Missing The Digital Boat


Sorry, this is a bit longer than I intended, but do read on. Before we start, I’m the world’s biggest fan of bookshops, but this subject needs more airing.

An interesting little article turns up in ‘Red Herrings’, the crime writers’ journal, about the innate snobbery in e-publishing. The author only publishes online, and argues that unless publishers stop thinking that hardbacks are the only ‘real’ books, the industry will face a serious crisis.

Actually, it’s worse than the article’s author fears. E-Reading is no longer merely a viable alternative, it is an explosion. Amazon already sells more electronic books than print books, and e-book sales are up 143% from last year. Even if Amazon’s stats are over-optimistic, it’s a huge uptake.

Hardback books are printed largely for traditional reasons, and certain keepsake books require hardback treatment. But somewhere along the line they became associated with ‘serious’ writing. When I review a book, I generally receive an ARC – an Advanced Readers’ Copy – and this is followed up with a hardback. As I’m not a first edition collector, this is a nice gesture but a bit of a waste. I then often get sent the paperback as well – 3 copies of the same book get mailed out.

As for the reading public, they have less time to browse bookshops (although that’s a pleasure that should never be given up) and publishers have not made their lives easier with ever-larger formats that are impossible to lug around. They like these huge sizes because they can charge more for them.

But readers are relying less on bright covers at point-of-sale than on online reviews. Reading that takes up less space and is cheaper is ideal for credit crunched times. Remember the horror which greeted the arrival of video? The arrival of the CD? Well, what happened next shook up the market and changed it forever.

How do you think digital media divides up? What percentage of the market is taken up by say, TV and what percentage belongs to music? In other words, how do we divide our time?

Would you be shocked if I told you that around 65% is TV and just 6% is music? What happened was that music publishers failed to take up the digital challenge. They fought it and raised barriers, they dithered, and music fans found other ways to get music. They destroyed their own industry.

The home DVD industry could go the same way. With HD/ Blu-Ray/ 3D/ NTSC & PAL protection it’s hard for us to even set up our home systems, while faster broadband speeds mean that downloading a film will soon become easier.

So what do some publishers do when faced with this? They pretend e-publishing isn’t happening. They talk about booksellers and bookstores. I’ve been in meetings where digital sales aren’t even mentioned, as if e-rights are something authors shouldn’t worry their little heads about.

At the moment there are too many different e-reading formats and no cohesive single direction for e-publishing. It’s a mess – I’ve mentioned the hopeless Waterstones site before, but generally far too few books are available, and publishers must be ahead of the curve to satisfy demand before piracy takes over. I actually keep two versions of favourite books now – my portable e-version and my ‘library’ copy. I buy more, not less, but God, it’s not easy.

No-one ever said that book formats were an either/or choice. You can have both – so long as publishers stay ahead of what the public wants. Otherwise they’ll find other ways to get it.

12 comments on “Missing The Digital Boat”

  1. Alison says:

    I read constantly – I love (and indeed quite possibly live) to read. As you say, the formats being produced now make it very difficult to hoik a book around between home and work, and since I am the type of person who wants a book the second it’s published, I spent a lot of time only reading my new, eagerly-awaited tomes at home because they were too darn cumbersome. For me, the Kindle has been a revelation. I have upwards of 30 books on it, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, permitting me to skip between as desired. I have new publications on there as well as old favourites. I will never fall out of love with books – the feel and smell of them, and the sheer joy of holding them, but to me the Kindle is the Next Big Thing. The best praise I can give it is that if it broke or I lost it, I’d replace it at once without a second thought.

  2. admin says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more Alison – nothing will ever replace a book but the sheer ease of e-reading was a revelation to me.

  3. Alan Morgan says:

    Piracy is the eventual problem as otherwise the ease for people to buy an ebook has to be a good thing. People will almost doubtless have magic-libraries holding 10,000 books they’ll never read (then buy ’em again when the format changes and the technology goes up, yeah – it will) but theoretically then that’s 10,000 writers who’ve sold another book.

    It could be used in other ways too. An app added such that when you press it the author gets a pizza, or jeans, or a pint. His own stabby lap dancer computer would go ‘bing’ and the four writers sat thirstily about the pub table can high five as they have another round come in. You could add specialist apps – a fuller explanation being downloaded direct to the ereader concerning the Mustard Mystery, but in return for a digital sparkly jeans voucher. Hell, it might deliver? As long as you clock in, the jeans are delivered to you. A sort of ‘please feed the writer’ app?

    Trouble with kindle (a bit close to kindling) is that when you get an author to sign the flyleaf it rather gets in the way of everything else you read. That and dropping the bloody thing in the bath, or when dozing off at night, or breaking it when swatting wasps. Wassamatter – you like wasps?

  4. stonemuse says:

    Alison, you captured my sentiments exactly. I love bookshops, but the value-add of having access to my Kindle is wonderful.

    Christopher, great article.

  5. Russ Varley says:

    I completely agree with you Christopher, publishers have to embrace the changes and find new ways adding value to book in any format. One of the biggest drivers on music piracy, at least at the beginning was the lack of ways to obtain it legally in a digital format. People then get used to the idea that you don’t have to pay for it and then the music publishers were always facing an uphill struggle to convince people to pay for it.

  6. On the practical side, some publishers seize the opportunity to offer authors a slimmer slice of rights on e-books than on paper books. Because they have Other, Different Expenses. Which sounds like they are just trying to get a bigger share of the pie, of course.

    And another true story on the potholes on the road to a bright e-publishing: I was slated to translate a trilogy of SF whodunnits, but I’ve been waiting for a year and a half, now, because the agent, while quite willing to sell the paper rights, absolutely refuses to sell the e-rights. Don’t ask me why: I’ve no idea what he can do with the French e-rights to the books once he has sold the exclusive translation rights to a publisher, but he’s been adamant. And of course, the publisher won’t buy just the paper rights to a book.

  7. M@ says:

    eBooks also have the massive advantage of interactivity (and if you think that’s just gimmickry, watch this jaw-dropping TED video: http://www.ted.com/talks/mike_matas.html)

  8. Mike Cane says:

    Nothing you’ve posted here is anything other than what everyone else has posted for the past seven years, daily, with increased volume as the days go on and book publishers and bookstores continue to sink into their own short-sighted and smug morass.

    As for DVD, in America, people already do Netflix streaming. Netflix, the biggest pusher of DVDs, ended that business and moved on to streaming. They weren’t going sit around with their thumbs up their asses waiting to be put out of business — as they put Blockbuster, the biggest video rental firm in America, out of business.

    Book people think they’re “special,” that books are “special.” They’re only correct if they mean “special” as in the PC term for mentally retarded. I have no sympathy for publishers or for stores. Both have allowed this to happen. No tears from me.

    And there is really one one eBook format: Kindle. It has most of the market and every day I see more of this:

    It’s only a matter of time before Sony leaves the field. ePub pushers can keep deluding themselves that ePub will stick around. Maybe it will in Europe and Asia, but Amazon has the most eBooks — that’s all that really matters, too! — and you need a Kindle or Kindle software to read them.

  9. admin says:

    That may be true in the US, Mike, but I’m not so sure about the Kindle here. Apart from the fact that they both have the same ebooks available – and when they don’t, Calibre or other software switches them across – Sony has Waterstones on its side.

    Then there’s the Fugly thing – UK reader forums show a clear preference for the smaller, more stylish Sony.

    But apart from all that, everyone agrees that eReaders are a stop-gap measure. They won’t have long lives because a more convergent technology will replace them within 2/3 years. I speak as one with a fair number of privileged data reports up my sleeve (being related to a government tech advisor has its advantages!)

  10. Helen Martin says:

    I am reading a Guy Gabriel Kay hardcover at the moment with a stunningly gorgeous illustration on the cover and I did think twice about taking it in my bag for bus reading. An e-reader would take less space and be lighter but I still am not drawn to one. Admittedly, I haven’t had an opportunity to try one, but I think I would only ever do what you mentioned, Chris, having a book and an e-book, too.

  11. Joyce says:

    I resisted the mobile phone but finally gave in and now it is always with me. I don’t have a Kindle (yet) but feel the urge creeping on. I will wait until they are on special in Argos. However, I love my books and like to own each one in a tangible form – I just can’t see the day when I own a book but can’t see it or pick it up.

  12. Susan Averre says:

    As a high school teacher in the US I’ve watched over the years as TV viewing has declined from an average of 5+ hours a day on average for my generation to less than 2 hours a week for today’s kids. As these kids grow up and become the consumer group of tomorrow everything will change again. Today’s kids spend a large percentage of their time listening to music and sporting everything on small devices- Iphones etc. I know ereading is the way to go. I’ve tried to get my school district on board for 2 years- imagine what the district could save if kids were handed a Kindle, billed it to their student fees and all text books were loaded into them? Text books are currently averaging about $75 each in high schools. They get beaten, torn, kicked, tossed to the roof and worse over the course of the year. A digital download is indestructible. This idea is win-win. I know many people argue that a digital reader cannot replace the ‘feel’ of a book but honestly: isn’t the point of a book the story or information? A good story pulls me in and I am no longer paying attention to the print or the paper or the digital ink. Additional advantage? Can’t decide which book you might want to read later today? Take them all. What? Too heavy a load? Not on an e-reader…

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