E-trends and other fun for book people to mull over: A mix of reckless and not-so-reckless predictions

Note: This is an expanded version of my talk to the Washington Biography Group on Monday at Washington International School.

By David H. Rothman
Founder of TeleRead, Co-Founder of LibraryCity, and author of The Solomon Scandals

SEEING the windmill blades turn—in Al Gore’s multimedia book

Are we wasting our time talking about books and the future? Will even electronic books become niche items?

I’m more sanguine than the worrywarts, but what we now call “books” may change dramatically in some cases, especially nonfiction such as biographies from big publishers.

Below are major e-trends, all with legal and other business ramifications, for book writers, publishers, editors, agents, lawyers, bookstores, and the rest of the industry to ponder. Some predictions here are sure-fire, like the rise of e-books as sales leaders in ten years. Others may not be. Will we really get a full-scale and successful Netflix of e-books starting up here in the United States with a major company behind it? I’d say, “No doubt!” if publishing were a rational industry. It isn’t.

What’s more, if the mega-publishing conglomerates were sufficiently logical, we’d already have a well-stocked national digital library system with the fervent encouragement of the Association of American Publishers and Random House, profit motive not be damned; and I’ll explain why. And now—on with the predictions, followed by one about that library.

Trend One: E will beat P sooner than the skeptics think

Pollyannas came up with absurdly optimistic forecasts for e-books a decade ago. They were just accurate ahead of their time.

E-book screens are more and more like paper, to cite just one example of ever-evolving gadgetry. In fact, e-books might be the main show for the industry in the next few years, if we extrapolate from recent research by the Book Industry Study Group. In February, digital books were the leading format in all categories in trade publishing.

Granted, February was a knockout month because of holiday spending on e-readers, but clearly e-books are elbowing aside the pulped-wood variety. The displacement won’t be complete. But anyone hoping that the change won’t happen, or will take fifty years, is letting fear or sentimentality wallop the truth.

Winners: Authors, who can either self-publish inexpensively in E or enjoy more leverage if they choose to sign traditional publishing contracts. Someone like Stephen King, an early self publisher of e-texts, could fall into both categories.

The current 25-percent cut that many houses give writers for e-books is miserly (even though, yes, all good books come with built-in costs for editing and the rest no matter what the medium). Fifty-fifty would be less obnoxious.

Losers: Publishing houses that don’t adapt. The smart ones will trim excessive costs, come up with services for the do-it-yourself crowd, try harder for Hollywood deals, and also grow serious about multimedia books like Al Gore’s recent one on global warming and energy-related solutions.

As for paper bookstores, the most future-minded of them won’t just follow leaders like Politics & Prose and try to become community institutions through such means as media friendships—notice how  two Post alumni even co-own P&P now?—and book groups.

They also may strive to originate local and perhaps national content of all kinds and work closely with public institutions such as library systems. Lines between certain bookstores and publishers will blur; I’m not pushing this as a panacea for bookstores, just one example of the possibilities for reinvention. A few dollars here and there from Google eBooks just won’t cut it.

Trend Two: Eventually a boom in multimedia books from major publishers—and maybe minor ones, too

imageMy pet example is Gore’s Our Choice (promo videos here and here), an iPad app where the developers skillfully blend text with photos, videos and audios. You don’t just read abstractions in his environmental pleas. You can see those windmill blades turn and learn how the technology works.

This approach could be manna or at least a nice business opportunity for the Random Houses, Simon & Schusters, and medium-sized houses. Hardware costs for the masses will be declining, especially as better Android tablets and others challenge the iPad. Improved broadband connections will be another driver over the long run. When will multimedia books really score big? Beats me. Most likely, however, this will happen in the next five to ten years and perhaps the next one or two.

Winners: Well-financed publishing houses, which can hire bestselling writers, for instance, and secure the liveliest multimedia to augment the text. For now, nonfiction like Our Choice is where video and audio will most help publishers and readers alike. Readers won’t snap up a novel just because the author introduces it with video (even though I can see Pat Conroy giving us a tour of, say, Charleston landmarks mentioned in the accompanying fiction). On the other hand, multimedia could be highly effective for titles like how-to guides and—of obvious interest to the people in this room—biographies and autobiographies.

Losers: Individual writers and small houses that can’t come up with enough flash to compete. As always, many of the small-fry may triumph anyway, based on sheer merit. We can’t generalize confidently.

Here’s one reason why the outcome isn’t clear. Just after I emailed the first draft of this presentation to Pat, Mike Shatzkin, a well-known publishing consultant, posted a blog item saying the multimedia tools could become so easy that even small publishers could thrive with them.

Mike could well be right, especially if enough free and inexpensive—and relevant and first-rate—multimedia content becomes available to augment text from small presses and self-publishers.

“Of course,” Mike said in his blog, “editorial wizardry is still required.” Yes!

In any event, multimedia books might be good news for agents and other rights-associated people because of the contractual complexities.

Related would be a blend of technologies letting readers enjoy a book both in text and audio with Kindle-style synching happening between the two. That’s on the wish list of Pat McNees of the Biography Group, and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t happen (I’d hope that real humans could narrate bestsellers at least).

Meanwhile I wish publishers would stop forbidding readers to enjoy synthesized speech on the books they paid for. In most cases, I doubt these houses are earning more from audio rights than they are losing from lost sales to would-be customers who would like to take in the synthesized audio during commutes, then resume in text when they return home. I like to hear my Kindle during walks, and if a publisher is silly enough to ban text to speech, then I at least try to spend my money elsewhere. Hello, Mr. Conroy? Many of your readers may be elderly, some with sight problems. Care to bug your agent and Random House about the mute titles?

A text-audio-synchronized book, in one handy file, would be one way to reward your readers for paying more than the price of the basic text, but meanwhile text to speech still makes sense. The winners as usual will be the adaptable publishers and writers; the losers, the obstinate.

Trend three: Bargain-priced books—at least the non-multimedia ones

With possible exceptions such as well-done multimedia books, prices for e-books will keep going down amid increased competition—with or without counterattacks by large publishers, like the “agency model.” Already Gore’s iPad app sells in Apple’s online store for just $4.99, a “special” price that I suspect could stick around for the long run even if interruptions happen along the way.

Even some works originally published by brand-name houses are now on sale at Amazon for 95 cents. No wonder publishers prefer to keep rights forever!

Winners: NonVIP writers, who can command attention more quickly. I accidentally became one of the exhibits here. My Washington media novel, The Solomon Scandals, a trade paperback and e-book, was ranked around 250,000 on the Kindle list despite a rave review in the Washington City Paper, its use in a history class at George Washington University last spring, and continuing Hollywood interest. Gritty and irreverent newspaper-novels by obscurities are not prime review fodder for the big dailies, especially if the offending publishers are small presses and the satire perhaps hits too close to home. That wasn’t the only reason for the 250,000, though. From any sentient writer’s perspective, there are just too many damn books out there, both in reviewers’ stacks and in the Kindle store.

Then my publisher among other actions dropped the price down to 99 cents, and a Kindle blog blessed Scandals. Result? At one point it reached the top 1,000 out of more than 900,000 items in the Kindle store. Elated, Twilight Times Books raised the price to $2.99, and sales plummeted. We’ve just gone back to 99 cents. At least if I have my wishes, we’ll stay there and patiently build up a following and my personal brand name as a novelist even if the unit sales and revenue won’t beat John Grisham’s statistics overnight and probably not ever. Long-term possibilities ahead of price pride!

As I write this a few days after the return to 99 cents, the numbers still stink, but it’s too early to reach any meaningful conclusions here and I suspect that unit sales and the so-far minuscule earnings would be worse without the price drop.

Regardless of the Tragedy of the Commons, let’s keep in mind that books don’t just compete with other books but also with other media, ranging from video games to cable TV. Furthermore, if we’re to reduce piracy overseas, what better way than sensible prices for readers in countries poorer than ours? The Hollywood guy has an eye on foreign markets for a Scandals film, so we’re not just talking complete hypotheticals if I win the book-adaptation lottery.

Losersor possible losers: Big-name writers (as well as certain large publishers) who are competing with bargain-priced stars  like Mike Pettit, the self-published author of the John Locke series. But even they may come out ahead if the global e-book market truly takes off and their publishers are smart enough not to overcharge.

Trend Four: Subscription plans for e-books, similar to NetFlix’s

I’m surprised we are not further along in this area. Perhaps the real Netflix will even crank up a book rental operation tied to the video one—or Amazon will swoop in. I myself bought booktry.com a few years ago; hello, Amazon?

Winners: Small presses and more obscure writers, who will enjoy more exposure for their works—the same as indie film makers do on Netflix. Readers will be more inclined to try what they’re already paying for.

Losers: Name writers who can’t compete with the Long Tail. Then again, some of the very most saleable among the VIP writers just might enjoy huge signup bonuses.

Trend five: The growth of cloud computingand more opportunities for readers, as well as for readers of e-books, at least in the short term

You needn’t be a pirate to hate digital rights management (DRM), actually a penalty for legitimate buyers who must struggle with the complexities and limitations of DRM that that readers of bootlegged books need never fear. True, there’s the risk of viruses from illegal downloads. But at least you can own your book forever. Readers expect far more from purchased works than from, say, library books. I fervently hope that, as in much and perhaps most of the music world, DRM will be on the way out. As a noncelebrity, I want to make it as easy as possible for my readers to discover me, and even well-known writers should show a little more empathy toward the buyers of their works.

The good and bad news is the growth of cloud computing—which will let you read books off far-off computers, via your Web browser, rather than having to store them locally and wrestle with the incompatibilities and other horrors of digital rights management. If Web links are kept stable, which the library model could facilitate for commercial and noncommercial works alike, imagine the possibilities for publishers and writers of networked books.

Not so great is the possibility, as shown by Amazon’s recent cloud failure, that your works could vanish temporarily—or even permanently. The more links to other books, the more risk of damage. Anyone for a well-stocked national digital library system with fair compensation for writers and others? Biographers, of all people, could benefit massively from library-stable links—both in terms of researching their works and in terms of augmenting their texts with source material, multimedia and other goodies to make books more credible and compelling.

Trend six: New-style internationalization of publishing

TeleRead, the e-book site I founded, was drawing perhaps 45 percent of its visitors from overseas when I sold it in February 2010. And I’ll tell you the one thing that gung-ho e-book lovers outside the U.S. hate as much as digital rights management  and overpricing of books—territorial rights that delay access to bestsellers and other works. Talk about buggy whips! And encouragers of piracy! The good news is that enlightened people in the publishing industry are waking up—about the idiocy of acting as if the Web is still science fiction.

Winners: Smaller houses and obscure writers and also the major writers whose works don’t depend too much on unexplained cultural references.

Losers: Big houses that dominate the distribution mechanisms in the paper era—unless they can adjust. Territorial rights may mean plenty for translated editions and in cases where content must be extremely localized. But in general they won’t be as big a factor as before. Global language-related rights might still mean something (until really stellar translation technology comes along and it’s easier to sells books to all of Planet Earth at once). I am not a global rights expert and would love to hear from those who are. What are the messages from your own crystal balls?

One additional loser or possible loser: The English language, which just might end up further bastardized as a result of its use as an international standard in books and elsewhere—unless, of course, we all end up reading Chinese or trying to.

A prediction: The eventual establishment of a national digital library system.

When will it happen? I don’t know. But it will eventually, and I hope we do it the right way. A slew of other countries are at it. We should be, too, for purposes ranging from K-12 and higher-ed to recreational reading for everyone and accurate cancer and cardiac information for seniors; but let’s look to our existing public library system rather than to Europe or Asia for inspiration. Since the early 1990s, in places ranging from Computerworld and an MIT Press Information Science collection to the Washington Post op-ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education and TheAtlantic.com (some links here), I’ve been pushing for a well-stocked national digital library system. Google stepped on the rights of writers and publishers—and, yes, libraries, too—in trying to substitute itself in various ways for a national digital library system. I love Goggle, I’m a very small shareholder in it, but I was rather grumpy about its expansionistic tendencies.

Now a Harvard-initiated library project, well intentioned, potentially a godsend for schools and libraries, but presently off-target in certain ways, is making the same mistake in overreaching. The Concept Note  for the Digital “Public” Library of America offers welcome and credible assurances that the Digital “Public” Library of America will respect copyright, as would befit the Harvard Law School, where Berkman Center started the DPLA initiative; but you’ll notice that “Note” really focuses on noncopyrighted or orphaned works and uses words like “might” and “may” when discussing specific sources of funding of contemporary items.

Here’s my fear. The DPLA, a laudable project but not a full-service public library, might actually preempt the creation of a genuine national digital public library (established for typical library users and buying vastly more from writers and publishers than the currently imagined DPLA probably would). I can see starting out with public domain works; I’ve suggested the same. But to be blunt, academics as a species tend to be less than perfect at anticipating mass tastes, a difficult task for anyone. That’s where the private sector comes in—writers and publishers—as well as authentic public libraries. I want a healthy mix of business models and tastes.

If you doubt the need for popular literature, Frank Sinatra and Oprah Winfrey biographies included, check out the thoughts of Kelly Gallagher, author of Readicide and an English teacher. He recently told Education Week that "half the reading kids should be doing in K-12 should be recreational in nature. That’s what draws them in and makes them excited about reading.” Recreational reading develops both language and analytical skills, and with ammunition like this, I’d encourage the Association of American Publishers to take time out for from the copyright wars and lobby for the billions in revenue that writers and its members could enjoy someday  from a well-done national digital library system set up in a sustainable way, complete with some indirect cost-justification.

My big motivation is different from the AAP’s; I care about the needs of society at large, not those of dues-paying constituencies. But, yes, as a side effect, the publishing industry could benefit in a major way.

Actually we need two digital library systems. The Scholarly Digital Library of America would be mostly privately funded and not worry about answering constantly to the taxpayers. The National Digital Library of America would be mostly publicly funded, as a public system should be. I’d hope for a consolidated catalogue—for those wanting it—as well as content exchanges, a common infrastructure, other cooperation, as well as accessibility in both cases for every American. But two systems really would be better than one.

To elaborate a little, academics and the librarians among them pride themselves on truth-seeking and on refined tastes. Public libraries strive for excellence but in general must please the taxpayers or risk loss of  funding. The two different priorities are irreconcilable. Granted, the public funds state university libraries and the Library of Congress, but traditionally these institutions do serve academia and researchers in and out of government (despite LOC’s special online digital offerings for the public) and, unlike DPLA, are not confused about class vs. mass.

Just recently, at my urging and others’, the DPLA added some well-regarded public libraries to its steering committee—a definite plus. But if the DPLA really wants focus and the best results for K-12 and the rest of us, then it should concentrate on infrastructure and other areas of cooperation with public libraries but let them establish their own national digital  system, which could pick up funds now going for problematic arrangements with the private sector. (Libraries should use companies like OverDrive as contractors—not for collection development and vendor-controlled electronic storage.)

For everyone (libraries, publishers, writers), the key will be a willingness to flabbergast today’s skeptics and at some point compromise; I’ve just offered some refreshingly selfish reasons for doing so. Libraries should understand that the first-sale doctrine—buy a book and more or less do whatever you want with it—won’t always work for electronic content. They should be willing to pay by the use when publishers demand this and offer fair terms.

In the other direction, publishers should let libraries preserve e-books forever on their servers, subject to monitoring and the right of publishers to appeal to the courts or a special neutral body if they think libraries are mistreating them. Shorter copyright terms, too, more in line with the original spirit of the copyright laws—to “promote the Progress of Science and the Arts” by granting exclusivity for “limited” periods—would help. Seen much copy from F. Scott Fitzgerald lately? Is he working in Rockville Cemetery on a sequel to The Great Gatsby?

Winners and losers? If we’re sufficiently thoughtful in our library visions, then most all good writers and publishers can benefit. I can also see a place for the best of the booksellers if, say, they’re willing to become content providers and otherwise adapt. What’s more, I don’t think the library model should be the only one. I want the foundation-funded model, the government model, the commercial rental model, the bookstore model, and others all to coexist for maximum diversity of content. I think there are ways to bring this about. For example, for very popular popular bestsellers, the lending durations of public libraries might be extremely short in many cases at the start of the books’ lives—which would reduce the costs for libraries and also encourage purchases from publishers and bookstores and rentals from whoever is the Netflix of books.

For some books outside libraries, yes, I can see ads in books (or sponsorships) as long as business considerations don’t overcome editorial ones. The New Yorker isn’t adless. The challenge is to keep the ads within bounds. Iffy, I admit. My feelings are mixed. But fears notwithstanding, I do see ad-supported books talking off in time as the audience for electronic works grows.

All right—I could go on but mercifully won’t. Don’t get me started on the topic of e-books for cyborgs with different operating systems.

Update: Thanks to Sam Black, Pat McNees, and other members of the Biography Group. The questions for me and e-book formatting expert Joshua Tallent were first rate.

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2 thoughts on “E-trends and other fun for book people to mull over: A mix of reckless and not-so-reckless predictions

  1. “Winners: Authors, who can either self-publish inexpensively in E or enjoy more leverage if they choose to sign traditional publishing contracts. Someone like Stephen King, an early self publisher of e-texts, could fall into both categories…”

    I don’t think King (who is worth at least $300 million) is worried about missing the pennies generated from rock-bottom-priced Ebooks.

    Seriously, there is not enough money in ebooks for any of the top authors to bat an eyelash at. BECAUSE ebook prices keep falling every single day, falling so low that they’re becoming a waste of time for self publishers to pen, let alone a big super star author. 99 cents? $2.99? Why waste the time? If ebook readers think they’re in for a bonanza of Stephenie Meyer and John Grisham ebooks for 99 cents and $2.99, they really need to come back to reality. Fast.

    Lastly on this point: there is no money in creating content: ebooks, music, video games. Those that made the money got out there early (Jk Rowling, King, Meyer, Grisham. Music-wise: Black Eyed Peas, My Chemical Romance, ect. Video Game-wise: GTA series, Left4Dead,WOW, Fatal Frame, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and so on).

    But the payout in creating digital content is steadily decreasing. Game designers in Android Market are collecting 99 cents, self published (and traditional)authors are collecting 99 cents for ebooks, iTunes bands are on 99 cents, too.

    It’s not lucrative for the artists. In fact it’s not even enough to live on, let alone be lucrative with. It’s a great lure for ameteurs and high school garage bands and such, but not for professional content creators.

    I’m happy people get 99 cent games like Paper Toss & Angry Birds. But they won’t get Arkum Asylum or anything on that level with graphics like that. They won’t get Harry Potter, ect.

    Ha ha! That’s all I have to say. Take care.

  2. Thanks. The bad news for creators is that competition is growing and will keep down the prices of books and other content in the long tail; the good news is that markets are growing, too. See latest commentary by Mike Shatzkin, a leading publishing guru.



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