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kottke.org posts about publishing

Foreclosing on the future of the book

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 12, 2018

Microsoft Reader Ad - 1999.jpg

At Wired, my old colleague David Pierce writes about a topic near and dear to my heart: Amazon’s Kindle, and its effects on how we buy and read books:

For a decade, Amazon’s relentlessly offered new ways for people to read books. But even as platforms change, books haven’t, and the incompatibility is beginning to show. Phones and tablets contain nothing of what makes a paperback wonderful. They’re full of distractions, eye-wrecking backlights, and batteries that die in a few hours. They also open up massive new opportunities. On a tablet, books don’t have to consist only of hundreds of pages set in a row. They can be easily navigable, endlessly searchable, and constantly updated. They can use images, video, even games to augment the experience….

The next phase for the digital book seems likely to not resemble print at all. 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. Just as filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh are experimenting with what it means to make a “movie” that’s really an app on a totally interactive device with a smaller screen, Amazon and the book world are beginning to figure out what’s possible when you’re not dealing with paper anymore.

Except… not really.

Very few people have held out more hope for the digital transformation of the book than me. I used to run a website called Bookfuturism. I wrote, at length, in The Atlantic, at Wired, at The Verge, at any magazine or website that would have me, about the possibility of a new reading avant-garde. And it just never happened. For reasons.

For one thing, almost every kind of forward-looking reading technology can be put to more lucrative uses than making e-books. Facebook will buy your company. Google will buy your company. Some games publisher will buy your company. You will not be making books any more. You will be making something else. It might be cool! But it won’t be books.

Second, and more importantly, the main way that the Kindle and other digital devices have transformed books is to make them as liquid as possible. By liquid, I mean, they take the shape of their container, rather than dictating the container’s shape. You need a single book to read in much the same way on a Kindle as on an iPhone, a full-sized tablet, a PC, and on whatever device you’re using to read your audiobook. Plus, you know-printed books, which are still huge. And part of the value of the digital book is that it’s a reasonable facsimile of the printed book.

While all of these devices are more multimedia-capable than an analog printed book, the differences between their capabilities is vast, and designing around those differences is no easy task. So Amazon has done what I think any of us might do given those requirements, and basically de-formed the book, deemphasizing page design and anything else that might not cross over to devices with different screen sizes, media capabilities, and affordances.

Getting wild with digital design in 2018 means getting wild in 2018 with responsive design that’s agnostic to the kind of device you’re rocking. That’s doable, probably, but it’s really, really hard.

“If Amazon wanted to, it could with a single act bring a new form of book into being,” Pierce writes. It’s true that Amazon is probably the only company that could do so. But it has good reasons, not least the overall conservative nature of the book market writ large, to move exceedingly slowly.

Every generation deserves to have its own dreams for the future of the book dashed against the wall. For reference, here is a timeline Microsoft-nice, safe, Word-and-Office Microsoft!-put forward back in 1999.

2003- eBook devices weigh less than a pound and run for eight hours on a charge. Costs run from $99 for a simple black and white device to about $899 for the most powerful, color magazine-sized machine.

2005- eBook title and ePeriodical sales top $1 billion. Many serial publications are given away free with advertising support that now also totals more than $1 billion. An estimated 250 million people regularly read books and newspapers on their PCs, laptops, and palm machines.

2006- eNewstands (kiosks) proliferate on street corners, airports, etc. As usual, airlines offer customers old magazines on the flight, but the magazines are now downloaded to eBook devices.

2009- Several top authors now publish directly to their audiences, many of whom subscribe to their favorite authors rather than buy book-by-book. Some authors join genre cooperatives, in which they hold an ownership stake, to cover the costs of marketing, handle group advertising sales and sell “ancillary” (that is, non-electronic) rights, including “paper rights.” Major publishing houses survive and prosper by offering authors editing and marketing services, rather than arranging for book printing. Printing firms diversify into eBook preparation and converting old paper titles to electronic formats.

2011- Advances in non-volatile chip storage, including Hitachi’s Single Electron terabit chip, allow eBooks to store 4 million books - more than many university libraries - or every newspaper ever printed in America.

2012- The pulp industry mounts its pro-paper “Real Books” ad campaign, featuring a friendly logger who urges consumers to “Buy the real thing - real books printed on real paper.”

2018- In common parlance, eBook titles are simply called “books.” The old kinds are increasingly called “paper books.”

2020- Ninety percent of all titles are now sold in electronic rather than paper form. Webster alters its First Definition of “book” to mean, “a substantial piece of writing commonly displayed on a computer or other personal viewing device.”.

The technology has never been the issue. The willingness of big players in the industry to move quickly has never been the issue. I never thought Kindles were going to be wildly experimental, but I thought they might start doing everything that text does, or that paper does. But people don’t really want to even do Sudoku on their Kindles. What they seem to want to do is read (and in some cases, listen to) books. Books, and the enormous and enormously complex interconnected nature of the book market and book readership, seem to be the issue. You just can’t make that barge turn on a hairpin.

(Thanks to John Overholt and Catablogger for a photo of the Microsoft ad.)

E-book sales fall below hardcovers for first time since 2012

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 30, 2017

borders-closing (wide).jpg

Print book sales are increasing (slightly) while e-book sales continue to fall (sharply), says Nielsen’s Jonathan Stolper. Which means for the first time in more than four years, hardcover books are outselling e-books. Stolper lists a few factors driving the switch: the price of e-books has gone up, and fewer people are using dedicated e-readers. Even people buying and reading e-books are doing it on their phones and tablets, not Kindles or Nooks or what-have-you.

Whatever the causes for the decrease in e-book sales, the decline has resulted in something that many publishing experts thought would never happen—unit sales of hardcovers overtook unit sales of e-books. With hardcover units up 5% in 2016 over 2015, hardcover’s 188 million units sold topped that of e-books for the first time since Borders closed in 2012, Stolper said.

I have a pet theory about this, and it’s very simple: it’s about the stores. Here’s how it works.

  1. E-bookstores expand to country after country, publisher after publisher => sales of e-books go up.
  2. Borders and other chain bookstores shut down => sales of print books go down.
  3. Barnes & Noble and other e-bookstores shut down, leaving Amazon basically the only game in town => sales of e-books go down. (Also prices go up.)
  4. People stop using devices that are basically stores with readers attached, and use phones and tablets where it’s harder to buy => sales of e-books go down some more.

It’s the same boom-and-bust that we had when the new chain bookstores came through thirty years ago and gradually killed each other off! Lots of places to buy books, then hardly any places to buy books.

Meanwhile, indie bookstores are weathering the storm and big box stores are still pushing books at a discount, keeping print books afloat. Which is exactly what the publishers and a lot of other players in the market have always wanted: a high e-book prices, both to preserve a revenue floor and to keep the entire print market chain in business. And Amazon’s fine with it — they got the near-monopoly on e-retail they wanted.

Meanwhile, readers are paying more for books and have fewer places from which to buy them. As much as I like a good hardcover, that hardly feels like a win.

Buying a book is what they call a crime of opportunity. If there were more viable e-bookstores (and if DRM weren’t such a monster, there’s no reason every website couldn’t be an e-bookstore), we’d have better competition on price (collusion and market choices aside) and everyone would sell a whole lot more e-books.

Update: I screwed up the first draft of this and conflated hardcover units with total print sales. (I also forgot to include the link to the Publishers Weekly story I quoted.) To be clear, hardcovers are outselling e-books now, from the publishers covered in Nielsen’s survey. E-books have never outsold all print books — even rosy projections back in 2014, when e-book sales were about a third of the market, didn’t think they’d cross that 50/50 threshold until well into this decade. Thanks to Doug Gates who spotted the error.

Update 2: Dan Cohen pointed out a number of other factors tipping sales measurement in favor of print: “dark” but legal reading of e-books that doesn’t get counted (libraries, open e-books, DRM-free private sales by authors and indies), and increased sales of audiobooks, which eats away at the e-book market. E-readers, too, haven’t really improved much; neither have the aesthetics of the books themselves. Other readers pointed out that readers feel burned by stores and services failing.

In short, “cost” is probably the biggest factor, broadly defined — but what exactly that means and how it plays out in readers’ choices is a lot more complex than a binary choice between e-books and print.

Why metadata REALLY matters for the future of e-books

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2010

Okay, I’ll chase ONE new story today. But it’s about this fundamental problem of converting old media objects into new ones, and I get to dig up some old blog posts too, I feel like I’m still in character.

Google Books claims to have counted all the books in the world: “129,864,880 of them. At least until Sunday.” But as Ars Technica points out, that number is dubiously wiki:

Google’s counting method relies entirely on its enormous metadata collection—almost one billion records—which it winnows down by throwing out duplicates and non-book items like CDs. The result is a book count that’s arrived at by a kind of process of elimination. It’s not so much that Google starts with a fixed definition of “book” and then combs its records to identify objects with those characteristics; rather, the GBS algorithm seeks to identify everything that is clearly not a book, and to reject all those entries. It also looks for collections of records that all identify the same edition of the same book, but that are, for whatever reason (often a data entry error), listed differently in the different metadata collections that Google subscribes to.

But the problem with Google’s count, as is clear from the GBS count post itself, is that GBS’s metadata collection is a riddled with errors of every sort. Or, as linguist and GBS critic Geoff Nunberg put it last year in a blog post, Google’s metadata is “train wreck: a mish-mash wrapped in a muddle wrapped in a mess.”

It’s not just Google that has a problem. I wrote a post for Wired.com last week (“Why Metadata Matters for the Future of E-books”) about how increased reliance on metadata was affecting publishers of new books, who also depend heavily on digital search — and generally how bibliographic and legal arcana around e-books affects what we see and how we come to see it more than you’d think.

But I wish I’d added Google’s woeful records to the piece. It’s not like I didn’t know about it; here’s the title of a post I wrote a year ago, also citing Nunberg’s post when it first appeared at Language Log: “Scholars to Google: Your Metadata Sucks”.

Dairy airs

posted by Ainsley Drew   Mar 27, 2009

Attention milk product enthusiasts: The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-Milligram Containers of Fromage Frais has been released, and it won the dubious distinction of the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year.

The benefits of winning the award appear to be few. According to Philip Stone, The Bookseller’s charts editor:

“What does the future hold for these items?” Mr. Stone asked, speaking of fromage-frais cartons. “Well, given that fromage frais normally comes in 60-gram containers, one would assume that the world outlook for 0.06-gram containers of fromage frais is pretty bleak. But I’m not willing to pay £795 to find out.”

For those of you who are more into designer accessories than dairy almanacs, the Calf & Half pitcher lets you pour with udder abandon.

And if you’re looking for more clandestine cream, bring your own containers. Raw milk, once our only option, then treated as a potential health hazard, now finds itself on the black market.

Shaking up tech publishing: “It seems that

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2006

Shaking up tech publishing: “It seems that the industry standard [for authors] is something akin to 10% of the profits (which easily take 4-5-6 months to arrive), being forced to write in Word, and finally a production cycle that’s at least a good 3 months from final book to delivery. That’s horrible!” Building a shop “to take $19 from your credit card” and laying out books in InDesign aren’t as easy as he makes it out to be for everyone, but it’s a great overall point.

Book author to her publishing company: your lawsuit is not helping me or my book

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2005

I got an email this morning from a kottke.org reader, Meghann Marco. She’s an author and struggling to get her book out into the hands of people who might be interested in reading it. To that end, she asked her publisher, Simon & Schuster, to put her book up on Google Print so it could be found, and they refused. Now they’re suing Google over Google Print, claiming copyright infringement. Meghann is not too happy with this development:

Kinda sucks for me, because not that many people know about my book and this might help them find out about it. I fail to see what the harm is in Google indexing a book and helping people find it. Anyone can read my book for free by going to the library anyway.

In case you guys haven’t noticed, books don’t have marketing like TV and Movies do. There are no commercials for books, this website isn’t produced by my publisher. Books are driven by word of mouth. A book that doesn’t get good word of mouth will fail and go out of print.

Personally, I hope that won’t happen to my book, but there is a chance that it will. I think the majority of authors would benefit from something like Google Print.

She has also sent a letter of support to Google which includes this great anecdote:

Someone asked me recently, “Meghann, how can you say you don’t mind people reading parts of your book for free? What if someone xeroxed your book and was handing it out for free on street corners?”

I replied, “Well, it seems to be working for Jesus.”

And here’s an excerpt of the email that Meghann sent me (edited very slightly):

I’m a book author. My publisher is suing Google Print and that bothers me. I’d asked for my book to be included, because gosh it’s so hard to get people to read a book.

Getting people to read a book is like putting a cat in a box. Especially for someone like me, who was an intern when she got her book deal. It’s not like I have money for groceries, let alone a publicist.

I feel like I’m yelling and no one is listening. Being an author can really suck sometimes. For all I know speaking up is going to get me blacklisted and no one will ever want to publish another one of my books again. I hope not though.

[My book is] called ‘Field Guide to the Apocalypse’ It’s very funny and doesn’t suck. I worked really hard on it. It would be nice if people read it before it went out of print.

As Tim O’Reilly, Eric Schmidt, and Google have argued, I think these lawsuits against Google are a stupid (and legally untenable) move on the part of the publishing industry. I know a fair number of kottke.org readers have published books…what’s your take on the situation? Does Google Print (as well as Amazon “Search Inside the Book” feature) hurt or help you as an author? Do you want your publishing company suing Google on your behalf?

Is Not Magazine is a, um, magazine

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 13, 2005

Is Not Magazine is a, um, magazine that is published as a poster in Melbourne.

Cory Doctorow’s new book, Someone Comes to

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2005

Cory Doctorow’s new book, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, is out today. As usual, the book is available for download under a Creative Commons license.