The Big Five Publishers and the Nutri-Matic Drink Dispenser

23 February 2018

From TeleRead:

The recent interview that Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry gave to Indian news site Scroll.in has been a sort of nine-day wonder of the ebook world lately. In this interview, Nourry called the ebook a “stupid product” because it’s “exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience.”

. . . .

Reading over this particular article actually reminds me a lot of an anecdote from the late Douglas Adams’s best-known work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

. . . .

Episode 9 of the radio drama touches on the Nutri-Matic Drink Dispenser, an automated and sentient machine that runs complicated taste analyses on its customer, but then invariably dispenses an unpalatable beverage that is “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.” In this episode, Arthur Dent and friends on the starship Heart of Gold are on the run from a fleet of enemy starships intent on their destruction, when Arthur gets into an argument with the shipboard machine.

While ranting at the machine, Dent asks, “And you know why I want a cup of tea?” The Nutri-Matic machine immediately starts trying to compute the answer to that, tying up all the computing power on board the ship so it can’t activate its Infinite Improbability Drive and escape—a dilemma that eventually ends up requiring supernatural intervention to sort out.

This machine seems to be the perfect metaphor for the Big Five traditional publishers, of which Hachette is one. Both the Nutri-Matic and the publishers are supposed to determine exactly what their customers want, and then profit by supplying it to them—but they also both seem to have the hardest time actually figuring it out. For the Nutri-Matic, Douglas Adams just wanted to get some laughter from the audience and make a few more jokes at poor Arthur Dent’s expense. What’s the publishers’ excuse?

. . . .

Einstein supposedly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. How many times have the major publishers, hopeful start-ups, inventors, and others repeatedly tackled this problem of the “enhanced” ebook? And yet after all this, the only lesson that Nourry—the head of one of the biggest publishing companies on the planet—can take from it is that publishers just don’t have the skill set to do it right.

. . . .

The lesson publishers should be learning is that the format of the plain-vanilla prose book—by which I mean both paper books and ebooks—is just so close to being perfect that it can’t easily be improved upon.

The only differences between prose ebooks and paper books are a matter of format; the content of both is a series of words that are meant to be read sequentially from beginning to end. When people reach for a book, that’s what they want—whether it’s on print media that doesn’t require batteries and can be easily riffled through, or on digital media that can have text resized and reflowed and searched. They just want to read words sequentially. They don’t want some “enhanced” multimedia experience, any more than Arthur Dent wanted a Nutri-Matic “unlike tea” beverage.

. . . .

And just how “stupid” can ebooks be if they make up 20% of the traditional market, and would make up more of it if publishers would drop the prices further?

. . . .

And then there’s the “price that keeps the ecosystem alive” which, if you read between the lines, actually means the “price that keeps them from cannibalizing print book sales any further.” And it’s funny how even Nourry admits that “there is still a readership for ebooks” just a couple of paragraphs before he goes on to call them a “stupid” format. Is Nourry so delusional that he actually believes all this stuff?

Link to the rest at TeleRead

As PG has mentioned before, over twenty years ago, when he was working for a large legal publishing and technology organization (LexisNexis, owned by Reed-Elsevier (now, with typical marketing acumen, called the RELX Group)), the subsidiary with the single highest profit margin of any part of LexisNexis sold a huge directory of American lawyers called Martindale Hubbell. The subsidiary offered a few other books, but Martindale was the crown jewel.

The printed version of Martindale was a huge and heavy series of books printed in tiny type. Virtually every law firm had a set somewhere in its library. If one of the firm’s best clients was cited for drunk driving in a small town in Idaho, Martindale’s list of lawyers (with brief bios) who practiced in that town might provide a starting point for locating competent local counsel.

Each year, Martindale published a small paperback supplement (called a “pocket part”) which updated the huge books. The supplement was available via an expensive subscription. Every few years, Martindale would send subscribers a new edition of its monster books and the firm would try to sell the old books, usually without success.

PG was a lonely internet cheerleader at LexisNexis and he had a meeting with the head of Martindale to urge the quick creation of an electronic version of Martindale. He pointed out a lot of obvious benefits to doing so.

“We can’t do that. It would cannibalize our sales from Martindale books!” was the response.

PG suggested that, if the print version of Martindale could be cannibalized by an online legal directory, if Martindale wasn’t the cannibal, someone else would be.

About two years later, Martindale’s sales crashed and its operations were rolled into the mother ship.


Ebooks are not ‘stupid’ – they’re a revolution

22 February 2018

From The Guardian:

I was a relatively late convert to the e-reader, getting my Kindle five years ago when it became clear that reading 600-pages of A Suitable Boy while breastfeeding wasn’t going to work. After a frenzied few months of almost exclusive e-reading, I returned largely to the traditional printed book for a number of reasons: screen fatigue, a tendency to scrawl in margins, because I want my kids to see me reading, and because I’m a passionate supporter of bookshops and booksellers. Hachette Livre CEO Arnaud Nourry recently called ebooks “stupid” – but last summer, they changed my life.

My novel He Said/She Said, a psychological thriller about a couple who witness a rape, was a Sunday Times bestseller, but three months out of the trap, the hardback began the soft fall in sales that is the norm that period after publication. When the ebook edition began selling for 99p on Kindle for the summer, I’ll admit that I flinched, but – excluding a few days’ concession of my throne to Neil Gaiman – it topped the charts for six weeks and I was able to take my family on an overseas holiday for the first time. (On that trip, I took seven novels in a device that weighed less than a paperback, like something out of Star Trek.) I’d always had a core of loyal readers – but these numbers were something else.

The subsequent revival of my backlist was a welcome surprise. Readers have been writing to me to praise, criticise and debate; more often than not, they sign off by saying they’ve bought my other titles as ebooks. This effortless chain-reading is something hard to replicate with the physical book – very few authors can be confident of walking into any bookshop or supermarket to find their entire canon for sale. The ebook of He Said/She Said has reignited interest in my other books, and brought new readers to the novels that, in genteel publishing speak, “underperformed” at the time. I’m as grateful for that as anything.

Given that backlist especially is free money for the publisher, I’m bewildered by Nourry’s dismissal of the ebook. Of course there are caveats; Amazon’s near-monopoly of the market is worrying, and we have already reached the tipping point where competitive pricing has become a race to the bottom in which profit margins are negligible. But a stupid format?

. . . .

“It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience,” said Nourry. Fake news! The built-in, one-tap dictionary is a boon for Will Self fans. And as an author, I’m fascinated by the facility that shows you phrases other readers have highlighted; what is it about this sentence that resonated with dozens of humans? It’s an illicit glimpse into the one place even a writer’s imagination can never really go: readers’ minds. And Kindle’s Whispersync facility lets the reader fluidly alternate between reading a book and listening to it. What are these if not enhancements to the reading experience?

And then there’s the simplest, most important enhancement of all: on any e-reader, you can enlarge the text. That in itself is a quiet revolution. Page-sniffers who dismiss ebooks out of hand are being unconsciously ableist.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Felix for the tip.

Maybe It’s Time To Regulate Gadgets And Apps Like Cigarettes

27 January 2018

From Fast Company:

Tech companies put a lot of work into designing their products to be “sticky.” That’s investor deck speak, but everyone knows what sticky really means: addictive.

While that may be good for the companies and their funders, a growing body of research is showing that it’s not so good for us users, and especially not for teens or kids. As the problem of tech abuse becomes better understood, tech companies may need to start measuring success by the quality of the time users spend with their products, not just the quantity. Discussions about the dangers of personal technology have been around a long time, but in the bubble of Silicon Valley it’s not a ready topic of conversation. People would rather talk about big ideas and their world-changing implications than about the unsavory by-products and unintended consequences that might come with them.

. . . .

[George Soros] went on a tirade, comparing Google and Facebook to resource-extraction companies (“Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social-media companies exploit the social environment.”) and to casinos (they “deliberately engineer addiction into the services they provide.”)

And: “Something very harmful and maybe irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age,” Soros said. “Not just distraction or addiction; social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy.” Soros said now that it’s becoming harder to find brand-new users, social media companies have no choice but to please investors by demanding more of our time.

. . . .

On Wednesday Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said Facebook should be regulated like a tobacco product. “I think that you do it exactly the same way that you regulated the cigarette industry,” Benioff said on CNBC’s Squawk Alley. “Here’s a product: Cigarettes. They’re addictive, they’re not good for you,” Benioff said. For someone of Benioff’s stature and reputation, this is a bombshell.

Earlier this month, a pair of Apple’s institutional investors raised the flag on adolescent smartphone abuse in January. The two investors, JANA Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, asked Apple to do something about the unhealthy amount of time kids spend with their iDevices (and the apps within). Apple should make sure its youngest customers grow up to be healthy adult Apple customers.

Link to the rest at Fast Company

PG would probably not qualify as a free speech absolutist, but he’s pretty close.

People who want governments to regulate information that others voluntarily read or view worry PG. There is a definite history of slippery slopes and dictators in these sorts of movements.

In this context, addiction is a useful tool for those who don’t like what other people are reading or viewing. If some individuals really like reading or viewing particular content that critics don’t like, those people must be “addicted” and the only solution for this “addiction” is immediate government action.

This argument assumes government can and will do this job effectively today and into the distant future.

This argument also assumes that all future governments will use such powers in proper and beneficial ways.

In the United States, large numbers of people of certain political persuasions were vociferously critical of the actions of President Barack Obama and his government in the exercise of government power.

Now, large numbers of people of different political persuasions are vociferously critical of the actions of President Donald Trump and his government in the exercise of government power.

PG suggests that a government that has the power to regulate Facebook and its econtent may well also have the power to regulate Amazon and its ebooks.

Walmart joins, well, most of its competitors in selling e-books

26 January 2018

From Ars Technica:

Most Walmart stores have modest book sections, but now the company plans to expand that with digital books. Walmart announced that it’s teamed up with Japan’s Rakuten to sell e-books, audiobooks, and Rakuten’s Kobo e-readers later this year.

“We have long been a destination for entertainment including digital content—whether movies through VUDU or the digital game cards we sell in our stores,” Walmart’s statement said. “E-books and audiobooks are a great addition to our assortment. Working with Rakuten Kobo enables us to quickly and efficiently launch a full e-book and audiobook catalog on Walmart.com to provide our customers with additional choices alongside our assortment of physical books.”

. . . .

Customers will be able to shop for e-books and audiobooks on Walmart’s website, and the retailer will sell e-readers in its stores and online. Walmart also plans to sell “e-book cards” in its stores, which seem to be physical cards customers can buy while shopping at a Walmart store that contain a download code for access to an e-book or audiobook after they leave the store.

While digital book shopping will be done on Walmart’s platforms, customers will access purchased titles through Walmart/Kobo branded apps for desktop as well as Android and iOS. Kobo already has apps across these platforms, but it seems the two companies will make new apps for Walmart customers in the US to use. Customers with Kobo e-readers won’t have to worry about downloading new apps since all Kobo titles can be read on its own e-readers.

Link to the rest at Ars Technica

PG says competition is great for consumers, so this is a win for readers.

PG suggests that indie authors are consumers of online ebook retailing services from Amazon, Kobo, Nook (at least for a while), etc., so he thinks competition for Amazon is a win for indie authors as well. Walmart will turn more readers onto ebooks sooner than would have been the case if it had continued its paperback and gossip mag ways.

In some large metropolitan areas, the Walmart customer has a bad image. You can even find websites with photos of gross people. However, in many small and medium-sized communities, Walmart is by far the best place to buy groceries and get your prescriptions refilled. The doctors and spouses in these communities, lawyers and spouses, business owners and spouses, etc., shop at Walmart because it’s better than driving an hour to find another retailer that offers the same range of goods.

So far, Amazon hasn’t tried any “screw your partner” strategies that are so attractive to many other large companies, but if Walmart is serious about competing with Amazon in the ebook market, that’s some insurance for authors that Amazon will continue its virtuous treatment of authors.

(As an aside, PG thinks as long as Bezos is running things, Amazon will continue these practices. He’s worried about what happens to Amazon when Bezos rides one of his rockets into retirement and someone else takes over. The successor to a highly-successful and dominant CEO has no guarantee of being able to ride the momentum of the prior star to continued success. See Tim Cook and Marissa Mayer, for example.)

Barnes & Noble Announces Barnes & Noble Press™, an Enhanced Self-Publishing Suite to Reach Millions of Barnes & Noble Readers

24 January 2018

From Business Wire:

Barnes & Noble, Inc., the world’s largest retail bookseller, today announced the launch of Barnes & Noble Press, an enhanced and more user-friendly version of the Company’s self-publishing platform that makes it easy to publish eBooks or print books in one integrated platform. The redesigned site replaces the formerly-named NOOK Press.

The new Barnes & Noble Press enhances the self-publishing experience in many ways, including increased royalty rates for eBooks priced at $10.00 and above.

. . . .

Barnes & Noble Press also continues to give qualified authors the opportunity to apply for signings and events at Barnes & Noble bookstores, as well as giving select authors the opportunity to sell their books in stores.

. . . .

Barnes & Noble Press has a number of exciting new features, including:

  • Improved user experience and new visual design
  • Sign in to a single website to create and manage print and eBooks all in one place
  • Increased royalty rate of 65% for eBooks priced $10.00+
  • Additional print book trim sizes, glossy cover and color printing options
  • 12 month pre-order capability for all authors for all eBooks
  • Author tools & tips

Link to the rest at Business Wire

Is Japan’s Rakuten the second biggest player in the western ebook and audiobook markets?

23 January 2018

From The New Publishing Standard:

I’ve long been a lone voice on the indie circuit advocating authors take digital libraries seriously.

Admittedly back in 2011 it wasn’t so easy to get into OverDrive, but doing what isn’t easy is what separates the career author from the rest.

As I said four years ago back in January 2014,

Too many indie authors have their heads in the sand about the way things are developing out there. Wake up and smell the coffee! Subscription ebook reading and library ebook reading are the new black.

Why pay Amazon, or B&N, or Kobo, or Sony for every single ebook you read when you can pay a token fee at the library or a monthly subscription and read as much as you like, with exactly the same ease and convenience as from an online retailer?

This a full year and a half before Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited, and in response to news that OverDrive’s digital lending had crossed the 100 million downloads per year threshold in 2013.

Just how significant that was only becomes clear when we consider that the 102 million downloads in 2013 was equal to the OverDrive digital downloads of the entire previous ten years.

The breakdown then (for 2013) was 79 million ebook checkouts and 22.9 million digital audiobook checkouts.

. . . .

Amazon counts a KU download as a sale when compiling the charts, regardless of whether these downloads are later read and therefore paid out on.

That in itself raises questions about the “author earnings” aspect of the report, as well as the true number of unit sales, because the paid charts are warped by downloads of books that are never paid for.

But the real issue here is those library downloads, which from OverDrive alone amounted to just shy of 200 million in 2016, the period covered by the last Author Earnings Report.

. . . .

Yet the Author Earnings Report completely ignores them. There is not a single mention of OverDrive or digital library downloads in the last Author Earnings Report, covering the year 2016. which attributed 440 million ebook sales to Amazon and just 44 million to Apple.

. . . .

Now let’s take a closer look at the 2017 OverDrive figures, where there are more surprises in store.

Because alongside that 225 million actual downloads of ebooks and audiobooks in 2017, another 83 million possible downloads were on hold because the titles were already out on loan and readers were patiently waiting for them to be returned.

As to the downloads that did happen, 59 libraries delivered a million downloads each, 14 libraries saw 2 million downloads, 7 libraries saw three million downloads each.

Two libraries crossed the magical four million mark, with the Toronto Public Library on the way to 5 million downloads, reaching 4.6 million.

But the big surprise came not from North America, but from Singapore.

. . . .

[I]n October 2017 OverDrive launched the world’s first digital business library in, you guessed it, Singapore.

With no Kindle store to select from, Singaporeans downloaded 1.5 million digital downloads from OverDrive in 2017.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

PG suspects that OverDrive may not be willing to give Author Earnings access to borrowing data.

Additionally, the last time PG checked, Overdrive was not accessible by indie authors except through Draft2Digital, Smashwords, etc. Overdrive is, of course, definitely not available to authors who make the decision to exclusively publish on Amazon.

With no disrespect to Smashwords, etc., Amazon makes it financially attractive for indies to publish there on an exclusive basis. More than one indie author makes very good money from KU/KOLL borrows. It would be nice if Overdrive borrows paid indies as well.

Perhaps it does, but PG hasn’t heard about it. We’re talking net monthly or annual income, not per-page royalty rates which may not translate into serious dollars. The Amazon book store is superbly designed to drive book (and especially ebook) sales. Overdrive not so much.

Although PG hasn’t researched Overdrive stats, he suspects the majority of the books Overdrive lends are still from traditional publishing. From the viewpoint of a library administrator, it’s far easier to pay Overdrive rather than deal with a gaggle of indie authors.

But he could be wrong.

OTOH, OverDrive’s owner, Rakuten, appears to be a smart and aggressive company. Should it decide to do so, Rakuten might be in a position to provide some serious funding for Kobo (now owned by Rakuten) to compete much more aggressively with Amazon in ebook sales.

Canadian Book Sales Down in 2017

16 January 2018

From Publishers Weekly:

Unit sales of print books fell 4% in 2017 compared to 2016 in Canada, while dollar sales dropped 3%, according to figures compiled by BookNet Canada’s sales tracking service.

BookNet reported that the Canadian book industry sold approximately 51.5 million copies in 2017, for just over C$1 billion. Figures are based on a group of retailers that provide sales data to BookNet annually and account for about 85% of print sales.

. . . .

Last year, 60% of all print book sales were for backlist books, which was up 2% over 2016, BookNet reported.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

From Publishing Perspectives, a story about a BookNet Canada report on digital sales released in mid-2017:

In its newly released (June 6) State of Digital Publishing In Canada report for 2016, BookNet Canada cites rising digital revenue reported by 61 percent of responding publishers in 2016.

One in four surveyed publishers, according to the study, logged an increase of “at least 25 percent in digital revenue over the previous year.”

This, of course, will raise eyebrows among industry leaders in the USA and UK, where “the ebook plateau” has become a favored meme and a “print resurgence” is a much-valued concept.

But there’s an interesting flip side to this. “At the same time,” write staffers of BookNet—the nonprofit service group for Canadian publishing—”the percentage of ebooks with sales has declined once again, from 88 percent in 2014 to 73 percent in 2015 to 54 percent in 2016.

“The publishing firms surveyed for the study reported that, when taking into account their entire digital catalogs, 46 percent of their available ebooks saw no sales in 2016.”

. . . .

“According to research conducted by BookNet Canada, in a series of surveys of book-buying Canadians, ebook sales in Canada declined by just over 2 percent between 2015 and 2016 (from 19 to 16.9 percent).

“The US and the UK have seen a similar phenomenon; in data reported directly by publishers, ebook sales have declined by 4 percent in the UK, and in the US the Association for American Publishers reported a drop of 14 percent between 2014 and 2015.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG suggests studies like these answer the question, “What would the ebook world be like if Amazon didn’t exist?”

Fire and Fury Book Shortage is a Boon for eBook Retailers

16 January 2018

From GoodEReader:

Fire and Fury is experiencing a tremendous shortage since it was released on January 9th. It was published by Henry Holt, which is a subsidiary of Macmillan. There was only 150,000 copies of the in the United States and the demand was so high that stores were selling out before the end of the first day. Amazon is completely out of stock in the United States and UK, with a four week delivery period. I think the one thing that Fire and Fury has reiterated is that the publishing industry is woefully unprepared for breakout books and that digital is the way to go.

The first day that Fire and Fury went on sale the publisher sold 250,000 ebooks and 100,000 audiobooks. The digital edition of Fire and Fury outsold the hardcover at Barnes & Noble (B&N sold over 9,000 print copies) and was #1 in the iBooks store last week. The book is also #1 in Amazon’s Kindle store and is dominating the sales charts at Kobo.

Michael Tamblyn the CEO of Kobo stated that “When I say “this book is a monster” I mean it in every sense of the word: the subject is a rough beast, shambling and spraying acid and bile; as a historical document it is both beyond belief and completely believable; and it’s selling like crazy. Highest one-day sales of any non-fiction title in Kobo history.”

Link to the rest at GoodEReader

Customers Won’t Pay as Much for Digital Goods, Redux

3 January 2018

From The Digital Reader:

Back before Christmas the Harvard Business Review published an article on recent research that showed that people valued physical objects for the act of possession more than for the use of said object.

 Participants valued a physical copy of The Empire Strikes Back more than a digital copy, for instance, only if they considered the Star Wars series to be films with which they strongly identified. Participants who weren’t Star Wars fans valued physical and digital copies similarly.

This is essentially a nonfunctional element of ownership – valuing something just for having it rather than what you can do with it.

Aside from price, that is the only thing keeping people buying print books over ebooks, which makes it all the more amazing when digital copies supplant physical copies in the marketplace as consumers choose to make the switch.

. . . .

This in part explains why the collectibles market has waves where old toys suddenly become desirable and valuable, only to lose much of that value a decade later; it’s because the buyers for any particular wave are all of an age group that wants to recapture a memory from their childhood, so they all suddenly want to buy the same toy.

. . . .

There’s also something this research doesn’t quite get at but is worth mentioning here, and that is the impact on print book sales versus digital.

All the industry trade press is trying to convince us that ebook sales have plateaued, and that the market is stable. This research, on the other hand. shows that there is little keeping people buying print books other than the artificially inflated price of ebooks from legacy publishers.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

For books he plans to read, PG values the ebook more than the printed book. The ebook is lighter, easier to tote (especially for the large books PG tends to read) and always opens to the last page PG read, among other things.

Part of PG’s preference is because, despite having donated many trunkloads of books to the library, the basement at Casa PG is still jammed with bookshelves that are six feet tall and three feet wide that are jammed with books. At this point, PG is leaning towards just passing this heavy burden on to the next generation for a bookish estate sale.

In Publishers Weekly and similar publications, PG is always surprised that publishing insiders are touting the news that ebook sales have plateaued. Surely publishers are familiar with what happens to sales when they lower prices on their own ebooks.

If publishers would talk to authors who have gone indie, switching away from traditional publishing, they would quickly learn that in unit sales, most of those authors are selling substantially more books than the publisher did.

PG did a quick Google search and discovered trade articles announcing that ebook sales had plateaued in each of the following years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

On the other hand, Penguin Random House issued a News for Authors article way back in 2013 titled “Who Reads Ebooks?” Here are a couple of excerpts from that article:

Over a fifth of American adults have read an eBook. EBook consumers are likely to be book enthusiasts who read across digital and print formats. Most eBook consumers are women, are younger than forty-five, have college degrees or have had some college education, and have upscale incomes. EBook consumers are over 20 percent more likely to have household incomes over $100,000 per year than non-eBook consumers. Preferred genres include mystery/suspense/detective fiction, general fiction, and romance.

EBook consumers stand out in a number of ways from non-eBook consumers. EBook consumers are 2.5 times more likely to own a tablet than non-eBook consumers. They also tend to be more accessible than non-eBook consumers across online touch points, and more sensitive to word-of-mouth recommendations. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, Internet-savvy owners of eReading devices, when compared to the general population, are more likely to get recommendations from online bookstores or other websites (56 percent versus 34 percent for the general reading population). When compared to all Americans ages sixteen and up, they tend to rely more heavily on word-of-mouth (81 percent versus 64 percent for all Americans ages 16+) and bookstore staff (31 percent versus 23 percent for Americans ages 16+) for book recommendations.

Link to the rest at Penguin Random House


Additionally, if Amazon is the biggest bookstore in the world and if Amazon announced that its ebook unit sales exceeded its print book unit sales in January, 2011, what might that tell you about plateaus?

And what about the statistics that demonstrate only 35% of school librarians indicated they were acquiring digital content in 2010—but by 2015, that number had increased to 69%.

Of course, Author Earnings is the only reliable outside look at ebook sales by all types of pubishers, including indie authors, on Amazon. AE’s studies show:

  1. there is growth in ebook sales and
  2. a large part of that growth is from sales by indie authors, which sales aren’t tracked by any of the data sources in the traditional book business.

Silicon Valley Won’t Save Books

30 December 2017

From The New Republic:

The Kindle might be the most important publishing object since the printing press, but its ten year anniversary passed with little fanfare two months ago. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who in 2008 mused that the e-reader could be the key to rebuilding our shrinking attention spans, marked the event with a tweet noting the device’s modest design change, rather than its cultural impact.

. . . .

But last week brought the first real consideration of the Kindle’s legacy. “The Kindle Changed the Publishing Industry. Can It Change Books?” asked Wired’s David Pierce. As he noted, the introduction of e-books transformed the publishing industry in a matter of only a few years, solidifying Amazon’s dominance over publishers. Technologically speaking, the initially clunky device was rapidly perfected, mimicking and sometimes improving an analog experience that had existed for centuries. Having achieved these goals, though, the Kindle has stopped evolving in substantial ways.

. . . .

“The next phase for the digital book seems likely to not resemble print at all,” he wrote. “Instead, the next step is for authors, publishers, and readers to take advantage of all the tools now at their disposal and figure out how to reinvent longform reading.” It’s high time, Pierce argued, for a new kind of book to emerge, one that accurately embodies the complex audio and visual possibilities technology offers. That’s an exciting possibility: the book, after hundreds of years, is finally on the verge of entering the twenty-first century. But it’s not going to happen.

Pierce’s argument should be familiar to anyone who has talked to someone who works on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley about book publishing, or who has had a conversation about the future of books with an uncle at Thanksgiving. “As platforms change, books haven’t,” Pierce argues.

. . . .

Electronic books, meanwhile, still look more or less the same as they did in 2007 because books are fundamentally out of step with the digital era.

. . . .

Writing two years after the first Kindle was produced, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg shrugged at the possibility that e-books could destroy the publishing industry, arguing that “reading without paper might make literature more urgent and accessible than it was before the technological revolution, just like [printing press inventor Johann] Gutenberg did.” Author Steven Johnson argued that the Kindle would make books populist again: “Expect ideas to proliferate—and innovation to bloom—just as it did in the centuries after Gutenberg.”

Publishers, authors, and agents, were similarly obsessed, but took on a more millenarian spirit. The rapid rise of e-book sales after the Kindle’s introduction caused panic in America’s most anxious, hidebound industry.

. . . .

Others have tried to push the book into the twenty-first century. Pierce proposed that readers be able to “participate in the book by texting with characters, going to important locations, and even helping write the narrative.” Sony’s Wonderbook“turned a hardback book into an augmented-reality surface,” while Google’s Visual Editions has explored the possibility of “unprintable books.” But only Amazon, with its practically unlimited resources and deep experience in publishing—it is both the largest retailer and, if you count its gigantic self-publishing operation, the largest publisher in the country—can accomplish the goal. By focusing its energies on experimenting with literary production, Pierce wrote, Amazon can inaugurate a new literary era. “Only Amazon has the clout to really drive what could and should come next,” Pierce concludes. “Not by making pixels just like paper, but by embracing the difference.”

The problem with this analysis, which Pierce never really seems to consider, is that this book of the future—a participatory, augmented-reality experience that blends a number of different kinds of media—is not a book.

Link to the rest at The New Republic

Random responsive thoughts bubbled up through the primordial ooze that is PG’s mind this morning, but the ooze seems incapable of turning them into any cohesive narrative regarding the OP, so here are some oozy bits and pieces.

Hidebound is a lovely word PG hadn’t  thought about for awhile and it is the perfect adjective to describe traditional publishing.

The original meaning was based upon having skin so tight it was incapable of extension. It applied to animals, e.g. an emaciated cow with hide stretched tight over the animal’s bones, implying inflexibility, the opposite of young supple skin.

Metaphorically applied to people, hidebound describes inflexibility, rigidity, parochialism, obstinacy, lack of imagination, pigheadedness, narrow mindedness, intransigence, obduracy.

PG could go on, but he won’t right now. However, keep a watch for future appearances of hidebound.

– Big thinkers always want to add video, sound, music, interactivity, etc., to improve ebooks and bring them into “the modern era”. (Note: “The modern era” always sounds like the 1950’s to PG.)

The OP argues this blend of media is not a book. PG agrees.

It is not a book because it is a video game. While PG does not play, he is occasionally interested by what he reads about video games. One of the latest interesting developments in videogames is professional e-sports.

In e-sports, skilled participants in online videogames are recognized as athletes and spectators will pay money to watch teams of e-sports stars compete against each other on a screen, ranging from small to theater-sized (but mostly the bigger, the better).

Appropriate sound effects, music, etc., will accompany the action to keep the audience riveted to the screen. (Commercial e-sports theaters will include gangs of the largest sub-woofers on the planet and cause lights to dim in the neighborhood during competitions.)

E-sports athletes and teams and leagues and theaters will make lots of money.

In PG’s mind, any sort of interactive max-action super ebook does not seem likely to arise from a hidebound industry like traditional publishing.

Obduracy is not your friend in the e-sports world.



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