Home » Big Publishing, Discovery » The future is digital book discovery, not distracting gimmicks

The future is digital book discovery, not distracting gimmicks

21 December 2016

From The Bookseller:

Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired Magazine, published a book this year titled The Inevitable. In it he describes a number of ways that future mortals might experience their best-loved products and services. I recommend it. Especially if you’re struggling to align your digital karma with concepts like ‘filtering,’  ‘becoming,’ and ‘cognifying,’ (and if you’re reading this on an iPhone whilst listening to Spotify on the 7.45 to London Bridge, then I’d wager you are).

One chapter is devoted to ‘flowing,’ which talks about how content finds its way around the interwebs and how, a few years from now, consumers of content (‘readers’) might interact with the stuff that publishers like to create.  Another chapter is called ‘screening,’ which talks about how we interpret that content and share it. Many of the concepts are familiar: Kelly paints a future where access to content is free and immediate, discovery of it is personalised and social, consumption of it is fragmented, and everything is interlinked.

Kelly imagines an exciting time when a book is more than a book – it’s a fluid artifact. Something like those wonderful moving newspapers from the world of Harry Potter: available on a new kind of paper that isn’t really paper, or via a near field projection from your holographic contact lens. But as someone who spends a lot of time working with publishers like Hachette in the US, Elsevier in Europe and Oxford University Press in Australia, I wonder if his ideas are missing a point.

When it comes to reading, today’s technology can certainly be extrapolated to create an endlessly seamless and scalable future, but I can’t help but feel that it does so at the expense of the reading experience.

. . . .

eBook sales are down 13%, audiobooks are up 38%, colouring books are up 1,100% (!), and – according to most analysts – sales of regular books are back in the black.

This wasn’t the world we expected. Your stuff may be easier to acquire (thanks to the cloud and Amazon Prime) and consume (thanks to smartphones, a reading category that’s grown by 7% this year), but the core product – the book – is no more shareable or fluid than it was when Wired Magazine first hit the shelves in 1993.

Reading a book is best done in solitude without a zillion bits and bytes of digital distraction nibbling in from the sidelines – be it from friends, advertisers, or other forms of ‘native’ content. Therefore it’s far more productive for publishers to focus their digital innovation efforts on activities that support the core act of reading.

Recent Squiz research into what today’s readers want – told us three things: firstly they wish to feel closer to their authors; secondly they want access to more content that’s related to their books; and thirdly they need more books.

. . . .

It’s simple: readers want access to more content and authors want to connect to readers. Publishers can be the matchmakers.

Think about it. Content is something that Amazon can’t do so well. Publishers can. You own the stuff.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Big Publishing, Discovery

34 Comments to “The future is digital book discovery, not distracting gimmicks”

  1. “Publishers can be the matchmakers.”

    If they’d bother to advertise — which unless you’re a 1%er, they ain’t — and if they’d offer it for a reasonable price, which they haven’t been doing.

    “Think about it. Content is something that Amazon can’t do so well. Publishers can. You own the stuff.”

    I am thinking about it. I can get my book on Amazon (and people have bought a few copies) or I can jump through the hoops of the gatekeepers and most likely waste my time on rejection slips.

    The last bit is the only true one, ‘you’ own it — unless or until you sign the rights away, then you don’t own it anymore …

  2. I guess I’m just slow, but I don’t get the part where the blogger envisions an experiential world where content is free. I, for one, won’t be producing content and giving it away free. So what’s the point? Who’s going to make content free and cause that to happen (I’m aware of permafree but I don’t think that’s what the author is talking about here).

    • There are many websites with free stories on them, some are so-so to bad but there are some pretty good ones out there as well. (That’s actually how I got started, a few tall tales on an Aussie’s website.)

      Baen offers the first two books of the Honor Harrington set for free to get you roped into the rest of it — or to decide you don’t like it — all at the cost of a little of your time.

      Non-free doesn’t always mean ‘better’, but sometimes paying a writer for their tales will allow and/or encourage them to write more.

      • ‘Free’ is rarely free. I have over 5,000 free books on my Kindle, and have probably read less than 50 of them. While I’m always happy when I go to buy a book I want to read and find it’s free, the mental cost of searching through a hundred free books to find one I want to read is more to me than the cost of just buying a book I want to read in the first place.

        I think the ‘free’ era is probably over.

        • “I think the ‘free’ era is probably over.”

          That guy left on Mars book started out as free, 50shades too if I remember correctly. In both cases they took off and became something people were willing/wanted to throw money at.

          The ‘gatekeeper knows best — just ask us’ era is coming to a close, where/how you find the stories you’ll want to read is all over the place, as are the costs.

          • “In both cases they took off and became something people were willing/wanted to throw money at.”

            !. That was several years ago, when free was hot.
            2. They weren’t free when they became successful.
            3. That’s a whole two examples.

            “The ‘gatekeeper knows best — just ask us’ era is coming to a close”

            Most of the books I’ve bought in the last year, I’ve bought because a ‘gatekeeper’ at some blog I read and trust said they were good. Two or three years ago I would read the ‘free ebboks’ emails I’m subscribed to every day. I’d completely forgotten about them until I happened to notice the folder I started sending to had thousands of unread message in it the other day.

        • I’m about to develop a policy of deleting anything I skip over when I search for something to read. It might not be true, but it’s starting to feel like there’s always going to be something free if I really need to accumulate more books later. I don’t have 5,000 but Calibre says I have over 1,800 unread. That’s already too many with my current reading volume down into the hundred books a year range.

          • Break them into multiple libraries.
            It’s not as if the storage costs are going to, ahem, break you. 😉

            At some point you might run into a recommendation for a book from your TBR list and you’ll be happy you kept it. I have.

            (I keep five different libraries on my Calibre server: One is the 25,000 ebooks from the classic Black Mask collection, another is a Gutenberg Collection I downloaded and prettified ages ago–14,000 ebooks, there. A third is my Baen monthly bundles, a fourth is Kindle books, and the last is for general freebies from promos. They all fit on a single SD card.)

            • Sure, the storage costs aren’t going to break me, but there’s definitely a cost and it’s frustration. I find having all the books distracting, and I don’t have time to retag them all as something meaningful and searching by anything other than title or author name is kind of useless most of the time in my collection. Breaking the books into separate libraries just seems like a way to hoard books I’m not going to read, and if I am going to read them, why break them up? Just doesn’t make sense to me. You still end up with the same number of books. 🙂

              • Yeah, I wish there was a way to say ‘don’t display these in my Kindle unless I ask for them’. I don’t want to delete them, but they’re basically just clutter right now.

              • Putting them in libraries is a way to take them off the Kindle so you only see what you are planning to get.
                If you have them now, at some point they sounded interesting enough to download, no? They might sound interesting again in the future…

      • A major cable channel just optioned an online writing pal of mine’s horror tale—from free site WATTPAD. And I have multi-published pals who put up free stuff there and on RAdish, etc.

        Free is doubtless riddled with bad stuff. Like anything, you browse or ask for recommendations. Once you find someone you like, you follow them for their next offerings or go buy the stuff they have for sale/backlist. 😀

    • No, the post said “access” to content is free. My content (most of it) is available via Amazon. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever paid Amazon dime-one to get onto their site. Content itself, of course, should NOT be free, because then we authors would do better to go knit doilies and sell ’em on EBay.

    • I’ve bought up the example of software here before. A tremendous amount of the finest quality software is free today. The Apache web server, LibreOffice, Calibre, Firefox, and, of course, the Linux operating system are a few examples. When you look at the heavy duty fundamental infrastructure of the internet, it is built on free software. Back in the 70s and 80s when my career in software was beginning and I had a family to support, I was frightened by free software, just as many authors seemed to be frightened today. I said exactly the same thing: “If software is free, I can’t afford to write it.”

      Free software took off when the internet offered near-zero distribution costs. A person or a group could develop and distribute a product with negligible capital investment and give it away. Developers were no longer dependent on working for a well-heeled software company to have their work distributed. Sometimes developers made a little back by begging for donations or charging for support, but more often than not, products were developed for the pleasure of having done it. Later on, the big boys, IBM, HP, Cisco, etc., realized that they could benefit by sponsoring development of free basic utilities like Linux and Apache. Today, I venture that you can stand up a high-functioning laptop or desktop without paying for a line of software.

      This reminds me of authorship and ebooks. Amazon has sucked the cost out of publishing. You can write a book and put it into international distribution at negligible cost. Some authors are willing to effectively offer their books for free under these circumstances. In software, the numbers willing to write for free grew over time and developers began to find other ways to pay the bills.

      The situation today is a mix. There is a lot less emphasis on software products and more on recurring services. Mobile apps, after twenty years of inflation, are cheaper than the shrink-wrapped boxes of twenty years ago. I observe that the best money in software today looks to be in developing “free” services like Google search or Facebook.

      It will be interesting.

      • Software is not an equivalent in my opinion because so much software was paid for with venture capital or made by someone seeking venture capital. Aside from publisher advances (as pitiful as they are for most authors), I don’t know of an equivalent incubator system for writers.

        • What’s the incubator system now for authors who write and load to Amazon?

          When we hear about what can’t happen, it’s good to game it out to see how it can.

        • I agree that there are a lot of differences between books and software, but I can’t think of a single example of a single independent developer, like Kovid Goyal, author of Calibre, getting VC support. For VC support, most have managers and sales types whose entire purpose is dragooning VC money. For indie software developers, there is no incubator system that I know of, beyond keeping your day job. Never has been.

          My point is that the whole publishing thing, like the software thing, is in flux. What was true last year, may not be true this year. Is the drop in indie author earnings a blip or a trend? Who knows!

          By sucking the cost out of publishing and distribution, technology has radically changed the publishing business. I predict big changes, bigger than anyone imagines today. I won’t try to predict where change is going, but I am on the look out for examples of where it could go. Not all are happy for authors, and some that look bad may be better than anyone expects. Some that look good now, may be disasters.

          Free software turned out to be a win for everyone, but I sure did not think that at the time.

  3. this reads better if you say “self-published author is a publisher too”

  4. Still with the coloring books?!

    Sales of coloring books prove “… reading a book is best done in solitude without a zillion bits and bytes of digital distraction nibbling in from the sidelines… ?” How about they prove that big publishers don’t have a clue about what kind of stories people will buy and instead focus on shipping as many shinny printed trinkets as they can that people will pick off of shelves and buy as a lark.

    Sales of ebooks are down and print doing great? Yeah, when you raise ebook prices to absurd levels and lower print that kind of happens.

    The fact that big publishers are focusing on these kind of gimmicks shows how out of touch they are and unable to adapt to the future. And articles like these trying to invent excuses why they have a bright future don’t help much.

    The big story of the digital revolution is that authors have an amazing number of tools to reach their audience and they are using them like crazy. The best ones are going to have amazing success and independence that was unimaginable in the back in the days when big publishers controlled what could be published and read and what couldn’t.

    • “The fact that big publishers are focusing on these kind of gimmicks shows how out of touch they are and unable to adapt to the future. And articles like these trying to invent excuses why they have a bright future don’t help much.”


      The devil would advocate that helping the big publishers adapt isn’t necessarily a good thing. Or necessary. Sometimes you just have to live and let die.

      (And no, I’m not going to apologize to Ian Fleming. 😉 )

      • Agreed. Right now there are huge opportunities for indy writers because the big guys are fumbling around. I’m certainly trying to move as fast as I can to take advantage of the fact they they don’t seem to “get” it.

        I think they eventually will get their act together. But that might not be so bad, since the best way to do that would be to embrace self-publishing as a minor league for future talent.

        The funny part is they are so desperate to keep their hold on the print market, and there’s a very good chance that might completely fall out from under them. (One, by Amazon building bookstores and providing space for self-publishers and two, the big box stores like Walmart will start making deals directly with indy writers.)

        Meantime, I’m happy to give them the coloring book market.

        • I don’t doubt they will eventually adapt to the new reality.

          In many ways they already are (even more predatory author contracts, consolidation, union busting, etc). I just don’t think their authors will enjoy *how* the big boys adapt.

          • all the more reasons Felix for people to form their own syndicates for distrib. As

            Just my .02, I think the diversification into far more than amz is impt, including foreign, bkstore presence, audio, ingram, etc etc

          • The conglomerates that own the publishers can adapt by dropping out of the new fiction business. The objectives publishers have for themselves can easily differ from the objectives authors have for the publishers.

            • The BPHs primary interest is ever larger quarterly returns to their Corporate masters, not providing good earnings to their authors. There’s quite a few (other) ways they can do the former at the expense of the latter by taking advantage of the new normal.

  5. I love how he assumes that all of this incredibly expensive to produce content is going to be free.

    A single author writing a fixed book is one level of expense and many authors use free as a promotional tool for a limited number of products, hoping to convert them to purchasing customers.

    But fluid, multi-media presentations, “moving newspapers” a la Harry Potter? Boy, I suppose that stuff is going to just create itself as opposed to needing teams of skilled craftsmen working on the products.

  6. I was talking to one of the stallions about this… ‘What if, you know, for your great studly services that I take income from, how about I not feed you for your bringing ‘happiness’ to this world in terms of fine offspring… would that be ok with you?

    ‘I mean you have millions of chances each day to bring the finest offspring. It’s not like the golden spark you carry is rare or something.’

    ‘Oh, you think you would weaken without food? But because you are rather driven to create new life, you would continue doing so, until you wasted away and could no longer find it in you to expend the huge energy to get up on all fours, or twos, and create?’

    We laughed then. You know, kind of a horse laugh. ‘It’s just a joke, right?’ said the great horse-headed god who goes under the name Arcturus. He wears boots of sharp iron while by contrast my boots are absurdly soft leather… no contest really under the eyes of heaven. I said ‘Yes, of course it is a joke. I would never leave you to starve.’

    And came away both disheartened that some have the idea that starving the glory-bearing forces is a wonder idea, and heartened that I could rely on Arcturus, to ride into the mannered meetings of those bent on bringing eternal ice, and kick the stuffing out of those who propose that the world wither so some can live whilst others die.

    I hear Arcturus is spreading the story all around the terrain about how everyone here will saddle and leap to their mount and ride til lathered to not protest, but to demand that those who do the work, be cared for in return, as living beings, not as machines who have no need to care for young, their lives, or be forced to exist at the pleasure of some, instead of by the sights of their own souls.

  7. The bit about ebook sales being down was interesting. Data Guy is doing a presentation at Digital Book World conference in January, and a cut-down version of his white paper is available here: http://digitalbookworldconference.com

    For the first time, apparently, he’s combined his data with Nielsen data to produce what’s being called a 360 degree view of who’s selling what in the book trade.

    Overall, if you just look at trad, 25% of the market is digital, 72% is print, and 3% is audio. If you add in indies, 42% of the entire market is digital, 55% is print, and 3% is audio.

    However, according to him, print vs digital varies considerably per market segment – kids’ nonfiction being almost entirely print, along with kids’ fiction to a slightly lesser extent. The non-surprise for most indies is that for adult fiction, 71% of the market is digital and 30% of the total adult fiction market is indie, with indies providing slightly more total digital sales than trad, and Amazon imprints having a small but significant slice.

    He’s promising data on genre breakdown at the actual conference.

    It’s only for the US market, but I think other markets will follow the same pattern as digital uptake matures – the Kindle didn’t appear in the UK until several years after it was released in the US, for instance, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if the digital market is less mature, and in Europe even less so. The EU is quoting 5-6% digital, but that will almost certainly be a trad-only figure.

    So I’m wondering how trad is going to react to this data – if at all. It’s not like DG’s data hasn’t been available on the internet for anybody to read, so theoretically anyone with Nielsen data could add it to DG’s data and come up with something like this picture. But nobody has, or at least, if they have, it’s been buried pretty deep.

    So I think it’s pretty soon going to be impossible to keep claiming (credibly) that digital is dead, and everybody prefers print books really.

    I think it will be interesting to see where the book goes – moving it from print to digital hasn’t really changed the reading experience. The company that does soundtracks for books is still hanging in there, and iBooks is producing books with moving images (and so is Amazon). Maybe there will be a place for that in the future, now that the digital market is starting to mature. We’ll see.

    But the future will be digital.

  8. Publishers have this island whence they view the “industry” — it does not include self-publishers or even indeed small presses. It’s THEIR digital that’s down, and that’s good, and the narrow lenses through which they see makes that mean that ALL digital is down. They ignore Data Guy because his focus and theirs are dissimilar. How long will they continue to do, is an open question.

  9. Well, people aren’t going to create the content for free, so they’ll have to be paid somehow. Whether the content is distributed for free is a different thing.

    Not being paid for our creative work makes it a hobby. There’s not much point in doing something if we don’t get paid for it, and most of us can’t afford to write and not earn.

    I’m not evens sure I’d want a world where we couldn’t earn money from our pursuits. We don’t live in a Nirvana, where everyone shares equally in the work of all. And people call me a dreamer. Sheese.

    • Well, people aren’t going to create the content for free, so they’ll have to be paid somehow.

      Some are content to be paid in recognition and a sense of satisfaction. Others say they are driven to write, and must do it. These people can easily drive those who must have money from the market. They are a powerful competitive force.

      Bloggers and reviewers write for free all the time. The internet is full of free contributions.

      And, I have yet to be paid for my softball games. But I still play.

    • People create content for free all the time, and then use donation and subscription models to support themselves and their work.
      Even this blog is free content, so you can consider it a hobby I suppose But You can donate to PG.
      And the commenters Right for free, but by reading them, I might be interested enough to click on their books.

  10. “Well, people aren’t going to create the content for free, so they’ll have to be paid somehow.”

    Yet they do it all the time — before ebooks anything you wrote that the publishers rejected was for all intents and purposes written for ‘free’.

    “Not being paid for our creative work makes it a hobby. There’s not much point in doing something if we don’t get paid for it, and most of us can’t afford to write and not earn.”

    My mom did ceramics as a hobby for years, went to shows and made money on orders, but it was only a hobby — she never was in the black once dad did the books, but she enjoyed it.

    “I’m not evens sure I’d want a world where we couldn’t earn money from our pursuits.”

    You’re living there now. There’s no guarantee that your pursuit will make you any money.

    Stealing from old L. Long: Of course the game is rigged! But you can’t win if you don’t place your bets!

    • You can earn a living. And you can pursue your dreams. But it’s not easy. You have lots of options. You can try to sell your books. That’s what all of us think of here. Many have been succeeding. You can sell your brand. That seems to be a little more sustainable than only selling your books. You can take it a step farther and sell yourself. Charge folks for hearing you talk. You can sell your expertise and teach classes on writing. Even sell a book or two on how to write, how to make it writing. Or you can sell your approach– presentations and documents on your successful negotiation of life’s disasters. It all works for the right person and everyone is the right person for something.

      To me, the important thing is to realize that there is no predetermined path. You have to find the way for yourself.

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