Are Publishers Losing the Hearts and Minds of Readers?


by - March 20th, 2011


Here’s a fact that might not surprise you very much: the internet is full of idiots. The idiots come in many flavours, but the kinds of idiots who are annoying me this week are some of the people who write blogs about ebooks.

Let’s kick off this discussion with a few choice quotes from some blog posts I’ve read in the last week or so:

From Delimiter: Publishers in Australia refuse to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 19th century, let alone the 21st century … The Publishers in Australia are heavily addicted to the large margins that Australian books traditionally generate … Publishers are trying to protect their rivers of gold (book sales) by pricing eBooks in such way that makes them less attractive.

I kid you not – RIVERS OF GOLD, people. That’s what publishers are making from paper books: RIVERS. OF. GOLD.

From BookBee: In either case, Billbo posits that publishers are publishing poor-quality ebooks as a Cee Lo Green-style “f$&ck you” to the medium in general, because they’re frustrated … This is so out there that I hadn’t even considered it to be possible … But, really thinking about it, it may well be true. This is the kind of bloody-minded thing that a control freak manager who has had things go his own way for decades might actually do … Yes – sheer madness. Sadly, some publishers have form in the madness stakes.

That’s right, readers: publishers – particularly control freak publishers – are deliberately introducing errors into ebooks because they don’t like them.

I wonder if either of any of these bloggers has ever met or spoken to a real human being who works for a publishing company? Because I guarantee you that if they had they would learn two things a) the old stereotype of the boozy publisher with deep pockets full of cash died twenty years ago; and b) publishers are anal retentive freaks who hate the idea of errors slipping into the books they publish even more than their readers.

To think otherwise speaks of a genuine ignorance and a completely unfounded hate for traditional publishers. For the most part, people who work for publishing companies are in love with books. They love everything about them, and that’s why they work in an industry that pays them all so badly. Traditional publishers are not saints, but they are not the enemy of the reader.

To be fair, these bloggers aren’t the only voices out there. There are plenty of people on all sides of the new publishing paradigm that are speaking sense. Take the phenomenally successful self-published author Amanda Hocking (who I wrote about late last year), who wrote on her blog last week:

Traditional publishing and indie publishing aren’t all that different, and I don’t think people realize that … I just don’t understand writers animosity against publishers. So much of what I’ve been reading lately has made me out to be Dorothy taking down the Wicked Witch … Publishers have done really great things for a really long time. They aren’t some big bad evil entity trying to kill literature or writers. They are companies, trying to make money in a bad economy with a lot of top-heavy business practices … Traditional publishers are not evil any more than Amazon or Barnes & Noble are evil.

Which brings me back, finally, to the title of this blog post and the central question I want to ask of all of you out there. Do blog posts like the ones at the top of this post convince you that publishers are doing bad things for the future of reading? Because I worry that they do. Every time I read one of these posts it makes my blood boil. Not just because I work for a major publisher and know what goes on there doesn’t compare to the bad press they’re getting, but because Amazon and Apple – major companies with a lot more sway over the future of reading than publishers – seem to be getting a free pass. So, let me know what you think in the comments.


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Joel Naoum (113 Posts)

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25 Responses to “Are Publishers Losing the Hearts and Minds of Readers?”

  1. Jd Says:

    Joel,

    I work for a publishing company. I have published a book through a major publisher in Australia, and I agree that many editors are control freaks, and most in the industry love books.
    So I can’t understand why these publishers put their names to ebooks that are full of literals and bad layout. In some cases rendering them unreadable. There are some that I’ve seen that are far worse than even a first draft.
    So what’s your theory?

  2. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Publishers have always balanced speed of publication with quality. With ebooks they have been expected to digitise great swathes of non-digital backlist to appease early adopters (like me and you, JD). That has meant that in the short term, some books have suffered errors that could have been avoided (and, I would theorise, are likely to be corrected as the market matures). My issue is not that bloggers are complaining that there are too many errors in ebooks – that is a valid complaint. My issue is that you would try to imply – based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever – that publishers are intentionally ignoring quality assurance measures because they don’t like ebooks. That is absurd.

  3. DilaniDiva Says:

    Yes, I agree!. There are many out there that are practically clueless but write with great authority. And a bunch of fools that agree with them. Simple utter laziness. No desire to self evaluate a situation or research it. That’s what
    We have in almost all areas of publicity now. Even in politics. Thank you for bringing it
    To our attention.
    Dilani

  4. Bernadette Says:

    I thought the second comment was daft when I read it last week – I don’t really know anyone who would be silly enough to think such an approach would work, let alone people who have so little pride in their work.

    As for the first comment I thought it had a bit more of a ring of truth, the being dragged into this century bit anyway (I can see that the rivers of gold comment is nonsense). But as a reader in Australia who has been making comparisons for the past 20 years with readers in other English-reading countries I have known “something” is wrong here – we pay WAY more and we wait WAY longer for books than the US or UK (places I have traveled extensively or lived in) and I do not believe it’s all to do with the relative size of our respective countries (though that is part of it I know). It’s unfair to blame publishers for all the mess that the book industry is in here in Oz but it’s also a bit unfair to think they don’t have shoulder some of the blame – ludicrously high RRPs in comparison to other English speaking parts of the world (which have not gone down even in the face of enormous competition from the internet) and a relative lack of interest in adopting new technology (very few Australian publications are available in eBook format) does appear – from the outside – to be the standard operating procedure for the big/mainstream publishing houses here. if that’s not the case then the publishers need to hire a credible marketing firm. NOW.

  5. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Hi Bernadette, I get that your sense of the industry is the prevailing one, but I don’t think it’s particularly accurate. Australian publishers have all been gearing up for the digital changeover for years now. There are outliers who are doing nothing, but to the best of my knowledge all major publishers are simultaneously releasing their ebook frontlist titles, and are in the process of digitising their backlist. It’s a slow process, especially considering ebooks have made virtually no money whatsoever for the industry until this year – but it’s happening.

    Pricing is certainly a big issue, but the relative size of our population is by far the biggest reason our RRPs are so high. Like it or not, when you have ten times our population (like in the US), the cost per unit goes way down – regardless of whether you’re physically printing it or not.

  6. Chris Meadows Says:

    The examples of consumer complaints you selected come off as more than a little clueless, and so make excellent straw men, but publishers nonetheless are in danger of losing readers’ hearts and minds for better reasons than those: in particular, their failure to do anything to try to win readers’ hearts and minds.

    I’ve written a more detailed response here:

  7. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Thanks for your response, Chris. I can’t disagree with you about the quality of ebook publishing at the moment. Things need to improve, and I guarantee you they already are. However, I don’t think my choice of quotes is unrepresentative of the majority of voices out there. If people want to be heard, they need to make the debate reasonable – the people who work for traditional publishers and who are passionate about e-publishing are working their arses off for readers every day. You might argue that publishers should have prioritised digital earlier or higher than they have and do, but that is a difficult argument to make without understanding how thin the margins of traditional publishing already are. Publishers are not fatcats with massive budgets they can slash. Every budget slash will mean dropping authors from a list, or giving less marketing to an existing author. Or that good people who work hard and passionately on behalf of authors and their books will be fired. Nobody involved with the publishing industry wants that to happen, least of all the authors and employees who will be affected.

    Publishing books is a marginal industry – people talk about the massive growth of ebooks as if it will mean publishers suddenly have all this new money to make. In reality, the margins are even lower for ebooks than they are for paper books. Unlike technology companies, publishers are not flush with investors keen to put money in their pockets and see them gain market share without making a profit for fifteen years (like Amazon and the Book Depository). Publishers have to make a profit, or they will go under.

    My argument isn’t that publishers can’t improve: they patently can and have. It’s that a disproportionate amount of the blame for the state of books is falling on traditional publishers, and the blame is coming from pundits who are mostly writing linkbait instead of trying to inform rational debate.

  8. Anna Maguire Says:

    Joel, I completely agree with your point on 20/3:
    “Publishers have always balanced speed of publication with quality.”

    As someone who has worked for a major trade publisher it was sometimes disheartening that despite a book being cared for and loved through the publiciation schedule that a typo would sneak through into print. Yes, a typo folks. We are human. We love books. We fix them on the next print run because it can almost make us cry.

    With ebooks we are dealing with the cutting edge of new technology, Publishers are under immense pressure to get ebooks out, and like with print, from time to time that new technology means that something goes wrong. They will fix it when they are told about it, as soon as they can.

    No one in publishing wants errors out there. It reflects badly on their brand, their author, their sense of pride in their work.

  9. Bonnie Says:

    I don’t fall in with the speculating crowd of publishers being the monsters they’re making out. One key reason is because they are speculating and I won’t ever take people like that seriously.

    I’ve been blogging and reading blogs for about 6 years now so most of the time I can tell when a blogger isn’t doing their homework and generating negativity through speculation, but I also know that there are still a lot of people out there who don’t realise that some bloggers aren’t checking their facts or talking to anyone about what’s going on. They’re just going on a rant and publicly sharing their thoughts, but passing them off as something else.

    That always bothers me, not just when it comes to people speaking against certain areas of the book world, but in any area because how much are those people going to influence someone else and spread the ignorance?

    I haven’t personally dealt with publishers apart from receiving arcs or something like that, it’s rare and usually indirect, so I can’t really say anything about publishers and how they are. I can say that this whole rivers of gold business is laughable to me and reading it today is the first time I’ve even contemplated anyone in the publishing industry could be like that.

    Contemplated it and laughed it off because I know that it’s a business, not some sleazy tycoon sucking people dry and susceptible to fits of typo madness. I think if anyone said that to me directly I’d scoff at them.

  10. Bernadette Says:

    Joel if the ‘majors’ are releasing their front list titles digitally then my next question is where are they making them available for sale? I have a list of 11 books that I have searched for at Borders eBook store, Read Without Paper, Booki.sh and now Booku. Only one is available in eBook format at any of those stores. This is part of what has led me to my conlcusion that the majors are just not trying. All the books on my list of 11 are Australian publications (mostly by Australian authors though some are local publications of overseas authors) released in the last 6-8 months by mainstream publishers (Penguin, Random House etc). They are by previously published authors and the hardcover or trade paperbacks are all widely available locally.

    Another part of my ‘evidence’ is that I get the email newsletters from all of the traditional publishers about new books/forthcoming releases and only one makes anything at all of its eBook availability by the use of a little icon (can’t remember which publisher it is) and in none of those newsletters does it appear to me as if every new book being published is available in eBook format as well as traditional format.

    Am I being unreasonable to expect a book published in January this year by an Australian author by a major publisher to be available in eBook format simultaneously to the print version somewhere outside the Amazon market place?

    My other thought is that the books are really for sale in those stores but I can’t find them because the metadata is so utterly appalling. I despaired of the rubbish that was populating the Borders eBook store before I gave up entirely (wrong author names, mis-spellings, switching of first & last names, mashing of titles…I could go on). I can only assume the metadata is provided by publishers? If not, who then? Where’s the quality control? Do they ever look to see what their products look like in eBook stores or try to search the stores themselves? Or is it the stores who are responsible? In which case why aren’t the publishers demanding improvement?

    “We” (i.e. the masses) do like to have someone to blame and yes I am guilty of laying some of the blame at publishers’ feet. But I don’t think I have done so without some evidence – all that I have at my disposal anyway. If the publishers have an alternative position why aren’t they out here trying to engage with readers and book buyers? The guy who heads up the independent booksellers association (Jon Page) has a great blog and twitter feed that has provided intelligent information about the plight of booksellers – the problems they’re facing etc – that has made me re-think some of my own behaviour and beliefs (he is personally responsible for me switching to Boomerang and a local bookstore for my last 4 print book purchases that would once have been done via Book Depository). I have yet to find anything similar from the publishing end of the industry – sure there are a few twitter accounts but they’re all “here’s our latest book” and I haven’t seen anything along the lines of “read this – it explains where each of the $33 goes for that book you just bought”.

    Sorry for the ramble, I’ll get off my soapbox now.

  11. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Hi Bernadette, before I address the rest of your comment, can I ask whether the books in question were available on Amazon? Or just not available period? It may be worth letting me know your list of books. Might make for an interesting post if I track down the reasons why particular titles are not available from particular vendors.

  12. Chris Meadows Says:

    Why are the errors getting out there in the first place? It’s not like publishers don’t have people who can proofread the documents for typos. Proofreading and editing documents is an important part of what publishers do. It’s what they do to manuscripts before they become printed books. Printed books have ARCs and galley proofs to catch errors before they go out.

    Why aren’t they doing this with e-books? Why do Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” e-books say thing like “the next Jew chapters” or “arroz con polio”? Even the newest book in the series, which was published in print and electronic form simultaneously, has these sorts of errors, so it’s not as if they’re just due to not paying attention to scanning backlist titles.

    And from what I’ve heard, it can be really hard to get the publishers to care much when you point those typos out to them. I’ve heard that even the long-awaited Lord of the Rings series had some really egregious formatting errors when it came out electronically, and they only got fixed because hordes of people bought the books, so there were that many more people to get upset over them. For books that just garner a handful of complaints, it seems like publishers can’t be bothered.

    Publishers take excruciating care with their print books, and it’s rare to find typos in any of them. But it seems to be a common thing in commercial e-books, and I really want to know why publishers don’t have better quality control.

  13. Joel Blacklock Says:

    I can’t be certain of the reasons for those particular books, Chris. But here’s my educated guess. Most publishers digitised their backlist from physical copies of books where the book was printed before the books were digitised. Lord of the Rings and the (early) Young Wizards series are good examples, as they were both published before 1990. Most publishers started digitising their frontlist first – and for the most part, these titles do not need to be comprehensively proofread again when they are converted to ebooks (though they are checked). Backlist titles, as we now know, do need to be proofread, as the conversion and text recognition software is far from perfect. But that wasn’t necessarily obvious in the earlier days of ebook conversion, and it was especially not obvious to the people in charge of setting publishers up with ebooks – most of whom did not have a background in editorial. The priority five years ago wasn’t getting ebooks perfect – it was getting ebooks out there.

    That’s changing, and many publishers realise it’s not good enough and are going through the backlist to fix titles up. They are rectifying this – but the costs are still high (a proofread in Australia, for example) generally costs in the vicinity of $1000 and several weeks of time for both the proofreader and for the in-house production editor who is managing the process. If you multiply that across thousands of books in a publisher’s backlist, it’s an expensive and time consuming endeavour. They are prioritising the books that sell first – hence why they’ve fixed Lord of the Rings, but they haven’t yet fixed the Young Wizards.

    I agree with you that it’s still not good enough. And agitating for change is a good thing. But inventing reasons for why it’s happening – particularly pointing the finger at publishers intentionally putting errors in their products – is not helpful.

  14. Nathan Farrugia Says:

    The theory that publishers would intentionally sabotage ebooks is illogical on so many levels. The fact is, this is a relatively new technology and there will be teething problems. This is also not helped by the constantly evolving specs for EPUB and others.

    As an ebook designer myself, believe me when I say ebooks are no walk in the park. If you think you can just restyle a book in InDesign and hit the “export to EPUB” button, think again. 90% of the work spent on an ebook is done by hand. This requires someone who is both an expert in desktop publishing, web design and programming languages (CSS, XHTML, and preferably HTML5). What this means is publishing houses will either have to find someone with this odd match of skills and pay a premium for their services, or train someone already talented in this field. That alone would stretch the budget.

    I haven’t worked for a major publishing house, but it seems to me the quality of ebooks can suffer not only because of the incredible learning curve but also the catching up necessary as the Kindle, iBookstore etc are constantly changing what is supported and adding new features, often times not bothering to explain them. Hyphenation, orphans/widows, embedding fonts, drop caps, video, audio, and don’t even get me started on fixed layout epubs!

    For a dedicated design company, this might not be so hard. For a publishing house who already has their hands full and their pockets drained, it’s actually amazing they’ve been able to produce the ebooks they have. Hats off to them.

    One advantage of ebooks is you can revise them at any time and resubmit via iTunes Producer or Kindle’s platform, etc. So errors, typos, compatibility issues, poor formatting etc can be corrected. Which means no more crying over spilt typos. 😉

  15. Joel Blacklock Says:

    As a consumer, I totally get your frustration. But you have to keep in mind that there’s a detailed costing for every single book that ever gets printed (or converted to an ebook). And the income based on ebooks was until this year virtually nothing at all. I certainly don’t always agree with the proportion of investment in digital publishing (ie not enough most of the time) but you can see from the perspective of a business that barely makes a profit that it’s hard to justify investing in a completely new way of doing business that is not yet making any money whatsoever. Especially if you have to do it at the expense of the side of the business that *is* making money.

    And I think you’re hopelessly romantic about errors in books if you think publishers always know for a fact that every book that goes out is error-free. They don’t. They try. And what I’m trying to tell you is – they always try within the limitations of budget, expertise and new technology. The processes publishers use to get print books right have been refined over the last hundred years so that most printed books have very few errors (though there are always some).

    The processes for producing ebooks have only been around for a handful of years. It’s going to take a bit more time to get it right. But publishers *are* trying.

  16. Chris Meadows Says:

    That still doesn’t explain why the latest book in the series, which WAS frontlist, has so many typos.

    If a job is worth doing, isn’t it worth doing right? If I were a publisher, I’d honestly be embarrassed to put out anything less than my best possible work, in any format, for whatever reason. Especially when the quality of the work you do is what you build your reputation on to begin with. Doing a crappy job at the thing that’s supposed to be your hallmark could cost you a lot more in brand equity than the cash outlay to make sure you do things right the first time.

    But maybe that’s why I’m not a publisher. 😛

    In regard to the “conspiracy theories” of publishers trying to torpedo e-books, I think you’ll find a lot of people with these theories are e-book early-adopters—people who, like myself, have been buying e-books for something like 15 years now, ever since Peanut Press started selling them. The publishers have literally spent more than a decade not getting e-books right, and people who’ve been following them that long have built up a powerful lot of frustration over it.

    I suspect a lot of the reason Amazon’s $9.99 pricing went over so well is because for the previous decade, publishers thought nothing of leaving their e-books listed at hardcover price long after the paper version had switched over to paperback. Even as late as 2010, that was still more the rule than the exception. It took an e-book store that was finally willing to say, “Hey, you know what? We’ll sell all these as loss leaders and actually pay people to get e-books” to make the publishers sit up and take notice.

    (I went into details about some of that in this TeleRead post I made last year at the time of the whole Macmillan/Amazon blowup: )

    When you’ve watched an industry continue to get things wrong for over ten years, not paying attention to any of the voices that spoke up to try to get them to change, you can start thinking, “They must be trying to torpedo e-books, because they couldn’t possibly be that stupid!”

    But then, as Heinlein put it, never underestimate the power of human stupidity.

  17. Bernadette Says:

    Well, since you asked…here’s my list. I took a couple off that were ‘old’ (i.e. published before June 2010) and added a couple of more recent publications (this year) – working on the assumption that things should be getting better – as it is things are slightly better than last time I checked – I can now find 3 of the books

    Michael Duffy THE TOWER (Feb 2011) Allen & Unwin (is available via PDF which I won’t buy as my experiences reading PDFs in eBook format are pretty bad. I am only interested in ePub) (Australian Author)

    Katherine Howell VIOLENT EXPOSURE (Dec 2010) MacMillan (is available now, was not available in January at same time as print book) (Australian Author)

    Kathryn Fox DEATH MASK (October 2010) (is available now, was not available in January at same time as print book) (Australian Author)

    The others that I can’t find in eBook anywhere but are all available at Boomerang and in my local Dymocks or Indie store as trade paperbacks. They are a mixture of ‘new’ names and established ones.

    Robin Adair’s THE GHOST OF WATERLOO (February 2011) Penguin (Australian Author)

    Vanda Symon’s BOUND (January 2011) Penguin (New Zealand author – possibly only published in NZ and imported though is widely available in paperback)

    Peter Temple’s TRUTH (June 2009 but re-issued or re-hit the shelves in July 2010 as Miles Franklin award winning tie-in) Text (Australian Author)

    Adrian d’Hage THE MAYA CODEX (Jul 2010) Penguin (Australian Author)

    Colleen McCullough’s NAKED CRUELTY (Oct 2010) Harper Collins (Australian Author)

    Anders Roslund’s THREE SECONDS (Oct 2010) (Swedish Author)

    Meg Mundell’s BLACK GLASS (Feb 2011) Don’t know publisher (Australian Author)

    Cherise Saywell DESERT FISH (March 2011) Don’t know publisher (Australian Author)

    Gail Jones FIVE BELLS (Feb 2011) Don’t know publisher (Australian Author)

    As for Amazon only THREE SECONDS is available. If an Australian publisher chooses to go exclusively with Amazon then they deserve all the scorn I’ve been saving up for them – the whole reason I chose not to buy a Kindle and went with a more expensive eReader (Sony) and a far more cumbersome purchasing process was so that I wouldn’t be locked in to buying all my books at an overseas retailer.

    I guess the only thing I haven’t been able to compare is whether or not this would be the same in the US or UK – are only 10-20% of their new releases available in eBook? It feels like they have more but I don’t honestly know.

  18. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Hi Bernadette, I’ve just down a quick look on a couple of different ebook stores, and was able to find Truth, Naked Cruelty, The Ghost of Waterloo, The Maya Codex, Black Glass and Desert Fish – all by searching for the title alone. All of them should be compatible with your Sony. Couldn’t find Five Bells or Three Seconds – though see below for possible explanations.

    Simultaneous release is, as far as I know, the ideal for Aussie publishers at the moment. There are still kinks in the system, though, so you can pretty much guarantee every ebook is not going to make it out in the same week as the print book. Though it’s getting better. Some will be prioritised over others – you’re going to have more luck with major releases than smaller ones – and more luck with big ebook vendors than smaller ones. Remember ebooks are still floating around 1% of the market here in Australia, so getting everything running smoothly is still not at the top of the priority list for publishers – but it’s getting there.

    Also keep in mind that it’s not always the publisher’s fault that an ebook title has not been released. There are still quite a few authors holding out on making their digital rights available, and they’re not releasing the book themselves. There are also ebook titles which, while the paper book version is physically distributed by Australian publishers – the ebook is not. In those cases the Australian publisher is the distributor, but doesn’t necessarily license the copyright for publication here. They cannot produce the ebook themselves. Thus, it’s incumbent on the overseas publisher to make the ebook available to Australians – but as you well know, Australians are pretty low on the list of international publishers’ priorities.

    Publishing is a horribly complex mess of overlapping copyright licenses, distribution deals and trade protection laws. Don’t assume that just because you can’t get a title it’s your local publisher’s fault. Having said that, I think today’s comments have definitively proved the need for publishers to communicate the reasons for this complexity better to readers. (Though I suggest this might end up being a more difficult proposition than just fixing the underlying problems in some instances!)

  19. Chris Meadows Says:

    The thing that gets me is: the print editions of these backlist books already paid for themselves. They’ve paid out the cost of editing, and the advance, and so on. The print books were in paperback format. There was no earthly reason to keep the eReader and Fictionwise e-book prices at hardcover level other than either laziness (or, rather, the form in which laziness expresses itself in corporations: bureaucracy), which was more likely—or a desire to keep e-books from getting more popular.

    The people who ran Fictionwise, back when they used to talk to people before Barnes & Noble bought them and sequestered them, said that it was like pulling teeth to get publishers to come down on those prices after the print books gone to paperback. The price-demand curve being what it is, if they had lowered the price they could have sold more books and made more money—especially since the paper books had already paid for the costs of developing the manuscript. (They had to have, given that sales of e-books were infinitesimal by comparison.)

    What finally allowed e-books to take off? Well, sure, Amazon, already a household name, coming out with this amazing Kindle gadget got a lot more attention than these little companies that sold books for Palm Pilots. But more than that, it was their willingness to sell e-books cheaply as loss-leaders on a huge scale, meaning that finally all those hyper-expensive “hardcover” e-books were actually affordable to the people who would have wanted to buy them. They sold more e-books and more readers, and e-books finally took off.

    And then publishers decided they didn’t want Amazon selling those e-books that cheaply. Sure, they had their reasons for not wanting Amazon to gain leverage to force price cuts, but it sure looked to a lot of e-book consumers like they were more interested in trying to curb demand for e-books to protect their paper book market—especially since they actually imposed a price cut on themselves to put agency pricing into effect.

    We humans have this instinct for pattern-matching deep in our reptilian hindbrains. It’s the reason we find shapes in clouds, and the reason why conspiracy theories are formed. So when people see a combination of separate actions that, coincidentally, amount to keeping a damper on the development of e-books, they add two and two and get a conspiracy. If publishers are already putting “protectionist” price policies into effect, and they make their reputation on releasing nearly error-free print books, what reason could they have for releasing error-riddled e-books except to, gasp, turn people off of e-books so that they buy print books instead.

    And the effect of all this is magnified by the lack of good communication between publishers—who up to now considered distributors and retailers their “customers”—and consumers. Because “the Cabots speak only to God”, consumers (especially those consumers who are also bloggers) are left free to invent their own reasons for things.

    (And it doesn’t help that most of the time the publishers do attempt to communicate, they come off so damned tone-deaf, as in the example of HarperCollins telling libraries that they were imposing restrictions on their e-books for the libraries’ own good.)

    Publishers really should have started paying more attention to e-books ten years ago and laying the foundation for a smoother transition, but they didn’t because it was such a tiny fraction of the market back then and they wouldn’t have seen any return on their investments. (Among other things, if they’d done so we’d probably have had territorial e-book selling restrictions from the start, and they wouldn’t have come as such a shock when they were suddenly imposed a couple of years ago.)

    But industries usually don’t pay any mind to disruptive technologies until it’s way too late. That’s why Netflix and Redbox essentially killed Blockbuster, and digital cameras nearly killed Kodak. Now that the market is more established, it takes a lot more effort to change the momentum, and every change from the way consumers are already used to having it takes that much more effort and is that much more jarring.

    Hachette just announced that e-books made up 25% of their total sales by volume (not revenue) in the US this last year. It sure would be nice if publishers started paying more attention to the quality of the medium that makes up 25% of their units moved.

  20. Joel Blacklock Says:

    especially since the paper books had already paid for the costs of developing the manuscript. (They had to have, given that sales of e-books were infinitesimal by comparison.)

    This is a good example of a misconception that is informing your bad opinion of publishers. A significant proportion of books don’t make back their advance, and don’t pay out on the development costs. This is something central to the publishing industry that most people don’t realise. Most books don’t make money, but we don’t know which ones will and which ones won’t until afterwards. The development costs are the same.

    This is what readers don’t seem to understand. Publishers make very little money, even when they’re doing well. This is why they haven’t had the money to invest in digital publishing, and it’s why there are errors, and it’s why the prices are high. Publishers are learning that there are great gains to be had by dropping prices for some titles below what is cost-effective (unless they sell in great volume), but they won’t be able to afford to do so for many others. They’re also learning quite how many errors have snuck into the ebooks they’ve put out there – and I’m telling you they’re horrified.

    It’s not ideal, but while publishing books is still such a crapshoot there will always be some issues. It’s not a conspiracy, though, Chris. And it’s not helpful to characterise it as such, no matter what your reptilian hindbrain says.

  21. Bernadette Says:

    Well done – none of those titles are available at Booku (or were not as of last night when I searched by author) but I haven’t checked the other sites for about a month. I gave up on Borders in about December (worst customer service ever but at least I’m not blaming publishers for that)

    Reading these comments and those at the other blogs (with ‘the idiots’) it does seem that Publishers have an uphill battle to get some decent public perception happening – somehow they’ve managed to stray into the used car salesman or banking executive territory. I honestly have no idea how you go about changing that but one of the things that hit home for me from Jon Page’s article about bookselling in Australia was when he noted the different minimum wage for Australia vs America – I hadn’t really thought about that before, nor about how much that would impact on every level of the bookselling chain – having a solid fact like that was useful to me because it took all the emotion and the ‘I think they’re lying’ out of the equation – I could check the fact for myself if I chose to. Those of us who are interested in this issue (i.e. more than just casual readers) are doing a lot of comparisons between ourselves and the US/UK so anything that makes it clear why things are different here is useful – or maybe a ‘life of a book’ kind of thing that shows an average selling book from when a publisher buys it to when it ends up on the remainders table – where does the money come and go throughout that cycle? I have no idea myself but I have a LOT of assumptions about it – most of which are not kind to publishers (sorry)

  22. Anna Says:

    Bernadette — just in defence of publishers, I work for a major publisher and we do try to make the e-book available at the same time as the print edition. However sometimes it takes a while for the files to get processed through the e-tailers’ systems. I had this problem with one of my titles and it took two or three weeks to appear on Amazon. So even though I can understand why it sometimes seems like we’re not making the effort to get the books out quickly, we’re not always in charge of every stage of the process.

  23. Celia Says:

    As a mere reader I am guilty of hurling blame at publishers for poorly presented and error riddled etexts. The difficulty of locating ebook versions of recently released books, compounded by finding some ebooks ONLY on Amazon, has also led me into error. Whilst not exactly contrite, I am grateful to you for offering up useful info which puts it in perspective. I think what is needed is wider distribution of posts like yours to balance the picture. After all, from this side of the fence if the ebooks are full of grit but the printed ones aren’t AND so many reading friends think you’ve defected to the Dark Side because you own an ereader, well your thoughts drift to the idea that you’re Fringe and that publishers might also view you as Fringe and from that all sorts of ill-founded thoughts flow. Btw, thank you for such a good blog.

  24. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Hi Celia, thanks for your comment. I think it’s interesting to look at what fringe means here. Australian publishers of ebooks – despite the increasing number of ebook readers – are providing a fringe service (with an undoubtedly massive area of growth). They haven’t had the money to invest in this area heavily enough until more recently (and some still aren’t). That’s really why the availability and quality is still low – it’s a new technology still catering to a relatively small group of people. Nonetheless, almost all of the people I know in publishing are grateful to ebook readers and excited about the future – none of us like to see errors in our books, and we’re all working very hard to bring the quality level up.

  25. Celia Says:

    There’s a very interesting slide show at the Dear Author blog: http://dearauthor.com/ebooks/the-oddities-of-digital-books/ which shows a nightmare experience with a sample ebook from Penguin. A fine e.g. of a publisher not adapting to an online environment, a result of which, is that the reader feels less than valued. A real ‘how-not-to’. (We all need those to keep us walking the talk!)