The Shatzkin Files

Ebook complexity: good news for publishers

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We are working on a project in this office to “grid” the ebook world. We’ll have a hard time doing it in fewer than four dimensions. What we see as “major headings” are: 1) hardware/readingdevices, 2) software/platforms, 3) file formats, and 4) ebook retailers. And after we get that sorted out, we’ll start thinking about the various commercial terms. I surprised a reporter this morning (who is probably less well-informed than most readers of this blog) when I told her that Apple gets paid for what goes on an iPhone out of the App Store, but not on what goes on an iPhone from the Kindle store. (And that’s just an example…)

This morning came the news that Canadian retailer Indigo is going to partner up with a reading device, the way Amazon has its Kindle and the way Barnes & Noble is rumored to be setting up for later this year. Although there are ways to get an ebook not purchased from Amazon onto a Kindle, and there will presumably be ways to get content not purchased from the retailer partner onto the Indigo and B&N devices (when they come), it isn’t easy. Most people I know who own a Kindle aren’t aware that they can get another ebook format onto it.

Complicating things further is an entirely different sort of offer coming up from Google. Everybody else, whatever the differences (and there are many!), is selling you a downloadable ebook file which you “own”. Google is selling you access to a file which they will stream to you. What’s the difference? Two big ones.

* When you close your web browser, you no longer have the book.

* Because of that, any concern about piracy goes away. If you can’t grab the file, you can’t “share” it.

This is game-changing in a very dramatic way. If you’re reading on a web browser, then there are no format issues. And if you don’t have the whole file, there are no piracy issues.

Google has also announced its intention to enable retailers to “sell” these books (or, perhaps we should say, sell access to these books) based on retail prices they would allow the publishers to set. Google reserves the right to alter the price (or remove the title completely) if the price is out of line for the category. Later reporting suggested that Google is ready to give up a big chunk of its notional 37% (that’s their share in the settlement; it wouldn’t have to apply here but apparently they’re using it as a baseline) to retailers to make it attractive to them to resell, but they want the publishers to put skin in that game too. One of the two big questions that arise today is: what margin will they offer retailers? (I’m on record favoring a reduction of the margin from what retailers get in the physical world.) The whole question of pricing is so complicated that I’m going to leave it here and take it up in some future post.

The second big question is “how much is in that cache?” which could be phrased as “how long a tunnel can I ride the train through and still continue reading my book?” Apparently there is new technology which could largely mitigate that problem

There is no question that reading an ebook this way will not be quite as convenient as an ebook that you have in your device. For one thing, with an iPhone you’ll face real battery life issues (being connected drains power faster.) But Google is an organization that looks to the future, and the future is cloud computing, not hard drives (or even flash drives!)

But while we focus serially on each new thing: Shortcovers and Cool-er Reader and Google ebooks, there is a larger reality being sketched, and it is very good news for publishers. The more complicated this world becomes, the more an author will need a professional organization, operating at scale, to deal with it for them. And the more it weakens Amazon. It might have seemed a year ago that we were headed for a world where Amazon would rule. They kept growing their printed book share and, with the Kindle, started gathering a significant percentage of the ebook market. With a combination of Kindle and their own BookSurge POD operation feeding their vast audience of book buyers, they were moving — inexorably it might have seemed — toward being a single point of distribution that could adequately serve the market for many books. And anybody who wanted to reach that market could just hand off the Word file when they were finished writing and not have to deal with anybody else.

The more there is a market that is not served by Amazon, the more any author needs a publisher, and the more any small publisher needs a distributor. The key role for publishers in the value chain is to manage complexity and detail. That is an end-to-end challenge: including editing and shaping, designing and “typesetting”, putting into distributable form (printed or electronic), elevating consumer awareness, and making it possible for retailers to sell (or, viewed another way, for consumers to buy.) As tools have made it easier to handle origination, getting from a manuscript to reproducible (check out Lulu for printed books or Smashwords for ebooks), the publisher’s role was challenged for some books. The reorganization of the consumption world from horizontal to vertical has also challenged trade publishers: their connections to the Times Book Review and Oprah aren’t as valuable as they used to be. 

But they could be saved by an ebook world so complicated that only the savviest players will be able to cover every corner of it. Coming up is the next big multiplier of complexity: when web sites start selling ebook downloads (or access) to the books that suit the vertical interests of their site visitors. The method for exploiting those opportunities in the printed book world was an affililate relationship with Amazon or because you needed somebody to manage delivery of a physical volume and they did it. In the ebook world, they’re just another unnecessary middle player. The stores will go straight to the ebook aggregators — Ingram or Content Reserve — or work directly with publishers if they have enough product to engage the vertical audience.

But even if the vertical players go to aggregators, and even if the aggregators largely manage all the complexity the supply chain is throwing at us, the ebook world is rapidly getting much too complicated for single players. If publishers (and the consultants they depend on) are getting a headache trying to keep all the new stuff straight, imagine how bewildering it is to the wannabe self-published author!

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  • I think you’re backwards on the complexity issue. The more complex things gets, the more difficulty traditional publishers will have. Complexity and emerging technologies are the domains of the small, the flexible. This is why many traditional publishers have yet to really “get” the internet – pushing out book trailers which cost more and look worse than what most kids with webcams are able to accomplish.

    Meanwhile, the book version of TuneCore ( will pop up. An author can pay small fee and have their book placed in every eBook store around the world at least giving the author potential access.

    • Bradley, I think we’re just going to have to disagree on this one. First of all, it won’t be as simple as “getting it placed.” As in the physical world, different “retailers” will offer different opportunities for promotion and sale. But I can also tell you because I’m in the slog on this one, trying to help one company build a service that will deliver as much ebook distribution as possible for authors at the lowest possible cost: it is NOT easy. And it is getting harder every day, not easier (as I said it would in a blog post a couple of months ago.)

      While I agree with you that pushing out expensive-to-produce book trailers is a silly misunderstanding of how to use the Net, I don’t think there’s any analogy to what we’re talking about here. All of the distribution opportunities at scale will open up to the big publishers first, because they’re the ones with the titles that the phone companies and device manufacturers have to have. The aggregators are important here, and no doubt Ingram and Content Reserve can bring along a lot of small publishers, but we’re already seeing the metadata confusion that comes with the aggregators that only the big guys will be able to keep straight. And it’s all just going to get more complicated and difficult for quite some time to come.

      • The book trailers bit is about traditional publishers typically failing to understand the power of the technology at their hands and how it relates to the desires of the end user.

        It’s all fine for the traditional press to preach towards the desires of the myriad distribution channels, but as it stands now those channels are themselves becoming dumb pipes. Verizon Wireless raged against this in and out of court before their rapid 180 towards being an “open platform”. Apple’s App store essentially enables the device to be a dumb pipe, where readers like Stanza (despite currently being an Amazon property) can still render books from most stores. If Amazon were to snatch that away, killing off the app, how long would it be before another one rose up to take it’s place?

        Attempting to turn away self publishers, or even small publishers, by making the system overly complex will just provide the motivation for someone else to make an easier system. Something smaller, more nimble. Like Smashwords. Or worse, like the iTunes store.

        And I frankly can’t wait for that time, because I think the Google eBook store is a terrible idea without much of a chance of surviving. Beware, rant below.

        Yes, all signs seem to point towards cloud computing, but adopting rate of that for purchased goods is near-nonexistant. People are fine uploading their photos or home movies knowing that there is a permanent copy safe on the ol’ home hard drive. Paying for something that you can’t download might sound great to publishers, but unless Google pulls out something major, the plan will go down as a footnote next to Google Video.

        This says nothing of the proposed security of streaming content. If the end user can access the content – even if it’s an encrypted stream, and especially if it’s saved in a cache – the end user can keep the content. Users have been doing so to online radio stations and video streams since they became available. Telling users they can’t do it is simply asking that to happen. Again, Google Video leaps to mind here – when Google stopped allowing people to download videos, workarounds were discovered in days.

        Add to this the pricing found in the Sony Reader or Cool-er stores, where the device makers tend to give the publishers more pricing decisions than Amazon – and Google is suddenly delivering a product in a manner the user doesn’t want, at a price the user feels is too high, and in way that’s likely not secure at all.

      • Bradley, we have a very clear line of demarcation. I think that the Google initiative will be an overwhelming success. I think they’ll double the size of the ebook market by themselves. MOST people will not care if they permanently possess the file or not, even in the early stages. And they’ll care less and less as cloud computing becomes more and more ubiquitous. And I think you’ll find that Google is able to make cracking the stream much tougher than cracking any other DRM. After all, you can always scan the book or re-key it. There is a practical limit of “protection” beyond which it makes no sense to go, no matter how much you want to protect against piracy.

        And nobody is “trying” to turn away anybody. Each entity is pursuing its own interests. In some cases, the commercial entities feel they benefit from a more open system and they try to support that. Others, like Amazon, see their best interests in a closed system, so they do that. But everybody wants the sales to go through them and they do their best to capture them. It’s going to be that way for a very long time, because the market is going to be growing for a very long time, creating more and more opportunities for people to grab parts of it with new entrants. This is nobody’s master plan, believe me. It is a chaos. And it will require resources to maximize any book or any author’s distribution and sales in the chaos.

        But we do agree on this. Making movie trailers for books is a really stupid waste of money.

      • I guess we’ll have to meet up at BEA next year and talk about the state of the Google eBook. I honestly cannot see this ending anyway but poorly.

        However, what if Google does become a success to the point where they are the dominate player? Aren’t they a much larger fear than Amazon?

      • Bradley, I don’t think they’ll be the “dominant” player; I think they’ll be a major player. And they’ll be distributing through a lot of bookstores, finally getting them into the game. The Google offering has the best shot of being the easiest thing for retailers to work with for many reasons. And if they start putting real bucks in publishers’ hands, everybody will be singing a different song about Google a year from now.

        Amazon isn’t going away. There’s no iPod moment here. It isn’t going to be one solution, at least not for a very long time. No doubt it will diversify and then consolidate. But we are years away from the end of diversification, and consolidation isn’t on the horizon. It’s 1916 in the automobile business, or something like that. And no comparison to music or movies will make any sense. They didn’t require the diversity of readers and functions that books do, and they don’t benefit from the potential for vertical sale the way books do.

      • “The Google offering has the best shot of being the easiest thing for retailers to work with for many reasons.”

        Which reasons are these? I wasn’t at the conference and the Times article mentioned nothing of this. I feel like you’re working with knowledge I don’t have. I didn’t see anything about Google planning to sell eBooks through other retailers. Doing so would be different than the current deal with the Sony store, which is covered by the Google Book settlement and does allow for downloading of books.

        Everything I’ve read seems that Google is creating their own version of Scribd. Users can browse parts of books – which will be tapped into Google search – and then click to buy if they wish to continue. This will grant them online access to the book which the user will have on any internet enabled device from an OLED coffee cup to an iPhone to a desktop.

        Knowing Google they’ll likely make it easy for people to sell affiliate access – a type of adwords for eBooks – but I wouldn’t call that granting access to other retailers.

      • I reported in the blog that they’d be selling through other retailers. Apparently the Times didn’t recognize that as a significant piece of news. Fortunately, MIchael Cader and PublishersLunch did. I don’t recall whether I read it in the subscription version or in someplace on his site restricted to members. But he reported it. And I can tell you independently that I know it to be true.

      • I guess that explains some of the disconnect. I wonder how they’re planning to do that. If they pushed the technology back towards publishers, enabling Tor or Random House to sell directly to consumers through their respective websites then it could be a game changer.

      • Bradley, I don’t know whether enabling publishers to sell through their own sites is a part of the plan, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. My sense is that Google understands that the more points of contact with the consumer, the more sales will occur. Presumably, publishers understand that too (although, in most cases, I would imagine the publisher’s web site would be among the less important.)

  • Max Alexander

    Mike, here is another potential complexity, of a distinctly analog variety: as an author who loves his Kindle, I do wonder what will happen to traditional book signings in the future. Author appearances, revolving around signings, represent an important part of many authors’ income. And before you say, Well there will still be appearances, just no autographs, I would argue that these little face-to-face meetings with readers clutching a copy of your book are about more than just shaking hands and signing your name. Many authors really are energized by these one-on-one meetings; indeed David Sedaris (who loves signings and prides himself on having actual, meaningful conversations with every single person who approaches him) has written great essays about the process. You undoubtedly read the recent NYT piece on the plight of autograph hounds at the new Yankee Stadium (not a problem up here at Fenway, if I may twist the knife half a turn); while I personally can think of few things in life I care less about than someone’s autograph (well, maybe Ted Williams), lots of people–sports and book fans–really do care. I suppose you could argue that in the future, authors will just sign a piece of paper or a photograph, but it’s not really the same. The kid who catches Hideki’s homer wants Hideki to sign the ball, not the program. I have not seen anything written about this subject and am curious about your thoughts. Perhaps a future post?

    • Gee, Max. You present a tough problem. I am pretty sure the revolution doesn’t call itself off for autographs. We are trading more opportunity for virtual interactions for less opportunity for personal ones. That’s not required by digital change, but it is encouraged. I hasten to add that not everything I see as the likely future would qualify as the desirable future. I guess that’s manifested here.

    • bob stein

      when we published Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in the Voyager Expanded Book series in 1992 we imagined that autographing could work as follows:

      reader meets author, author shakes her hand and exchanges pleasantries. the exchange is recorded on video and transferred to the electronic file. sadly Douglas died before we could try it out, but it still seems to make sense.

      • Bob, thanks very much for this. You have just proven that all the answers can be found at The Shatzkin File, even if Shatzkin himself doesn’t have all the answers!

      • Max Alexander

        Bob, that’s an interesting idea. Here’s another: what if e-book readers came with some sort of signature pad–the way you sign electronically, on the little screen, for a credit card purchase at some stores these days. The signatures would not be transferable to another reader, so the fan would have “proof” that the famous author actually handled that very book reader. That way, the e-reader itself becomes a sort of token or memento, handled by perhaps dozens of authors and collecting value (at least for people who care about that sort of thing). Maybe it’s completely silly, but who knows?

    • Max:

      Sounds like you’re envisioning a world where printed books have been entirely replaced by e-books, but that’s certainly not happening in the foreseeable future. In fact, the lines at those author signings may even become a little longer with the proliferation of e-books.

      • Faze

        I think you may be right. While i am reluctant to make too many comparisons between music & film and books, and their respective digitisation, in this case i think a comparison is warranted. The rise in digital music would seem to have increased the need for and desire to perform live music and the desire to see live music, and i think the same may be true for books as they increasingly become used and read in a digital format.

      • Max Alexander

        With respect, I don’t see a correlation to music here. Music is a performing art. Granted that a few writers make the grade as “performers” (I’m thinking of Sedaris, the late Spaulding Gray, Garrison Keillor and larger-than-life characters such as Hunter Thompson), but how many sell out concert halls? (Sedaris does, but go down the list.) So unlike with music, there is no flipside to the digital revolution in books–no live concert to attend. When it comes to reading, I have no problem with the concept of replacing the “thing” of the book with a digital file; in fact I love it. I am about to leave for Africa for three months, writing a book, and my Kindle is how I will read dozens of books while there. I just wonder how, from a marketing or merchandising standpoint, that “thing” of the physical book (and its autograph) will evolve. Maybe it won’t matter. Maybe there will always be hard copy versions of books. (Although I doubt it.) Maybe just as many people will buy Joe Torre’s book even if he doesn’t show up at BN on 5th Ave to sign copies. I will grant you that this issue does not need to be resolved in the coming year. But as Mike pointed out, the revolution won’t wait for autographs.

      • Max, I’m with you. It’s fine for musicians to use the net as a commercial for live performances; that’s a possibly-workable model. No such equivalent exists for the pure writer (although it is workable for the writer-consultant, or the writer-teacher-of-something).

        Let me add some fuel to your argument/concern. Bowker has just conducted some consumer research that indicates that a huge percentage of book purchasers (like 50%) learn about the book they’re purchasing by seeing it (or having seen it) in a store! The front table at Barnes & Noble is actually worth more than a great review in the Times, say. Considerably more. So as physical books go away and STORES go away, big merchandising and promotion opportunities go away. It is not a trivial problem, autographing aside.

        Have a great time in Africa but, as you know, you’ll need to get that Kindle fully loaded before you go. Your connection to the Kindle store won’t work in Africa!

  • Yup; we did also report that Google will enable Partner publishers to sell Editions directly through their web sites.

  • The number of people that have affordable downloading (or at all) is also considerably larger than the number of people that have affordable always on mobile internet access.

    Doesn’t matter what they do to protect it, either, you still have to be able to see it. If you can see it, you can automate screen capture.

    • Blue Tyson, no question your first statement is correct. So that means the always-connected audience is somewhat more affluent. And that people with less money will have fewer content choices. In what ways does this not resemble the world we are already living in?

      As to your second point: there is no system that can’t be beaten. You can scan the book. You can rekey the book. You can crack the DRM and you can erase the watermark. You can xerox the printed book and staple the pages together. But when cloud access is routine and hard drives are rare, the size of the problem shrinks commensurately.

      • Mike, there still are some considerable differences. You are affected by insular thinking, there.

        Take Australia or New Zealand, for example. No large difference in affluence between there and the USA.

        However, while mobile browsing might be part of a reasonable monthly fee in the USA – the browsing needed to read a long book online for an average reader might come out to a cost that is multiple times the price for buying the book directly. e.g. if image heavy flash or some other format.

        This has zero to do with affluence, and everything to do with infrastructure and other factors.

        The average Norwegian may well be more affluent (not to mention literate) than the average North American – but publishers are refusing to sell to them, too, because of location just to pick another example. Or even let people do the search inside books function, when talking about google books.

      • Blue Tyson, first of all, thanks for the education about the fact that bandwidth charges vary by country. In the long run, I think we’ll find that everybody gets all the bandwidth they need. Google’s foray is an early entrant to cloud computing; it won’t become ubiquitous until problems of access, including cost, are largely solved.

        The problems with publishers selling to Norwegians generally has to do with rights, and that’s a problem that originates with smart agents who have learned the first rule of publishing: “acquire rights broadly, license rights narrowly.” We will also see that change over time, but rights constraints are certainly a bigger barrier in many parts of the world than technology.

  • Evan Schnittman has a post on the same subject today at Black Plastic Glasses. He explains the tech somewhat better than I do. Check him out.

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  • The idea that Amazon, in a year and with an overpriced, badly designed piece of proprietary hardware, however nifty, was anywhere near “cornering the market” when that market has been alive and well and thriving for more than a decade is just on of the myths that abound now that the mainstream publishers have discovered “Hey, we can make money with this.”

    • Elizabeth, there was an ebook market in some niches before Kindle. And there were a few outliers (like me) who read most books on ebooks before Kindle (in my case, since 2000.) But nobody can deny that the market started to surge when Kindle came out and has done so since. I suspect that your business has seen some increase in that time too.

  • Mike,

    I can’t beleive how close we are in our expected impact on the future of the industry. But I don’t see this as just benefiting publishers, I see it helping authors (maybe those on your new service) sell directly through their sites, and why not GM, Ford, Citibank selling some e-books as well.

    I can envision a comodiazation of e-books that will significantly increase the power of the content rights holders and delivery service and weaken the power of the individual e-retailer. So I can now see expanding margins for the publisher/authors, as you have been advocating.

    I also see this as the first major innovation in a decade to help the independent booksellers, largely due to the points Max Alexander raised.

    The added power of the publishers will come at the expense of the mega retailers like Amazon and the big box companies. With expanded margins and broad distribution, publishers will be motivated to maximize the value of the titles being marketing in all formats and channels. They will be less likely to accomodate Amazon’s pressure to support a $10 Kindle price, to lure sales away from the $28 hardcover release, for example and more likely to support pricing that will accomodate demand for all forms at prices maximized for each format. There will be no incentive to rob print to accomodate digital.

    With the reestablishment of a level price playing field, the independent bookstores will be able to earn enough to resume their role of grassroots promotions to the masses and further help authors build an audience for their works.

    What a great day for bookselling.

    • Dick, I envy your optimism and I see some of this the same way you do, such as the fact that every website becomes a point of sale for ebooks. I completely agree with that.

      But because I agree with that, I don’t agree that the horizontal bookseller is going to benefit. I was brainstorming with a bookseller at BEA about what they could do to secure a future. My suggestion was: claim a vertical (or two). Go beyond books in that vertical. Become the first place in the world to go for something, because the bookselling business is only going to get harder, not easier. Ebook complexity is not good for the indie bookseller; it is bad. Barnes & Noble has many more resources to deal with it. And there is an opportunity for them, if they don’t get stupid, while Amazon keeps building the wall around themselves and the Kindle. (Unless THEY decide to sharply change strategy.)

      • Mike, optimistic? I wish. The game just shifted back to the book industry issues more than technology issues. I agree about bookstores becoming the best place for books to survive, kind of like they were in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. That is probably the key issue facing publishers whether to fund those with “purchasing power” or devote resources to supporting the “horizontals” as you put it. I kind of believe the publishers would rather keep power than give more to Amazon, B&T and now Google to protect their own margins. I could be wrong, we will see. But if pulishers are interested in increasing profits/margins, Google just handed the key to them on a silver platter. There are plenty of guys like you and me to take care of the complexity issues for the independents if the publishers want them to survive. But the material “horizontals” use must originate with the authors and publishers. At least future face of the industry is more in the hands of industry people now than a month ago.

      • Dick, there’s no doubt in my mind that publishers want bookstores to survive. It is baked into most publishers’ DNA that the more channels there are to the consumer, the better. And, in fact, I think that’s the big win in the new Google initiative; they are going to open up a new capability that will enable many new touchpoints for content for the consumer. But it is your confidence that guys like you and me (thanks for inclusion in your company) can help indies navigate the complexities. I don’t think it will easy. I think there will be many platforms and many technologies and only those with scale (read will be able to offer them all in a relatively seamless way. Ingram and Content Reserve will make an effort to make this work for indie bookstores, but it will be a struggle. The same requirement for completeness in content and format will not be present for the vertical sites that want to make a more limited offering.

      • Mike, As for technology (complexity) as a competative advantage to the big guys, the trends in technology favor the little guy over the bigs. That is what the Google initiative is all about, only they expanded it to everyone, big and small. Also helping independents with complexity is a whole new wave of “Open Source” and Web 2.0 apps at the disposal of those wishing to participate. There is a sea of brilliant independent developers out there in support. The days of corporate IT department dominance over the marketing channel are over, ask GM. I don’t think the support decision for independents will be based on sentiment either. I share your view that it will be decided by the publishers with their new gained power, and decided by the size of the market independents can bring to the table.

      • Dick, the Google initiative tilts to the little guys, no doubt. And the Google initiative will be seen as a game-changer like the Kindle was pretty quickly. But it will not suddenly dominate the field. The early adopters of other technologies may or may not want to switch very quickly (let’s see good the purchase and reading experience is in the beginning.) There will still be a place for a retailer that offers all the books in all the formats. Ingram and Content Reserve will try to help indies get as close to that as they can (Kindle, of course, for at least the foreseeable future, being left out, and probably Scrollmotion too; then we have other retailers coming up with device relationships…)

        I think it will take a long time, if ever, for the entire ebook market to shift to the Google model. It may take a very long time for it to reach half the market. So you have to do all the other stuff for the general bookstore customer. And that’s complicated; there won’t be much margin in it; and the consumer doesn’t need one in every town. So it is a crap business for independent stores.

        Ultimately (10 years? 15?) there will be one or two horizontal book and ebook retailers and millions of virtual ebook retailers in verticals. The objective for bookstores, just as it is for every player in the horizontal game we now call general trade publishing, is to stake some vertical claims while they have the resources to do it.

  • “1) hardware/readingdevices, 2) software/platforms, 3) file formats, and 4) ebook retailers”
    You have forgotten the most important thing: – the EBook Content. It will not turn out EBook Revolutions if will not be Multimedia Content in the EBook. No – Digital Edition of paper book!

    • Georg, we didn’t exactly forget the content. We’re doing this work for the people who provide the content. That’s our starting point and we’re in service to the people who want to get their content in front of as many eyeballs as they can.

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