The Shatzkin Files

Somebody please tell me the path to survival for the illustrated book business

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My eye was caught at the end of last week by a story in The Bookseller that acknowledged that ebooks just haven’t worked for illustrated books. It appears that the publishers of illustrated books they spoke to for the piece think that situation is temporary. The Managing Director of Thames & Hudson, Jamie Camplin, is quoted as saying “you have to make a very clear distinction between the situation now and the situation in five years time.” And Dorling Kindersley CEO John Duhigg emphasized that his team is being kept up to date with digital workflows and innovations, so they can “be there with the right product at the right time.”

But maybe, except for an opportunity that will arise here and there, for illustrated book publishers trying to exploit the same creative development across both print and digital, there won’t ever be a “right time”. There certainly is no guarantee there will be.

Duhigg characterized what he called “the black and white digital business” (but which I think would more accurately be described as “the immersive reading digital business”) as “flowing along” while admitting it is “very different” for the companies with “fully-illustrated lists”.

That’s accurate. Expecting that to change could well be wishful thinking.

Illustrated books in printed form depend on bookstores more than novels and biographies do. If the value in a book is in its visual presentation, then you might want to look at it before buying it, and the view you’d get of it online might not be doing justice to what you’d see if you held the book in your hands.

Camplin sees that optimistically. He has an aggressively modernist view of what will happen with novels. “I don’t see why print should survive at all for fiction, beyond the odd bibliophile” which he apparently believes could open up more bookstore display space for illustrated books.

But if the buyers of Patterson and Evanovich and 50 Shades of Gray aren’t visiting bookstores to make those purchases anymore, will there be any traffic to look at the illustrated books, however prominently they are displayed?

This problem has been nagging at me for a while. Books are illustrated for two reasons: beauty or explanatory purpose, more the latter than the former. When they’re illustrated to better explain, such as showing you how to knit a stitch or make a candle or a piece of jewelry, wouldn’t a video be a better option most of the time? If the illustration is a map, isn’t it likely that being able to manage overlays digitally (for the movement of the weather or the troops on the battlefield or the adjustment of borders over time) will deliver more clarity than whatever stills were in the book?

Of course, these things can be done by book publishers for the digital versions. But they require creating or licensing and then integrating new content assets and rethinking and redesigning the presentation. And that’s not even accounting for the work involved in adjusting the content to multiple screen sizes, a problem that just keeps getting more challenging as more different tablet and phone screen sizes are introduced.

One major publisher I know really endeavors to make ebooks of all their new title output, which includes some imprints that do a lot of illustrated books. Like everybody else, they frequently see ebook sales of 50% and more of their fiction, and 25% or more on immersive-reading non-fiction. But the illustrated books are in the single-digit percentages most of the time, with some of the more successful categories in the very low double-digits.

This is in the US — two years or more after the launch of the iPad and Nook Color and nearly a year after the launch of the Kindle Fire. Poor sales of illustrated ebooks can no longer be attributed to a lack of devices that can deliver them effectively.

And the ubiquity of these highly-capable devices brings its own new set of headaches. We were discussing the recent Bowker reporting that more people are reading ebooks on multi-function devices than on dedicated e-ink readers with our favorite expert on reading habit data, Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group. He concurs and says that, as a result, the ebook consumption per reader threatens to go down.

Hildick-Smith points out that the tablet is a sea change in the history of content and consumption. Up until now, each content form had its own delivery mechanism. Records and cassettes and even MP3s were delivered through devices made just for them, just like the programming on TV and radio. Books on Kindles and Nooks replicated that paradigm. When you turned on your Kindle, you were as buried in your book as you were when it was in paper.

This is no longer true. If the book you’re reading on an iPad or Kindle Fire or Nexus 7 gets boring or you get tired of it, you can switch to a movie, The New York Times, your favorite song, or Angry Birds with the same device. Or the chime on your iPhone will ring taking you out of your book to answer an email.

For the publisher of novels, this means the book is competing with other media that would accomplish a different purpose. For the publisher of illustrated books, the book also must compete with media accomplishing the same purpose (how many new instructional videos of knitting stitches or jewelry-making techniques are posted to YouTube every day?) But they can’t do it for the same price, because that price is free.

So the illustrated book publisher not only has to learn how to make videos (a skill they were never previously required to possess), they also have to come up with a business model that enables their videos to be part of a priced commercial product, competing with legions of them that are free. And they have to finance a substantial creative component that isn’t contributing value to the print version at all.

We know our industry is changing radically. Different business models are challenged in different ways. Most of our time on this blog, perhaps too much of it, is spent contemplating how that affects the biggest publishers and the biggest books. There’s a reason for that. Big books have always driven the consumer book business and that seems to be more true than ever, not less.

But the challenge for — very specifically — “general illustrated book publishing” seems much more severe. The big publishers I’ve talked to apparently see that. Nobody has been explicit about it, but it sure feels like they can see a profitable path to navigate digital change with immersive reading books but not with illustrated ones.

I’ve also talked to mostly-illustrated publishers. Nobody says “you’re wrong, Mike. This is how we’re going to continue succeeding using our content-development skills, marketing capabilities, and talent network when bookstore shelf space is insignificant.” A couple of them have said “I don’t agree” without specifics. Most admit that they see the problem but haven’t yet figured out a solution.

There may not be one.

Camplin of Thames & Hudson is quoted at the end of The Bookseller piece saying, “I think it’s sort of a waste of money to assume the market is there [at the moment]; however, it would be foolish to say it will be this way forever.”

It might be equally foolish to say, or bet, that it won’t.

Of course, there is one strategy that can work: a vertical one. If you’re using illustrated book output to build a community of the interested, then you’ll presumably be able to sell them other things (software, live events, databases, services) when illustrated books are past their sell-by date. That’s the Osprey and F+W strategy and you can see sense in it because books are only part, and almost certainly a diminishing percentage, of their sales portfolio.

In fact, it is companies like these that might use technology like Ron Martinez’s Aerbook Maker tools and be able to use their books as a springboard to digital products with commercial value. They’ll probably also want to discover fotoLibra’s “advanceImages” scheme for micropayment of royalties instead of advance licensing fees for photographs. What Aerbook and fotoLibra offer can reduce the cost of creating an illustrated or enhanced ebook by 80%. That would certainly help.

It’s been obvious to me for a long time that managing the cost side of enhanced ebook creation is critical, which is why I was a sucker for the original Blio pitch in December of 2009.

For any publisher who claims a vertical strategy is their solution, the metrics to track are the sales they make of things other than books and the sales they make outside of bookstores. That is: track what is sustainable and has the potential to grow, not what is bound to shrink.

Relevant piece of anecdata: I remember being told by somebody at Wiley a couple of years ago that a large portfolio of photographs added measurable revenue on their travel sites. For very little cost, they could make a selection of photographs available for browsing. People clicked through them pulling up a new ad each time they did. That’s the “illustrated book publishing” of the future, but it starts with having the audience.

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  • The distinction you make early in your piece between books illustrated for beauty versus utility is key. I don’t think that graphic novels or coffee table books will go away anytime soon, but I completely agree that the days are numbered for books illustrated for reference purposes.

    I started working as an editor for a craft book publisher in 2006. At that time this publisher dominated the market and at least 60% of the books in the craft section of B&N had its logo on the spines.

    Things quickly changed, though. I was laid off in 2008 and now they have a skeleton crew making coffee table books with beautiful photos. As far as I know, their how-to knitting/pottery/jewelry-making titles aren’t dead yet (because there still are some crafters and artisans who will never fully embrace digital media), but the employees still biding their time at this company know that the ax could fall on them any day. As you say, it’s just too easy (and cheap) to do a Google search for the info you need.

    Unfortunately, this means that a lot of highly talented people will need to reinvent their careers, which as I know from personal experience, isn’t easy to do.

    Great provocative piece as always, Mike. Thanks!

    • I think graphic novels will ultimately translate to digital okay. People who love the genre will probably find them perfectly acceptably delivered on an iPad.

      I’m not as sure about coffee table books.

      Right now I think the craft books are probably doing all right. Not only are the bookstores still stocking them (their shelf-space is shrinking but so is the need to carry big quantities of novels and biographies) they also have really good special sales opportunities in places like JoAnn Store and Michael’s. As I said in the piece, truly vertical publishers will probably find it possible to squeeze more years out of these titles.

      Key metrics: what do you sell that isn’t books and what do you sell outside of bookstores? Those are what to watch.


      • I think the case is pretty clear already that comics and graphic novels have already made the jump to digital very well. Leading US digital comic retailer Comixology has announced something like $70 million in digital comic sales for the past year (IIRC) and the growth rate is still very much in the steep upcurve. Fair amount of evidence that digital comics are successfully re-engaging readers who had lapsed from reading printed comics and that re-engaged readers are even going back to buying comics in print again.
        Comics and graphic novels (immersive reading experiences) are mainly benefitting from the digital era.
        As for the main point of your bloog Mike, I can only agree that instructional books are going the way of the buggy whip.

      • I should have been explicit and excluded graphic novels from my summation. They can and do “port” in much the same form as they are presented in print to a digital presentation. The technology challenges aren’t trivial; it is harder than delivering simply reflowed text. But the core IP doesn’t have to change, the way it does for coffee table books or instructional books.
        And, you’re right. They’re working.


      • I think Amazon must be working on the problem. It puzzles me that they have not (November 2012) produced a 10″ Kindle or an eBook format to match the iBooks format. I look forward to your next blog post on illustrated eBooks. My view is the same as Jamie Camplin’s (though he turned me down for an illustrated book about 10 years ago!). Sometime within a 5-year time frame illustrated eBooks are sure to succeed. As you say, Amazon’s download charges are a disincentive at present.

      • I think the problems are bigger than Amazon’s device development or even their download charges.

        People who read immersive text appear to be totally comfortable with the same content presented on a screen. I just don’t think that’s true for illustrated books. There are more than enough tablets around and more than enough books digitize to demonstrate a market if there were one. There appears not to be one. At least not one comparable to what exists for immersive reading.


  • Eric Riback

    Is it possible more non-book stores will increase their representation of such books as bookstores go away. I’m thinking of gift, decor and toy stores as examples.

    • Publishers will certainly attempt to persuade them to do that. And as bookstores diminish, there’s some reason for them to do so because the bookstores’ customers will be up for grabs.

      On the other hand, loss of the bookstore exposure is only one of the challenges facing these books. There are functional issues as well with people finding the value they sought in the books through other means.
      So I think you’ll see what you predicted here, but I don’t think it will be at a scale that changes the overall reality. (Purely a guess…)


  • Mary Scriver

    There are a couple of factors that I see that you haven’t mentioned. Maybe three.

    1. The audience for books at all is changing to a younger demographic that is not so interested in picture books of scenery. This is a provisional observation on my part. I couldn’t prove it. Armchair travel is for oldsters, isn’t it? Easier to watch DisneyEarth or whatever.

    2. Publishers now charge the authors for illustrations and graphs to the point where I notice a recently organized NFP foundation to help authors who cannot publish their books without the money to buy the pictures.

    3. There is a HUGE body of young and counterculture and FOREIGN people who are making stunning videos. It would seem like potential publishers could give them some attention in the way they have treated illustrated books in the past.

    Prairie Mary
    Mary Scriver
    Valier, Montana

    • Gee, I thought I already saw a tough road for the illustrated book publishers. I don’t quarrel with any of your observations, none of which seem to make it any easier.


  • Matt D.

    First of all, “illustrated books” is as general a category as “print books.” There is a huge difference between “How-To” books, travel books and graphic novels, both in terms of presentation and consumption. Would you say that comic book publishers are not seeing a future in ebook versions of their product?

    Display technology will only continue to improve, and already we have the Mac retina displays which are pretty mind blowing. In 1967’s “The Graduate” the word was “plastics”; in 2012 it might be “graphics.”

    Society is in the midst of a transformation from linguistic literacy to visual literacy. Kids are growing up with screens and images more and more to the exclusion of pages and text. They will come of age with swipe-and-tap instincts not to read but to “see,” to receive their information and entertainment visually. We can argue whether this presages the decline of civilization, but the fact is most of the innovation in visual ebooks right now is being driven by children’s literature. The backseat video screen has already been replaced by the iPad loaded with kids’ book apps.

    The lines between books and enhanced books and book apps will continue to blur, but the human need to “see” stories existed long before the invention of writing. The medium has evolved from cave walls to stone tablets to animal skins to tree-based paper to celluloid to digital, but to the human brain a picture is still worth a thousand words. Text-based ebooks are only the beginning of the ereading revolution. As you yourself have said, Mike, there are a lot of very smart people working on delivering illustrated books (“books” is too limiting a term; “narrative experiences” is better) to the digitally enabled reading public. As with all media, innovation and uptake will happen over time. But to suggest there is no future in illustrated ebooks is like the stage-play producer who walked into a nickelodeon in 1910 and said there is no future in moving pictures. Those who disagreed built a global industry over the next decade on the creation of immersive narrative experiences based not on words but on images. They knew what those cave painters knew 50,000 year earlier: audiences prefer show over tell.

    • I agree that illustrated books is a very large category.

      And I agree that graphic novels can live in more or less their present form as ebooks.

      But the fact that pictures and text will be combined for presentation doesn’t necessarily save anything else *for book publishers*.


  • Angela Patchell

    I agree with Matt D that visual thinkers need to see the meaning not read it; “Look and Learn” in the 50’s was born out of this enormous need. Now we are looking at a generation of people that consume knowledge visually, through the internet and television. How-to books have a purpose they fill a need for the participant. We have to work harder at giving the reader what they need in a visual way. There are two types of learners visual spatial and verbal readers; unfortunately publishers tend to be the later. Once we can give the reader an eversion “look and learn” using the medium so the reader becomes the participant; the illustrated eBook will fail to impress. Yes vertical and community publishing is the answer, but we need to get illustrated eBooks out there as shorter cheaper books and build on the community that surrounds them. Clever single book Apps are slowing the illustrated eBook market down. Technology is getting in the way of common sense; readers still need practical illustrative books, surfing the internet isn’t a substitute. Visual spatial reader are our market and account for up to 60% of us.

    • I don’t doubt that some sort of containerized (an ebook or app as opposed to just pulling together things on the web) presentation of pictures and text will be useful for many things. But I don’t think they’re “illustrated books”; I think they’re something else. And I don’t think there’s much synergy between creating one of those and creating a book.


      • Angela Patchell

        My container App and online eReader uses pdf books. They are illustrated books the exact same files as the print book. The community networking and added media is additional content, it is a simple solution and does not require formating for different devices the ereader takes pdf illustrated books secure and of the highest image quality.

      • If they’re the same files as the printed book then I don’t see how they possibly can work equally well on 10 in iPads, 7 inch Kindle Fires, and 3 inch iPhone screens.


      • Angela patchell

        Check out VIZeBooks download it onto you iPhone and iPad. It works beautifully on both 3″and 10″ screens using exactly the same files. We don’t do a separate Kindle App but we have a Web eReader for other devices.

  • As
    someone who loves reading, writing, publishing and technology, I probably
    should have been an early adopter of e-books—but I was not. I think most
    e-books are ugly. They don’t allow the choices in typefaces and page layout that
    I have with p-books. (I’m one of about four people in the world who actually like to format book pages.)

    Much of the look of an e-book is controlled by the reader, not by the
    book’s designer (except for PDF books). Readers can select typeface, type size, page orientation and
    even page color and whether one page or two appear on the screen. Photos and
    illustrations may not be where the designer wants them to be. A thousand people could read the same book—but it’s not really the same book.

    Readers may love their power to customize, but as someone who cares
    about the way my books look, I don’t.

    Despite my objections, I have changed my strategy.

    We live in a colorful world. I have color televisions and color PC monitors, a color display in my car and on my phone. I take color photographs and I have an iPad and a Kindle Fire. Monochrome books look archaic. I want to produce books for the 21s century.

    Color photos and illustrations make it easier to make a point, and they make the book simply nicer. Color p-books can be very expensive. Color e-books cost no more than monochrome e-books. I may make more money from selling a lot of $4.99 e-books than from a relatively few $16.95 or $26.95 p-books.

    Michael N.

    My first color e-book:

    • Well, good luck to you.

      But I understand that Amazon charges download fees to the publishers in markets outside the US based on the file size. Illustrations bulk up file sizes much more than text. I find it interesting that you can make money on low-priced illustrated books. I have heard from others that the download charges really cut into the margins.


  • Simeon Bradshaw

    I’ve created digital versions of illustrated titles for the iBookstore. (Why is the Sky blue?, Pirate Pete’s Potty Training, free samples are available from iBooks ) They incorporate voiceovers and interactive animated elements. Ultimately I’ve been happy with the quality of the finished products, but there are limitations to working within the epub format, particularly fragmentation of and support for standards ( the titles I’ve made are ONLY readable in iBooks ). The current generation of tablets/readers aren’t yet able to compete with a native app for user experience.
    For the publisher there is additional investment required in such products as Music/SFX/Voiceover, video and animation aren’t in the usual skillsets of the illustrated book publisher. To that end smart publishers will be doing as Duhigg is quoted as doing and developing teams capable of exploiting the opportunities when they arise.

    • I agree that “exploiting opportunities as they arise” is a sensible strategy. Nothing in what the illustrated publishers are doing today struck me as wrong.

      But looking for opportunities that might “arise” is quite different from the creative mindset of a book publisher. It is find to be opportunistic for ancillary products; it might be a real problem if you need to be for the core of your business.


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