Will eBook Exuberance Kill Publishing?

One iPhone Case To Rule Them All by Photo Giddy
One iPhone Case To Rule Them All by Photo Giddy

“Originally, we weren’t exactly sure how to market the Touch. Was it an iPhone without the phone? Was it a pocket computer? What happened was, what customers told us was, they started to see it as a game machine. We started to market it that way, and it just took off.”

–Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs on Amazon and Ice Cream

There’s a particularly virulent meme running through the publishing industry that says the only thing keeping eBooks from supplanting print books tomorrow is a great eReader, and that Apple’s long-rumored Tablet is that killer device. Yesterday, another Apple event came and went and, as has happened every single time, there was neither an announcement of a Tablet, nor any mention of eBooks being a critical part of their plans for world domination.

Interestingly, Jobs specifically noted that eBooks weren’t a significant market yet, pointing to Amazon’s continued silence on the actual number of Kindles they’ve sold: “Usually, if they sell a lot of something, you want to tell everybody.”

Two other notable developments popped up yesterday that suggest the hype surrounding eBooks has hit an unwarranted level of “irrational exuberance”: the premature demise of Quartet Books (“there are very few industry best practices“), and Tor.com’s announcement of a POD-based imprint.

Some additional perspective:

“The installed base of e-readers could soar from 1 million in 2008 to 32 million in 2014, the report stated. Credit Suisse expects about 4 million e-readers will be in use in the U.S. by the close of this year…

However, while Kindles are profitable, Amazon loses an estimated $1.50 per e-book it sells, although this should flip to profitability in 2012 as Amazon’s costs come down.”

e-Reader Market To Explode: Credit Suisse

The Association of American Publishers says e-book (electronic book), sales topped $12 million in June – up more than 150 percent from the same month last year.

US Sales of Electronic-Books Increasing

“Sales [at Barnes & Noble] fell 5.3% to $1.16 billion as same-store sales fell 6.9%, in line with the company’s forecast for a same-store sales decline of 5% to 7%.”

Barnes & Noble 2Q Net Down 20% On Revenue Decline, Traffic Woes

Setting aside the relatively small (but growing) piece of the pie currently represented by eBooks, there’s a much bigger question that needs to be asked.

Considering the various complications surrounding them — everything from the controversial Google Book Settlement to the thorny issues of pricing, rights, royalties and distribution — the Apple Tablet, or any eReader that is able to duplicate the iPod’s success, would appear to be a “careful what you wish for” proposition.

It’s worth remembering that the iPod didn’t “save” the music industry, it radically transformed it, primarily to Apple’s benefit, and to a much lesser degree, some musicians.

Is the publishing industry really ready for that transformation?

9 thoughts on “Will eBook Exuberance Kill Publishing?

  1. >>>Is the publishing industry really ready for that transformation?

    They can either have it happen TO them like music did or wake the hell up and make it happen FOR them.

  2. Publishing has the same problem as the music industry… some big players that made (past tense) too much money. They will keep their head in the sands until it is too late. Once you have a centralized store for all content at Apple/Amazon, publishers are only bringing what.. editing to the table?

  3. What the epublishing business model really calls for, I think, is a bootstrapping solopreneur type, who has an editorial sensibility and understands how to market and promote books on the cheap. Building it slow from the ground up with hard work and low expectations starting out.

  4. Totally agree, and there are some publishers already making it work, like Harlequin and, as recently pointed out to me, Ellora's Cave. Beyond the editorial and marketing acumen, though, understanding the technology and what it costs to actually produce and distribute ebooks seems to often be overlooked and/or go unmentioned.

    That latter point appears to be what sank Quartet, and it's definitely one of the obstacles traditional publishers are facing in trying to come up with direct-to-consumer models before that centralized store Adam noted becomes a reality.

  5. Wow, I didn't expect to agree with you, Maria, but I do. Ground-up is definitely the way. My personal feeling is that the paying models that emerge will grow, reader-generated, from the massive free-fiction portals that exist out there. At Year Zero Writers (http://yearzerowriters.wordpress.com/), we've nailed our colours to the freemium mast, and essentially written-off e-books as our calling card, because we believe high-quality free e-books placed in the sea of “questionable (sometimes editorially as well as just being porn)” are exactly what's needed to emerge as the most virulent strain of the e-book epidemic. In my opinion, the free and file-sharing market (there's a huge file-sharing debate going on in the music industry this week. Why are more authors and industry types not clamouring to get books included in air time?) is where e-books will explode. And against much opinion, I DO think quality will rise (new players will emerge bottom up, and I trust readers to have good taste, so if you put stuff in the melting pot, it'll get noticed), and that's where the players will emerge.

  6. Maria makes an important point that we need to “market and promote books”. (seems obvious, huh?) Publishing has long been based on marketing frontlist and spending less time, energy, and money on backlist. With ebooks we need to rework our marketing models to continually promote backlist with a strong focus on making books discoverable online. In the ebook biz model backlist is not scarce and does not go out of print and our traditional publishing model doesn't support this.

  7. the premature demise of Quartet Books (”there are very few industry best practices“)

    This. There *are* best practices and, IMO, Samhain Publishing, Loose Id, and Zumaya Books have already established them. Please see that Samhain Publishing is *also* behind a storefront that invites other e-publishers to list their titles, so it is one-stop-shopping for romance e-publishers.

    And that's not even mentioning my own publisher B10 Mediaworx, which also specializes in formatting e-books for other micropresses and self-publishers.

    I wrote a treatise on this here.

    Best practices *are* happening. It's just that the people doing them are busy doing them and making money and not cussing and discussing ad nauseam.

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