Monday, November 1, 2010

What E-reader are you?

Dear Diary,

You need an e-reader. Everyone needs an e-reader. E-books have taken off this year, due to both the proliferation of reading devices and the proliferation of apps for reading on other devices. You can buy a Kindle, a Nook, a Sony e-reader, and a Kobe e-reader for about the same price for equivalent features. You can read on your phone, your computer, or your Ipad. On your Ipod touch.

Even on your Nintendo DS. www.pocketgamer (But Mom, I am reading a book!)

E-books have gotten so prevalent that sales of them are rising even as physical copy sales are falling. And it is no wonder - e-books are cheaper, much more portable, and easier to store. They can be changed into large print books at a touch of a button. And, thanks to the Guttenburg Project, all the classics of yesteryear are available to us.

I suspect that e-books will play a larger role in the future. Is this good? E-books, having a lower price, bring less per copy to their authors, but the increased volume in sales may make up for this. On the other hand, their far less materials cost means greater money, per copy, to the publishers. And there is the benefit that used books won't make their way to the used book bins, depriving the publishers of the money they would make off of a sale of a new book. No more danger of stripped books being sold or read by a non-paying audience. The pluses pile up for the publishers.

I suspect that this will lead to new books being published only as e-books. This happened to mass-market paperbacks, which were originally low-cost versions of books which originally came out in hardback. Very convienant for soldiers to carry about in their pockets during the war. But as the lower cost books became more popular, publishers began putting out titles exclusively in that form. Hard back books became reserved for the people who could be depended upon to sell large numbers even at the hardback price.

I see publishers trying out new books in the e-book format first, and then if it sells well, bringing out a hardback version that people can keep despite hard-drive and other system failures.

So, even if you are resisting getting an e-reader application or device, you may have to within a few years -- or miss the bulk of the genre fiction being published. You might as well start thinking about it now, and perhaps trying out free versions. The future is coming.


  1. Yes, ebooks are an exploding phenomenon, and everybody is staring into the crystal balls and reading the tea leaves, trying to scry the ebook future and figure out how to survive and prosper. And there are certainly ebook reader apps for all sorts of things. Witness Amazon, who released the Kindle app for the PC, iPad/iPhone/iTouch, and now for Android based devices. That was no surprise, as Amazon wants to sell ebooks, and needs more than just the Kindle Reader to reach the broad market.

    But ebook pricing is in a state of flux, and there will be limits to how low an ebook price *can* be. There's a lot of wishful thinking about how much costs are lowered by not having a printed volume. Printing, binding, warehousing and distribution make up perhaps 20% of the budget of the average book. All of the other costs involved in getting a manuscript to the point where it *can* be published in *any* format remain.

    The simple fact it's an ebook won't magically increase sales, even with lower prices. For the majority of readers, the scarce resource is less the money to buy the book than the time to read it once they have. Books compete with all the other things the reader might be doing instead, and the content must be compelling to win the battle. You can listen to music in the background while you do something else, but reading is by nature a foreground activity that requires full attention.

    Ebooks do to some extent increase the time available to read, as you can carry an ebook reader of whatever nature wherever you go, and read when you have a spare moment. You can do that with a paper book, too, but with ebooks, you can potentially take your whole library.

    And any book will have a maximum market - the total number of readers who might want to read that particular book. The fact that it's an ebook won't magically make that market larger.

    So the same questions will apply to ebooks as to paper volumes: what does it cost to produce the book, and how many copies is the book expected to sell? The answer to the second question determines things like the amount of advance offered to the author. The answer to the first question will affect pricing. Textbooks, for instance, have high production costs, will will have relatively high costs as ebooks.

    My own feeling when the dust settles is that an ebook from a trade publisher will be priced comparably to the mass market paperback, but it might be higher: I've encountered at least a few ebook readers who feel that having the book in electronic format adds value, and who will be willing to pay a bit more for an ebook.

    We are seeing publishers trying out the book as an ebook first. The current example is Harlequin's Carina line. It's "shared risk". They *don't* pay advances. They *do* offer a higher than usual royalty, so if the book does well, so does the author. And they retain the option to pick up books that do do well and release them as paper volumes under the Harlequin imprint.

    Paper books aren't going away - there are whole classes of books ill-suited for electronic viewing - and paperbacks aren't going away any time soon. Everybody doesn't have a device that can be used as a reader, and not everybody wants one.

    Meanwhile, the publishers are all aware of ebooks, and making steps in that direction. What they don't yet know is the best way to actually make money selling them.

  2. My long experience with book readers does not support the statement that book buying is limited by the time to actually read the books that have been bought. When books are cheap, then people pick up more books than they can read, and they hoard those books against a time when they can read the books. The factors which tend to make people pause before buying more books appears to be physical space in which to keep the books, and the amount of money in one's pocket. E-readers, by limiting the storage space to a fraction of a thumb-sized disk, allow people to collect books without regard to the space they take up. Also, e-books can be cheaper than hard-copy books, as there is that savings of 20% per book that sells, plus 100% savings on books that don't sell. The latter is significant. New authors who can't command high advances, the same ones who would have been limited to MMPB releases, are a better investment with e-book releases. Much less risk.

    So why would publishers stop publishing MMPB's? The bulk of pre-production work is the same no matter the eventual format, but some of it is specific to the format. I think publishers will gravitate to the method that makes them more money.

    Now, I don't think that the hardcopy book is going away. Hardbacks will retain their value. Textbooks and instructional books will remain. Pocketbooks -- cheap, disposible, fun reads -- have been fading for years, and will someday disappear into e-books.

  3. I have long experience with readers, too, and yes, price is a factor. But there are limits, even if the price is "free". I have about 4,000 electronic volumes, and add to that regularly. Many are sourced from Project Gutenberg, and converted locally to an appropriate format for the devices I read with. But even free, one question is still "Will I actually get around to *reading* this at some point?" If the answer is "Not very likely", I may pass on it. I have other things to do with the time spent downloading, converting, and adding to my electronic library.

    I think most readers have books by favored authors that are "must haves", and books they might "take a flier on" at the right price. The must haves will get read. The "fliers" might, depending on schedules. The problems arise when pricing is such that you can't afford all of your "must haves".

    Good point about the lack of returns on ebooks. Reserve against returns is a significant part of a book budget, and not being faced with returns is an asset. In addition, ebooks provide immediate sales feedback. The distribution system for paper books is convoluted enough that it may be 6 months to a year before you know if the book sold and how well. With ebooks, you can get close to real time numbers.

    Why would publishers stop publishing MMPBs? Well, for one reason, you have to publish a certain number of copies, and sell a certain percentage of those copies, to make it worth doing an MMPB Edition at all. As ebooks become more prevalent, the number of MMPBs that can be sold will drop below the number needed to publish them economically. There will still be Print On Demand to satisfy the smaller market that wants paper copies, but the POD books are likely to carry higher prices.

    And bottom line, for a variety of reasons, I don't expect ebooks from major publishers to be substantially cheaper than MMPB editions.