Do You Believe in Ebooks?

You may not have heard, but the publishing industry is not doing all that well at the moment. The market is shrinking in lots of ways. It might bounce back, but it’s likely that there is a general trend towards publishers needing to seek new ways of making money from the written word. If not now then soon. In this climate, ebooks are not something to be feared, yet there is a general tendency, especially among people who don’t understand, don’t use or don’t like ebooks to build them into a monster of mythic proportions. The fact is, however, that ebooks are not changing the industry. The industry is changing itself.

An author asked a friend of mine the other day if the decline of the second format market (that’s cheap paperbacks) was the fault of ebooks. Another friend who passed this blog along to an acquaintance was actually asked “Do you believe in all that stuff?” All that stuff, presumably, means ebooks – as if ebooks were magic pixie fairy dust that would be influenced by our collective belief or non-belief. Don’t they realise that every time you say you don’t believe, an ebook dies?

Seriously, though, ebooks are not something to be feared. They are at worst another potential revenue stream, and at best a whole new way of looking at telling stories. My beliefs on the matter (which make less than no difference to the outcome) fall somewhere between these two. At any rate, the future, whether you like it or not, will very likely include ebooks to some extent.

But for how long? Is the ebook itself already an old way of thinking about writing and selling stories? If so, what will come next?  Clay Shirky, author of the excellent Cognitive Surplus wrote a post some time ago about the death of the newspaper industry called ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable‘. Much of what he says there about newspapers applies equally to publishing books. Snip:

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift … It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

We in the book publishing industry are far further away from demise than the newspaper industry, but it doesn’t take a massive leap of imagination to put us in the same situation. I’ve seen it myself. “Leadership,” Shirky writes, “becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en bloc.” Sound familiar?

All of this isn’t to say that the book is dead. Newspapers and books aren’t the same, and the internet has not had the same effect on books as it has had on newspapers. But that is not to say that the digitisation of publishing – a process which started long before ebooks and will continue after them – is not going to have a profound effect on the way written stories reach readers. The one thing we can be sure of, though, is that the stories themselves will still be there. You might not believe in ebooks, but you can believe in that.

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Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.

20 thoughts on “Do You Believe in Ebooks?”

  1. Slightly of topic, but (if you believe the sentiment) what in your opinion is the cause for the decline of the second format market?

    1. In Australia, as I understand it, it’s because the first trade paperback format is so heavily discounted by the big chains that when the second format comes out the average cost-conscious reader hasn’t waited for it – they’ve just shopped at Big W. So we sell more trade paperbacks and less normal paperbacks. That and people are reading less…

  2. Slightly of topic, but (if you believe the sentiment) what in your opinion is the cause for the decline of the second format market?

    1. In Australia, as I understand it, it’s because the first trade paperback format is so heavily discounted by the big chains that when the second format comes out the average cost-conscious reader hasn’t waited for it – they’ve just shopped at Big W. So we sell more trade paperbacks and less normal paperbacks. That and people are reading less…

  3. I am of the opinion that everything is either content or content delivery.

    E-books are one way to read content. Paper books have a lot of advantages that e-books can never have.Even Audiobooks have a killer advantage for some people, they allow people who can not read traditional type to consume content.

    The important thing about all book formats is the content. Without the content, why bother with books in the first place?

    The delivery system is a preference. Some people prefer the tactile feel of a book, why others prefer the convenience of reading a book on any device they want.

    The best publishers will have to realise they are a delivery service with added on service for the author (ie editing, marketing, art direction, distribution). many people will not need a publisher in an e-book world, however, to allow the widest penertration of a marketplace, a publisher has the skills and know how to do this.

    My fear is that traditional book retail is getting killed. In Australia, it is cheaper to order a book from the BookDepository and faster too (to prove this, I ordered the same book from my local book seller and BookDepitory. BD came earlier and over 1/2 the price cheaper).

    In a nutshell, I really dont care what format i read a book, and often own multiple formats of the same book. I want the freedom to read whenever and however I want.

    And no format gives the prefect answer for this need.

  4. I am of the opinion that everything is either content or content delivery.

    E-books are one way to read content. Paper books have a lot of advantages that e-books can never have.Even Audiobooks have a killer advantage for some people, they allow people who can not read traditional type to consume content.

    The important thing about all book formats is the content. Without the content, why bother with books in the first place?

    The delivery system is a preference. Some people prefer the tactile feel of a book, why others prefer the convenience of reading a book on any device they want.

    The best publishers will have to realise they are a delivery service with added on service for the author (ie editing, marketing, art direction, distribution). many people will not need a publisher in an e-book world, however, to allow the widest penertration of a marketplace, a publisher has the skills and know how to do this.

    My fear is that traditional book retail is getting killed. In Australia, it is cheaper to order a book from the BookDepository and faster too (to prove this, I ordered the same book from my local book seller and BookDepitory. BD came earlier and over 1/2 the price cheaper).

    In a nutshell, I really dont care what format i read a book, and often own multiple formats of the same book. I want the freedom to read whenever and however I want.

    And no format gives the prefect answer for this need.

  5. You know I do think a few things are meeting in a ‘perfect storm’ for publishing and traditional high-street retail which have spillbacks onto writers and readers. No I don’t think the paper-book is going to die. I think e-books, added to the high price of books in Australia, added to fact that the feedback loop – both of what readers want, and possibly more importantly, what they don’t want, has been so heavily obscured by chain retail and access to that retail-space, added onto the manyfold increase in books… has actually led (bizarrely enough with increasing numbers of titles) to the inverse of what the system needs. As newspapers showed (where very few national newspapers served the US, now they have niched, and increasingly are having to go digital just to stay afloat) people don’t actually all want the same thing, so a situation where 1% of books account for 99% of sales… says there is a failure to get readers what they actually want rather than that 1% are most popular – a situation where reader numbers decline.
    E-retailer, or other retailers that hit on methods of linking readers with books they will love will do better, and not just in e-book format.
    Publishers… well if they want to stay afloat they will have to fnd ways of either getting a lock on the retail space again (difficult with the net) or selling MORE (at smaller margins) – which means competing and actually getting the right book for the right niche.
    All of these things are possible, they just take some thought.

    1. I don’t think it’s really an issue of just ‘giving these things some thought’ as you say. I agree that it’s a perfect storm, and that it’s very likely we’ll see a decline in sales of books that will shrink the industry – both in publishing and retail. Having said that, I don’t think there’s a solution out there right now. I think Clay Shirky’s closing paragraph is just as relevant for the book publishing industry as it is for the newspaper industry. “No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.”

  6. You know I do think a few things are meeting in a ‘perfect storm’ for publishing and traditional high-street retail which have spillbacks onto writers and readers. No I don’t think the paper-book is going to die. I think e-books, added to the high price of books in Australia, added to fact that the feedback loop – both of what readers want, and possibly more importantly, what they don’t want, has been so heavily obscured by chain retail and access to that retail-space, added onto the manyfold increase in books… has actually led (bizarrely enough with increasing numbers of titles) to the inverse of what the system needs. As newspapers showed (where very few national newspapers served the US, now they have niched, and increasingly are having to go digital just to stay afloat) people don’t actually all want the same thing, so a situation where 1% of books account for 99% of sales… says there is a failure to get readers what they actually want rather than that 1% are most popular – a situation where reader numbers decline.
    E-retailer, or other retailers that hit on methods of linking readers with books they will love will do better, and not just in e-book format.
    Publishers… well if they want to stay afloat they will have to fnd ways of either getting a lock on the retail space again (difficult with the net) or selling MORE (at smaller margins) – which means competing and actually getting the right book for the right niche.
    All of these things are possible, they just take some thought.

    1. I don’t think it’s really an issue of just ‘giving these things some thought’ as you say. I agree that it’s a perfect storm, and that it’s very likely we’ll see a decline in sales of books that will shrink the industry – both in publishing and retail. Having said that, I don’t think there’s a solution out there right now. I think Clay Shirky’s closing paragraph is just as relevant for the book publishing industry as it is for the newspaper industry. “No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.”

  7. Joel, I certainly don’t think it is a simple matter, but I do think it is solvable – but that does require, as you say multiple approaches, and a break from the historic model. For example, online retail needs more profile / book matching capacity (a programming and data quality problem – being worked on by various retailers right now. Google does it and working hard on refining it forex.). Publishing in general needs the sort of statistical help that many other commercial enterprises have been using for a long time. For example, editors need statistical corrections when taking buying and marketing decisions (so for example taking a decision on acquiring a novel, at the moment an editor has GIGO Bookscan numbers of previous sales. These do not allow them correct for things like initial laydown, sellthrough, marketing etc. Without quality data, prediction becomes difficult except for a few intuitive geniuses, and implausible for most (ie, if it works accurately every time then someone has crooked the system, or been very lucky.) Crooking the system is expensive both in the short and long term, yet editors are supposed to get it close to right, or they are percieved as not doing their job well… so there is a good reason to tailor things to their initial prediction even if that was made on poor data. So being able to make accurate forecasts would make the business a lot more profitable at lower margins. That’s just two of the possible areas that I can see by applying my mind (Ok so my background is in mathematical modelling – of fish populations). Neither are — in the scale of businesses paying $50 million dollar advances to certain authors in the US — particularly expensive or novel — they are within existant methodology. I am sure there are a lot of other interventions, both at a larger and smaller scale that could be investigated… but they’d taking thinking of and acting on. And not all will work.

    1. I agree with what you’re saying in principle, but I truly do not believe that a statistical model can be put together to predict a successful book. I know it sounds like bunk (especially to someone with a background in mathematical modelling), but I quite suspect that if it were possible to predict with accuracy the success or failure of a new author based on the data alone, it would be being done by now. In fact, if that were possible it would not be necessary to have commissioning editors and publishers at all.

      So too with the recommendation engines. Amazon has a fairly good system of recommending authors and books you might like based on your previous likes and dislikes – but it is far from accurate. I’ve had far more luck with recommendations from real people. Reading and writing is quite a chaotic process. As Stephen Fry said the other day, Amazon might have just as much success recommending that you read books that are the complete opposite of books you just read…

  8. Joel, I certainly don’t think it is a simple matter, but I do think it is solvable – but that does require, as you say multiple approaches, and a break from the historic model. For example, online retail needs more profile / book matching capacity (a programming and data quality problem – being worked on by various retailers right now. Google does it and working hard on refining it forex.). Publishing in general needs the sort of statistical help that many other commercial enterprises have been using for a long time. For example, editors need statistical corrections when taking buying and marketing decisions (so for example taking a decision on acquiring a novel, at the moment an editor has GIGO Bookscan numbers of previous sales. These do not allow them correct for things like initial laydown, sellthrough, marketing etc. Without quality data, prediction becomes difficult except for a few intuitive geniuses, and implausible for most (ie, if it works accurately every time then someone has crooked the system, or been very lucky.) Crooking the system is expensive both in the short and long term, yet editors are supposed to get it close to right, or they are percieved as not doing their job well… so there is a good reason to tailor things to their initial prediction even if that was made on poor data. So being able to make accurate forecasts would make the business a lot more profitable at lower margins. That’s just two of the possible areas that I can see by applying my mind (Ok so my background is in mathematical modelling – of fish populations). Neither are — in the scale of businesses paying $50 million dollar advances to certain authors in the US — particularly expensive or novel — they are within existant methodology. I am sure there are a lot of other interventions, both at a larger and smaller scale that could be investigated… but they’d taking thinking of and acting on. And not all will work.

    1. I agree with what you’re saying in principle, but I truly do not believe that a statistical model can be put together to predict a successful book. I know it sounds like bunk (especially to someone with a background in mathematical modelling), but I quite suspect that if it were possible to predict with accuracy the success or failure of a new author based on the data alone, it would be being done by now. In fact, if that were possible it would not be necessary to have commissioning editors and publishers at all.

      So too with the recommendation engines. Amazon has a fairly good system of recommending authors and books you might like based on your previous likes and dislikes – but it is far from accurate. I’ve had far more luck with recommendations from real people. Reading and writing is quite a chaotic process. As Stephen Fry said the other day, Amazon might have just as much success recommending that you read books that are the complete opposite of books you just read…

  9. Predict the success of any individual book? No. I agree with you there. This is where people misunderstand statisical modelling. It doesn’t predict individual events, it simply tells you how probable that is. In other words: an editor or retailer is gambling based on instincts and experience, right? This just tells you what chance you have of being right :-). The odds, in horse-racing terms. Moreover, it doesn’t make a gambler’s decision for him. It just gives them the tools to see how likely something is, and usually can play into a bunch of scenarios, giving him approximations and probabilities in each. In other words, you like Mr Smith’s latest book. His agent wants $50 000 for it. You also have Mr Jones’s book which you like too. His agent wants $60K. And you love Ms Red’s book. She’s sold one book before, small press, no agent, but she wants $10K for it. You have one slot and a fairly tight budget. At the moment, you have your gut feel and the bookscan figures to decide what you buy. If you had better quality data (ie. laydown, returns, normal sales of that sub-genre and laydown within each geographic area (ie. Ms Red’s hardboiled urban fantasy, a genre with an average sellthrough of a,b,c,d,e,f% in the six bookshops she was able to place it in, sold between 10-15% more than genre average, except at the unversity bookshop where she sold 25% less. She sold far less copies than Smith or Jones, but they are actually running at near average sellthrough for their subgenre. Therefore your instinct was right. A good model will translate up what she would probably earn your company if you could push her into 100 retail outlets – knowing what subgenre averages they sell). Given this – you could say which of the three would make your company more money, which had the lower risk, what was actually a reasonable ask for the books in question. It could also tell the retailer which were good bets for their area, and publisher where to push distribution. It doesn’t over-ride judgement, it just adds a tool which, when margins are thin, can make the world of difference.

    The Amazon recommendation thing. Trust me – this is still very primitive, just above Folsom points on spears if you had to compare the matching technology to weapons technology. It’s a big step from pointed sticks but a long way to H-bombs. Data-mining and matching and the analysis of this for your likes, needs and wants is going to get a lot better and a LOT more intrusive. I could explain some of it but I feel like a bore already :-).

  10. Predict the success of any individual book? No. I agree with you there. This is where people misunderstand statisical modelling. It doesn’t predict individual events, it simply tells you how probable that is. In other words: an editor or retailer is gambling based on instincts and experience, right? This just tells you what chance you have of being right :-). The odds, in horse-racing terms. Moreover, it doesn’t make a gambler’s decision for him. It just gives them the tools to see how likely something is, and usually can play into a bunch of scenarios, giving him approximations and probabilities in each. In other words, you like Mr Smith’s latest book. His agent wants $50 000 for it. You also have Mr Jones’s book which you like too. His agent wants $60K. And you love Ms Red’s book. She’s sold one book before, small press, no agent, but she wants $10K for it. You have one slot and a fairly tight budget. At the moment, you have your gut feel and the bookscan figures to decide what you buy. If you had better quality data (ie. laydown, returns, normal sales of that sub-genre and laydown within each geographic area (ie. Ms Red’s hardboiled urban fantasy, a genre with an average sellthrough of a,b,c,d,e,f% in the six bookshops she was able to place it in, sold between 10-15% more than genre average, except at the unversity bookshop where she sold 25% less. She sold far less copies than Smith or Jones, but they are actually running at near average sellthrough for their subgenre. Therefore your instinct was right. A good model will translate up what she would probably earn your company if you could push her into 100 retail outlets – knowing what subgenre averages they sell). Given this – you could say which of the three would make your company more money, which had the lower risk, what was actually a reasonable ask for the books in question. It could also tell the retailer which were good bets for their area, and publisher where to push distribution. It doesn’t over-ride judgement, it just adds a tool which, when margins are thin, can make the world of difference.

    The Amazon recommendation thing. Trust me – this is still very primitive, just above Folsom points on spears if you had to compare the matching technology to weapons technology. It’s a big step from pointed sticks but a long way to H-bombs. Data-mining and matching and the analysis of this for your likes, needs and wants is going to get a lot better and a LOT more intrusive. I could explain some of it but I feel like a bore already :-).

  11. Pingback: The Smell of Books » Algorithm and Blues
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  13. I think books – no matter what their format are here to stay. It is just that the traditional methods of reading them are changing. You cant blame any one area but I truely believe that better access to books must be here to stay. Hunking great paper tomes on public transport, planes ect is a dead loss. Whats hurting everyone the writer, reader, publisher et al is the slowness that the printing industry is responding. e-books must get cheaper, easier to obtain and most of all be up to date – that is the thing I hate most about e-reading is the newest books are just not available. This coupled with the cost of the hardware and the downloading issues and not being able to get a copy of the book I want sometimes just frustrate me beyond belief. Why cant I get books that are easily available in the USA and Canada – why do I have to read books that are sometimes years old because publishers/sellers out here are slackers. Get off your bums I want a vital, alive, new e-book industry with books I want to read

  14. I think books – no matter what their format are here to stay. It is just that the traditional methods of reading them are changing. You cant blame any one area but I truely believe that better access to books must be here to stay. Hunking great paper tomes on public transport, planes ect is a dead loss. Whats hurting everyone the writer, reader, publisher et al is the slowness that the printing industry is responding. e-books must get cheaper, easier to obtain and most of all be up to date – that is the thing I hate most about e-reading is the newest books are just not available. This coupled with the cost of the hardware and the downloading issues and not being able to get a copy of the book I want sometimes just frustrate me beyond belief. Why cant I get books that are easily available in the USA and Canada – why do I have to read books that are sometimes years old because publishers/sellers out here are slackers. Get off your bums I want a vital, alive, new e-book industry with books I want to read

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