Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Feature: Five Quick Points on Print vs eBooks

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

Just me chiming in on the eBook discussion. Are they valid? Hopefully.

1) It's really not print vs. eBooks. There's no reason that the two should be antagonistic, but rather platforms that a publisher could pursue. True, one can be detrimental to the other if taken in isolation, in the same way that the release of mass-market books might cannibalize sales of hardcovers, but that doesn't mean publishers forgo publishing the former altogether. Rather, it's part of their strategy (and yes, some publishers do not release mass-market paperbacks because it's impractical for their business model) and there will be cases when it's appropriate and when it's not.

* Interesting commentary: In The Agony Column Podcast where Rick Kleffel interviews Jeremy Lassen (Night Shade Books), the latter suggests eBooks might take on the role of mass-market paperbacks in disseminating the titles to more mainstream markets, the way that mass-markets were available in supermarkets and department stores in the past.

2) Print will be here forever/eBooks are the wave of the future. Both statements are possibly true. I mean the Betamax was the superior device yet it lost to VHS (for a variety of reasons and variables). If you want print to last forever or for eBooks to overtake the market, you need to step-up and and strive to innovate in their respective fields. For example, eBooks currently aren't the future because of several problems (I'll touch upon a few below) and "features" like DRM can actually prevent it from being the evolution of publishing. Similarly, publishers intending to stick with print should take steps to distinguish their print titles that's not replicable when it comes to eBooks (i.e. it's a limited edition hardcover rather than a mass-market paperback).

3) Every author/publisher's platform is different. Another way of saying this is that what works for one person might not work for you. For example, the impact of distributing an eBook for free if you're a no-name author is very different than if you're J.K. Rowling. The latter could indeed cannibalize sales, while the former might increase the public's awareness of your presence. It's the same way that some authors are more successful in other forms of media (not necessarily print) such as eBooks or podcasting (which in turn can be leveraged when it comes to print). Before one "picks a side" (print vs eBooks), they need to be aware of their own unique circumstances.

* Interesting commentary: In The Sofanauts podcast, Jeff Vandermeer mentions Cory Doctorow as an example. Doctorow has BoingBoing that allows him to leverage his projects. Not every author has BoingBoing, nor is "getting featured" in BoingBoing a strategy (I'd call it more of a tactic).

4) eBooks have a PR problem. Currently, most people value print (some people wouldn't even consider reading on a screen a viable option). I attribute this as the previous generation's bias for print. A lot of the current hurdles of eBooks such as pricing, piracy, and publisher's fear of cannibalizing print sales stems from this fact. For example, sans DRM, one of the benefits of eBooks is that it can be copied (from computer to computer), print select pages at will (and make as many copies as you want), or the fact that it's more convenient to store than a regular book (i.e. no bookshelves necessary). A lot overlook these benefits, or don't even consider them benefits at all.

* Interesting commentary: Recent fiascos such as Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle hasn't helped the public image of eBooks (it's intangible and impermanent!).

5) eBooks are more similar to the print-on-demand model than the offset printing model. Here's an observation I've made--and I could be very well wrong about it--but to me eBook publishing has more in common with the print-on-demand business model than the economies of scale mainstream publishers use. For example, the setup costs of selling one eBook is the same as selling a million (and in fact, the latter might end up costing you more due to bandwidth expenses). With offset printing, costs per book printed decreases the more you print. This also explains why individual authors like Michael Stackpole have a better handle on selling their eBooks compared to big publishers. The latter needs to pay their staff (editors, artists, management, marketing, etc.) and this is usually based on the book's (or the publishing company's) print-run for the year. Individual publishers (like authors) on the other hand don't need a huge staff nor do they need to pay their staff (if any--most eBooks for example, unless they're PDFs, don't need a fancy layout as much as they need a functional layout hence the lack of a need for a graphic designer when it comes to layout) upfront (and a bulk of the profits goes directly to them).

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great piece! I think you did a great job addressing a lot of the issues that have slowed the foray into ebooks for publishers, and readers alike.

Our model at allows for either a digital download, or a POD paperback or hardcover copy re-print covering both sides of the street so to speak.