Home » Ebook/Ereader Growth, Ebooks, Mike Shatzkin » We do not yet know whether ebooks will work for anything except readerly books

We do not yet know whether ebooks will work for anything except readerly books

4 December 2013

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

In the 1990s, Mark Bide would always begin the “Publishing in the 21st Century” conferences we ran by reviewing the research we had done around some aspect of digital change in publishing with the admonition that book publishing was “many very different businesses.” By that, Mark meant that trade publishers (who sold primarily through bookstores) were quite different from college textbook publishers and schoolbook publishers and sci-tech publishers and database publishers (who did not, and shared different dissimilarities with each other).

All of them were in the “book” business because all of them put their publishing output into bound pages for packaging and sale. But, aside from that, the commonalities in business model were all within the segments of book publishing, not across them. And when we were running these conferences 15 or 20 years ago we wanted our attendees to understand that how digital change might affect trade books might be quite different than how it would affect textbooks or professional books.

. . . .

Last week Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader pointed my eyeballs at a story from the UK about a very prominent gardening author who, at age 85, has decided to stop writing gardening books because he believes his audience now gets that information from the Web, not from books.

Dr. David Hessayon created the Experts series of gardening guides and has been delivering more and more of them for over five decades, distributed in the UK by a division of Random House. But his sales figures and his insight into digital change tell him that “the how-to-do-it book has lost its absolute supremacy. To write a bestseller now you need to choose something that you can’t look up on Google.”

. . . .

Now it is the trade book business which is showing it is many book businesses, a fact that is being revealed by the shift to digital. And publishers are increasingly realizing the truth of this and that they have to focus on that fact as they plan their futures.

. . . .

We have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that digital versions of narrative immersive reading — which I define as books you read from page one to page last — if made reflowable will satisfy the vast majority of the book’s print audience. Some people have switched to devices and some haven’t. Some stubbornly prefer printed books. Some find reading on a phone too cramped or reading on a computer too confining. But almost everybody finds reading on an ereader to be quite satisfactory (even if they don’t find it preferable to print). And if the book reflows and you can pick your type size, the ways it could have been improved but wasn’t always (seamless note-taking ability, improved navigation, ability to share) don’t interfere with your personal reading enjoyment. So these books have “worked” commercially as ebooks, particularly since the cost of getting to a digital version is trivial.

However, the complementary fact is that we have not yet found a formula that works for any other kind of book.

. . . .

How-to books haven’t sold well as ebooks. Reference books haven’t sold well as ebooks. Cookbooks haven’t sold well as ebooks. If you dip in and out; if you rely on illustrations (which maybe should be videos); if your book is just filled with pretty pictures; then there is no formula for a digital version that has demonstrated mass commercial appeal.

. . . .

What this means is that the digital future for narrative reading — fiction and non-fiction — is much clearer than it is for any other kind of book. Publishers of novels can apparently count on their sales shifting from print to digital and from in-store to online without losing a lot of readers. And with not much in the way of conversion costs, publishers of these books can proceed with their development with some confidence that the changes in publishing’s landscape and ecosystem won’t throw the calculations they are making for future profits on today’s acquisitions into a cocked hat.

But publishers of everything else have no basis for similar confidence.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

PG notes that most of the things he sees on his smart phone, tablet or computer screen have lots of photos, illustrations and graphics, so there’s nothing inherent in electronic screens that make them unsuitable for such content.

While Mike is correct that traditional publishers may not be selling ebook versions of cookbooks, how-to, etc., the Internet is jammed with very popular websites devoted to recipes and how-to items. People may not buy ebook versions of cookbooks because they’re getting electronic recipes, complete with illustrations and videos, directly from web locations.

For traditional publishers, it’s possible that some types of books won’t transition from printed to ebooks, but from printed versions to nothing.

While Casa PG still receives a lot of holiday catalogs in paper form at this season, the number is down from previous years, perhaps because fewer people are interested in that sort of highly illustrated publication on paper.

Ebook/Ereader Growth, Ebooks, Mike Shatzkin

35 Comments to “We do not yet know whether ebooks will work for anything except readerly books”

  1. Perhaps static knowledge (like gardening how-to info) really does want to be free (on the internet). But people seem to be willing to pay for new works of the imagination (such as novels) and new knowledge or new insights into old knowledge (really useful non-fiction).

    Time will tell how this all shakes out. It may be that the price points will be too low to support many people other than the creators of these new works, and that would drastically change the publishing paradigm. There simply may not be a lot of jobs in publishing in the future, besides the job of “writer”.

  2. I’ve been trying to make this point for a long time:

    It’s foolish to think that all types of books are competing with ebooks. (Physical) Books are cardboard boxes for ideas. Cardboard boxes are really cool, but people buy the thing inside.

    Here are questions publishers should be asking:

    1. Does the content of this book gain value from being linked to and searchable on the Internet?

    2. Is text the right format for this information?

    3. Does this content lend itself to a self-guided experience?

  3. I have the Mark Bittman “How to Cook Everything” iOS app. It has some great recipes, but it’s also limiting (and it doesn’t include photos or videos, which I’m actually fine with — just give me the core recipe and any variations). Once you’ve gone through the recipes, what else do you do? On the other hand, with Evernote, I can create a binder that includes recipes from all over and can access it on almost any electronic device.

    • Evernote is always in the running for my favorite program award.

    • Combined with Evernote’s Food app, it’s even better. Just be sure to create a separate notebook for recipes or the food app will start pulling in other random notes from that notebook. I actually started photographing my favorite recipes out of my paper cookbooks for inclusion in the food app.

  4. PG,

    Is it possible that the number of catalogs littering the mailbox of su Casa is down because you now buy everything (or much of it) from the big Zon and those you no longer get have given up on you?


    • I’m sure that has something to do with it, James, but we do buy some things from other vendors (Mrs. PG more than me). Plus many of the catalogs are from places where we’ve never bought anything.

  5. I bought the ebook version of a cookbook (or whatever you want to call it) for my (then new) bread machine. It’s a bit of a chore to go thru for recipes, but I’ve bookmarked a few, which helps.

    And I like that I don’t have to lug a big-ass book around to make different breads and such. :-)

    • I’ve also been buying cookbooks. It helps if they have linkable TOC’s and a linkable index. Very few do. Another help would be to include navigation links back to the index or TOC. The point is that publishers could make these types of books more usable if they had the will and the imagination to do so.

      Making digital cookbooks hard to use, doesn’t encourage me to buy more print cookbooks–I don’t have room. I just use the Internet to find recipes and then save them with Evernote.

  6. Two publishing consultants in one:

    July 23, 2013:

    All of this should spell opportunity for other retailers, particularly those who are in “verticals” where there is a lot of publishing: gardening, home repair, and crafts, as examples. Just about every retailer could benefit from a customized selection of books that would both attract and excite their core audience, often stimulating them to buy the other things the store sells.

    December 4, 2013:

    The good doctor is right that “books” are no longer the best commercial form for monetizing a lot of information, but that doesn’t mean the information isn’t valuable, if it is delivered in different sized chunks under a different commercial model.

    To paraphrase the Devil’s Dictionary definition of Dentist:

    Consultant, n. A prestidigitator who, putting ideas into your head, pulls coins out of your pocket.

  7. As a book producer, the biggest problem I have with non-fiction ebooks are the writers (and I’ll include publishers in this, since I believe many of them share the same problem) who do not understand how ebooks work or what can be done with them and, more importantly, how readers use them.

    WRITER: “I need it to look just like my print version.”
    ME: “No, you don’t. It’s more important how the ebook acts.”
    WRITER: “What do you mean by internal and external links?”
    ME: It’s how the readers navigate and find useful information.”
    WRITER: “Why is there a problem with my table of contents?”
    ME: “Chapter and sub-heads need useful titles. ‘Chapter 1′ is not enough information. Cute sub-heads out of context are not enough information.”
    And so it goes, on and on and on…

    The majority of fiction writers I work with have ereaders and read ebooks. The majority of non-fiction writers do not. Experienced ebook readers see the possibilities in digital reference books and textbooks and cookbooks. Non-experienced writers just want them to look like the print version. A well-designed non-fiction ebook should act like a well-designed website, easy to navigate and easy to reference. It doesn’t need bells and whistles–pop-ups or videos or any of that. It just has to be useful. Until they are useful, readers don’t want to hassle with them.

    • +1 for this!

      I just reviewed a how-to book on my blog which had no hyperlinked table of contents. It also had a list of links that weren’t live links, just the URL, as if you’re going to go type them in at your computer instead of clicking them right from your ereader or tablet.

      So clearly the author doesn’t understand ebooks or really anything about the digital age.

      The subject of the book? How to use Twitter. :::facepalm:::

    • Digital cookbooks used to be formatted just like paper books. They were impossible to use because many cookbooks have 2 columns.
      I recently purchased Richard Bertinet’s Pastry published in the US by Chronicle and it’s formatted for digital. It’s lovely.

    • Absolutely what Jaye said. Although I’ve made e-books for a lot of clueless fiction writers too, they seem considerably more au courant as a group, and more independent minded. Most of my non-fiction clients want a great deal more hand-holding as we hike the learning curve of indie publishing. A few of them don’t want to dirty their hands in any part of it.

    • I was just thinking along these lines, Jaye. There are cases where paper books are still more convenient than a website. A good paper book that’s easy to reference, which is sitting right on my desk at all times, is convenient and doesn’t take up my computer screen. Is that going to change? Absolutely. Tablets are going to become the new on-hand reference book. It just hasn’t happened yet.

    • The thing is, it’s not even hard to figure out how to assemble a usable non-fiction digital package.
      People in the PC world have been doing it for literally decades, commercial digital non-fiction has been around since the days of Apple’s HyperCard at least.

      The classic two column display, with a live outline/TOC on the left and heavily hyperlinked body text on the right is classic because it works. Even after Microsoft deprecated their CHM format people still use it because it is effective.

    • I hadn’t thought about it this clearly, but I think Jaye has outlined why I don’t like most nonfiction in ebook format and am so far sticking to print for that.

      Another factor for me, though, is the way I use nonfiction books. Margin notes, post-it notes, having several books open at once, photocopying individual pages to use (cookbooks, how-to books, travel books) on which I made still more notes, photocopying relevant pages to put into a personal research notebook (for when I’m working on a novel, for example), etc. Non of this really works with ebooks.

    • Let me rephrase what Jaye is saying in fancy-schmancy geek talk. Non-fiction content producers need to rethink their information architecture. They should be developing use cases that describe how and why people access their content. Develop personas that represent your primary customer archetypes. Think carefully about the affordances you offer.

      Or, in more colloquial terms, get your head out of your nether regions and figuring why the h-e-double toothpicks anybody would want to pay you for what you’re selling.

  8. You know why cars have four wheels? Because the horse-drawn buggy had for wheels. We build on what we know, and so is the e-book. A paper book is static, and if you want additional information you have to search for it elsewhere. The e-Book, for luck of a better name, is information delivered electronically. All of us are used to this because of the Internet. For non-fiction subjects, links to other sources of information, illustrations, or pictures, or imagine this: a video. For fiction books more pictures or author’s interview about the book, the sky is the limit. Think website, not paper. This reminds me I better start applying some of this stuff to my books, especially after I learned how to squinch. :)

    • Just to be argumentative, I’d say that the mechanics of wheels and axles and weight distribution and balance transferred directly over to automobiles. I’m having trouble thinking of a better comparison, though, because the shift from paper to stored bits is rather drastic, while still maintaining a lot of the old.

      • I’ll agree with that. Yes, horse-drawn carriages (some of them) had four wheels, and cars have four wheels, but trucks and buses and locomotives and railway cars and motorcycles do not have four wheels. If there had been any benefit to giving a car more than four wheels (or fewer), it would have been done. Tradition had little or nothing to do with it.

        What ebooks have in common with paper books, for the most part, they also have in common with scrolls and clay tablets: that is, the medium of writing itself and not much else. Apple’s iBooks app has a visual effect that recreates the look and feel of turning a page in a printed book; but then, Kindle turns pages by scrolling sideways, which recreates the look and feel of reading the next column in a scroll. The folks at the Library of Alexandria would have felt right at home.

  9. Enhanced e-books that act more like websites would be my preferred way of using reference books, but even then it’s a little awkward sometimes. I prefer computers for that kind of thing because of the screen size. I use dual monitors and multiple tabs of internet browsers (I have 6 open right now), so I not only have a lot of screen space to work with, but I have the “flip-to” option available, you know?

    That’s my biggest gripe with reference-style e-books. If you want to flip to something in particular, you can’t do it as easily. It’s unwieldy in a lot of ways, which makes it uncomfortable and awkward, mentally.

    Random example: If I have a cookbook and I want to switch back and forth between multiple recipes I’m cooking, I can do that easily with a physical book.

    Same example on my computer, I can still do it easily by having each recipe in its own tab on my computer. I could even put different recipes on both of my monitors, so all I have to do is look from one to the other.

    The e-book version doesn’t afford me any of that. There’s too many steps. Yes, I could bookmark each recipe, but then many recipes would span multiple pages for an e-book and I’d have to click through to other things to reach my bookmarks, and so on and so forth. It’s not impossible, but it’s not as simple as something I could do with a physical book or the internet/my computer, so…

    If cookbooks had tabbed browsing of some sort built into the book, where there was a sidebar in the e-book or it wasn’t a “flip page” e-book so much as a “slide your finger down” type, so you could switch the flow up more easily, I think those sorts of things would do a ton better. A cookbook “app” would be more efficient and useful than a cookbook e-book in those regards, but apps suffer a lot because of the fact that they aren’t e-books, and so people don’t consider them when searching for “books.”

    These things are certainly possible, and honestly not even that difficult to do, but they aren’t currently possible using any of the common e-readers or e-reader apps.

  10. Thoughtful article – good topic.

    I also agree with Jaye. It’s all about the format.

    I absolutely trust that accessible easy-to-manage non-fiction digital formats are about to be developed, although I agree with PG that some things will probably fade away, replaced by a completely different format.

    Or morphed. Although it’s true that the dry ‘how to’ book is probably less appealing to the consumer, if I were writing books about gardening, I would develop a website that people google, post articles that would draw readers, and sell my books from that. People are still drawn to ‘gurus’ as much as they are to the information.

  11. However, the complementary fact is that we have not yet found a formula that works for any other kind of book.

    Well, were not sure the Titanic will sink. Look, there are still several levels above water. We don’t know for sure they will go down with the rest. I mean, we can’t be 100% sure. And the band is still playing…

  12. That’s true we don’t know but I can make an educated guess about where will be a few years in the future. Thing is its not terribly difficult (from what I can surmise) to program a tablet to make different types of books easier to digest.

    I believe part and parcel that digital books, magazines and apps will become a significant part of the “book” landscape.

    If Google and/or Amazon could develop an app similar to ibooksauthor so we can get this ball on the road because like it or not, like the sunrise its coming and won’t be stopped.

    And I’m not saying all books will be “enhanced” but I am saying certain types of books will benefit. Much of the non fiction I read is educational in nature and often a diagram or short video helps to better understand the material, at least for me.

    Thing is, this isn’t an either or, its just another choice which is a good thing.

    On a side note does anybody remember the experts who proudly proclaimed that households wouldn’t need computers and consumers wouldn’t buy them if offered or how ’bout this one- professionals wouldn’t use computers because secretaries type.

    Since these devices were developed they’ve been knocking down one wall after the next.

    I’m all for more choice. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t but I wouldn’t bet against it.

  13. Yeah, this. Though I think it’s a matter of allowing ebooks to have more bookmarks (and most followed routes etc) and links within to allow the reader to search these better. in some innovative way I can’t think of yet.

  14. I think we need to remember we are still early in the development of the ebook and ereaders. Part of the problem is the html used at the core of current ebooks is very limited and the older readers aren’t much more than text readers, they aren’t designed for rich media (talking iInk things here) However when we move past the dedicated reader to tablets I think ebooks will essentially be web pages.

  15. Cookbooks will be replaced by something that is nothing like a book. It won’t be a website or an app either. It will be a service that works like this. You decide you want to have paella tomorrow night. You go to Amazon and you select the paella package. You deselect the items you don’t need and the rest of the ingredients get delivered (by drone) in plenty of time for tomorrow’s dinner. Your Kindle Fire has the streaming video of the paella recipe cued up for you to watch when you are ready to make dinner. Bezos needs to get his people on this.

    The point of this scenario is to think about what people want. It’s never a book. I repeat, nobody ever wants a book. They want a story or inner peace or to learn node.js or whatever. Many people who buy cookbooks want new food tastes. Figure out how to give them what they want.

    Big publishers are focussed on the wrong problem. They are trying to figure out how sell something that nobody wants. Any success they have in the future will entirely accidental.

    • “It’s never a book. I repeat, nobody ever wants a book.”

      Precisely. It’s a delivery mechanism. Certain elements of it have become optimized over time for the way we use it (serifs, word- and letter-spacing, linespacing, dark type on a light background, etc.), but the book is a means to any number of ends.

    • Basically what you’re saying is that the cookbook will be replaced by a virtual tutor.

      I both agree and disagree. After watching the same video a time or two, people are more likely to want some material they can skim through as a quick reminder. That probably means text. Text is still the best way to offer lots and lots of information that can be sifted through by human eyes in just a few seconds. So, the future will probably be a combination of video and text, with some kind of text remaining behind to be perused.

      Bezos definitely needs to get on this, although he’s probably using up just about every ounce of his time and energy and resources as he defies gravity in his current manner.

      • Not just a tutor.
        More like an expert system database.

        You ever seen the MasterCook applications on PC?
        Some have tutorials but all have recipes you can scale and have an ingredient database: you tell it what ingredients you have and it tells you what you can make with them.
        Cookbooks as applications are old hat; they just don’t come from corporate publishing is all.

        As pointed out above: some books well evolve into ebooks, others into websites, and others into software. A book is just a means of distribution, not an end unto itself.
        (Unless you use them for decoration or sniffing. ;) )

      • You are so right about text being faster. When I look something up on the Internet, I always skip the video because it takes too long to watch. With text, I have the answer in seconds.

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