Some ebook observations
Just had a very busy day at the London Book Fair. It is hard to post from here; I don’t have my normal 12 or more hours a day at the keyboard of my laptop. But what Book Fairs are all about is the compressed opportunity to encounter smart and knowledgeable people and I had the chance to check out and validate some thoughts I’ve been having about ebooks.
1. The proliferation of formats, devices, screen sizes, and delivery channels means that the idea of “output one epub file and let the intermediaries take it from there” is an unworkable strategy. Here are two simple reasons for that (I’m sure there are many others):
*Epub can “reflow” text, making adjustments for screen size. But there is no way to do for that for illustrations or many charts or graphs without human intervention (for a long while, at least.) Even if you could program so that art would automatically resize for the screen size, you wouldn’t know whether the art would look any good or be legible in the different size. A human would have to look and be sure.
*The link between text and footnotes, and the easy ability to jump back, is a huge variable among ebooks in different formats. There is apparently some sort of manual work and quality control here that isn’t necessarily done by a downstream converter.
Publishers will find that they must do a QC check on every version of their ebooks which is offered, and a “version” can occur every time a component of the supply chain changes.
2. The branding of ebooks is a mess. The publisher brand is being obliterated. You are buying a Kindle ebook or a Stanza ebook or an Iceberg ebook or an eReader ebook and not Random House, HarperCollins, or Hachette. Publishers are apparently just allowing this to happen. This is pretty ironic because most of the same publishers are mistakenly trying to imbue their brands with consumer significance. For the general trade publisher, that’s not actually possible (since they are not distinguished by their content or their audiences). But if it were possible, the quality of their ebooks should be a big part of it going forward and they’re relinquishing the role of “owning” that voluntarily.
In some ways, they’re also relinquishing their primary responsibility as a publisher, which is to control the quality of the product they deliver for their authors to the authors’ readers.
3. The evolving discount structure for ebooks can’t possibly be sustained. Retailers always use margin to gain share. If publishers sell ebooks to eretailers for 50% off, consumers will soon be buying them at 40% off. On the one hand, we are ten years into a paradigm of imitating brick-and-mortar pricing and terms and it is difficult to change it. On the other hand, ebooks are still only 1% or so of most publishers’ sales, so any change made now will be “early” in the overall scheme of the ebook business.
Somebody’s got to start building a glide path to a sensible structure. This will be complicated, because publishers in the long run will be much more likely to sell digital downloads direct to consumers than physical books. That means that just going to net pricing wouldn’t be much of a solution. With the publisher selling the books online, any intermediary would be able to calculate what percentage of the retail-to-consumer they were being asked to pay.
The conversation about the prices of ebooks have centered around the costs that publishers don’t incur: printing, binding, cash tied up in inventory, warehouse, returns. But publishers say the manufacturing cost of a book is only about 10% of the retail price and we still have to maintain the operation to do all the printed book stuff and we are still investing to build the infrastructure to do the estuff.
Everybody’s right, but we’re ignoring the retailer side of it.
Retailers also avoid a lot of cost: rent, clerks, cash tied up in stock, shelving, returns. They also have front end investing to do to build an infrastructure to process a digital download business.
I think if I were a big publisher, I would make it clear that the era of 40, 50, 55, 60% off retail for digital downloads is one that must come to an end. I’d lean to a phased reduction and, in the short run, all kinds of support (including additional margin) to help “retailers” (Stanza, B&N Fictionwise, Apple’s and RIM’s App Stores, and every store served by Ingram and Content Reserve) build their offering and their capability.
The big publishers will have extraordinary leverage to recreate the paradigm. When there’s an ebook market of a size that matters (getting close), people will search Google for their favorite title if the search at their favorite ebook retailer doesn’t deliver the title. There will definitely be retailers that will take the business at lower margins, as can the publisher itself. Boycotting high profile books will be a very dangerous strategy for a retailer.