

Two other panelists really fascinated me too. The first was speaking as I arrived, John McNamee, President European Booksellers Federation spoke about the challenges of bookselling in the future and spoke of a vision where he sold the customer the intellectual property for a fee and then asked what format he would prefer it in. Seems a nice idea, though my gut told me that it wouldn’t work at a decentralized level and would work at a much more central level. But then, being proved wrong on that one, would be a bonus.

By far the most revelatory though was the South County Dublin Librarian, Georgina Byrne. She revealed the extent of their download services something its seems that has floated beneath the radar of nearly everybody in Irish publishing (certainly non-one has ever mentioned it to me).

They have partnered with Overdrive and now deliver up to 3000 titles in ebook and audio book form to members via their download zone.

If you like paper and love paper books then the message Georgina had to share was a depressing one. Children love the libraries Tumblebooks service which offers children’s books online. And, if you listen, read an watch one, you can see why. I tried Dinotrain and it is fun!

As Samantha Holamn said during the discussion, the panel and teh subsequent discussion was by far the best she had attended because it looked forward and I think that was due in large part to Oisín McGann who chaired the event quick wonderfully offering his well considered contributions and links out to funny and informative videos throughout.

I’ve left numerous side issues out but needless to say there was much discussion on Agents, Publishers, Contracts, Google, a little about Amazon, Scribd and a little about revenue models and changing cultural norms. It was a shame I had to leave so quickly when it ended I’d have liked to discuss some of the issues more with the panelists. Still, a thoroughly thought provoking evening.
Eoin

* It always amazes me that people would relish the disappearance of publishers wholesale. Yes some publishers might not be excellent and sometimes working relationship have become strained or just plain broken, but surely as an industry over the lifetime of their existence, publishers have been more than simply blood suckers?

Links of Interest (At Least to Me) 06/04/2009

Eoin Purcell

There is a boycott going on of Amazon Kindle books that are priced over $9.99. Kassia has a good analysis.
Here

if:book and the Arts Council of England have an interesting but ultimately (in my mind) useless project to publish an illuminated book for the digital age. I wish I could like this but I can’t, I see no value added by making this type of website pretend to be a book. Who benefits, why go to the extra effort, are we using the new medium to its best, I suspect not. All told I think this is like putting book readings on TV, pointless and not very exciting.
Here

Consolidation in the universe of self publishing (a weak gag I’ll admit).
Here

Official notice that Mike Shatzkin of Idea Logical Company has a blog, I’ve yet to not like a post! While you are reading his blog you should also check out his fascinating and I think useful enterprise, FiledbyAuthor.
Here

The Future of Google Book Search

Eoin Purcell

Google has agreed a settlement with authors and publishers
This may well be the most important news of the year. there is so much to think through but the bones of it are this:

1) out-of-print books will be available on Google Book Search for preview, reading and purchase in the U.S

2) They are pretty much moving to an online access model for out of print and in print book that are in copyright

3) They are setting up a non-profit Book Rights Registry.

So much to think about here!
Thanks to Peter Brantley & Twitter for the Update!
Eoin

From The Archive: August 2006 The New Magazines

From The Archives

From The Archives

Eoin Purcell

Inspired by a riffing im conversation with David Maybury it occurred to me that I might with some advantage, link back to some of my archive material and update my thoughts on the topic. Appropriately enough my first choice was this one on magazines and archives. So here it goes.

The New Magazines ~ August 2006

Magazines provide space for longer more considered pieces of journalism and discussion. Admittedly (and this is pretty important when we consider blogs as new magazines) the web provides that facility too but it has limitations.

~ Firstly the archived material of a given blog can be hard to find. This is especially true if it is very old and not highlighted (oddly enough Chris has mentioned these issues on his own blog in a previous post). A good quality magazine could leverage historic content from a blog, expose it to new readers, form a coherent time based archive with a proper index and contents table (requiring only a little forward planning) which would in turn help the blog improve its own archive situation.

~ Secondly while we often have long hours to read magazines too often our access to computer screens is in between meetings, work and other commitments. We have time to consider brief posts but go beyond the 700-800 word range and you encounter trouble in attention and readability (or maybe you don’t let me know what you think). A magazine on the other hand can craft a truly impressive article of 5-10,000 words and be read effortlessly. It will not be until good, cheap, robust and long lifed portable e-reader appear that entirely web based magazine/blog achieves this goal

READ THE REST HERE

And where are we now?
To a large extent not much has changed. There have been some initial efforts towards POD in books most recently Faber’s, Faber Finds move. But Random House also offers a POD service as do others.

On the digital front online magazine sites are building large readerships. Mainstream media outlets have started really pushing online development and are succeeding in attracting readers if not in all cases a profitable base quite yet.

Publishers have embraced blogs and communities of interested readers and authors are being built, most successfully at Tor where Tor.com is proving a wonderful Sci-Fi & Fantasy geek’s haven.

I’ve seen no efforts t sell the printed product as added value though perhaps Penguins e-specials is a prelude to that type of offer.

When you look at what has been achieved by online efforts like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog (it is selling very strongly through iTunes and will no doubt sell very well in DVD when it comes out) I think it is fair to say that online popularity can deliver offline sales.

I think there is more to write in this. I’ll need to think it through but this Archives Series has some promise.

Still not depressed about the state of publishing.
Eoin