Saturday, March 5, 2011

More thoughts on books, eBooks, and publishing

A while back I reflected and speculated about books, eBooks, publishing, and self-publishing. (Read those posts here, here, and here.) That was more than half a year ago(!) and, of course, things continue to progress. I've had some further thoughts, which I'll catalogue here in no particular order. (As much as anything, this is simply for my own use-- but you are welcome to interact with any of these ideas.)

  • There is no disputing that eBooks are here to stay-- in fact, they are doing quite well. Sales of eBooks have skyrocketed over the past year, with Amazon (who, I think we can all agree, is a pretty substantial source for such information) first reporting that eBook sales overtook hardcover sales last summer, then that eBook sales exceeded all print sales after the holidays. One could argue that the later figure is the result of a lot of Kindle readers as Christmas gifts getting loaded up, and that those levels will drop. Is that a safe assumption, though-- after all, if there were THAT many Kindle readers sold, shouldn't we assume that at least some of them will continue to be used after the first round? Keep in mind, too, that Amazon's Kindle is only one e-reader, and that they are probably more dominant in print book sales than in eBooks (at least for now).
  • "Independent" Publishing-- I'm really curious about the fact that the self-publishing community has elected to adopt the self-reference "independent publisher" instead of "self-publisher." On the one hand, this fits with other creative culture endeavors: a musician that hasn't signed with a record label, yet produces recordings for sale, is referred to as an "independent artist." On the other hand, this seems like a dodge, and an unnecessary one to boot. Inasmuch as publishing has ever been "self" executed (how long has it been since the norm in self-publishing was, start to finish, handled all by the author? I've never heard of an author who is also a bookbinder, for example), it still is; and yet, self-publishing is finally overcoming the bad wrap given it by the traditional publishing industry-- note this piece on this trend as an example. Why shirk the label just as it is regaining legitimacy?
  • "Obstacles" in eReading-- I have read so many people claiming that they like their Kindle more than their iPad as an e-reading device-- not because the iPad weighs more, or because the screen is too bright (either of these I'll accept), but because the iPad lets them do other things! They say, "I want my reading device to be immersive" and apparently the allure of checking e-mail or Facebook on the iPad is just too tempting. Phooey, I say-- and then I ask, what are these guys reading? I've been using my iPad as an e-reader for about six months now, and have read probably 8-10 books on it. I like that I can check e-mail on it too, but when I'm reading a good book, this doesn't matter: the book is the immersive part. The device is simply the conduit for the goods. This is about as convincing to me as the argument for printed paper books that goes like this: "I love the way the book smells!" (Which is to say, not convincing at all. What-- you love the smell of slightly mildewed wood fibers? Okay, but just try to convince the board of Borders that this angle would have made the difference in their recent bankruptcy.) You want your iPad to be immersive? Two suggestions: learn some self-control, and read good books!
  • Amazing progress in electronic publishing for iPad-- there really are some amazing things happening in electronic publishing. Magazines are reinventing themselves by way of the iPad-- check out this write-up about Martha Stewart Living. Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate recently released the first-ever iPad-only daily newspaper, The Daily (I've got it, and have read it-- it's pretty good, but it crashes a lot). Some books are being released for iPad that are challenging the very notion of what it means to read a book. Don't believe me? Check out this piece on an iPad version of Alice in Wonderland. As someone involved in both writing and publishing, I find all of it very exciting-- and I can also understand how a large, traditional publisher would feel very threatened.
  • Prices will come down for eBooks-- Michael Hyatt wrote an interesting blog-post last fall, on why eBooks cost so much. He is challenging the conventional idea that there is a lot of savings found in not having to print books: no printing costs, no warehousing costs, no shipping costs. Mike is right that there are still lots of costs involved in publishing an eBook (he lists "acquisitions, royalties, editorial development, copyediting, cover and interior design, page composition, cataloging, sales, marketing, publicity, merchandising, credit, collections, accounting, legal, tax, and the all the usual costs associated with running a publishing house"). Plus, Mike lists three new costs involved in digital publishing: digital preparation, quality assurance, and digital distribution. But I have to challenge Mike on some of these. First of all, distribution isn't a new cost-- it just changes a bit in the digital context; plus, distribution is already more streamlined for eBooks than it ever has been for print books: it's more like the Amazon model (where the publisher sells direct to the reseller) than the local bookstore model (where a middleman distributor warehouses and sells books to resellers). As digital publishing matures, it will get even easier. As for the other two costs (preparation and quality assurance), these will also get easier and much less expensive. Right now, as Mike points out, there are a number of different formats that publishers must prepare if they want to fully saturate the market with their eBooks. But over the next couple of years-- I predict by mid-2012-- one or possibly two standards will emerge (there will be room on the market for one that is a static layout, like a PDF-- in fact, it will probably be PDF; and also room for one that is a dynamic layout, allowing the text reflow based on screen-size and other preferences-- probably the ePub), and this will make coding and preparation much more efficient. Furthermore, the tools for designing and laying out books are already beginning to automate the process of coding eBooks, and these will get much better (not unlike website publishing 10 years ago vs. now). Both of these factors will reduce preparation extremely: files prepared for print books will require little or no further action to convert them to eBooks, in both of the standardized formats. And it will also reduce quality assurance efforts, as only a single kind of file will need to be checked. The end result: eBook prices will continue to fall.
  • Paperbacks will suffer-- A lot of people speculate about how the rise of eBooks will mean the demise of printed-paper books. I disagree. Rather, I'm with Joel Friedlander, who thinks that the main casualty of the rise of eBooks will be the cheap, disposable paperback. There are basically three kinds of printed-paper books people buy: reference books that are never read, but are used in bits and pieces; books to buy and keep, or to buy and pass around-- these are a large portion of the printed-paper market (currently in both paperback and hardcover); and the throw-away paperbacks that are sold cheaply and by the hundreds in airports, grocery stores, and of course the few remaining bookstores. When I was a kid, my dad went through dozens of these a month; we would literally have five or six paper grocery-bags stacked full of them to give to Goodwill 3-4 times a year. These will be the victims of the rise of eBooks replaced by eBooks, and I say good riddance! Especially if it is still easy to get good trade paperbacks for keeping and/or lending, OR if hardcover prices come down. (I can absolutely see the latter happening when the printing industry begins to feel the pinch of eBooks closing in on their bottom-line, making it more affordable for publishers to offer low-cost hard-bound books instead of, or in addition to, high-grade paperbacks.)
  • Good self-published books won't be any harder to find-- one of the biggest concerns I hear/read about the rising tide of self-publishing-- ahem, sorry, independent publishing-- is that we will be awash in crummy books and it will be difficult to find the good stuff. Here again I say, PHOOEY! First of all, there is no shortage of absolutely lousy books being hawked by the traditional publishers; in fact, the percentage of really good books produced by big-name publishing houses seems to drop consistently every year. Second, take a walk through Barnes & Noble or a look at Amazon's website and tell me that there aren't already thousands of books to sort through-- and there were years ago, before the latest wave of self-publishing began. But third-- and this is the big, "they are missing the point" idea-- the good books are getting easier to find, not harder. The "Information Age" began a better way to find and access good books, and the "social media" age is elevating both the access and the knowledge about them. I'm never at a loss for what books to buy next, because I get book recommendations almost every day via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and newer sources like GoodReads.

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