Category Archives: ebooks

Shoddy eBooks

Looks like publishers are getting dinged for outsourcing ebooks to third-parties who do shoddy jobs:

Needless to say, poor quality e-books are becoming something of an embarrassment for publishers trying to convince readers to pay a premium for downloads (as Kassia Kroszer recently pointed out in Publishing Perspectives: it is hard to justify higher e-book prices when the product simply isn’t up to scratch), and clearly it’s an issue publishers need to address sooner rather than later if they want win this argument.

The problem of substandard e-books partially stems from the fact that many publishers currently lack the means and expertise (and, to some extent, the will) to produce high quality e-book editions themselves. Their workflow and production process are set up for print, so the quickest way to create e-book files has been to outsource the job to third parties, inevitably with very little quality control.

It’ll be interesting to see how much pushback there is on this, or if lesser-quality ebooks become a new norm. Though this would seem to be another reason why authors wouldn’t want to be going the ebook-only route any time soon.

You Really Want to Be an eBook-Only Author?

You try telling Jonathan Franzen his next novel isn’t actually being printed:

What also gets squeezed, or I should say what gets squeezed the most, is the ability of publishers to continue printing books on paper. As Crain says, “It may not be possible for a single company to publish e-books at that price and also retain the infrastructure necessary to publish ink-on-paper books.” I added the emphasis, but I think it’s pretty obvious that it has to be there: as I noted above, one of the forms of control at stake in this haggling over price points is the publisher’s ability to determine how or even whether to release eBook versions alongside the printed product. If Amazon is committed to wresting control over price points for eBooks, it’s also exerting indirect control over what the profit margins have to be for printed books to compensate for the losses incurred over eBooks. Being print-first (organizing one’s whole production chain from acquisition to fulfillment around the print copies of a book) may end up being a luxury no publisher can afford.

Granted, there’s a lot of sense here (in fact, it’s a great post), but given that it took a generation for authors to even warm up to the idea of having their books done in paperback original, I’m guessing it’ll be a while before the idea of only being in electronic print sits well.

Beyond the very real, very sensible cultural reasons for keeping print alive (remember how Amazon disappeared everyone’s copy of 1984?), with POD technology and printing advances in general it’s become cheaper and cheaper to do a print run, which also makes me think publishers won’t be ditching those printed books any time soon. If publishers really want to stay in print–even at a highly symbolic 2,000-copy print run–I’m sure they can find ways to do it. After all, how cool would it be to have a $50, author signed, gold-plated, personally numbered, anti-Kindle edition of . . . you get the idea.

And then there’s this:

Mass culture hooked us on stockpiling: units cheap enough to buy without regard to need, constant advertising and prods to purchase for the sake of purchasing, a huge but barely differentiated menu of products—all these factors, the basic DNA of the culture industry in the classic sense, are now playing out under new circumstances as a desire to fill our hard drive with more music than we will ever listen to, television shows or films that we may never watch, and now with text files we’ll probably never read.

Jacques Attali’s bizarre little study Noise details some of the more abstract consequences of the economics of stockpiling (e.g.), but the concrete point that is somewhere in his analysis is that stockpiling is pleasurable in a way that even purchasing is not. The very process of searching for and acquiring difficult-to-find media—whether that is in the bowels of a used bookstore or on a bitTorrent site—is inherently pleasurable and does not diminish very much with repetition, or even with failure. You might always find it tomorrow, and if you find it today, there will be something else to find tomorrow.

This may be the salvation of the publishing industry, although generally we’re wont to fill our hard drives with electronic media because when you download it from iTunes it costs a good deal less than comparable physical versions. (And we’ve just learned publishers don’t really like really low price points for their books.) Perhaps subscription download systems, which seem to be working out well for audiobooks, are workable model for ebooks in the future.

Seven Stories: Blurring the Lines Between Electronic and Print Publishing

(This post is from John Thornton of Seven Stories Press. Seven Stories has just published The Old Garden, by Korean author Hwang Sok-yong (which I discussed here). Hwang has engaged in some interesting online experiments in writing novels, and this is what Thornton discusses in this post.)

Seven Stories Press is currently serializing our English translation of The Old Garden, the 2000 novel by Korean author Hwang Sok-yong. There are a number of reasons why we’re doing this—not least of which is our personal belief in the book and in our translation of it, despite a certain prominent and negative early review, and our belief that by offering a sizeable chunk of the book for free on our website, people can make up their own minds about the story and discover for themselves the writer called by Kenzaburo Oe “undoubtedly the most powerful voice of the novel in East Asia.”

One reason that we’re beginning our push to blur the lines between print and electronic publishing with Hwang Sok-yong, however, has to do with Mr. Hwang’s reputation as a pioneer in popularizing online fiction in Korea. Mr. Hwang wrote his 2008 novel Hesperus as a serial on his personal blog at popular Korean portal site The novel—a Catcher in the Rye-tinged coming of age story about a young man who slowly breaks free from the stultifying education system of Korea in the 1960s—was followed religiously by Internet-savvy young people throughout the country, many of whom left comments on the story as it was unfolding—to which Mr. Hwang responded each day before continuing the novel. It was a rare and appropriate opportunity for a writer and publisher to use the Internet as something more than a novel method of distribution or publicity. The book is about the experience of youth breaking free from conventional thinking, whatever the generation. The Internet allowed the generations to speak to one another, informing and broadening the content of the book. From Mr. Hwang’s piece at LIST:

Growing up in today’s society is very tough and it does not become much easier later when entering adult life. The competition for status and money is severe, and many have difficulties finding a job despite all the efforts to get a good education. By relating my own youth experience from the 1960s, my roaming life from adolescence to the early twenties, I want to tell young people not to be too disheartened by all this pressure. They should not be afraid to break the mold, to break out of this system and find their own way of life.

Would he do it again? Mr. Hwang says no, although he is interested in starting a collective literary blog for international writers. But the basic principle—using a book’s online presence as the basis for a conversation, rather than simple as a way to avoid shipping and printing costs when publishing—is a novel one, and one that only a few projects in the United States have really experimented with, notably Bob Stein’s Institute for the Future of the Book and the Golden Notebook project.

Our serialization of The Old Garden isn’t a project on that scale—just an experiment with getting the word out about world-class writer that more people should know about and read. But what Mr. Hwang has done with Hesperus—and what we’re going to see more and more people doing in the weeks and months ahead—is important—the moment when the technology ceased to be a novelty, when it became important for its own sake.

Books Erased from Kindles by Amazon

Yesterday, Amazon remotely erased hundreds of copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from users' Kindles, according to the NY Times. The books in question were deemed unlicensed copies, and Amazon erased them without permission and credited users' accounts.

These actions appear to break Amazon's own terms of use, according to the Times. The terms "grant customers the right to keep a 'permanent copy of the applicable digital content.'" The Times also reports that this is not the first time Amazon has stripped Kindles.

Beyond the obvious concerns here, this dramatizes why readers should not consider ebooks to simply be electronic verisons of printed books. Per my interview with Ted Striphas, ebooks are completely different entities–they offer different users' rights, have modes of distribution, and are evolving very different expectations than printed books.

Amazon Applies for Patent to Advertise in Your Kindle

The patents are here and here.

Speculation thereof here:

Before everyone gets in a huff, let’s consider Amazon’s intentions with these patent applications. Surely they would never allow advertisements to be placed in books which you have purchased legitimately at full price, so let’s put that out of our heads. But what if you could take a few bucks off the cover price at the cost of a few contextual ads relating (if possible) to the book’s content? Personally, I wouldn’t mind — partially because I don’t use a Kindle or intend to any time soon, but more because it’s a no-lose situation. Amazon wouldn’t risk alienating its loyal Kindle base with dirty tricks like this, so it’s safe to assume it’ll be at least somewhat opt-in.

An abundance of free or reduced-price content would widen the appeal of the reader — I imagine many people are put off e-books by the idea that they are not getting their money’s worth. As offensive as the idea of inserting ads into a book is to me (and surely to the average reader), it’s almost certainly part of a value proposition which increases the utility of these expensive little buggers.

Of course, there are a lot of precedents for advertisements in books. That said, I think I’d rather pay full price.

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Google Gives Libraries Price Oversight


In a move that could blunt some of the criticism of Google for its settlement of a lawsuit over its book-scanning project, the company signed an agreement with the University of Michigan that would give some libraries a degree of oversight over the prices Google could charge for its vast digital library. . . .

Under Google’s plan for the collection, public libraries will get free access to the full texts for their patrons at one computer, and universities will be able to buy subscriptions to make the service generally available, with rates based on their student enrollment.

The new agreement, which Google hopes other libraries will endorse, lets the University of Michigan object if it thinks the prices Google charges libraries for access to its digital collection are too high, a major concern of some librarians. Any pricing dispute would be resolved through arbitration.

A Crime Novelist Experiments With The Kindle

Bryan Gilmer generated some instant publicity for his novel Felonious Jazz by radically discounting the Kindle edition:

My Kindle edition went live last Monday at $7.99, so I announced it on a couple of Kindle message boards online. By Wednesday, I'd sold one copy. One! Message board replies said, "If you want us to try a new author, give us a really low price. It'll generate sales and reviews." So I marked it down to $1.99 Thursday morning and posted the price change on the same boards. What happened next was remarkable:

As of 5 p.m. Friday – about 36 hours later – Felonious Jazz was the No. 1 selling hard-boiled mystery on the Amazon Kindle Store and the 17th best-selling title in Mysteries & Thrillers . . .

 If you look at the book now, you'll see that the price is back up to $4.99.

It's interesting to see what some guy could do more or less by accident . . . there's clearly some potential here for a savvy publisher to figure out a way to exploit the Kindle version, at least until we're deluged by a tidal wave of $1.99 ebooks.

Amazon Is Losing Money on Each $9.99 Ebook

Kindle-pencil Publishers Weekly confirms something I've long suspected:

Currently, publishers make as much money on Kindle editions as print editions, since Amazon, the largest e-book retailer, pays the same discount for e-book editions as it does for print—off the same list price, whether bound book or e-book. (An Amazon spokesperson would not comment on the discount issue, but a number of publishers confirmed that Amazon pays the standard discount—which is, with some fluctuation among houses, about 50% off list price—for Kindle editions.)

Amazon, which sets the price for everything it sells, is, as many people interviewed point out, losing money on a majority of Kindle editions. Although the price point for Kindle editions varies, the dominant one for hardcover bestsellers is $9.99, a price one publisher called “a killer.” (The e-tailer is pricing some of its Kindle bestsellers even more aggressively, with titles like Stephenie Meyer's New Moon, currently #4 on the Kindle bestseller list, at $6.04.) At $9.99 Amazon is selling its Kindle editions at, generally, a 60% discount; Amazon sells its print bestsellers at, on average, a 45% discount. The reigning price point in the Sony e-book store, with variations, is $11.99.

This is obviously a move to build up market share for the Kindle, something I suppose Amazon is in a position to do since it is one of the few book retailers to actually be in the black at this time. This also means that $9.99 ebooks are untenable over the long run, unless publishers choose to give Amazon a steeper discount in the future.

As Publishers Weekly notes, if this tactic works then eventually Amazon won't have to rely on publishers to give the discounts it wants–it will be in a dominant enough position to demand whatever pricing it prefers. So, in other words: hope that competitors manage to capture a sizable portion of the market.

For more info, readers should see my interview with Ted Striphas, where we touch on Amazon's already dominant market position and what that might mean.

Incidentally, I finally saw my first real-life Kindle on public transit earlier this week. I also saw five people with non-electronic books, myself included.

Newspapers Making a Kindle-Killer?

Electronic-newspaper It's no secret that newspapes have hastened their own downfall with poor decisions and some ridiculous, even illegal ideas (like massive price collusion).

But, they might now be getting into the act. The Wall Street Journal reports that they're exploring a Kindle knock-off designed to read newspapers and magazines:

Hearst Corp., which publishes the San Francisco Chronicle and Houston Chronicle as well as magazines including Cosmopolitan, is backing a venture with FirstPaper LLC to create a software platform that will support digital downloads of newspapers and magazines. The startup venture is expected to result in devices that will have a bigger screen and have the ability to show ads. 

Gannett Co.'s USA Today and Pearson PLC's Financial Times are among newspapers that have signed up with Plastic Logic Ltd., a startup that is readying a reading tablet, the size of a letter-sized sheet of paper, that can displays books, periodicals and work documents. The device, which uses digital ink technology from E Ink Corp., the same firm behind the Kindle, is slated to be rolled out by early next year, and will offer publishers the chance to include ads.

The article also mentions that Apple and News Corp are each exploring their own versions of such a device. 

To the extent that these will offer plausible competition to Amazon, I'm all for it. Not that we've seen Amazon do anything too bothersome yet, but it doesn't help anyone (except Amazon shareholders) to have one company run off with the lion's share of the e-reader market.

And in many ways, an e-reader that focuses on periodicals makes a lot more sense than one that focuses on books.

It's also interesting to see that for all Jeff Bezos's touting of Kindle sales figures, the periodical circulation via Kindle is abysmally low:

The Wall Street Journal — the second-most-popular newspaper for the Kindle after the New York Times — has more than 15,000 subscribers, according to a spokeswoman for the paper, compared to its paid circulation of more than two million daily. Fortune magazine has roughly 5,000 subscribers, according a person familiar with the matter, while the magazine has an average print circulation of nearly 866,000.

I think the basic message here is: hold onto your money for now. The e-reader market is going to see a lot of change over the next few years, and unless you absolutely need one right away you'll probably end up getting something better suited to you, and cheaper, once things have time to develop some.

Digital Catalogs: Gateway Drugs?

Ellen at the UNC Press blog is worried that digital-only catalogs are just the first step:

The tough (and painful) budget crunching happening throughout the publishing industry right now coincides with new technologies that can allow us to do more online and less in print. Here at UNCP, we are not quite at the point of getting rid of our print catalog and going all online, as HarperCollins has done, but who knows what we’ll be doing next time around. Personally, I wonder, if I can’t hold it, will it still feel like a completed project? I’m talking about catalogs at the moment, which hold sentimental value only (if at all) to those who put their sweat into them, but then I start to panic: is a digital-only catalog the gateway drug to digital-only books??

I doubt this is the case precisely because there are people like Ellen around to worry about something like that. The nice thing about the book industry is that, unlike other industries, it's still dominated by people who use and love the things they make. It's a lot more likely that an auto industry CEO will cancel some car he doesn't view as the most profitable possible than bibliophile publishers are going to stop making books because they see a little more revenue in it.

In any event, I don't think printed books are going to be a losing proposition anytime soon. The market is going to give people the product they want: most readers don't buy or otherwise consume catalogs, so publishers are going to digitize away. By contrast, we're seeing a lot of "keep the book" sentiment among consumers, leading me to believe that publishers are going to view printed books as desirable for some time.

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