The “ebook tipping point” has recently been a frequent subject of discussion for me. I started out thinking about the business implications and that’s the main focus of the panel discussion on the subject at Digital Book World.
As I mentioned briefly in my last post, I have lately been turning my thinking to a huge shift I think might just be around the corner: that editors and authors will have to start thinking “ebook first”. When we get to that point, it will cause huge upheaval. And personnel changes.
The way things work today is that the author and editor work together to create the best possible print book. That involves figuring out what to cut more often than it is about what to add. (My wife is a freelance project editor; she announced this morning that she and her authors had just successfully completed cutting tens of thousands of words and over a hundred images from a book manuscript in order to skinny down to the publisher’s desired page count. This is not the least bit unusual.)
The ultimate result of that work is a “clean” manuscript which will make the right number of pages and a lot of material that didn’t make the book. Then that manuscript might go into an XML workflow that will tag it for structure and that will allow it to be rendered as a print PDF and an ebook in various forms. Or it might simply be made into designed pages in InDesign, after which an exported file will be turned into ebooks.
If you want video or links or extra editorial material in your ebook — an “enhanced” ebook — that becomes a new creative project that begins when the development of the print version ends.
If you actually want to end up with more than one final “product”: (presumably) one print version and (perhaps) more than one digital version, this is not the most sensible way to do it. It is far easier to look at a complex ebook and figure out what can be held static to create a print version than it is to go the other way around.
Up until what seems like five minutes ago, the static print version was where all the money was. But with the IDPF reporting industry-wide year-on-year gains of 300% of ebook sales through August and Crain’s saying Random House had an 700% year-on-year increase of Kindle sales through September, the day when ebook sales are financially significant has apparently arrived and the point when those revenues could be more important than print revenues is in sight. So it may be time to change the objective of the author and editor from “how do we create the best possible print book” to “how do we create the best possible ebook?”
This will require some radical changes in thinking.
1. “Space” will no longer be scarce. That means that nothing of value should be discarded; the question becomes how to best employ any thoughts, writing, or images, not whether to include them. (Warning of a likely unintended consequence: putting mediocre material in the finished product can become a temptation and that does not achieve desired effects.)
2. Background material of any kind will become useful. For fiction, that might mean more in-depth character descriptions or “biographies”. For non-fiction, that might mean source material.
3. Multiple media are desireable. Anything that is relevant to the book in video or audio form or art of any kind should be included. If rights and permissions are a problem, then linking out to the material wherever it is on the web becomes an option.
4. Linking is essential. The author should be recording deeplink information for every useful resource tapped during the book’s creation.
5. New editorial decisions abound. Should the reader be given the option to turn links off (to avoid the distractions)? Does it “work” if linked or multiple-media elements become essential to the narrative of the book? And, if that becomes the case, what are the work-arounds for the static print edition? Should “summary” material be added, such as a precis of every chapter than can be a substitute for reading the whole chapter? (That could help somebody skip and dive their way through a non-fiction book, particularly.)
6. How should all of this complexity flow? Books are pretty straightforward: you start at the beginning and turn pages until you get to the end. But ebooks can allow different sequencing if that becomes useful. Can we have beginner, intermediary, and expert material all in one ebook that “selects” what you see by what you tell the book you are?
7. When is the book “finished”? An ebook that is continually being enhanced and updated by the author, perhaps even by the addition of relevant blog posts (to imagine a situation which would be very easy to execute) is a great antidote to digital piracy. But it would surely separate the ebook from the print, which couldn’t keep up with that kind of change. As ebook consumption becomes more common, though, authors won’t want their books to be out of date and they will recognize how easy it is to add new material. O’Reilly Media already includes free “updates” in the ebook purchase price of their books. How long will it be before a trade publisher makes a similar offer? Or before an author requires it as a condition of doing their next deal?
I can’t imagine any veteran editor reading this and not gnashing their teeth, at least a bit. But I also can’t imagine these questions being postponed forever. If I were a 20-something employee in a publishing house, I’d be thinking about this very hard and watching for my opportunity to volunteer.