The Shatzkin Files

The truth is we do not yet know whether ebooks will work for anything except readerly books

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In the 1990s, Mark Bide would always begin the “Publishing in the 21st Century” conferences we ran by reviewing the research we had done around some aspect of digital change in publishing with the admonition that book publishing was “many very different businesses.” By that, Mark meant that trade publishers (who sold primarily through bookstores) were quite different from college textbook publishers and schoolbook publishers and sci-tech publishers and database publishers (who did not, and shared different dissimilarities with each other).

All of them were in the “book” business because all of them put their publishing output into bound pages for packaging and sale. But, aside from that, the commonalities in business model were all within the segments of book publishing, not across them. And when we were running these conferences 15 or 20 years ago we wanted our attendees to understand that how digital change might affect trade books might be quite different than how it would affect textbooks or professional books.

This was a continuing lesson. When O’Reilly and Pearson established Safari as a subscription database of books for programmers, it was a successful commercial play that wouldn’t have worked for a publisher of mysteries or biographies. And, indeed, the principal disruption in the trade business over the past decade has been the reduction of retail shelf space, a factor which affects non-trade publishers very little.

It has been suspected in these quarters for quite some time that the trade business was, on its own, going to demonstrate that it is actually many different businesses. That fact may now be manifesting itself in visible ways.

Last week Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader pointed my eyeballs at a story from the UK about a very prominent gardening author who, at age 85, has decided to stop writing gardening books because he believes his audience now gets that information from the Web, not from books.

Dr. David Hessayon created the Experts series of gardening guides and has been delivering more and more of them for over five decades, distributed in the UK by a division of Random House. But his sales figures and his insight into digital change tell him that “the how-to-do-it book has lost its absolute supremacy. To write a bestseller now you need to choose something that you can’t look up on Google.”

Hoffelder offered his take on this.

Then, entirely coincidentally, came this very much related story in Monday’s New York Times. The Times focused on the efforts, of which there are many, to create something different than a straight “conversion” for an ebook, or simply moving what was on a page to a screen. The reporter spoke to some of publishing’s leading pioneers around that problem. The confusion, in the industry and in this piece, is that the pioneers aren’t tackling the same problem. Peter Brantley, a library-rooted digital pioneer identified for his role organizing the Books in Browsers conference, talks about the limitations of the printed book in constraining how stories can be told. I am skeptical about what productive results can come from pursuing that possible opportunity. My sentiments are much closer to what was expressed by Peter Meyers of Citia, who said “a lot of these solutions were born out of a programmer’s ability to do something rather than the reader’s enthusiasm for things they need. We pursued distractions and called them enhancements.”

(I worked with Pete Meyers on a project a few years ago and some useful videos resulted.)

That said, it is no surprise that the program from Citia is highly practical, breaking complex non-fiction books into “cards” representing the ideas inside the book. Inkling has used a similar approach to make ebooks from how-to books, including creating an online bookstore from which to sell them. (Inkling has also made the point that the “card” paradigm also makes the content more discoverable, by making the cards themselves searchable and discoverable.) The “how-to” ebookstore is definitely an idea on the right track, but it will take a while to build enough awareness and traffic to find out whether the ebooks will sell in sufficient numbers for people to make money.

The books Citia applies its thinking to — idea-oriented books like Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants” — are quite different from the how-to crafts and photography and cooking books Inkling is featuring. And they’re miles from novels, maybe light years from the more inventive replacements for the print novel that Peter Brantley is thinking about.

The Times piece focuses on the fact that the attempts to “change” the digital version of the book from what the printed version was — with interactivity or social or visual elements — have universally failed commercially. This is true. The piece Nate Hoffelder was inspired to write poses a more useful query than whether publishers can invent new forms that will work commercially: “Is the Internet a Greater Threat to Publishers than Self-Pub eBooks?”

But neither gets to the extension of the point Mark Bide made repeatedly two decades ago. Now it is the trade book business which is showing it is many book businesses, a fact that is being revealed by the shift to digital. And publishers are increasingly realizing the truth of this and that they have to focus on that fact as they plan their futures.

Here’s the simple fact that none of these three articles say. We have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that digital versions of narrative immersive reading — which I define as books you read from page one to page last — if made reflowable will satisfy the vast majority of the book’s print audience. Some people have switched to devices and some haven’t. Some stubbornly prefer printed books. Some find reading on a phone too cramped or reading on a computer too confining. But almost everybody finds reading on an ereader to be quite satisfactory (even if they don’t find it preferable to print). And if the book reflows and you can pick your type size, the ways it could have been improved but wasn’t always (seamless note-taking ability, improved navigation, ability to share) don’t interfere with your personal reading enjoyment. So these books have “worked” commercially as ebooks, particularly since the cost of getting to a digital version is trivial.

However, the complementary fact is that we have not yet found a formula that works for any other kind of book. (And with all due respect to Philip Jones of The Bookseller, whose piece on this subject is much more “on point” than the other three, pointing as he does to what Pottermore has done and can do is hardly a prototype for a dedicated book publisher.) How-to books haven’t sold well as ebooks. Reference books haven’t sold well as ebooks. Cookbooks haven’t sold well as ebooks. If you dip in and out; if you rely on illustrations (which maybe should be videos); if your book is just filled with pretty pictures; then there is no formula for a digital version that has demonstrated mass commercial appeal. There have been successes, but they seem to be novelties (e.g. Touch Press) or on a much smaller scale than would warrant major publishers getting into this business (e.g. a small art press like MAPP Editions can claim success with 1,000 copies sold).

And even though companies like Inkling and Aptara and Aerbook are doing their best to make the process cheaper and easier, making an ebook of a complex book is going to cost more and take more creative bandwidth and, in some cases, entirely new skillsets from the publisher (and perhaps the author) than the conversion of a novel. A complementary challenge is how these books translate to online sales. Narrative fiction and non-fiction sells well online, whether in print or digital form (so, those “stubborn” print readers are still satisfied). It’s a heavier lift to sell print illustrated how-to, art, and reference books online.

What this means is that the digital future for narrative reading — fiction and non-fiction — is much clearer than it is for any other kind of book. Publishers of novels can apparently count on their sales shifting from print to digital and from in-store to online without losing a lot of readers. And with not much in the way of conversion costs, publishers of these books can proceed with their development with some confidence that the changes in publishing’s landscape and ecosystem won’t throw the calculations they are making for future profits on today’s acquisitions into a cocked hat.

But publishers of everything else have no basis for similar confidence.

No general publisher that I’m aware of has announced “we won’t do illustrated books anymore”. I have purely anecdotal evidence from people who once worked there and left that Random House — the one publisher I know that really tried to convert a lot of its illustrated content to ebooks over the past few years — is de-emphasizing illustrated book publishing. I have been given to understand that one of the leading art book publishers is now doing more straight text publishing, which is sensible if art books don’t port to digital.

As for Dr. Hessayon, I know what I’d suggest if he were my consulting client. With digital content about gardening that has been being created since 1958, the chances are very good that he has a database of information that could constitute a whole new resource for gardeners in the 21st century. Perhaps there is a publisher who can do something with that, but it is perhaps more likely that a producer of seeds or fertilizer or a garden center retailer would have just read an article on the Internet about “content marketing” and see Hessayon’s last half-century of work as a great jumping off point for a new offering for the next half-century. The good doctor is right that “books” are no longer the best commercial form for monetizing a lot of information, but that doesn’t mean the information isn’t valuable, if it is delivered in different sized chunks under a different commercial model.

It would certainly appear from his experience that he’s concluded that the publishers’ distribution network no longer fits his content and its presentation. Unfortunately for today’s publishing incumbents, there are other skills that are required to be a good book publisher which also may no longer have commercial relevance for that content. So the question for publishers is whether their skills and assets are right for whatever will be the new way to present this kind of content. The answer — except for long-form reading — is not self-evident.

But, of course, publishers of illustrated and other complex books have to keep trying to find a solution that works and the only way to do that is to keep creating new digital products out of their books. A panel of people who can help them do that effectively and efficiently — Pavan Arora of Aptara, Gus Gostyla of Inkling, Ron Martinez of Aerbook, and Bill Kasdorf of Apex Covantage — will discuss the topic “Crossing the Chasm: Finding Digital Solutions for Non-Narrative Content”, moderated by industry veteran David Wilk at Digital Book World on January 14.

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  • edrna

    Well done piece Mike, but you’re missing a critical point of perspective – that perhaps the future of non-trade “books” on screens has little to do with books.

    The question to ask is in an era of ubiquitous connected screens is what needs are there to be served for the discovery, evaluation and integration of information. Our perspective is that the answer is nothing like a book or ebook and our early work is validating that point of view.

    • Actually, what you say is “missing” is sorta the point I was trying to make. The imitation of the book is not the digital solution, or at least it doesn’t appear to be so far.Whatever is coming in the future is *not *like a book. And we don’t know what it is is yet. Or whether the “it” is three things or 100 things. So if you got an answer that solves the riddle for some segment of the affected content, I’m sure you’ll ultimately find attention pretty easy to get.


      • Well, it sounds kinda like people want to argue about this. I think books were origially to impart information, then to tell stories. It’s like transportation. We had to walk. Then we could ride an animal. Then we could be pulled in a cart. Now we can be shot through the air. Maybe we will get to do that Star Trek deal. We still walk. We still use horses, carts, planes, etc. There is a special place for each technology and room for all and more.

      • What you say is true, but a lot of blacksmiths aren’t working these days and their skills didn’t port very well to changing oil.


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  • My two year old granddaughter is facile with the apple iPad and the Kindle Fire. They have puzzles like reassembling a whale which is wonderful for spatial recognition. They need books where you put the A next to the apple the numeral 3 by the 3 cats, etc. Maybe they have them and hopefully we can find them. Otherwise, I will write them.

    • What children’s “books” will be in the future is nothing like what they’ve been in the past. The question is whether book publishing skill and savvy are much needed to produce them, or whether the skill sets reside with people who today are animators or game creators.


  • It is a great shame that a massive and valuable data set such as the one that Hessayon has created over the years has the potential to slip away from readers.

    Yes, we do get a lot of our ‘how-to’ information from the Internet, but there is nothing like having a single publication that pulls all that information together in one place, be that a paper book, eBook, App or website.

    Let’s hope that his publisher persuades him make the move to a more adaptive digital presence.

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  • Fabrice Neuman


    Considering our experience at Le French Book, I agree a 100% with what you said. There is no question that long-form linear reading (whether it being a novel or a biography, for example) converts pretty easily to electronic reading. All that means is that “books,” whichever form they take, only remain relevant for a certain kind of content.

    And “content” is the important word here. Maybe gardening books, or any other type of reference books, don’t convert well to e-books because they actually are not meant to be books to begin with. I would argue that the work of Dr. David Hessayon was published as books because it was the only technology that was available at the time. And if his comments on his retirement prove one thing, it is that the Web is more well-suited for the content he created than books ever were.

    I think it’s true for any type of reference books, if only because of the beauty of hyperlinks. When you are looking for a particular piece of information, I don’t think there is any method more efficient than being able to search for it and then hop from one piece of information to the next, based on your needs. The first encyclopedias published on CD-Roms back in the day showed the premise of that, but it’s obviously the Internet that put it to work, for one other main reason: reference information is an ever moving target, needing updates. This is exactly what the Web can provide and a book can’t.

    We could also consider that a book is the literary version of a “walled garden” (pardon the pun). It’s not in any book DNA to provide easy links to any other book. Which is basically the opposite of what the Web is. That is why, in my opinion, the book form (whether in paper, electronic or audio form) is relevant for long-form reading and not for reference (by definition non linear).

    I would make one exception to this: textbooks. Even if you don’t read these from page one to page last, as you were saying, they still imply a kind of guided reading, by a teacher for example who will base his or her teaching on a chapter that a student will read from the beginning to the end. When it comes down to it, we probably shouldn’t stick too much to the notion of book, but more to the notion of content. That will help us find the best ways to publish it and make it available to the readers.

  • Kate Barsotti

    When you mention illustrated books, are you thinking primarily of nonfiction for adults? What about graphic novels and picture books? Are they seeing similar conversion to ebooks, or do parents and kids still want paper?

    I suspect many of us are both e-reader and print reader folk. I like ebooks for books I plan on reading once, such as mysteries. I love paper for illustrations (art books, picture books) and books I want to treasure and keep. It has nothing to do with being stubborn! It’s a preference. I like the feel of paper. I like to see, at a glance, how close I am to the end (a page number alone does not quite work). Some of us appreciate a more tactile interaction with many things, including how we make art.

    I have sampled enhanced ebooks and found them distracting. I do not want to be pulled out of the narrative in any way. I do not want the spell broken by some icon to tap or another plot line to follow. The narrative storyteller has a few tools at her disposal, but they all fail without the time and attention of the reader. Distraction ruins story.

    • I think the split you describe: ebooks for narrative and printed books for illustrated, makes a lot of sense. I think Comixology has been making comics and graphic novels “work” as ebooks, but the panel-by-panel aspect of them makes them more suitable.


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  • John Andrews

    I have been looking forward to your next post on illustrated books and enjoyed reading it, thank you. In the year I have been reading your blog I have done some experiments with converting professionally published print books to self-published eBooks. So far, the results are that you have been right and I have been wrong!
    But I agree with Fabrice about ‘the beauty of hyperlinks’. It would be wonderful if we could have them in academic books. Looking up footnotes and then trying to find the book and the edition and the reference is a slow and painful activity. I do not see how print publishers could provide this except in partnership with Amazon or Google. Googlebooks lets you find references quickly if they happen to be in the portion of text made available. If they could work our a charging model for equivalent access to all the books they have scanned – it would be pure heaven for the reader. This point applies, of course, to both all-text books and to illustrated academic books. The system would work best with hyperlinks in Kindle editions of academic books. Authors could put hyperlinks in these editions – which would go a little way to justifying the high prices for Kindle editions of print books.

    • What you want is technologically pretty simple but devilishly difficult from a rights perspective. It might be a long time before that’s worked out.

  • I agree it may be too soon to say there’s a formula non-“readerly” books, but among Tizra’s customers we’re seeing a formula for DEVELOPING the formula.

    In particular, I think there’s a lot to be learned from the more agile educational publishers. Among those with complex page designs, we’re seeing a pattern where they’ll start out simple…just creating books-in-browser style presentations from their PDFs, then learning what works, and using reader feedback to prioritize the addition of enhancements, such as rich media, interactives, etc. This way, they really ARE enhancements, rather than the distractions Peter Meyers quite rightly says these things can be.

    We recently wrote up the story of one such publisher here…

    • I know there will (eventually) be answers. I suspect the answers will be highly situation-dependent. I think the approach you are taking makes a lot of sense for your customer base. We’re still a long way from figuring out what the trade publisher of illustrated books should do.


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  • I’ve been saying this for years: tomorrow’s ebook is today’s website. Ink on paper is not going away.

    • I sorta get it but its only really true if you squint a bit and fuzzy up the picture. Books aren’t going away, but the share of a novelist’s income that comes from selling paper five years from now will be relatively trivial. Seldom as high as 20 percent. Call that whatever you want.


      • We don’t disagree; I wasn’t clear. Novels and other “readerly” type books work well in digital (despite the purist’s angst over formatting issues). But anything heavily illustrated does not. A coffee-table book on an iPad is nearly pointless. We want it to work, because printing in color is so expensive, but I doubt it ever will. Adding enhancements like video and interactive elements move the definition of “book” closer to “app.” As for the skill set involved in that, we used to call those people “webmasters.”

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  • Brad Neuberg

    Great write up that is right on; I wrote about a similar subject on my blog titled “Books That Never Should Have Been Books”:

    • Nice job, Brad, of making the same point from a different direction.


  • Nirupam Banerjee

    It now seems that you have put Mr Yoav Lorch (or the “TotalBoox”) totally out of the equation. Maybe, this start-up name signifies:

    Boox = each page of the Book
    TotalBoox = Summation of such pages over the reader’s interest domain = A relative book experience (with respect to the reader’s perspective).

    This ‘interpretation’ of his model’s name is perhaps my own imagination. I still love this *boox* concept even though I still see none of the Big Five houses (of the English Culture) endorsing the concept i.e. signing any deal with this start-up.

    I believe that even if TotalBoox doesn’t satisfy you or the world of statistical success, it at least tries to create SUCH A FORMULA, the very topic of your post here.

    Thanks to this revolutionary Ethereal Internet Era (where one sand island after another is being born even in the middle of the river) I fervently believe that such breakthrough SHALL happen. It doesn’t matter if Total Boox succeeds or not.

    Even if TotalBoox fails, something ELSE will then do the job.

    One revolutionary conclusion you have however pointed out is that, the future of Book Classification will be radically changed from the “Fiction vs Non-Fiction” paradigm to the *Immersive vs Non-Immersive* one. Thank you much for this brilliant discovery.

    • Thanks for calling the immersive versus non-immersive paradigm a “brilliant discovery”. I think that might be a bit of an overstatement.

      I am sure there are *many *attempts to solve this problem that I didn’t mention. But I certainly didn’t miss any that have demonstrated commercial practicality. None has, yet.


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  • David Neal

    We have put illustrations and animations together in Alicewinks. We have sold about 50 and given away 200. Having a lot of trouble with publicity. Nobody has heard of us.

    • Sounds like your challenges run deeper than the winds blowing against complex books in digital format.


      • David Neal

        I think it’s the noise. There is so much out there that making a splash is really hard. As indies we have the usual challenges there. But innovation often works. Not yet for us.

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