Monday, May 3, 2010

The New Yorker's State of the e-Publishing World

In a recent New Yorker article, Ken Auletta gives a terrific overview of the recent and contentious e-book wars between publishers, Amazon, Apple and Google. Neither triumphalism or hand-wringing, Auletta’s recap trades in cold, hard facts. Rather than dispatch another missive about the whole business, the Ape would like to take a look at some of the realities Auletta chronicles and see what is worth caring about…and what isn’t.

1. The acorn that will be an oak:
E-books are booming. Although they account for only an estimated three to five per cent of the market, their sales increased a hundred and seventy-seven per cent in 2009, and it was projected that they would eventually account for between twenty-five and fifty per cent of all books sold.
Takeaway: it’s time to stop worrying about whether e-books are going to supplement, dominate or eliminate print books; this is a tide that won’t be turned.

2. There’s a reason they put the Snickers by the register
Apple, through its iTunes and Apple stores, had access to a hundred and twenty-five million credit cards, which would make it easy for consumers to buy books on impulse. 
…superstores like Target and Wal-Mart, along with clubs like Costco, account for forty-five per cent [of book sales], though they typically carry far fewer titles.
Takeaway: The fact that so many books are sold at super-stores leads me to believe that people will buy books if they are in front of them.  Getting books in front of consumers, which the iPad and the Kindle do in a big way, would seem to be kind of the point of this all, no? Which leads us to…

3. The medium matters
Russ Grandinetti, the Amazon vice-president, says the Kindle has boosted book sales over all. “On average,” he says, Kindle users “buy 3.1 times as many books as they did twelve months ago.”
Takeaway: More book-reading options means more book reading. It may not mean more money for publishers and authors (more on this in a minute), but if we care about overall reading rates, then we should embrace digital reading.

4. There may be room for everybody, just less room for some.
“I think consumers, like publishers, are living in parallel universes,” Burnham [an executive at HarperCollins} says. “Consumers are educated to have a multiplicity of choices. They still like to go to a bookstore, while they also want everything available online.”
Takeaway: While people want cheaper goods, bookstores still provide a desired service. How many bookstores can be supported by the browser-buyers is unknown, but brick and mortars are going to survive. Publishers on the other hand…

5. Welcome to, you know, capitalism guys
Without bookstores, it would take years for publishers to learn how to sell books directly to consumers. They do no market research, have little data on their customers, and have no experience in direct retailing. With the possible exception of Harlequin Romance and Penguin paperbacks, readers have no particular association with any given publisher; in books, the author is the brand name. 
Takeaway: So I might know more about the seven people who read this blog through the tools Google provides than the big six publishers know about their customers. You know what’s a worse sign? That I’m not all that surprised. I think one might reasonably conclude that the kick in the ass that Amazon is giving publishers might just create a leaner, more nimble, and in the end more sustainable book industry. Still, I think we don’t want Amazon doing it all because…

6. You get what you pay for
Good publishers find and cultivate writers, some of whom do not initially have much commercial promise. They also give advances on royalties, without which most writers of nonfiction could not afford to research new books. The industry produces more than a hundred thousand books a year, seventy per cent of which will not earn back the money that their authors have been advanced; aside from returns, royalty advances are by far publishers’ biggest expense. Although critics argue that traditional book publishing takes too much money from authors, in reality the profits earned by the relatively small percentage of authors whose books make money essentially go to subsidizing less commercially successful writers. The system is inefficient, but it supports a class of professional writers, which might not otherwise exist.
Takeaway: Publishers are risk-aggregators. They do the work of screening, supporting, and distributing the work of writers. Would Amazon as publisher-distributor do what FSG does? I highly doubt it. Wihtout this sort of gate-keeping, the result could be… 
7. Make ready for the hordes
Budget-conscious publishers have also reduced the editing and marketing and other services they provide to authors, which has left a vacuum for others to fill. Author Solutions, a self-publishing company in Bloomington, Indiana, has ninety thousand client-authors.
Takeaway: Here’s what you don’t want—a sea of tens of thousands of books in a huge pile. How in the world will you decide what to read? How will reviewers? It’s time to acknowledge that publishers protect us from the paralysis of choice. I’m sure some books get missed, but surely more would get missed if no one was minding the store.

8. Google to the rescue, again/finally
Google Editions will let publishers set the price of their books, he said, and will accept the agency model. Having already digitized twelve million books, including out-of-print titles, Google will have a far greater selection than Amazon or Apple. It will also make e-books available for bookstores to sell, giving “the vast majority” of revenues to the store, Clancy [director of Google Books] said. He suggested that in trying to dominate the market Amazon and Apple were taking the wrong approach to business online. “It’s much more of an open ecosystem, where you find a way for bricks-and-mortar stores to participate in the future digital world of books,” he said.
Takeaway: The digital book readers might be the eight track tapes of today’s publishing revolution. The long arc here is toward platform neutrality, universal availability, and flexible pricing. Sound like the M.O. of any super-humongous-giant tech company you know?

There are more choice nuggets in the article; the Ape suggests a full read for anyone interested in these matters.


  1. I've had this fascinating article sitting on my desk for two weeks, thinking I would write a blog about it but never getting to it. You've done a great job in your analysis. With all the fear about electronic books, many seem to have lost the forest for the trees (of which we'll have many more, thanks to electronic media). More readers is a good thing, and e-books are currently bringing along new readers. Five years from now we'll be looking at entirely different electronic platforms - this is an exciting transitional era for readers!

  2. Great, great article. Thank you for posting! <3

  3. If technology brings more readers, then I agree that it should be embraced. Personally, I don't anticipate buying any electronic reading platform in the near future - I prefer the library. However, I anticipate electronic books will be a disrupter for the public library at some point. The prospect of no more past due fees and or more waiting 3 months in the hold queue is attractive.

  4. @Jeanie-
    The more I think about, the more trouble I have making a cogent argument against ebooks and readers. As long as people who write get paid so that they still write stuff I want to read, what does it cost me really?

    @Brent and Emily- Thanks!

    @Clint- But won't libraries have to manage digital copies somehow? It doesn't seem like they could supply an unlimited number of copies to borrowers---that would screw things up royally.

  5. Ape, I thought your analysis was spot-on, and incredibly well-done - so well-done, in fact, that I linked to your post from my blog today. Hope you're cool with that. Here's the URL:

  6. @Clinton - Our libraries are beginning to experiment with e-readers. One offers books for limited time periods and then takes it away when the time is up. Another checks out the e-reader in the same way it checks out books. I believe the role of the library will change, but as long as librarians stay abreast of current trends - and the ones I know do so - I think the future of libraries is secure.

  7. Came by for the blog jog and stayed to read this. Nice....I'm a fan of ebooks, have been for years.

  8. Love your blog. A book that points out this trend in the selling of videos, music and books is "The Long Tail - Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More," by Chris Anderson. Funny how I borrowed a copy of this book from an e-library.