Friday, July 23, 2010

E-Books & Kindles & Hardcovers, Oh My! by Joe Hartlaub

I find myself here through the good graces of John Miller, who has honored me by inviting me to post in his place on alternate weeks, with a wonderful introduction to boot. Thank you, John, for both. As I look at the company I am in I feel a bit like the undergraduate student who finds himself at a table with a group of learned professors and who hopes that, if he stays quiet and doesn’t embarrass himself, he will be permitted to stay. Staying quiet and not embarrassing myself are not listed among my ever-dwindling list of strengths, but we’ll see how it goes.

It has been an extremely interesting week in the publishing industry, with much talk of E-Books and Kindles and hardcovers, oh my! Despite what you may have read in self-styled newspapers of record this week, physical books are not dinosaurs and the comets aren’t coming. Not just yet. E-books (and their readers) are something more than another format, and something less than a total replacement. To put it another way: when Gutenberg rolled out his printing press, people didn’t stop telling each other stories.

Yes; in the second quarter of 2010, the good folks at Amazon sold more e-books than hardcover books. What happened in that second quarter? For one thing, a lot of fathers (including this one) received Kindles on June 20. And we felt duty bound to load them up with an e-book or twenty. What’s the point of getting a new gadget if you can’t test drive it? Amazon also instituted a price drop for their six-inch Kindle model on June 21. Similar spikes have occurred over in the music industry during holidays, when iPods, iPhones, and iPads need to be loaded up with digital tracks. Yet, CDs continue to outsell digital music tracks on an annual basis, though their share of the market continues to drop.

Do I love my Kindle? Yes. There are books I can buy for it that are not available in physical form, some of which are original works, others of which are out of print. Of course, there are other books --- more than you might think --- that you cannot obtain in e-book form. The issues of publishers’ and creators’ rights are not going to be easily resolved and things are probably going to get nasty (actually, they have already) before they resolve. And pricing? Let’s save that one for another discussion. If Kindle and other e-book readers are going to be serious contenders, in the long-term, there is going to have to be some sort of uniform standard put in place in terms of editing, particularly for self-published works, to match that which traditional publishers have established. I’ve read some e-books that appear to have been carefully groomed for presentation, while others seem to have been written without coming within one hundred miles of spell-check software. And how will authors get their needle to stand out in a market of thousands of haystacks without the might and majesty of a marketing department --- or a helpful bookseller --- to make it jump out at a potential reader? It is difficult enough to keep track of and keep up with the embarrassment of literary riches that appear every month. At the end of the day, there is still going to be a need for mainstream publishers who are willing and able to adapt their business models for this brave, and yes, scary, new world. I am impressed with what some publishers have been doing already. Baen Books, for one, has a very cool webscription e-book site. Maybe that will be a model.

Is there a trend toward e-books? Certainly. Does it mean the end of the hardcover book? Unlikely. Physical books continue to have much to recommend. I don’t know if I can properly explain this, but there is a comfort level with a physical book that I don’t get with plastic. There are also a host of practical issues. Physical books don’t break when you drop them, for one thing. A physical book doesn’t have a battery that will run low on you when you’re in a hotel room in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana and its cord is in Westerville, Ohio. You don’t have to worry about scratching a book cover. You can drop a book on a spider and crush it; spiders laugh at Kindles (don’t ask me how I know this). And if you throw a book across the room, it will forgive you. A Kindle will never speak to you again. We may someday see the end of the hardcover book when you can do all of those things with a Kindle (oh, yeah, don’t use one as a coaster, either), and physical books may become collectors’ items, but I’m not going to go out and buy twenty copies of THE PASSAGE on speculation just yet.

One of the most intelligent people I know is a gentleman named Tom Leavens who has been active in the music industry for decades. When the digital era began to impact the manner in which music was distributed, sold, and consumed, he compared it to the beginning of creation, stating that after the smoke, noise, and confusion had settled, things would slowly begin to sort themselves out. Just so. In this case, the world is not ending; it’s just changing. It always has.

16 comments:

  1. Welcome to TKZ, Joe. Great to have you here. All good points about e-books. Probably one of the biggest advantages I see with electronic publishing is the fact that "out of print" should now be as useful a term as "corded remote" and "8-track".

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  2. Hey Joe, welcome aboard. Good post to start off with. I feel the same way. There is always uncertainty with major, innovative change, followed by some sort of rough stasis. I think that stasis is coming, and we'll be able to analyze it better early in 2011.

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  3. You're so right in that although there is much material available in ebook form, there is even more that is not.

    I'm pretty much using my Nook just for reading pdf files of online short stories. When it comes to really getting absorbed in a novel, I still prefer a book. The one book I did download -- yeah, I know what you mean about needing an editing standard.

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  4. Recent article: Wylie’s E-Book Venture Stirs a Fuss in Publishing - DealBook Blog - NYTimes.com
    dealbook.blogs.nytimes.com
    Random House has issued a forceful response to Andrew Wylie's announcement that he has started his publishing venture to produce e-books: it will stop doing business with the literary agent.

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  5. Welcome aboard, Joe, and thanks for a thought-provoking post. I noticed last week during my commute via subway to my Big Boy job, that more people had their noses in eBook readers than in pBooks. Interesting times lie ahead.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  6. Hello and nice post. I'm currently reading a book on the Kindle--third book read on it--and I miss paper. A lot. I'm not sure what it is, exactly. Some of it is the annoying buttons. Some of it is the heft. Some of it is the, when I'm done reading a paper book for the day I can literally "toss" the book on a shelf or the piano or an end table, whereas with the Kindle, well, not a great idea.

    The book I'm reading is excellent by one of my favorite authors. BUT, it was a standalone he wrote a dozen years or so ago that I missed that's out of print, and I'm not sure if he uploaded it from a manuscript or had one of the services do a scan, but there are many, many weird errors, enough that they've become a distraction and it reminds me more of reading a manuscript by a talented professional writer in need of a little copyediting than a professionally produced book.

    Which makes me wonder about the overall quality of e-books in general, and even more so, the self-published ones that certain writers with great confidence and apparently very little self-doubt, are touting as the new era of book publishing and the end of traditional publishing as we know it.

    I don't think anyone knows what's going to happen, me especially.

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  7. Mark, you raise an interesting point. I downloaded THE CARDINAL OF THE KREMLIN--one of my favorite Clancy books from back in the day--and the formatting errors make it nearly impossible to read.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  8. John, it's a terrific book, too, "9 Scorpions" by Paul Levine and I would unwaveringly recommend any and all of Paul's books--strongly, go read the damn things, he's a fantastic writer--but there are formatting errors here that kick me right out of the story.

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  9. Welcome! Great post. Kindle (or other e-reader) is on the top, bottom, and middle of my Christmas gift list. I look forward to it for short stories, anthologies, and access to magazines and newspapers I can't find easily.

    I hope publishers see the potential there and start dusting off the OOP and mid-list books and get some interns in there formatting (correctly) as fast as their little mouse fingers can click. Every used book I buy because the title is long OOP is a royalty a writer doesn't receive and profit a publisher doesn't make. Cause --> Effect. Not rocket science by any means.

    ::Dusts off crystal ball:: Actually, I foresee the rise of small companies offering services to the major and minor publishing houses to format their backlists into e-format faster and cheaper than the bigs can bully their interns into doing it.

    However, you also can't press your wedding flowers in a Kindle, or level the coffee table with it. Books have their place and will be with us for a long long time.

    Terri
    www.whyifearclowns.com

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  10. Welcome Joe. Great post. Thanks for coming on board. I've spent the morning harvesting Cornish crosses. I don't have an eBook reader, and none of my children have thought to buy me one. For father's day I got a shirt from one of them. I'm doubting they will ever think of buying me anything remotely useful or interesting. I know people who have Kindles, but I've never actually handled one. I guess they figure I am too old to learn to use anything like a Kindle.

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  11. Thanks for joining us, Joe! On a related note, I saw an article this week on how google is helping independent bookstores breach the digital divide, it will be interesting to see how that plays out...http://tinyurl.com/2d9x7tm

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  12. What I need is a weather and elements proof Kindle type device. Last week I spent 3 days standing with 200 total strangers up to my chest in 40 degree north pacific ocean water scooping up a winter's worth of red salmon into a net at a rate of 1 every 15 minutes or so in a sometimes horizontal rain that alternated with a blazing sun and occasional high surf.

    A book would have been nice but would have gotten soggy. The audio-book in my MP3 player was nice but I had to keep taking my earphones out because people kept wanting to chat. (They probably thought my dull stare at the water was due to hypothermia). An e-reader would have been great but of course would have lasted all of ten seconds in the frigid salt-water, rain-soaked, sun-baked environment.

    Therefore someone needs to invent an electronic reader that is water proof, temperature proof, can be read in direct sunlight and overcast sky alike and has a really strong lanyard that won't let it be carried away when a slightly higher than I anticipated wave smacks the thing out of my hand, or when I am excitedly running back out of the surf with a rather moody and violent 15 lb red salmon who is of the mind not to be taken any closer to the shore.

    Of course, I guess I could just use my pocket recorder to dictate my own stories, especially the action and romance scenes, while standing there. Then the stares would be worth it.

    Ooh ... and if the e-reader could double as a fish bonker that would be a real plus.

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  13. A belated welcome to the Kill Zone, Joe! Great to have you here. E-book publishing (and the doors being opened for an increased cut of the action for authors) was the subject of a lively discussion recently by J.A. Konrath, Boyd Morrison and Jason Pinter at
    blogtalkradio.

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  14. Great post - I've been skeptical about the e-book reader craze until I headed to Chicago last week. I ended up leaving "The Passage" at home just to not hassle with transporting it plus my laptop case and carry on luggage on the plane. I did the same a couple weeks earlier with Spitz' "The Beatles." The sheer heft of the book(s) compelled me to leave them behind. My flights were delayed/had layovers and I regretted not having them. What's the status of e-readers and public libraries? I've noted that some libraries offer a limited assortment of e-books (the downloads expire after a certain point).

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  15. This is a very good article, however I want to know whether e-books are going to kill hard cover books and not whether they are good or not.

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  16. Anon, much smarter people than I are wondering the same thing. My best guess: when the dust settles and the smoke clears, books will still exist. Your choice of written works in physical formats, however, will be limited, both in terms of existence and in availability. I think that within the next year or two we'll have a pretty good idea of how things will shake out.

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