Seems like every morning I get up and look around and there are more articles and blog posts about how the landscape of publishing is changing. In many ways these are scary times, but in other ways they are very exciting times.
Competition for the Big Six
Let’s start with this CNN article: “Amazon’s grip tightens on the entire book-publishing chain”
“Amazon is holding the entire book industry hostage,” says Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association. “First they disintermediated retailers, and now it’s publishers and authors.”
Yikes! Next they’ll “disintermediate” the last middle-man – you know, that pesky author – and the chain can be just Amazon and Consumer. But seriously, seems like chopping out the steps between authors and readers is a good thing, isn’t it?
Teicher says the issue isn’t about progress — it’s that Amazon is “using the book industry as a loss leader to get people to buy TVs.”
“Book buyers are good consumers, and Amazon knows that,” Teicher says. “So they get drawn in and then encouraged to buy different products. Meanwhile Amazon’s hurting the book industry for the sake of profits.”
Amazon enjoys being a “one stop shop”, no doubt about it, but I think the ABA has it all backwards. Amazon’s been a one-stop-shop for a long time now. I’m a little skeptical that by publishing a few books and pricing them a few bucks cheaper than books published at “agency pricing” Amazon is going to lure in new customers and sell them TVs. Let’s come back to this one and look at the technology side of the future.
No more Bookstores and Books become Video Games
TechCrunch had a fun little prophetic post called “The Future Of Books: A Dystopian Timeline.”
“Dystopian”, for shock value; this is just a pessimistic timeline. Instead of quoting, I’ll sum up: “Things will happen, bookstores will close, B&N and Amazon rule the publishing world.” I could try to come up with a real dystopian timeline, but I might be even more cynical and expect everyone to stop reading words in any form. In other words, Fahrenheit 451: books are banned and your living room walls are giant TVs that “interact” with you.
Kristina Bjoran asks the question, “Is It Time to Rethink E-Books?” There are noble aspirations in this post; we’re all going to have to evolve and stuff like that.
As a developer-by-day, the heading “Programming Languages Must Evolve” got my attention.
He [Nick Montfort of MIT] proposes that programming languages must evolve before e-books move beyond simply simulating the traditional paper reading experience.
Most importantly, Montfort discusses and stresses the storage and processing capacity of computers (and e-books) and how they can transform the idea of what we call a book, a story, a poem, and so on.
I hate to be That Guy, but … huh? I’m sorry, but this quote feels a little like someone saying paint-brush manufacturers have to develop a new kind of paint-brush before paintings can be taken to the next level. If writers want their art form to evolve, they can’t sit around waiting for technology to define new boundaries of that art form.
(And just for the record, there are plenty of examples of how the idea of a story has been transformed already; most obviously as TV and film.)
So what else is in store for e-books? Bjoran goes on to discuss multimedia content (DVD extras for books), cinematic e-books (for example, sound effects and stuff … in case your imagination is letting you down, I guess), and of course, interactive and “immersive” e-books.
I thought reading a good story was already pretty damned immersive, and it pains me to see the suggestions that we have to make fiction more interactive in order to engage readers in the future. The article uses the example of “The Elements”, which is an app, although I’ve seen folks whip it out as an example of the future of e-books plenty of times before. Interactivity is a great learning tool – but then again, the periodic table isn’t fiction isn’t it? There’s no story to be immersed in with this example. It’s not a book; it’s an app. It’s not fiction; it’s a reference.
After all, past a certain threshold of interactive features, you no longer have a book. You have a video game.
You’re damned right you do. And we already have stories embodied in video games. Welcome to the future. So why do we have to alter the medium of text-based fiction exactly?
Speaking of new technology, the Kindle Fire hit the streets last week. Let’s hear from Eoin Purcell on “Why The Kindle Fire Worries Me”. What scares Purcell is more of this idea that Amazon doesn’t really want to sell books – they want to sell movies and music and everything else. Basically, Amazon’s newest technology is another tablet like the iPad and it favors other media over plaintext. An interesting fear; we can pretty easily surmise that Amazon made the Kindle Fire to (a) save face after getting shown up by that darned Nook Color and (b) to enter the tablet market and compete with the likes of the iPad.
But my favorite comment to the post is this one from Ron Martinez:
I’d say pure text-based fiction and non-fiction may be safest. They deliver deep experience through the immersive abstraction inherent in the word. It’s all other forms—illustrated, media-rich books of every stripe—that will bear the burden of comparison to native apps and moving media. These are the books that may easily find themselves in a new uncanny valley, if they fail to broaden their design palettes.”
Yes, thank you, Ron! You can hammer it into a rock, scratch it in graphite against a page, bang it out on a typewriter, or tap it into a computer and store it as a bunch of 1s and 0s. A good story can be engaging as it has been for all of history. You have music, plays, films, TV, video games, and so on and so forth and even though those other forms of story have value, somehow the simple plaintext written word still finds readers.
A Few Predictions I Haven’t Seen Yet
And now yours truly will dust off the ol’ crystal ball…
Ads in books
With the black and white e-ink readers, any web-browsing experience is – well, it’s painful, to say the least. But as tablets are used as e-readers more and more, there’s going to be motivation for publishers to stick clickable ads into books. Already, Kindles come with ads displayed on the screensaver, and it’s just a matter of time before ads infect your reading material. It will start out as just some ads on the “back page”, saying things like “hey, if you enjoyed that read, try this…” and then it will turn into periodic ads, maybe once per chapter or something obnoxious like that. Interactivity, indeed.
Flexing price structures
Welcome to the digital, Mr. Book. supply and demand is different now. You don’t cut prices when your warehouse is full, because it’s always full. Supply is infinite. I could see a scenario where the price of a book starts low and slowly increases as sales (and positive reviews) increase. Motivation for customers to buy early for a “discount” and later, as a book proves itself, the value goes up.
Here’s something I look forward to: have you ever seen the little books that have one story in the first half and then you can flip it over and start from the “back” and read another story? You see this in comic books once in a while, and even in fiction (though very rarely). Anyway, I’d love to see a situation where authors partner and package their books together in one file. It’s a huge risk to pair two books into one when you’re printing thousands of paper copies, but the few extra kilobytes it takes to add another novel to an e-book file is nothing.
Scenario: you have an e-book you want to sell for $3; you know another author who has a book in a similar genre they want to sell for $3; combine the e-books into one file, sell it for $4.50, split the revenue, $2.25 each. If you were going to sell 100 by yourself, you’d have made $300. If between you and your partner, you only sell a total of 134, you pocket $301.50. Meanwhile, the reader gets two books at once, both at a 25% discount.
The Tricky Part – this idea doesn’t work if you also sell the e-book individually at $3; both authors have to commit to the double-book and promote only that version. And of course, my scenario doesn’t take into account fees related to distribution, but these could be split evenly (and fees are there whether you’re selling a double-book or not).
Browser/OS recognition of EPUB format
Part of the reason that devices (e.g. the Kindle) and proprietary software (e.g. iTunes) have a fairly firm grip on the e-book market is because many people don’t know what to do with an e-book file. More accurately, their computer doesn’t know what to do with it, at least until the appropriate software is installed. Let me tell you a secret about the EPUB format: it’s just HTML wrapped up in a zip archive. What am I getting at here? Just that someday, e-books will be a lot easier to open and manage; much like any device with a headphone jack knows what to do with an mp3 file, any device with a screen will know what to do with an EPUB file.
And that brings me to the last one…
Authors sell direct to Readers
As Dean Wesley Smith points out in his post “Why Would You Not Spend the Time to Learn Indie Publishing?”, there is a pretty small technical barrier to getting your Word document converted into EPUB (for any e-reader except the Kindle) and MOBI (for the Kindle) formats. He outlines the steps needed to convert your files using Smashwords; however, some day your average word processor could just output to standard e-book formats, without relying on any external service. That’s one barrier down – the other two barriers are distribution and taking in the money. Distribution is easy because e-book files can be hosted anywhere; if you have a blog, you have a place to host e-book files. Many merchant services are set up to sell downloads already; PayPal, for instance, has several options for selling digital goods.
So what does this mean? The author can collect nearly 100% of the revenue if they sell books right out of their own site. Sure, I understand the value in having your book show up at Amazon, but I look around at the self-publishing authors out there right now, and I see how hard they work to get their books out by word-of-mouth. Do you think they get more sales from random Amazon customers, or do they get more sales from word-of-mouth? For all the articles and workshops I’ve seen this year about the importance of building your author platform, I’m guessing word-of-mouth is going to win out.
So I won’t fear the Amazonian overloads. They’re hear to make digital reading popular, but in the long run, it’s the author who is in the driver’s seat from here on out – but only if they want to be.