Posts Tagged ‘ebooks’

Why would the Atlantic publish on the Kindle?

In a publishing discussion forum I participate in, a friend recently posted her concerns over a recent announcement regarding exclusive content for the Amazon Kindle:

An article in today's New York Times announced that the Atlantic will sell some short stories exclusively on Kindle… This concept bothers me for a couple of reasons. First, the Kindle seems to be the most restrictive of the e-readers… Second, selling a short story exclusively to the Kindle is essentially creating a work that only a privileged few can ever read.

She's right that the Kindle is more restrictive than other readers, but not by much. The only advantage Sony's e-reader has over it in format compatibility is in its support of ePub files, for example. Wikipedia has a handy chart that compares all the hardware's compatibilities.

As for why anyone would choose to make their content available on only the Kindle, check out this table of who owns the e-book market: a quarter of all e-book readers are Amazon Kindles. That's twenty-five times greater than the Sony eBook Reader, and many more times still than the unproven nook. If the Atlantic wants maximum exposure for their content, it makes sense to go with the market leader. (And it's possible Amazon offered them some strong incentives to provide this exclusive content — something e-publishing fledgling B&N couldn't afford while investing in launching their own product.)

However, though there's something to be said for getting in on the ground floor, I think it's too early to be pledging allegiances just yet. It was just last year that early adopters of the HD-DVD format found themselves orphaned in the face of Blu Ray's victory, as this comic strip recently reminded me, for example. How many of today's e-readers will soon be similarly unsupported? The Atlantic may see the potential in taking a risk with a particular product, but I'm more than happy to wait this one out, and then through my weight behind a sure thing.

If e-books were a technology that needed my support to survive — so many people skipped the Sega Dreamcast in favor of its eventual successor that there was never the sales to warrant a successor — then I would be less hesitant. But given the nook's overwhelming presales, I don't think electronic publishing's pioneers will suffer for my economical patience.

The present and future of e-readers

It's been an interesting last week for e-readers.

First, the Barnes & Noble Nook, due in stores November 30th, is enjoying such great demand that, unless you preordered one, your order will not be fulfilled until 2010. I expect demo units will still be available in retail outlets, as I doubt B&N would miss the opportunity to market to the 2009 holiday crowds, thus generating even more sales for 2010.

Then, as a response to growing competition, the Kindle got a firmware update that offers better battery life, PDF compatibility, and easier landscape orientation. However, just like Amazon's removal of 1984 from some readers' Kindles, this update was pushed automatically to users, leaving them to wonder: who's really in charge of their e-readers?

And, despite all these advances, here are eight reasons e-readers could fail:

  1. Price of devices
  2. Price of e-books
  3. Smartphones
  4. Apple's rumored tablet computer
  5. Popular authors aren't sure about e-books
  6. Digital rights
  7. Open publishing standards, or not?
  8. Librarians and small bookstores

In evidence of #5, last week I attended a book signing by fantasy author R.A. Salvatore. As we discussed the unknown future of the publishing industry, he offered his own anecdote: Vector Prime, his only Star Wars novel and the one that infamously killed Chewbacca, sold 145,000 copies in hardcover and 500,000 in paperback. The title's e-book sales to date? 147. There are no zeroes after that — Vector Prime has sold under two hundred digital copies.

Despite these experiences, I don't think it's likely e-books will fail. As the technology progresses to offer a more pleasant user experience, and prices drop to more affordable levels, we may see e-readers become as commonplace as Star Trek's PADDs. But, as with the rest of Gene Roddenberry's vision for the future, we're still a long ways off.

Why e-books don't need copyeditors

Copyeditors are essential to quality publishing, yet the economy and advances in technology have made them vulnerable. Many organizations' management philosophy is that the advent of online publishing offers the opportunity for errors to be corrected post-publication. Those copyeditors who remain in the industry often prioritize stories that are destined for print editions, which do not have that luxury.

The ability to improve something even after its mass market distribution has both pros and cons. On the positive side, there is no longer a deadline to a product's evolution; it can be improved indefinitely, eliminating a penalty against early adopters. It is also affordable for the publisher, who can issue updates without a costly reprinting.

However, it also lowers the standard at which a product ships. Does it have a few typos or unchecked facts? That's no longer a reason to miss a shipping deadline; such trivial details can be attended to once sales warrant it.

We've already seen this trend with video games. Twenty years ago, games shipped on physical, immutable cartridges; any defects would require an expensive recall, which was a powerful incentive to get it right the first time. By contrast in today's age of digital media, consumers don't think twice about their Xbox asking them, "Would you like to download the update to your purchase?"

I expect something similar will happen with books. Once these publications move to an electronic format, readers will become copyeditors, reporting typos to the publisher, who can then correct them remotely. It won't be long before Stephenie Meyer fans have to update their e-books to Twilight v1.1.

What do you think? Does the transition from a static medium to a dynamic one bode well or ill for the quality of our literature? And is that because e-books may eliminate more than just the retailer and distributor from the publication process?

No used e-books, for better or worse

A benefit of e-books is the lack of returns, benefitting publishers who have often contended with the fluidity and impermanency of books shipped versus books sold. But the current technology of e-books is such that the reselling of books is also eliminated. With no physical product, customers have nothing to trade or sell secondhand. This isn't true of all digital media: iTunes Plus tracks have no digital rights management (DRM) and thus can be traded or sold (or copied) freely. But I suspect e-books will be bound to the device to which they are sold, leaving them forever locked to their original buyer.

This must be a bookseller's dream, as it means every copy read is another copy sold. No more will used bookstores or library donations cut into the potential to sell directly to new readers. In some industries, such as electronic entertainment, the used market is seen as the bane of publishers, and even some retailers aren't fond of it. As long as four years ago, Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of, wrote to some affiliate publishers: "If your aggressive promotion of used book sales becomes popular among Amazon's customers, this service will cut significantly into sales of new titles, directly harming authors and publishers."

But is that an informed opinion? A 2005 academic paper entitled "Internet Exchanges for Used Books: An Empirical Analysis of Product Cannibalization and Welfare Impact" suggests that used books are valuable to the sales of new books:

Our analysis suggests that used books are poor substitutes for new books for most of Amazon's customers. … Only 16% of used book sales at Amazon cannibalize new book purchases. The remaining 84% of used book sales apparently would not have occurred at Amazon's new book prices. … This increase in book readership from Amazon's used book marketplace increases consumer surplus by approximately $67.21 million annually. This increase in consumer surplus, together with an estimated $45.05 million loss in publisher welfare and a $65.76 million increase in Amazon's profits, leads to an increase in total welfare to society of approximately $87.92 million annually from the introduction of used book markets at

E-books are often cheaper than physical books, though, and they don't deteriorate like printed goods. So is the used books model even applicable to digital media? Either way, are publishers and retailers truly doing themselves a favor by eliminating the secondhand life of e-books?

(Hat tip to TechDirt)