Boooooooks iiiiiiiiin Spaaaaaaaace! (Which is a better title than ‘Let’s Talk About eBooks for a While’)

Last week I took a walk through one of my favorite local bookstores: the Borders in North Provo, now going out of business and converted into a giant yard sale with a roof. The good news is, the store was more full of customers than I’d ever seen it; the bad news is, well, pretty much everything else. Everything was for sale, from the books to the shelves they were sitting on, usually marked with a hand-written sign on a white piece of office paper. It looked like the carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey, with hand after hand reaching in to tear off a chunk of meat or snap in half one of the spindly little ribs.

Conspicuously absent from the various displays and discount tables was the Kobo, Borders’ too-little-too-late addition to the ereader market. I’m actually a big fan of the Kobo, or at least its incarnation as an iPad app; having tested them all to see what they could do, I like the Kobo’s set of features so much better than the others. This may be because the Kobo is a refinement of the archetype, drawing on the experiences of the earlier devices like the Kindle and the Nook, or it may simply be that a wider variety was bound to hit my sweet spot sooner or later. Either way, it doesn’t matter, because waiting so long to put out the Kobo was pretty much the reason Borders died. The market changed, the other major retailers changed with it, and Borders got left behind.

The tricky part about gigantic technological revolutions is that even when we know they’re coming, we have no idea exactly what they’re going to do to any given industry. The electronic revolution fundamentally altered the way that we consume music, and it did so very quickly, and the music industry was destroyed, resurrected, and reshaped in the space of a few short years. That same revolution is now happening to publishing, and the great irony of the situation is that watching one revolution really didn’t prepare us to handle the other. Music and books are such fundamentally different things that the same technology impacted them in wildly different ways. Early predictions for the future of ebooks were mixed, covering eveything from ‘this will destroy print publishing’ to ‘this will never work at all.’ Both of those predictions, and most of the predictions in between, have proven to be incorrect.

Let’s start with the area in which books most closely mimic music: audiobooks. The electronic revolution has made audio files ridiculously easy to produce, sell, store, and transport, and the universality of the files themselves meant that we didn’t need any new devices or accoutrements to support the new format—the same mp3 player that holds your Janice Joplin can hold your Charles Dickens, despite the fact that this juxtaposition probably has both of them rolling over in their graves. When my friend sold his first book in the early 2000′s, audio rights were a joke—no publisher bothered fighting for them because audiobooks were expensive and unwieldy and wildly unpopular. When I sold my first book just a couple of years later, audiobooks were cheap and convenient and the rights, therefore, were a hot commodity. It was almost impossible to negotiate them away from a publisher. But the changes to the market didn’t stop there.

The concept of actual electronic publishing was slow to catch on; people talked about it for years without ever really thinking it would happen, because honestly: who wants to spend that much time reading from a computer screen? The move from CDs to mp3s was easy because the fundamental experience of listening to music didn’t change: the sound coming out of the speakers was identical no matter what storage device you plugged into them. Books are a different story because the experience is so inherently tactile. I love the Kindle commercial where a woman tries to explain that the joys of reading a book come primarily from the physical experience of dog-earing a page; that marketing team is fighting the right war, but in a fantastically wrong-headed way. The smell, and the feel, and the heft of a physical book is such a natural part of the way people read that, yes, overcoming that lifetime of experiential conditioning is vital to the process of getting them to switch. The answer came (as mentioned, much more successfully, in the same commercial) with e-ink, and the Kindle’s ability to replicate the visual appearance of a printed page without any of the eye-strain you get from a typical electronic screen. Once we hit this milestone, it was all over: the eventual migration from print to ebook was essentially assured in that moment, we just didn’t know how long it would take, or what would be left standing when it was done.

The early adopters of the ereader were exactly who you would never have expected: authors and editors and corporate booksellers. These are the people who had the most to lose from the potential fallout of the ebook revolution (not counting, I suppose, the printers themselves), because it risked the stability of their industry and therefore their jobs; these were also, however, the people who had the most to gain from the upsides of an electronic reading device: they read CONSTANTLY, in enormous quantities, often on the go or in weird places, and the sheer convenience of being able to carry a library in their back pocket, complete with bookmarks and easy navigation, made all of their jobs easier. When I sold my first book, now about three years ago, one of the first things they did was convert it to ePub format and give a free copy to everyone at the publishing house, because that way the art team, sales team, marketing team, accounting team, and everyone else was able to read it simultaneously instead of waiting for a thick stack of printed pages to make its slow way around the office. A lot of people expected the ereader to be primarily a tech-geek device, and when it failed to take off among the tech-geek crowd they predicted its death. In reality it is a book-geek device, custom-designed for the specific habits and needs and lifestyles of people who read a ton of books, and once it found that audience it exploded in popularity. Last year Amazon sold more ebooks than print books, which should tell you everything you need to know about their future.

Almost every way in which ebooks COULD HAVE destroyed printed publishing turned out to not really happen. Yes, ebooks are cheaper, but this is offset by the unexpected phenomenon of higher sales: people aren’t paying as much per book, but they’re buying way more books and, in the end, spending more actual money on books than they used to. The ability to click a link and buy a book—often at a pretty low price—has made them into an impulse purchase, offering instant gratification to an audience who, in the recent past, might not even have had a bookstore within reasonable driving distance. This is helping to keep major retailers afloat, assuming they jumped on the bandwagon early and started offering these services; those who didn’t, like Borders, are dying. This is also helping to keep publishers afloat—yes, they pay a hefty chunk to the online retailers, but it’s the same hefty chunk they used to be paying to printers, so their business model can, for the most part, handle it. We also have to consider the ongoing preference for physical books by a pretty large portion of the audience; Kindle commercials can mock them all they want, but some people still prefer physical books, and while that small audience may not be enough to support a giant bookseller (Borders, again, being the example), it’s enough to support a lot of indie booksellers. In some cases, the mass-market shift to ebooks and the demise of chain bookstores is actually boosting sales at indies, which is a bizarrely unexpected yet very welcome reversal of a trend that’s been killing indie bookstores for years.

The other big prophecy of ebook-related doom is that the ease of self-publishing and self-promoting an ebook will kill the major publishing houses, because no one will need to go through them anymore; authors can just write a book and click a few buttons and get their work straight to their fans. This is partly true, and there’s a growing number of success stories to prove how easy it can be to self-publish, but the publishers have, for the most part, adapted very well to the new model. The brand name of Tor or Baen or Harper or Random House, etc., is still a valuable commodity, and the visibility these publishers can give to their books still far outstrips, on average, the visibility that a typical author can generate all on his or her lonesome. This may well change: I don’t want to make a solid statement in either direction at this point because I’m not privy to any direct financial information or outlooks. What I will say is that the publishing industry has been able to ride this wave pretty admirably so far, and I imagine they will continue to do so.

The only ones guaranteed to lose in a massive shift to e-publishing is, as I said, the printers themselves, but I’m enough of an environmentalist to not really be bothered by that. If there’s no longer a need to print millions of tons of paper, and then haul it all over the country on giant trucks, so much the better. Besides, if worse comes to worst, and they have to close down all the big printshops and lose their jobs, no worries: they can all just self-publish an ebook and become instant millionaires!

Yes, that's a pseudonym.In light of all of this, I decided last month to dip my toe into the waters of ebook publishing. I have a book that my agent and I have been trying to sell, but that’s just a little too quirky to find mainstream acceptance and a print publisher, so we decided to give it a shot as an ebook: if there’s an audience for it, the ebook market will allow them to find it without risking any money or worrying about mass distribution. It’s called A NIGHT OF BLACKER DARKNESS, and because this is my column, I’m shamelessly advertising it here: you can buy it on Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and, yes, even the Kobo.

About Dan Wells

Dan Wells is the author of several supernatural thrillers, including I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, MR. MONSTER, and I DON'T WANT TO KILL YOU. He is a co-host on the podcast Writing Excuses, for which he has won two Parsec awards; he also won the Whitney award for Best New Author of 2009. He plays a lot of games, watches a lot of movies, reads a lot of books, and eats a lot of food, which is pretty much the ideal life he imagined for himself as a child.
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11 Responses to Boooooooks iiiiiiiiin Spaaaaaaaace! (Which is a better title than ‘Let’s Talk About eBooks for a While’)

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Dan,

    One of the nicest summaries I’ve seen. I like the notion that ereaders have actually strengthened the phenomenon of book reading…

    I haven’t made the switch to an ereader yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time. For the kind of work I do, periodically I have to spend long hours reading summaries of educational research. Increasingly, those are in PDF format. It would be nice to be able to do that away from a computer. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet identified an ereader that’s both (a) cheap, and (b) well-suited to doing the things with PDF files that I need to be able to do (easily import, zoom in as needed, show color, copy text into Word files, etc.). And I hate touchscreens. Ah, well.

  2. D. Michael Martindale says:

    Cinema is the third insustry along with books and music that will transform because of the technological revolution. They all share the same defect: a glut of material that the consumer has to wade through to find the gems. One person’s job that will never go away is the “editor” ( or a particular industry’s counterpart to that)–the guy who filters through the junk for us to present the gems.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I agree–except that I’d characterize this role as that of the reviewer, with “editor” being reserved (for purposes of clarity) for the person who helps make the work better than it would otherwise be.

  3. While it’s easy to blame ebooks for the fall of Borders, it’s important to keep in mind that ebooks were only one of *many* straws that helped to break Borders’ back… and that they’ve been on a decline since well before the “ebook revolution.” Missing the ebook/ereader boat was only one of their mistakes.

    For a little more perspective, read:

    Publishing Perspectives
    Bad Decisions, Worse Luck: How Borders Blew It
    Edward Nawotka, July 20, 2011

    and

    The Shatzkin Files
    Borders Crosses the Last Frontier
    Mike Shatzkin, July 21, 2011

  4. Sorry – something didn’t work in the first attempt at posting the link to Edward Nawotka’s article. Trying it again here:
    Publishing Perspectives
    Bad Decisions, Worse Luck: How Borders Blew It
    Edward Nawotka, July 20, 2011

  5. Scott Hales says:

    I started studying for my PhD qualifying exams this summer, and I’m doing about 50% of that reading with the Kindle on my PC. I’m finding that the features on the Kindle make reading a novel closely (taking notes, looking up words, highlighting, etc.) so much easier than reading a traditional paper text. With a Kindle PC, I can do everything I need to do with the novel on my laptop in less time. I’ll miss paper books, but I’m a convert to e-reading. I only wish e-readers were more affordable.

    Also, I think one of the nice things about the ebook revolution is that it has made hundreds–if not thousands–of classic books available for free to readers. As a teenager, I spent way too much money on Bantam and Signet Classics I never read. If only I had an e-reader back then! The Public Domain has never been more public.

  6. C. M. Malm says:

    A good essay, Dan, but I have to disagree with the following statement:

    “Yes, ebooks are cheaper, but this is offset by the unexpected phenomenon of higher sales: people aren’t paying as much per book, but they’re buying way more books and, in the end, spending more actual money on books than they used to. ”

    Ebooks are NOT cheaper. For a number of years they were, and that was certainly one of the “hooks” that the e-reader industry used to promote the idea of ebooks. The theory was that, without the expenses of paper, equipment, and labor involved in printing a book, it would cost less to publish each book. But in practice, ebooks have become very nearly as expensive as printed books (more so, in some cases).

    You mention online retailers getting the same slice of the pie that used to be spent on the wages of the people who work in the paper manufacturing and book printing industries, but I have to wonder why that should be so. Certainly there are fewer human beings and less equipment involved. In any event, the rising price of ebooks (after the extravagant promises of less overhead=lower prices) smacks of greed on *somebody’s* part.

    Then there’s the basic issue of ownership. If I buy a printed book, I have a number of options once I’ve read it: I can put it on my shelf, where it can be enjoyed by my future grandchildren; I can pass it along to a friend; I can even sell or trade it. Most of those options are unavailable with ebooks.

    In other words, it’s not just about aesthetics. In fact, it isn’t even MOSTLY about aesthetics. I’m sure an e-reader would be a lovely thing (if I could afford the $100+ price tag), but I lose too many of the non-aesthetic things about books that are important to me, and the end cost is NOT cheaper…to me or to society. It’s all well and good to worry about trees (a renewable resource, btw), but I’m a lot more concerned about a handful of computer nerds (or, more likely, their CEOs) raking in the same total wages that used to be shared out among thousands of laborers in multiple industries involved in book printing.

    I wish you success with your newly published ebook. It looks interesting. I hope someday it can be printed so I can buy it.

    • Kent Larsen says:

      C. M., I wonder if your perception about lower prices might be due to a bit of comparing apples and oranges.

      When you compare ebook prices to the publisher list price, they are certainly cheaper. But when you compare the ebook prices of most consumer-oriented titles to their discounted prices on Amazon.com and other online stores, yes it often seems like the print copy is cheaper.

      IMO, this is due to the relatively recent development of ebooks and the flux still in the market. With print books publishers usually sell to wholesalers (like Ingram) who then sell to bookstores. The sales terms are relatively similar and standardized, and have been for decades (although the trend has been a slow shift in favor of large retailers like Barnes and Noble).

      Ebooks, in contrast, don’t have this stability. The retailers generally buy directly from publishers—wholesalers haven’t developed yet in any significant way—and each retailer has different standard terms—often significantly different. And since the retailer has the power in the book market, the ebook retailers are getting a larger percentage of the sale than they did with print books. They may deserve that — with lower list prices (the discounts you get come out of the retailer’s pocket usually) and lower sales volumes (at least until recently), the retailers have, I suspect, played it safe in the face of uncertainty—at the expense of the publishers.

      At some point I hope the ebook retailers get into price wars with each other—that would bring down prices for consumers. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that the largest publishers will have to stop selling through some retailers for publishers to get a larger piece of the pie again, which makes it unlikely for authors to get larger royalties.

      As for printing costs and other savings from not manufacturing printed copies, they just aren’t that large a part of the price of a book. In my 20 years in book publishing, I haven’t seen too many books with a print cost over 20% of the book’s price. Most often its 10% of list price or less. So it is hard to see how eliminating that 10% will reduce the cost of ebooks very much.

  7. Scott Parkin says:

    I’m still not convinced it’s an either/or proposition, and I’m looking for the clever publisher who offers the print/ebook combination at a somewhat higher collector’s price. Offer the book in the formats most demanded—including print editions.

    That lets me enjoy the advantages of both formats and pay a marginal premium for the privilege. But it also suggests more of a POD and Amazon-style delivery rather than a Borders-type retail presentation. Ultimately, the reduced overhead and more tightly controlled inventory should create a competitive unit cost for the printed book.

    Will that lead to a reduction in the number of bookstores? Yes, but that ship already sailed with Amazon ten years ago. Will it lead to massive discontent among traditional distributors (as it has in the music industry)? Yes, and there will be significant consolidation at the high end, and little movement at the specialty end. If mass distributors can make the turn to direct (end customer) fulfillment, they need lose little or no market share—though cost of business will increase, they make up for it by eliminating the need for discounts. Think Dell and the idea of mass customization.

    As Michael suggests, the number of titles will have the potential to overwhelm readers and bury potential gems under the sheer weight of massive volume, which is why critics and reviewers need to step up and make a bigger noise.

    None of which requires the elimination of print media, only its shift to be one of several delivery methods rather than the sole method (with the necessary shrinkage that follows). The effect is a larger market with more titles delivered to more readers—a good thing for authors.

  8. Jocelyn C. says:

    Another advantage of e-books, which I’m enjoying very much, is that they’ve replicated the “try it before you buy it” experience of the bookstore in an at-home instant gratification kind of way. Most Kindle books offer free first-chapter samples, so I have a bunch downloaded to read while I’m waiting in the carpool line to pick up my kids at school, or other such moments of the day. Plus, there are blogs that track free/temporarily reduced priced books being offered for e-readers, so I can snag great deals as they come up. I’ve bought more books since getting my Kindle that I did in the previous 2 years combined, all of them for less than $10, and most of them for less than $5.

    Additionally, I envy my kids who will avoid the dreadful college experience of lugging a 30 pound backpack full of text books around a large university campus every day. Instead, they’ll just take their tablet computer–they can use it to read their text books and take notes/make audio recordings of lectures all at the same time. I love it.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      Jocelyn, care to share some of those blogs that track free or sale priced e-books? I’m with C.M. Malm. I bought my Kindle expected to spend less per book only to discover the books are offered at the same price I’d find in most stores like Target. No savings there. Someone’s making real good money on these e-books. I’m doubting the increase in monies taken in per book goes to the author. Anyone really know how it breaks down?

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