Monday, April 27, 2009

The Debate Over E-Books

If you’re not a publisher or a bookseller, you may have missed knowing the London Book Fair was going on. A book fair, including the Book Expo America, does more than just highlight books. It also is a chance for publishers to meet and talk. Sometimes that takes place over lunch or coffee. Sometimes in panels.

The London Book Fair had a standing room only crowd at one such panel discussion, according to Publishers Weekly.
Heads of some of Britain’s largest and most powerful publishing houses entered into a heated hour-long discussion, all of them of the mind that e-books can’t be ignored, but differing in their ways of dealing with the pitfalls of e-books, namely piracy and pricing.
Some speakers, like Gail Rebuck, chairman and CEO of Random House Group, were fans of e-books. Some, like Tim Hely-Hutchinson, CEO of Hachette Livre UK, were less so. But when it came to a discussion of piracy, there was a lot of discussion. And even more so when the topic turned to pricing.
“We need to adapt our thinking about payment” said [Penguin Group chairman and CEO John] Makinson, who is of the mind that publishers are “short-changing authors” if they don’t price e-books the same as physical books.
But I thought one of the best quotes came in the Comments section, by a publisher from SMCNally HerStory Books:
We are amazed that anyone is still having this debate! We have been selling romance ebooks online successfully since 1996. … And yet here we are with the same old tired discussions about whether or not ebooks are here to stay? Some of the people we have partnered with have gone by the wayside, some authors too, but those of us still standing after 13 years can attest to the fact that the readers get what they want, the writers can actually get a better royalty. Why? Because the publisher does not need to worry about printing, inventory, warehousing, pick, pack, ship, demurrage, returns, shelf room, back orders, shipping overseas, dealing with individual customers who have to wait days for a book to come in the mail, etc etc. Customers get what they want instantly, and on a reader, in a safe and secure format Publishers can then spend the money which would be involved in all the aspects involved with a physical book, as mentioned above, on paying better royalties, and on marketing in the new online media, particularly Web 2.0. …
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  1. That last quote sums it up!

    And the only way authors are shortchanged on E-Books is if their publisher is greedy. (At least in my opinion.)

    L. Diane Wolfe

  2. I had to laugh when I read the last quote from HerStory books. STILL debating over ebooks? Isn't that like arguing over the value of computers or the internet? It's here.

    I understand some of the concerns listed--piracy is a problem with most electronic media. But there are ways to put in stronger safeguards. The music industry has spent time and money on doing so. I'm one that always takes my new CD's and downloads them to my computer and there are some CD's you can't do that with, anymore. I'm sure there are ways to also protect ebooks.

    Thanks for the info Helen. Have a great week!

  3. 3 cheers for the SMCNally comment from an author and reader.


  4. Makinson suggests that pricing ebooks the same as physical books would mean more money for the author - it seems to me that it would mean more money for the publishers instead.

    Jane Kennedy Sutton

  5. Hmm - I guess I need to take this up with my publisher(s) then - I get pennies on the dollar from ebook royalties compared to a print copy. And it makes perfect sense that the royalty percentage should be WAY higher on an ebook. Also I'd like to see the price of an ebook be at least a bit higher, so the gap between ebooks and paperbacks isn't quite so huge.

  6. I agree, ebooks are here to stay and soon enough will take over. It is just like music. Sure there will be hardcopy books available, but most people will eventually be buying everything online. For us that like to hold the book, well that will be available too.

  7. It does seem as though the publishing world has been slow to react. But they're finally accepting the inevitable.

    Good luck on upping your royalty percentage, Marvin.

  8. I agree e-books are here to stay. And isn't piracy an issue, with or without them?
    The best thing about Kindle, I figure, for authors, is that no one is going to LEND someone their Kindle, as they do are hardcover or paperback. And if the costs are reasonable, readers won't mind paying $8 instead of borrowing the book.
    Maybe I'm being optimistc??

    Jan Brogan

  9. I'd agree that other than the ever-present problem of piracy, the e-book format is here to stay. Once readers like the Kindle come down in price, they will be even more pervasive. I can't wait!

  10. I agree that ebooks aren't going away. Electronic books have improved dramatically since the first non-edited, highly-priced versions came on the market. Kindle definitely needs to come down in price, and will if the economy continues to decline.

  11. I sure agree about Kindle. If they'd come down on price, even I might buy one! (I'm known for hating to spend money.) I'd sure like to have one. Although my husband would probably take it over. He travels a lot and he'd stick it in his briefcase rather than lugging paperbacks.

  12. Ebooks hardly shortchange authors, considering the royalty percentages are MUCH higher than for print...except some of the "biggie" houses getting ebook divisions seem to be overlooking that, and paying authors the same. That is shortchanging.

    The good thing about Kindle, et al is you don't *have* to buy one to read ebooks. There are varying formats out there for those limited to reading on their PC or laptop, or on their cell phone/handheld. So it isn't a must to spend hundreds of extra dollars for the technology, though the titles may vary depending on format. It's a work in progress everyone claimed for years would "die." Eh, guess not!


  13. I've downloaded one or two on my computer, but would really rather have something more "booky" that I could read on the plane or in the big chair in the livingroom.

  14. Ebooks are here to stay, but sounds like these people are still having a hard time coping with them.

    Morgan Mandel

  15. In my opinion, e-books will be marginal until publishers can come up with reliable ways to tempt people into buying them. Seeing a bookstore on the street or in a shopping center tempts people to drop in. Inside, the books are displayed in ways that tempt you to pick them up. The furnishings, the lighting the coffee shop, the posters and the designs of the covers are all arranged to tempt you. Seeing a friend's library is tempting. Seeing what people read on the bus, in a coffee shop or at the pool is a temptation. You see someone reading a Kindle and you're tempted to buy what? A book? No, you're tempted to buy a Kindle. if anything.

    When you're on an airplane, you notice what the person next to you is reading and you might even talk about it -- if they are reading a book. If they are reading a Kindle, I'll bet you talk about the Kindle, but not about the story.

    I want people to see my book being read, not a Kindle.

    I agree that it's easy to read a book on a Kindle and convenient to carry lots of books around on an e-book reader, but I think bookselling is about putting an attractive cover in front of a reader's face in such a way that the reader wants to, and is able to, buy the book. Until that happens, e-books will be an afterthought of publishing.

  16. Good points, Mark. The marketing of ebooks is a challenge. But I do think things are changing. I look at my own life. I used to find books by browsing in a bookstore or my meeting authors either through my local chapter of Sisters in Crime or through the Writers' League of Texas or by going to booksignings in bookstores. Now, I'm more likely to meet authors via the Internet through blogs, online listserv groups, or via email. I've bought books online because I met the author or because someone recommended the book. I haven't yet bought an ebook, except a couple I downloaded (for free) in pdf that I could put on my computer. I used to say I would never buy an ebook. I also used to say I could never edit on a computer; I had to have pen and paper. Now I only edit on the computer.

    I open my email and ads automatically pop up based on keywords in the various emails. It's annoying to me, but I think bookstores will eventually have book covers pop up based on individual keywords or searchwords or preferences. Or they'll do something to create a visual bookstore online, one that more closely recreates a physical store.

  17. While I do think piracy really does worry publishers (perhaps more than need be), I think the pricing argument is a canard. I really think they are slow to adopt simply because ebooks are a game changer for them. It completely changes their business model, and no business likes doing that. Change is a scary thing.

    But ebooks are here to stay. The savvy publishers will adapt and thrive.

    I do like some of Mark's points. The physical atmosphere surrounding books, bookstores, and libraries is a very real factor in luring readers to pick up, read, and hopefully purchase a book. But the importance of that atmosphere is likely to diminish with each new generation of readers. The same arguments used to be made concerning newspapers. 2008 marked the first year that online news readership outstripped physical news readership.

    It won't happen overnight. It may not even happen in my lifetime. But I firmly believe eventually ebooks will be the dominate format for both long form and short form reading.

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