From Print to E, Some Items To Consider

September 29th, 2008 · 13 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Except for the annoying crashes that require hard restarts (which require the acquisition of a paper clip), I’m pretty happy with the Kindle reading experience. It’s not a device that will light the world on fire, nor is it the “iPod of ereaders” (stop with the dumbness, people). It’s a good gateway device, however.

The next generation of ereader will surely be more of everything.

Of course, the fine-tuning of the perfect ereading device is not the issue. The ebook business is building itself without the perfect device. eBooks are not going to be the next big thing; they’re going to be a thing. A part of a complex mix of reading choices. With that in mind, let’s think about ways we can blend ebooks into the publishing culture without pain.

I lied: there’s going to be pain. The pain will come for those (textbook industry, anyone?) clinging to old business models. So let’s play. Here are my thoughts, in no particular order.

  • Rethink Royalties: A few things here. I’ve read a lot of blah, blah, blah about royalties and profitability from ebooks. Most of it makes no sense at all. In keeping with that tradition, I’m going to throw out a royalty rate for ebooks: 30% of wholesale/what the publisher receives. Calculating royalties off retail is a silly artifact of a business that ceased to exist long ago.

    30% might seem high (and it’s a starting point, not a rule), but there’s a bit of logic here. This leaves 70% of every dollar received for the publisher. That amount offsets distributed overhead, including editorial costs, distribution and storage and data centers, knowing that retailers are currently doing most of the fulfillment, and other costs, because there are fare more costs than I can list here.

    Getting hard numbers is, well, hard, so I can’t do a tidy little P&L.

    While I cannot make guarantees, offering a reasonable royalty to authors is a gesture of good will, especially since many authors remain wary of this new business model (even though it’s not really so new). Which leads to:

  • Resist Rights Land Grabs: Maybe it’s because my background is in the motion picture industry, where rights are often granted piecemeal and distribution terms are clearly defined, but enough with the hoarding of rights. It’s a given that the notion of “in print” changes with the availability of ebooks.

    And it’s natural for authors to balk at the idea that a publisher can, theoretically, own distribution rights for decades. While I am not one who believes books will disappear from our lives, I do believe that we’re due for many changes — some of which might even stick — in the publishing business. Of course publishers want to lock down rights to content in order to be positioned to meet new opportunities, but it’s insane for authors to give up their stake in said opportunities.

    Publishers are already seeing a slow trickle from established authors (see: Terry Goodkind) who are seeking better deals outside the traditional industry. It is a dangerous thing, alienating your bread and butter. Rethinking royalties and negotiating rights in good faith are fine starts. You’re not the only game in town.

  • Get Over Your Fear of Piracy: Piracy exists. I mean, we’re still living in an age where pirates board ships and make off with goods (the mind boggles that this is possible, but there you have it). Piracy exists. You can throw up every lock in the universe, but, if someone want to pirate, they’re going to pirate. Stop living in fear. This goes for authors and publishers, but right now, I’m talking to authors.

    Let’s stipulate that a few things are debatable: the number of “lost” sales due to piracy and the actual pervasiveness of true piracy. It’s stealing content, but given the lack of profit motive in most of these instances, shouldn’t we be looking deeper at root causes and reasons?

    For example, look no further than Kirk’s post on reading Thomas Pynchon on the Kindle. Given the number of times he’s purchased various versions of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (because you need the rare Japanese CD edition), I know that he’d happily pay good money for an electronic version of the Pynchon catalog. There are no legal versions of these books available.

    This is such a pervasive problem that I’m thinking I need to start a new BS feature: Not Available on the Kindle. I was emailing back and forth with an author, and thought, “I should just buy the book now.” Grabbed my Kindle and discovered that this book, published in 2007, was not available in a Kindle edition (it was recently released in paperback, and a Kindle edition is now sold).

    Authors need to be more proactive about getting their books out there. One thing that is absolutely certain is that you cannot make sales if you do not make your books available. I think there’s an economic theory behind this.

    Withholding content doesn’t stop piracy. Withholding content doesn’t increase sales. And withholding content because you have this precious notion of how your book should be read is just plain arrogant.

    Oops, did I type that?

  • Discourage Proprietary Solutions (or, Support The Reader!): Wal-Mart is shutting down its music servers. Customers who bought into this DRM’d content are being told to burn it to CD or lose it. Imagine, for a moment, that a year from now, Amazon pulls the plug on the Kindle. Decides it was a grand experiment, but too costly in the long run. Imagine that Amazon further decides to shut off access to the Kindle servers, meaning people like me lose access to their purchases. Yes, I know, but it’s a proprietary format, and we all know how well those fare in the long run.

    This is not a far-fetched notion. Wal-Mart is the latest in a string of retailers to do this to consumers. I believe that one of the many reasons music piracy remains so robust is because consumers simply cannot trust the people in the industry to do the right thing by them.

    I hate that I am locked into the Amazon system with my Kindle (though, honestly, given my life schedule, Amazon is generally my preferred retailer for many products). There is no competition for my reading dollar, if I want to do my little part for the environment and reduce the number of physical books coming and going from my home by reading as much as possible on the Kindle. I should be able to buy a book wherever I choose and read it however I choose.

    Of course, this swings the other way: I can’t read my Kindle books on my laptop. Or my iPhone. I am locked into one retailer. Do you really want that to happen? Do you really want your customers owned, lock, stock, and ereader by Amazon?

    The real bottom line is that nobody from publisher to retailer to reader should be locked into anything. It’s a crazy way of thinking when you know full well that tomorrow won’t look anything like today.

  • New Business, New Pricing Model: Now that you’re in league with the publishing devil, you’re understanding why the music business is hating on its bargain with the music devil. The music folks created the iTunes business model, more through aggressive failure than active lobbying. They finally got the business they wanted, but the other side of the bargain was loss of pricing control.

    Granted, nobody in the music business wants to sell songs for less than ninety-nine cents. They’re angry because they want to sell for more. The music industry’s ostrich-like attitudes are the topic of another rant.

    I like the idea of flexible pricing. For example, I see a 2008 edition of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice listed for $7.95 for a print copy, with no Kindle edition available (I do know that I can get free electronic versions of this book from other sources, but follow along with this example. Thanks.). Now I have at least two print editions of this book, including a really old one that I stole from my mother, but I wouldn’t mind a well-formatted version, perhaps with some nifty indexing that helps me navigate the text. And I’d like it to be, oh, in the two dollar range.

    I think one telling sign when it comes to the value of books, versus the perceived value (as defined by retailers), is the used book market. It’s not a slam dunk comparison, but there is some value in noting how these books are valued in this so-called secondary market.

  • Think Beyond The Book, And Don’t Forget Serialized and Subscription Content: I can’t remember where I read it, but someone declared serialized content dead. As providers such as DailyLit have shown, there is a market for serialized content. It’s all about the right content and the right market (and, yes, right marketing).

    Another concept that excites and intrigues me (and also ties into the “think beyond the book meme”) is subscription content. I’m already getting the Los Angeles Times delivered to my Kindle on a daily basis, and, yes, actually reading more of the newspaper because it’s more convenient for me. What about literary journals or other periodical content? I’d love a broader range of subscription content, and I’m happy to pay for it.

    Yeah, this plays into the device/content independence thing. I want a cloud system that lets me control my access to the content I’ve purchased.

For related thoughts, Jane’s post “10 Things Epublishers Should Do for Readers”. Great minds and all that.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

13 responses so far ↓

  • Karen // Sep 29, 2008 at 2:18 pm


    Not to mention hypocritical, when you allow sale of audiobooks (let alone movie adaptations). After all, how do either of these approach that “reading experience”? How does using eInk differ from a paper book, other than the annoying smell (and stains) of ink and the annoying heavy tome that must be supported and kept open? And if ink is required, does that mean no Books for the Blind? If the page breaks changing reduces the reading experience, does that mean no large print editions? None of these matter, of course and all but the e-device versions are embraced by most authors. Perhaps the author fears that if her (or his) books were officially released on such a platform, she (or he) would have to learn how to use one.

    Of course, the attitude simply results in being the most pirated books on the planet (available within minutes of the earliest print release).

  • Marion Gropen // Sep 29, 2008 at 3:36 pm

    I think your royalty rate might be too low to be fair to authors. Publishers do sometimes get 75 or 80% of list price for ebooks, but more often, they get 35 to 50%. And 30% of that is a very small chunk.

    Much of the procedure of producing an ebook is the same as that for producing a print edition. If you’re buying rights, and just doing the e-edition, then most of that work is done by the primary publisher. You might still need a separate “cover” and some text formatting, and you will definitely need some format conversion done. But that’s still similar to the expenses to prepare a paperback reprint. (Think $1500 to $5000 per title.)

    The question then becomes how many copies will this format sell? Will it extinguish the paperback in the next couple of decades, for example? I’m on record in my blog, among other places, as thinking it will. Or will it increase the total number of copies sold by the average title? Maybe it will.

    Or maybe it will remain a sideshow, in which case that fixed edition cost will be significant.

    But, assuming e-books become a significant format, 30% of net will be too small. I think.

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  • David Thayer // Oct 1, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Many good thoughts and I especially enjoyed your reference to pirates both traditional and electronic.
    The Regent of England was able to authorize buccaneers by writing a Letter of the Mart which said “go ahead be a pirate.” She could revoke that right by writing a Letter of the Counter Mart but of course news traveled slowly then….perhaps a Piracy Czar could be appointed with vast powers such as these.

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  • Eric Eikrem // Oct 2, 2008 at 1:27 am

    Interesting article. Good points on DRM and proprietary solutions. Here are my 5 cents based on my experience from the mobile content industry:

    1)DRM: Excessive DRM that makes it difficult for the user to access content will encourage piracy, especially in combination with high prices and proprietary solutions.

    2)Proprietary Solutions: The average user wants to access the content on the device of her choosing, just like Kassia. Thus, I very much agree with the notion that the Kindle is just a thing, not the thing. Mobile phone screens are getting so good that they will be able to deliver a good reading experience shortly.

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  • Nannette // Oct 8, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Thanks for these sensible and well thought out ideas. One grows so tired of it’s all great or it’s all evil.

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  • Ted // Oct 13, 2008 at 11:10 am

    I have no objection to Kindle or to the idea of electronic readers. But I view it merely as an unncessary complication of life. A real book is not simple. It involves a very high technology, BUT the technology of a book is finished. All that is needed is a souce of light and a literate intelligence. Furthermore, while books take up much space for storage, they are exceptionally durable, while electronic readers would degrade and over a short time, I would suppose. So why would anyone want a collection of electronic junk that may or may not work and would need constant maintenance? In my cellar, is a box full of old electronic games that my son went through as an adolescent. As he recently bought a house with his girlfriend and will get married soon, I told him to go through his stuff and see what he wants. Those old games are useless without advanced repair,—and so with old electronic machines.

  • LucassoScan // Jan 27, 2009 at 5:43 am

    As for e-book sales figures, we can do some guesstimation.

    In my opinion, in 2008, at least 8 million e-books were sold. How did I come to this conclusion?
    Publishers get about 5.86 dollars on each e-book they sell digitally. In October 2008, US e-book publishers (I mean about 12-15 of them) saw § 5.2 million in revenue (IDPF figure). So these publishers sold about 900,000 e-books in October 2008.

    So e-books are starting to sell extremely well in America.


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