The Death of Publishers

Update: Virginie Clayssen has done a wonderful French translation of this post on her weblog teXtes

Adrian Buys an eBook Reader

A couple of weeks ago, I idly visited and discovered something incredible – Tiger Direct in the US were selling Sony eReaders for $100, a discount of $250. Thanks to the rampaging power of the British pound, that’s less than £50. I’d always been interested in getting an eBook reader, so this was a brilliant opportunity to try one on the cheap.

A few frantic instant messages to US friends, and it was ordered. A lot of people at Mobileread were worried the price was a mistake, but we later discovered that it was an experiment by Sony, presumably to see how fast 1000 units would sell. Answer: less than half a day, and that’s only because it began when the US was asleep (amusingly, many of the units consequently went to Europeans).

eBooks and the Future of Book Publishing

The impending arrival of my eReader has had me thinking, once again, about the future of the book publishing industry. Like most of the other early adopters, I intend to load my eBook up with a few hundred out-of-copyright classics from Project Gutenberg; all of Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Conan Doyle, Shakespeare and others would be a fine start (and there goes the classics market!).

What about more recent books that are still under copyright? Well, you can buy novels and short stories from places like the Sony Connect Store and smaller operations like Fictionwise. Unsurprisingly, these books have DRM (like most songs from the iTunes Store) and this can pose a problem for early adopters with eBook readers that aren’t compatible. Also, the prices of the eBooks are startlingly uncompetitive with traditional retailers: it’s almost always possible to buy physical copies cheaper from Amazon or its Marketplace sellers.

All of this means that eBook readers are left with only one advantage over physical books – the ability to carry hundreds of books in the space of an average hardback. That’s still pretty good, but it’s not worth $350.

But what if you could get copyrighted books for free? Now that would change things. Already, there’s a small but growing number of ‘ripped’ books floating around the web and on torrent sites. They’re mostly expensive textbooks or bestsellers; all of the Harry Potter novels are online, of course (that’s where I read the first two) and it’s well known that the final novel was ripped before it went on sale. Since people tend to read pirated books on their computers, which is uncomfortable, it’s not surprised that there’s relatively limited number of ripped books so far. This will quickly change with the advent of good and affordable eBook readers.

Ripping Books and Swapping Them

Ripping a physical book is not as easy as ripping a TV show or CD. Ripping a CD into MP3s is a one-click operation, and recording a TV show is not much more difficult for those who are experienced. Physical books, however, either require transcription by hand, which is tedious (but an interestingly parallelisable task) or a scanner with autofeed (you slice off the spine, then run the pages through a scanner and OCR them). The results aren’t as good as music or videos, since errors creep in and you can lose the formatting, but it’s usually good enough.

So, for the moment, ripping books isn’t quite the industrial, casual operation that ripping music or video is – but it’s getting easier every day. I imagine enterprising rippers will buy Ebooks online, take screenshots of all the pages and then OCR them – or simply crack the encryption. These rippers need not even be breaking the law by doing this – last year, Australia made it legal for people to carry out ‘format shifting’, in recognition of the fact that everyone was ripping their CDs into MP3s anyway. The law doesn’t just let you shift music between different formats – it’s also for photographs, videos, magazines – and books. In other words, if someone in Australia buys a book, they are perfectly entitled to rip it and create an unencrypted copy. Should that copy somehow find its way onto the Internet, well…

It could reach everyone in the world. It only has to be done once.

Ripped books do have one huge advantage over MP3s and videos; they are tiny. An uncompressed novel takes up about 100kb in plain text; even with formatting, you could compress it down to around 50kb. That means that a hundred novels would be 5MB – a wholly unremarkable size that could be emailed between friends easily. Ten thousand novels – say, the last 20 years of books worth reading – would take up 500MB. That’s about the same size as a ripped TV show that millions of people around the world routinely download every week.

The point is that text is trivially easy to send around the internet. We do it every day when we surf the web. When you couple that reality with affordable eBook readers, you have a serious problem for publishers.

The problem will unfold much as it has done with music publishers, with stagnating and then slowing sales of physical products. After a few years of unsuccessfully battling both the piraters and the manufacturers of eBook readers, the publishers will eventually start selling books online at a slightly lower price than in retail. Authors will begin to drift away from publishers – young ones to start with, then a few more famous ones who have nothing to lose and 50% to gain.

Unlike pirated music though, it will be even easier to swap whole libraries of books. A kid reads an Arthur C. Clarke book, think, ‘Hey, this is good’ and then emails all her friends with a zipped file containing every single one of his books. An entire generation of people will grow up used to reading pirated eBooks on their Apple iBooks, and only buy physical books as presents or souvenirs. Older generations will continue to buy physical books, of course, but a shrinking market doesn’t do wonders for your share price.

So, what to do?

There are opportunities out there, for publishers who can make it more attractive to buy books than it is to pirate them. This will require a price that fairly reflects the reduction in printing and distribution costs, and a very good online store with useful features such as recommendation engines; Amazon is the clear front-runner here (they already have an Amazon eBook reader in the wings) followed by Google and Apple, who are of course able to do anything. Smaller stores and publishers like Fictionwise may do well.

Major publishers, particularly those in the UK such as Macmillan, Penguin and Gollancz are, from what I can tell, completely unprepared. Their online efforts extend only to marketing or selling physical books. There are no credible attempts to do anything interesting with the sale of books.

By interesting, I mean thinking of new ways to package and price content, and new types of content to sell. The one remarkable thing that I learned from Perplex City and from discussions with massively multiplayer online game developers like Habbo and Three Rings is that the internet gives you unlimited ways of selling content. That means that you can capture everyone from those who just want to spend $1 a year to those who want to spend $100 a month.

Games like Habbo Hotel and Puzzle Pirates give away an awful lot of content for free; you might get the first month for free, or you can explore a limited area of the world. The equivalent for books would be giving away the first couple of chapters of every book for free. And why not? You’ll reach far more people, and if they like it, they’ll buy it. If not, they won’t. Yes, this will cause problems for rubbish books that people only buy because they like the cover, but it’ll merely shift sales to something better.

Then they have items for sale for $1 or $2; powerups or clothes for your avatar, say. It’s a small enough amount that it feels like nothing. Again, the equivalent would be buying the next half of the book – or perhaps all of it.

Other business models include subscription. Why not have the ability to subscribe to an author’s work (not just novels, but short stories and exclusive columns) at a discount – or more realistically, a bundle of authors? There’s also an opportunity to make more money than ever from book lovers. Sell exclusive, limited-run physical books, or online masterclasses for hundreds of dollars. There are plenty of people who’ll pay that amount for authors they love.

There’s a parallel in the music industry: Prince now makes far more money from touring than sales of CDs – recall that he gave his latest album away for free with the Mail on Sunday. Other artists are cottoning on to the fact that you might as well give away music and make your money from touring or other merchandise, much to the displeasure of record labels, who are now seeking to tie touring rights into contracts. When people start pirating books in earnest, don’t be surprised if some big name authors decide that it’s best to give their books away for free and make money in other ways. Stephen King tried this, with mixed results, but I’m convinced that with better eBook readers and a market more receptive to buying things online, he’d have much more sucess.

The Websites of the Walking Dead

What surprises me about publishers, and authors to a lesser extent, is their complete lack of comprehension that they could host, run and profit from online communities. Even though the book industry is dwarfed by every other entertainment industry out there, its cultural influence is still massive and the books that people enjoy and read still define their attitudes and relationships with others. There are literally tens of thousands of online book discussion groups, with hundreds of thousands of members. Why aren’t they offered discounts or exclusives, or given help evangelising the books to others? If you’ve read a good book, you want your friends to read it. Let evangelists gift books to friends at a discount! And give them tools and space to do that – the more they talk about books, the more they’ll buy.

I had a quick look around some publisher websites. Bloomsbury, home of JK Rowling, has a website that looks like it’s come straight from the 90s. It has a bookshop, which I suspect no-one uses, a few extracts from books hidden away, and the worst-designed Authors page I have ever seen. Say I was interested in Tim Pears, and wanted to find out more about him. I visit his page, and get, what? Hi-res images of the book covers, some reviews and marketing bumpf, an extract and a link to his books in the bookstore. If I wanted to talk to people about the books in a forum, no dice. If I wanted to find similar authors, no dice. If I wanted to buy a bundle of all his books, no dice. The website can’t seem to decide whether to publish extracts as plain text or as secure text accessible through a clunky Flash browser. It’s a disaster.

Penguin is slightly better. It, too, has a bookstore. I don’t understand why publishers bother having bookstores when they’re so inferior compared to Amazon – prices are higher, selection is sorely limited, shipping costs more. Anyway, Penguin does in fact sell some eBooks (they have a grand total of three SF eBooks) that are selling for less than the paperback price, but more than Amazon Marketplace prices.

Its author directory is, amazingly, worse than Bloomsbury’s. Sure, it looks better, but going to Naomi Alderman’s page gives me a grand total of three sentences. No links, no reviews, no extracts, nothing. There isn’t even a link to buy her books. GW Dahlquist’s page is similarly bereft of any links – despite the fact that Penguin designed a pretty nice minisite for his latest book.

Penguin does have a Readers Group site. This got me very worried when I saw the link, because I thought it was going to destroy my argument, but it turns out that it’s a wholly static site that simply displays information for and about book clubs. User-generated content does not exist here, and the reader’s group directory is an enormous, barely-sorted listed of messages from people advertising their book groups and other people looking for them. If anyone ever made it to the page, they would find it extremely hard to use.

US publisher are slightly savvier. Simon and Schuster’s website is better organised and designed, with videos of authors, plenty of plain text excerpts, and in a very progressive move, links to other online stores if it doesn’t have a particular book itself. They also have a set of simple forums for fans of their more popular authors like Stephen King – it has 24000 users and almost 2 million posts. Not bad going – although even that doesn’t scratch the surface of what’s possible; and it’s still just marketing.

Which is exactly the point. Putting more content on the sites, making them stickier, doing better marketing – that’s all useful. Most of these sites are so awful that there’s plenty of room for easy improvement, providing that someone else smarter doesn’t step in and capture all the traffic first. Maybe that someone will be Amazon with Shelfari, or some unknown web 2.0 upstart. But at this rate, it most certainly won’t be traditional publishers. And whoever captures the traffic can capture the sales.

Ultimately though, not even the fanciest website will stop people from pirating books unless readers are given an attractive alternative. Given that the current business model doesn’t offer any alternatives, publishers will to make a choice…

Change Drastically, or Become Irrelevant (and get fired)

Penguin are pretty good at marketing. They do some nice stunts, like printing the first chapter of a new chick-lit book, Amy’s Honeymoon, in the London Paper freesheet (the chapter, however, is nowhere to be seen online, despite the fact that they already gave it away). But like every other publisher out there, they are bafflingly blind to the fact that their business model will begin imploding in ten years time – at the outside.

Book publishers have had a longer grace period than the other entertainment industries. Computers and iPods had an easy time besting DVDs and CDs, but it’s been difficult to make something that can compete with a book. It may be strange to hear, but a book is a fantastic piece of technology. It’s portable, it doesn’t need batteries, it’s cheap to print and easy to read. This has led many publishers to complacency, thinking there’s something special about books that will spare them from the digital revolution. They’ve seen so many poor or substandard eBook readers that they think it’ll never be done properly.

They’re wrong. eBook readers are about to get very good, very quickly. A full colour wireless eBook reader with a battery life of over a week, a storage capacity of a thousand books, and a flexible display will be yours for $150 in ten years time. If this sounds unbelievable, consider this – the first iPod was released only six years ago and cost $400. Imagine what an iPod will look like in four years time.

Just like the iPod, it’ll be heaven for readers, and hell for publishers.

Physical books are about to be superseded by more advanced technology that will allow for the mass and trivial pirating of every single book ever published. The choice between free and not free is a pretty easy one for many people to make.

That doesn’t have to be the end of the story. There’s a tremendous opportunity here to open up entire new markets; imagine what you could do if you could deliver content to millions of people around the world instantly. No more production delays, no more distribution costs, no more lead-times. Books could be served up in any way imaginable and contain graphics, animation, links. You could sell them by the chapter, and let people share more for free if they’ve bought it themselves. Serialised and ultra-topical fiction could make a return. Give readers loyalty points for buying books and recommending them to others. Give readers respect, and a fair price, and an easy to use store, and they won’t pirate books.

I find it hard to feel any sympathy for publishers. They should see this coming. They should be experimenting like hell while the going is still good, working with eBook manufacturers at the highest levels, and beginning to roll out stores with new types of content and pricing models, wrapped in sticky online communities. But they don’t see it.

It’s not as if this hasn’t happened before – twice.

49 Replies to “The Death of Publishers”

  1. Writing from Pan Macmillan I would just like to respond to some of the points raised in this article. Generally I think you perhaps underestimate how far publishers, some at least, have recognised the situation you describe and are responding to it. We currently have a range of eBooks on our website and are exploring new ways of distributing the content. I personally agree with you, in the sense that publishers cannot simply release eBooks and expect them to slot comfortably into a hole leftover from print and so must find new and interesting ways of getting their content out there. Currently we have eBooks on our website but in the future our digital publishing will be alot more ambitious. Serialisation, extras, programs on Second Life, publishing experiments and much more are all part of what we are trying to do but this takes time and is still in the development phase. We are also trying to engage in the social networking aspects of the Web by launching a totally non-commercial, not for profit site

    I also agree when you say this is a massive opportunity and we will be making every effort to engage with online audiences in innovative and exciting ways. Over the next year or two you should begin to see some of the results.

  2. I hadn’t seen Lovelybooks – it looks like an interesting site and a good effort. But let’s face it, it’s not a new idea: Librarything has far more users and functionality, and Shelfari is the same, but with the power of Amazon behind it. Because publishers websites are not a natural destination on the internet, they’re starting out with no more advantage than newcomers (if you could call Amazon a newcomer). Shouldn’t Lovelybooks have exclusive content from authors, and leverage the unique assets that other companies don’t have? And even then, sites like these doesn’t experiment with the business model.
    I don’t mean to sound critical all the time, but it seems like the internet is seen as the province of marketing, not sales. There are a few people in the publishing industry who do understand the web – obviously you are one of them since you’re commenting on blogs – but only a few.
    Take Harry Potter as an example. JK Rowling explicitly said that she didn’t want it to be available as an eBook. Now, that’s her right and it’s not as if it’d harm her sales, but I find it downright amusing when a pirated copy of Deathly Hallows turns up on the *front page* of The Pirate Bay torrent site before the book goes on sale. Imagine if as many people had eBook readers as there were iPods – what would stop them from just downloading the book?

  3. Also, while I have you here, a couple of questions 🙂

    1) Why are the eBooks on Pan Macmillan priced the same as physical books, at full RRP? I can understand how that might be the simplest and easiest way of doing things, but it’s hardly going to sell any copies.

    2) Why is the ‘Browse Inside’ feature slow and disability-unfriendly? Why not do it as plain text? It can’t just be a problem about rights, because lots of other publishers use plain text (albeit inconsistently). It surely can’t be that you’re worried it’ll be copied – all 10 pages of it? And even if it was copied, wouldn’t that be good publicity?

    Obviously you didn’t personally implement these policies and you may not be able to answer, but you’ve got to admit that it doesn’t make any sense – especially with what’s going to happen in the future.

  4. Can’t say I disagree with any of this. The one thing is: I think most people do prefer to actually pay money legitimately for products rather than downloading them illegally. I torrent, but only because the content I want isn’t immediately available any other way. I’d much prefer to pay for it. The iTunes model for music is pretty much perfect: a low price (could be lower of course) for individual songs, and the price to download a whole album is significantly lower than the price of buying it in hard-copy. I’d love to be able to download books I’m interested in instantly and for less than the cost of a physical copy. I’d love to be able to do it legitimately and, being honest, I’d probably end up paying more than once for some favourites to own the hard copies too. I think most people would rather buy things legitimately than not, but publishers have to make it as easy to get hold of e-books legally as it is to get them illegally. And yes, they’re nowhere near now.

    Do you think the ‘brag value’ of having the books you’ve read lined up on your bookshelves will vanish? Do people line up their CDs on shelves anymore?

  5. I agree that most people would fundamentally prefer to not feel guilty, and instead buy books legitimately. Like you say though, it needs to be a lot easier and I think publishers need to earn readers’ loyalty. The iTunes model is not bad, but it’s not perfect – I still think it’s about twice as much as it should be (especially in the UK) and they still don’t have all the songs.

    There’s also a lingering worry about the DRM that wraps around most of their songs – what if you wanted to play the songs you bought on another MP3 player? I’m not personally bothered about that, but it is a problem for some – enough of a problem for them to continue pirating.

    Brag value is immensely important. Bearing in mind that there are some people – maybe a lot of people – who will always pirate stuff whatever, there are far more people who like collecting and showing off their stuff. If publishers award people points or stars or levels when they buy books that they can show on Facebook or whatever they use, I know that’ll definitely be an incentive for readers. It’d be a real and genuine way for people to demonstrate what books they have (currently, you can add any book you want to Librarything – you need not have bought it).

    People don’t line up CDs on their shelves these days – they browse through each others shared iTunes libraries 🙂

  6. You are right, big publisher websites are generally crappy. Lots of authors have nothing to say about their own books, or even the contents, if it is a collection, beyond ‘buy here on Amazon.’

    However, fictionwise does sell a whole bunch of no-DRM books, as well. I have bought a bunch of them.

    ‘Small’ for ripped book numbers is still going to be well into 6 figures, I think.

    e.g. something like James Gunn’s ‘The Magicians’ is not exactly a bestseller, or likely in print. People will do what they are interested in, and have been doing it for years.

  7. Some points for your consideration:
    1) you do realise, don’t you, that ripping books is not something that’s going to happen, but happening right now? With little impact on sales, even?
    2) take a look at Baen Books for a publisher which has made a concerned effort to properly sell books online: no DRM, a variety of formats including plain text and HTML and a huge library of free to download books. Here’s an interesting thing: they found that for most of the books they put in the free library, physical sales improved, as people apparantely downloaded it, liked it and bought a physical copy to keep. Not that this will necessarily be repeated for other publishers, but it’s one datapoint.

    3) E- book readers have been promised to get, “really really good” for over a decade now; hasn’t happened yet. Nor can I see people spending $150 to buy something that does exactly the same as they can do *now*: read books on the tube. The I-pod took off because it offered a genuinely new thing, the chance to listen to all your music on the tube, without having to worry about physical shocks damaging your cds, as you had to with walkmans.

    Note that there just isn’t as much need to keep your whole library with you as there is to keep your whole music collection with you; most commutes are short enough not to exhaust the book you’re reading right now, unlike with three minute songs.

    What I think is far more likely to happen is people starting to keep e-books and short stories on mobile phones or PDAs as the screens on those devices are getting better and better, but mostly in addition to reading physical books rather than as a replacement for physical books.

    4) I can remember having this discussion in 2002, and 1999, and 1996… Proper books just have too many advantages to be easily displaced by “good enough” e-books, unlike music or video, where inferior but much more useful formats have displaced physical carriers to some extent.

  8. Adrian, I’ve been reviewing book world websites since 1998 and agree that many publishers’ sites are badly designed, as are many authors’ sites. However I can’t believe that, in private houses, shelves packed with printed books are going to disappear when e-readers improve.

    I grew up in houses full of books, the house I share with my husband is full of books, the house of our son and his wife is full of books and I’m confident that their small sons will want printed books in their houses. A thousand books stored on an electronic gadget are no substitute for the beautiful sight of a living room wall displaying a collection of hardbacks and paperbacks.

    Anne Weale

  9. Martin:

    1) As I point out in the post, I do realise that people are ripping books, and that they aren’t impacting sales, precisely because it’s not very enjoyable to read them on the computer – and that not many people know they are available.

    2) Yep, I’m aware of what Baen Books are doing, as well as Cory Doctorow’s well-publicised experiments. I think, however, that ‘niche’ is the word to describe what they’re doing.

    3+4) This is exactly what I’m talking about – the presumption that just because eBook readers have failed to live up to their promise means that they *never* will. It will not happen tomorrow, or overnight, but it’s certainly getting there: read this positive review of the iLiad reader (in my mind, a very flawed product) by a very non-techy person:,,2077278,00.html

    You say that eBook readers don’t offer anything new, and then you say that the iPod let you listen to all your music on the tube – don’t you realise you’ve answered your own question? eBook readers allow people to read anything they want, wherever they want, in a very small package; it’s also rumoured that Amazon’s eBook Reader will be able to connect to mobile networks and allow for download away from the computer. That’s new – no more going to bookstores, no more waiting for books to arrive in the post. Instant delivery.

    I agree that the need to keep your whole library with you is not as strong as that for music , but I still think that’s shortsighted. Remember that the argument against the iPod was also “Who needs to keep their music with them all the time?” eBook readers will be used for more than novels – newspapers are extremely interested, and I think a lot of people will read blogs and longer web articles on them as well. In these cases, they genuinely do offer something completely new.

  10. Adrian,

    In response to your questions:

    1.) Regarding eBook pricing we, and pretty much every publisher out there, are still experimenting. At the moment the costs of creating eBooks vastly outweigh the minimal sales they do actually generate so we are monitoring the way the market develops and will react to that. When you say digital publishing should be as much about sales as marketing I can only wish this was so. This is simply not the case at the moment as the volume of sales, and by extension the volume of demand, is just not there in a meaningful sense and so there is little incentive for a fully integrated approach, although that is beginning to happen in order to “future proof” publishers against the scenario you describe.

    2.) We do have plain text on our website!
    Check this out for the latest extracts. Browse inside is meant to be more like reading a book, or an eBook, than simply reading an extract. It gives you a sense of how the book itself feels. We hope that there is a balance between the two on the website.

    As for lovelybooks I am obviously aware of what you say. It was developed in Germany where it is by far the market leader for this kind of site, being the first of its kind. We would obviously love to get exclusive content and hopefully will in time but we don’t want this to be exclusively for our writers- it really is for anyone and everyone, so we will wait and see quite how this plays out. Lovelybooks is not, and cannot be seen as, a promotional tool for Pan books.

    There have been some good points made about ripping books. People are still buying and reading paper books and not electronic ones. However I am in total agreement when you say that failure to take off in the past is no guide to the future. It will probably take off in a way nobody has predicted and confound all our expectations. Witness mobile phone novels in Japan.

    One final point: I love books. I love them as objects. Yet whenever I discuss this topic with people it always seems that books as objects takes precedence over books as repositories of information. Somewhere the text itself seems to be devalued, and books simply represent nice wall paper. Isn’t this doing our texts a bit of a disservice?

  11. Anne: The desire to collect books will not go away any time soon – I’m not about to get rid of my favourite physical books even if the perfect eBook reader appeared. But I would contend that the proportion of people with hundreds or thousands of books at home is not increasing. As young people spend more time online, they tend to put their collections – of music, films, books, photos – online for display as well.

    Michael: Thanks for the replies!

    1) Something that clearly needs to be addressed is the cost of creating eBooks – no doubt there are expensive solutions out there, but they certainly need not be. Point taken on lack of demand at the moment though – although future proofing is extremely important.

    2) You’re absolutely right, I hadn’t seen that – it’s great that you have all the extracts in one place. I do find it odd, though, that when you’re on an eBook’s page (e.g. it only shows the link to the Browse Inside, not the extract – and that the extract doesn’t have a link to buy the book! Let’s just say it’s a bit of messy website at the moment 🙂 But good that the extracts are in plain text.

    3) I think it’s understandable that people place so much value on the format of novels; practically everyone for the past few centuries will associate reading a story with the tactile experience of a paper book. But as you say, the most important thing is the content and as much as we love books, there is no guarantee that younger generations will share the same opinion when faced with new options. People used to love LPs as well.

  12. Adrian, I have no idea what you are talking about in your point 2.
    Add to basket is the same as a link to buy the book, I think you will find!
    Unless you know different?

  13. Baen may be “niche”, but from tiny niches come big trends. I, for one, have spent about as much on eBooks from Baen as I have on paper books over the past two years. And, how does this sound…a significant number of the downloads I’ve made from their Free Library I’ve now purchased. Yes, I’m paying for free books. Go figure. They must be doing something right, so please don’t ignore them because they are “niche”.

    As for eBook reader devices…I just bought three second-hand Sony Clie PDA’s (PalmOS) for about one-third the cost of the new Sony reader. Why?

    In addition to the hilarious cost of the new device, I’d rather use a device that allows me to read multiple files, multiple formats. I’ve got books in TomeRaider, Plucker, Mobipocket, eReader, Text, HTML and more–all downloaded from legitimate sites like Baen, Fictionwise, Manybooks, Memoware (and more). I’d rather go with a device that alllows me to install what software I prefer, than what the manufacturer prefers.

    eBook prices? I refuse to spend the same, or nearly the same, price on an eBook as a paper book. Baen has it right. Sell the hardcover for a hardcover price, that is something I’ll buy for my shelves as a collector. But sell me the eBook for a reasonable price. And I’ll keep coming back. Again and again.

    DRM? Forget about it. My purchases of DRM-locked books have dropped to zero the past two years. If it is encrypted, I’ll do without.

  14. Much to think about here. And much to agree with (not least that most publisher websites are woeful).

    One point in favour of publishers: they act as a great filtering mechanism.

    With unlimited content on the web, and 10,000 books published in the UK every month, there are a LOT of books to choose out there.

    Publishers publish countless worthless books, but they also have all the mechanisms in place to make sure GREAT books are published.

    Doubtless, they need to change how they add value to manuscripts in the future and how they present them in the digital age, but I’ll still want someone to help change something raw into something readable and better than the best of the rest.

    No reason whatsoever why publishers need to be tied to the (wonderful) format of the book object.

  15. I’m fascinated by the discussion of using social media sites as a surrogate for bragging, cataloging and sharing in the digital world. That’s one of the reasons I joined Shelfari this past Spring.

    The world will continue to digitize, and it will require the right hardware, services, and openness for that to happen. The hardware will come as long as there is perceived demand. Sony eBook reader is a start, but not enough (and not cheap enough) for anyone to put down their books. Just as the iPhone has become a suitable replacement for casual couch browsing on a laptop, the right hardware will replace our travel books, reference books, and perhaps even casual at-home reading.

    Today’s services simply are not attractive enough. I have immense sympathy for publishers who are trying to meet market needs on their own by making ebooks available for download on their own sites. This new ecommerce experience of a) knowing who published a book, b) finding that book, c) re-entering all of your information, and d) hoping the quality of the produce is sufficient, is simply not going to facilitate adoption. DRM’d services such as Sony Connect’s now defunct music service will never scale. Let’s hope Sony’s ebook store can stay afloat until the right solution shows itself.

    As for books and bookshelves, I have no prediction. Some claim that print is dead, but I doubt that seriously. But at Shelfari, we have decided to keep the great metaphor of the bookshelf alive. On our Facebook application, the shelves are mahogany. Our members actively share their books, build their shelves, write their reviews, join groups, etc. And when we surveyed our members in may, 75% of them responded that they would find their next book based on a recommendation from Shelfari.

    While I have no prediction of a timeline for how books will be consumed, I can tell you that the discussion and expression of literature in all formats is shifting online. I have had more in-depth discussions on Shelfari this month than I ever did in graduate school. Come see my shelf at

    As a bit of insight: we get about a request a day for ebooks, making it the 7th or 8th most-requested feature on Shelfari. The PanMacmillan excerpts could be a nice addition, but we must have sufficient depth of catalog to make it a broadly available feature is requisite.

  16. Adrian,

    the thing that I remain skeptical about, and which has been the stumbling block for all e-book readers so far is this, that 1) you need to spent a lot of money to get something that enables you to read books you then still have to buy separately while 2) not offering enough improvement on reading real books. That’s the thing e-books need to provide, something that’s such an obvious advantage that people are willing to buy, like the ipod did for music devices.

    And no, just having your whole library at hand is not enough, as people just don’t switch between books as readily as they do between songs/albums: on an average day I can listen to some 50-100 different songs, but it’s a good day if I finish more than one book (or even one book…)

    Reading blogs or newspapers on an e-book reader; again not something you’d buy a device for; since phone companies are offering unlimited mobile internet access already, you’ll be doing that on your mobile.

  17. Thanks for your comments everyone – some quick replies below.

    John: Sorry, I wasn’t clear. There are two places to see extracts of eBooks – one is in the store using the custom reader, and there’s obviously a link to buy the book there. The other place is the extracts page, which shows them in plain text. These pages do not have links to buy the books, e.g.

    Fred: I wouldn’t suggest ignoring Baen, but they are niche in their audience size. So are Fictionwise, who I’ve bought many stories from. So, I would argue, is World of Warcraft – even 8 million players is not mainstream. I absolutely don’t think that the Sony Reader is a device that will appeal to anyone beyond a small number of early adopters. As you say, it’s too expensive, and it has many other problems. But my point is, they’re getting better. I think we are completely agreed on pricing though.

    Mark: Publishers are a good filtering mechanism and I think that is something that readers will appreciate whatever format books are in. But looking further ahead, I think there are other potential filtering mechanisms that come with the web which we are beginning to see with music, YouTube, etc. That’s a little way off though.

    Rebecca: Will check it out when I can!

    Dave: Interesting to hear things from your point of view at Shelfari. As you say, the stores just aren’t good enough at the moment; they need to be at least as easy to use as the iTunes store. I do find it fascinating that 75% buy books based on Shelfari recommendations – clearly there’s a new filtering mechanism at work here!

    Martin: Price will be a big barrier. But once that is overcome, I’m afraid that the real attraction is this – free books. Or if publishers want to prevent that from happening, significantly cheaper books. I disagree that people wouldn’t buy an eBook reader for magazines/blogs/newspapers – even the iPhone’s display isn’t suitable for extended reading. A recent trial with the De Tijd newspaper on the Iliad had some positive results:

    There are clear problems with the hardware, but it’s interesting to see that 45% would consider buying it as an additional device, even as is.

  18. You know, i really don’t care what ereader comes out. I’ll just keep carrying my laptop around to read my OPEN format ebooks. Why should I pay ONE RED CENT not to mention $100 for an ereader that is CLOSED format which means i lose all my books if the biz goes out of biz or my ereader gets corrupted and I can’t even read it on any of my other computers??

    You’ll see that as OCR software becomes easier with fewer proofreading to be done, then ebook ripping will take off—-which is being done right now as we speak.

    And why would I want to carry an entire library of books when i can only read one at a time? Because I CAN!! What if I’m in the middle of a book and find out i don’t like it. Well, i’d like other selections and would then like to switch to other selections. Also, I could take it on vacation with me for that 1 month in a small town or tropical island with a whole library to keep me occupied instead of lugging a whole luggage of books where the airline limits me to a certain weight or I have to pay more $$$’s to carry more. Well, i’d rather carry 2 bags of crispy creme donuts and Starbucks coffees and Wendy’s burgers than carry 2 bags of books! So yeah, having a library of books on the size of a keychain really gives me convenience and freedom and happiness!

    i love the fact that publishers are digitizing their books, but some of the publishers are pricing their eboooks out of hand. come on, pricing a romance ebook for $26???!! What is that when i can go to the library using interlibrary loans to get the book FOR FREE and then scan it up to my efiles!?? Forget it, i’ll just share, trade or buy it from a p2p pirate or sharer. Or others who only will publish in Moby or other closed format not to mention expensive ereader. AND What if that ereader goes out of biz? Well, their format goes out too, like gemstar’s .imp And again, what happens if the device gets corrupted or won’t work somehow? Again, a loss of my books.

    The best way to market books is to sell ads to advertizers and place them inside the book and give the books away for a low price or for free and that would be better funding for the industry. Obviously, the authors who sell the most will have the most expensive ads and the most ads inside them! I wouldn’t mind looking at the ads as long as they’re not too intrusive and obviously i’m obligated to since you’re practically giving the book to me as will happen with most consumers.

  19. Adrian — thanks for this.

    Of course, you’re right to say that “are other potential filtering mechanisms that come with the web” are beginning to become very important.

    I think of my own online literary journal,, very much as a filtering mechanism.

    But, for now, publishers have a big head start in terms of money, branding, knowledge and expertise. For sure, if they don’t think on their feet they’ll lose these advantages. And quickly.

    Rebecca — I think the OUP blog is becoming a real model for what a publisher’s blog should be …

  20. Hi Adrian

    All our extract pages on the Pan Macmillan website do have a link to buy the book, see here for example:

    The only reason the one you link to (for the Dreaming Void) doesn’t is because the book is in fact not yet available to buy – although clicking on the book jacket image will take the reader to the book page where they can add the book to their waiting list.

    You make a fair point though re linking to extracts from eBook pages on the site – I had wondered whether this might in fact be more confusing for users: the choice between a plain text extract and the ‘browse inside’ and not immediately understanding what the difference between these is, but this is something we can easily add.

  21. Hi all, some more replies below.

    Rebecca: The OUPblog is definitely an interesting blog, one that I can imagine is quite popular among your audience. I think the design is a little too fragmented (e.g. too many links, not enough content on the actual front page) but it’s a great start. You should perhaps look into doing podcasts – it’d be fascinating to hear from the people working at the OUP. As a side-note, the business model for the OED is interesting given that you can subscribe to it online; I did this for a few months myself while researching some puzzles, and it seems like a great new revenue stream.

    Mark: Sites like RSB are absolutely going to become the ways in which people hear and make decisions about books; it only makes sense that if a reader finds a site that they agree with, they’ll trust its opinion and keep coming back. It’s going to be hard for publishers to compete against hundreds of such sites, which is why I think they should obviously work with them, perhaps offering discounts for reviewed books, etc.

    Adam: You make a good point that the iPod ‘ecology’ is just as important as a music library and online store, but I don’t think that a book library will be the most difficult problem for eBooks; there are already a number of people working on some great personal apps like Delicious Library –

    As far as legal online stores go, Google Book Search *is* the best example and it’s what publishers are up against. That’s what they’ll need to replicate. But things are not so difficult for piraters, who can get away with just having the book titles and authors being searchable!

    Jenny: You’re right, I missed that. I don’t mean to pick on Pan Macmillan in particular, you just happen to be the guys who are around in this thread! If people from other publishers were around, I’d certainly be commenting on their sites as well. Regarding plain text, perhaps you could put the link in the ‘Browse Inside’ system itself?

  22. I agree that it is relatively easy to pirate books to a lowgrade. See Patti Waldmeir’s comment in today’s FT
    But users will prefer not to rely on pirated texts.
    The guaranteed access, search and citations are really essential for the long-term ecology of books-as-parts-of-libraries. Books are easy enough to photocopy and yet that has not been a huge problem for publishers (a promotional benefit and sometimes a mild annoyance). Another thing in the ebook discussion is that ebook-enthusiasts hugely underestimate the way in which reading through the web is changing reading. Reading now is different. Citation and searching becomes much more important when our reading is part of a web-flow. Its really hard for pirates to replicate decent searching and effectively impossible for them to offer reliable citation. Citation sounds like a recondite concept, but if we think of it as the ambient linking that accompanies all truly digital reading it is obvious that legitimate not pirated texts are what the audience require. Of course publishers will have to learn to be more open and more generous in their publishing approach. But when they do there are huge benefits for users and bigger than ever markets for books (umm I mean ‘libraries’).

  23. I find it hard to understand why people object so much to paying a similar price for ebooks as print versions.

    Let’s look at the supposed ebook standard OEB. It ensures the content is almost fully structured, which in turn enables delivery of value-added functions such as full text search, linked indexes, metadata search, re-formatting, adjustable font sizes and re-flowed text, etc.

    With academic books the experience of the student is transformed. Instead of decamping to their library and finding titles booked out, then having to lay out half a dozen books in front of them, open at various points, whilst taking notes to compile their essays, they’re able to do this from the comfort of their own student digs with all the ebooks open at their relevant sections on screen. It is a far more flexible and convenient process than with the print books.

    So with all this value-added, is it not encouraging that the publisher isn’t charging more but, in most cases, slightly less than the print version?

  24. Adrian,

    What a great piece and thanks for generating such a debate with it. Quite possibly the best I have seen for a little while.

    I think you are spot on in saying that the public face of publishers seems totally unready for the changes that could come any time. It is another thing to think that they are not doing anything about it unseen.

    There is a desperate race to digitise content (going back decades in many cases). What is more the drive for profit makes any move towards differential pricing of e-books a fraught one. But many publishers are risking it or at the very least experimenting. Equally a move that backfires carries risks that many of the majors would wish to avoid.

    I don’t disagree that publishers could move faster but you can see their perspective when there is no roaring consumer demand for change, a challenging environment for the new product and only vague promises of profits at the end of a lot of work.


  25. Eoin- that is pretty much a fair analysis of the position we publishers find ourselves. However experimentation is one thing we really want to do alot more of. We are going as fast as we can.

    Which is in itself an interesting point. In the self selecting and organically produced communities that build up on the web around certain topics, lifestyles etc, relevant and quality content can be produced and distributed very quickly within the communities. The internet does not wait for a committee, or indeed anyone, before generating reasons for people to come and have a look. So in that sense there is perhaps a slight disparity between a publisher’s operational model and those of web communities.

    So it’s not just about the race to digitise content; in essence to do exactly what publishers already do, only in an electronic medium. It’s also, I think, about how to embed that content in the unique form and culture of the web. In this sense I think there is a demand for impressive digital content, when it is conceived outside the constraints of an eBook, as something more flexible, more creative and more web minded than a standard text.

  26. Adrian- Just a quick question. From all this I assume that the Sony Reader works fine in the UK? I have had some difficulty in working out whether it would or not, as we are interested in getting hold of one but didn’t want to spend the money if it wouldn’t work.

  27. Michael: The Sony Reader works fine in the UK, you just can’t buy books from the Sony Connect Store – yet another problem with eBooks, etc etc 😉

  28. Adrian- so which eBooks work? I thought it was designed to only allow books purchased from Connect to be readable? Do you have to burn the books for them to be readable? I have repeatedly tried to talk to Sony about the Reader, and every time I talk to someone they know nothing and pass me on to someone else or also knows nothing who….yawn. It would be a good thing to have hanging around anyway.

  29. Michael: Nope, you can convert pretty much any text into a format that’s readable on the Sony Reader. I believe it can read PDFs natively as well.

    The Sony Reader’s standard format is BBeB, and there are tools out there that can convert text into that format. Here are a couple of places you can get books from:

    (I discovered just now, and it looks like quite a smart site)

  30. Fascinating discussion — especially for a published poet currently without a publisher! And — I’m not being facetious here — what a sentence that was that leapt from the screen in a post from Michael:
    “Do you have to burn the books for them to be readable?”
    A breathtaking example of the importance of context, and how radical may be the changes in language in a relatively short space of time… (Nothing against Michael, of course.)
    More relevantly, perhaps: nobody seems to have mentioned self-publishing so far…? Is this a factor yet in considering the pressures on conventiuonal publishing? (Lulu etc)

  31. @ michael

    Completely agree with you there. I sometimes feel like the e-books/e-readers are a hallucination of some sort endlessly chased by publishers and their critics.


  32. Rodney: Self-publishing works for some people very well, particularly authors who have a select but loyal audience. On the whole though, their sales can’t match major publishers, who currently act as aggregators and filters. For me, self-publishing is basically a printing service combined with an online store – not much else beyond that. I actually think that eBooks and eReaders will benefit these authors more than traditional publishers, by allowing them to spread their work further.

  33. Thanks for the feedback Mark and Adrian, in fact OUPblog has started doing podcasts and I will be posting one today. The conversation above has been quite instructive, especially for someone inside a publishing house and I’ll be sure to raise your points with my colleagues.

  34. Cynthia: Yes, I’d heard that some libraries are doing that. Unsurprisingly, in many cases there are limitations on what you can do with the books, e.g.

    It’s not really clear to me what’s going to happen with libraries and eBooks. I find it unlikely that publishers will be happy with libraries lending out their books on an unlimited basis – and I completely understand that. So what you end up with is some sort of hybrid system where scarcity is artificially introduced and priced, all wrapped in DRM.

    At the moment, I don’t think that publishers are really that worried about the impact of things like Overdrive (which you linked to) on their bottom line, because most people don’t like reading on the screen. But they *will* be worried if libraries become a legal version of what I’ve described in this post – a free, simple way of getting any book onto a device which is enjoyable to read from. Certainly the fees would go up.

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