An American Editor

June 20, 2011

The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern

We see a lot of new ebooks being released that are riddled with editorial and formatting problems. From the publisher’s side, the problem is that to proofread ebooks after conversion, especially after OCR (scanning) conversion, is expensive — contrary to what the naysayers believe, it is not a job for a high school graduate who thinks Twittering is the be-all and end-all of language literacy, but a job for a skilled professional — especially when it cannot be known with certainty how many ebook sales will be made.

Perhaps the time has come to rethink how and what gets published. I don’t mean which books but which formats. Perhaps the time has come to publish only hardcover and ebook formats, dropping the mass market paperback from the mix and keeping the trade paperback for those pbooks that do not justify a hardcover print run (although considering that the cost differential is slight between paperback and hardcover, I see no particular need to retain even the trade paperback).

Before the coming of the paperback, books were available in hardcover only. That limitation was the impetus for several innovations, including the public library. But the limitation served a good market purpose. It kept the price high relative to incomes; created an educated class to which people aspired; allowed nearly all print runs to be profitable; created the first commercial publishing class (as opposed to scholarly class) of books; created the respected profession of editor; and limited the number of books available for purchase. As a side effect, it created secondary and tertiary markets for books: secondary being the used-book market and tertiary being the collector’s market.

Today, the publishing world runs wild with no discipline imposed either directly or indirectly on the publishing world and process. Consider the growth of books published in the United States alone in the past decade: In 2002, 215,000 books were published traditionally (which largely means through the old-style process of vetting, editing, and so on by an established publisher) and 33,000 nontraditionally (which largely means self-published). Jump ahead a mere seven years to 2009 and the numbers are 302,000 and 1.33 million, respectively. One year later, 2010, the respective numbers are 316,000 traditionally published and 2.8 million — more than double — nontraditionally published! I’m not sure I want to know the numbers for 2011.

The jump in nontraditional publishing numbers is simply a testament to the rise of the ebook. The numbers do not imply or correlate with sales, quality, price, or anything other than raw numbers of suddenly available books. If I read one book a day, every day, or 365 books a year (vacationing from reading only on the extra day in leap years) for 60 years, I could read 21,900 books, which represents a mere 0.0078% of the 2.8 million nontraditional books published in 2010. The likelihood of my being able to read a significant percentage of all books available to me is nonexistent.

How does this tie into the idea of dropping paperbacks? It runs a convoluted course like this: As I cannot possibly read all of the books published in 2010 alone, I would prefer to march publishing backward and be less egalitarian and open access and more unequal and closed. I want to make what reading I do count with minimal search-and-find effort on my part. I want to see more profitability for authors and publishers in exchange for better vetting of books and significantly better production quality control. One way to do this is to control market access.

eBooks are already eroding pbook sales, so let’s help that erosive process by guiding it. If a person must read or buy a pbook, make the only pbook version available the hardcover version. Book buyers are already accustomed, from centuries of ingrained experience, to paying a premium price for a hardcover book. Book buyers perceive value — whether that value is real or not makes no difference; buyers believe it exists, which is sufficient for it to, in fact, exist — in hardcover versions. One side effect of that perception is that buyers of hardcovers tend to treat the books more carefully than they treat paperbacks, thus creating a secondary market with some value. Thus, let’s satisfy the pbook market need by providing a better-quality hardcover.

By limiting the pbook to hardcover only, we are also changing the secondary market. A used hardcover will now have more value because there is no pbook alternative. And it wouldn’t take a great deal of effort to figure out a way for authors and publishers to receive a small royalty from secondary market sales. Eliminate the paperback and there will be more incentive for that solution to be found.

The other benefit of eliminating paperbacks is that the ebook can easily replace it. More effort and money can be put into production of the ebook version and a more realistic price can be charged. Right now, much of the price grumbling about ebooks is a result of comparing the ebook to the paperback. Why should an ebook cost more than the paperback version? (The question is rhetorical here.) Eliminating the paperback removes the yardstick against which the ebook price is currently measured. The market will settle, just as it did for paperback pricing, around a few price points for ebooks, which will be less than the hardcover price. Within a relatively short period of time, that price stabilization will be accepted by most book buyers and what we will see is the return of the market we had before ebooks, but with ebooks in the role of paperbacks.

One other consideration is that by eliminating the paperback, traditional publishers are eliminating a major debit to their balance sheets. To offer a paperback version means you actually have to do a print run — the product has to be available in that form — which also means that the direct and ancillary costs (e.g., returns, warehousing) have to be incurred. And if the paperback is a decent seller, it means that the costs have to be incurred multiple times. In contrast, with an ebook production costs only have to be incurred once; any cost of duplication of the electronic file, once perfected, is minimal.

Will elimination of the paperback cause pain in the market? Sure it will, just as any established market change and upheaval does. But this is an opportune moment to make that change. Publishers need to move paperback readers to ebooks. They also need to enhance the value of both ebooks and hardcovers in the consumer’s thoughts. The easiest and most effective way to do this is for publishers to take their lumps now and eliminate the paperback from the equation (think of the shift from videotape to DVD and vinyl record/audiotape to CD). The period of rapid growth of ebooks is the time to reshape the market, not when the idea of coavailability of the three formats is entrenched.

14 Comments »

  1. How about changing workflow instead? If you take a manuscript and convert it to XML or SGML, you have content that you can proof once and then output programmatically in whatever format is needed. Right now publishers introduce a lot of their own errors by “tweaking” the file used for the print copy. That means they have to proof it again after they convert it to whatever ebook format they’re using. All those forced line breaks, hard hyphens, and other page-oriented tweaks show up in the ebook and make it look like crap.

    Books are now data, whether publishers know it or not.

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    Comment by karen wester newton — June 20, 2011 @ 9:42 am | Reply

    • “Books are now data, whether publishers know it or not.”

      Precisely. This really is the crux of the matter.

      The OCR conversion problems only relate to backlist titles not available in an electronic form, so changing the workflow shouldn’t be a huge issue.

      Thought-provoking article and comments.

      Like

      Comment by Vicki — June 21, 2011 @ 7:56 pm | Reply

  2. Totally agree with Karen that workflow is as much an issue as business models. Brian O’Leary’s TOC presentation talked about “Context not Containers” – which touches on the same issue. But if we are to be driven by context, valuing and facilitating whatever format in which a customer wishes to read a book – rather than imposing a limited choice of formats – strikes me as being more in keeping with the ethos of publishing to context and as a service to the consumer. As well as being data, books are part of the information service economy in which multiple formats can thrive.

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    Comment by Sheila Bounford — June 20, 2011 @ 1:06 pm | Reply

  3. This is a fascinating concept. I don’t want to see it happen, because I actually prefer paperbacks to hardcovers (and both to ebooks, at least so far), but I can see the logic. I wish publishers would put accuracy at the top of their priorities, though, regardless of format.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — June 21, 2011 @ 10:52 am | Reply

  4. What a great topic! I really like these recent ones that focus on ebooks and their effect on the quality of publishing industry output.

    I’m all for reading via ebook (now my preferred format), but there are some segments of the reading public that (I imagine) will not take too kindly to the complete elimination of paperback books. Chief among those segments would be the legion of romance readers out there. ^_^ A huge and booming industry, that. Books from that mega-genre are by-and-large printed as mass-market paperbacks. And the related secondary market is quite large. That ebooks don’t transfer well—or at all, beyond the brief one-time lending scheme that’s been adopted by…ahem…some—would alone make it exceedingly difficult to replace paperbacks with their electronic counterparts. I can actually see hardcovers being rendered “obsolete” far sooner than paperbacks…with the former perhaps being relegated exclusively to the tertiary market.

    But I do hope that quality control can somehow live harmoniously with e-publishing. Graciousness, the allowances in editing that would’ve in the past been considered egregious…they are unfortunately growing in frequency. The ebook format is a train that’s not stopping for anyone, but hopefully it won’t mind taking on some experienced “conductors”!!!

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    Comment by Alisha — June 24, 2011 @ 6:08 am | Reply

  5. I don’t always have time to read your posts, but when I do, am grateful for your thoughtful writing. Environmentally, good solution to drop paperbacks. One argument for keeping some paperback is beach reading – or maybe a special run of summer books could be printed as magazines? – and other is the many hands-on manuals/trades where the flexibility of a paper cover and relatively lighter weight are important factors. Agree with your arguments that editing and publishing/distribution should again be linked where the level of financial return can provide an incentive for quality. We did it with the housing industry mid previous century. The rapid post-war rise of cookie cutter housing developments that replaced the previous system of houses custom built one by one led to a decade or so of construction chaos with widely varying degrees of quality in the housing stock. Then in the mid1950-early 1960s, a combination of government pressure and industry (manufacturer) interests resulted in the development of basic national housing construction standards and guidelines, which eliminated the lower-end, cheaper junk construction from the market.

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    Comment by irene jarosewich — June 26, 2011 @ 10:01 am | Reply

  6. The one idea that keeps me resisting e-books as any large-scale substitute for p-books is:

    BATTERIES.

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    Comment by documania2 — July 12, 2011 @ 2:40 pm | Reply

    • I’m not sure I understand your comment, but if you mean having to replace batteries, I have yet to do so with either of my readers. (BTW, many of the devices do not have user-replaceable batteries and none, to my knowledge, use your usual disposable battery like AA and AAA batteries. In most cases, the device has to be returned to the manufacturer to have the battery replaced, which ensures recycling.) My Sony 505 is 3.5 years old and in daily use. The battery still holds a charge.

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      Comment by americaneditor — July 12, 2011 @ 4:47 pm | Reply

  7. And so, by my posting, I reveal that I do not yet own an e-reader and know what I’m talking about. Thanks for the enlightenment.

    Nevertheless, the battery thing still gives me pause, for batteries can and do fail in so many things — laptops, telephones, flashlights, automobiles, navigation devices, etc. — and even if the batteries don’t fail, memory might, so that the in-house supply of batteries might not be there when one is suddenly needed, or the charging unit is in one place and the device is in another when it’s time for some juice.

    It often seems like a pain in the butt plus an additional expense to continue to increase one’s dependence on battery-powered devices. You can read a book by candlelight when the power is out for 5 days but you can’t recharge a battery, for instance. I’m not anti-technology but it does need to be factored in for many purchases.

    I think e-books are a great solution for high-volume readers and I want an e-reading device — but I do not want to rely on one for 100% of my literary pleasure.

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    Comment by Carolyn — July 12, 2011 @ 5:23 pm | Reply

  8. […] to ebooks and away from any form of pbook. I know I’ve written this before (see, e.g., The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern), but if I were a publisher today, seeing that the trend is rapid growth in ebooks and no to flat […]

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    Pingback by Is This the Next Sneak Attack on eBookers? - The Digital Reader — October 3, 2011 @ 7:14 am | Reply

  9. […] readers to ebooks and away from any form of pbook. I know I’ve written this before (see, e.g., The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern), but if I were a publisher today, seeing that the trend is rapid growth in ebooks and no to flat […]

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    Pingback by Is this the next sneak attack on ebookers? | Ebooks on Crack — October 4, 2011 @ 8:18 am | Reply

  10. […] to ebooks and away from any form of pbook. I know I’ve written this before (see, e.g., The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern), but if I were a publisher today, seeing that the trend is rapid growth in ebooks and no to flat […]

    Like

    Pingback by Are Publishers Using Tricks To Get Us To Buy Ebooks? | eBookanoid.com — October 4, 2011 @ 4:59 pm | Reply

  11. […] readers to ebooks and away from any form of pbook. I know I’ve written this before (see, e.g., The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern), but if I were a publisher today, seeing that the trend is rapid growth in ebooks and no to flat […]

    Like

    Pingback by Are Publishers using a cunning plan to make us buy their ebooks? Rich Adin has a theory about this | Ebooks on Crack — October 4, 2011 @ 8:26 pm | Reply

  12. […] The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern We see a lot of new ebooks being released that are riddled with editorial and formatting problems. From the publisher’s side, the problem is that to proofread ebooks after conversion, especially after OCR (scanning) conversion, is expensive — contrary to what the naysayers believe, it is not a job for a high school graduate who thinks Twittering is the be-all and end-all of language literacy, but a job for a skilled professional — especially when it cannot be known with certainty how many ebook sales will be made. Source: americaneditor.wordpress.com […]

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    Pingback by The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern | Quality Art & Photo Books | Scoop.it — October 11, 2011 @ 12:40 pm | Reply


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